The Value of Exploitation: How to Reclaim Our Lives and Livelihoods in Common

The artificial separation of labor and environmental struggles will not disappear on its own. It must be overcome by a new political subject that forges a post-capitalist understanding of value through the organization of technology, care and maintenance around the commons. Along the way, the struggles of workers and environmentalists can shape shared values and practices that challenge the hegemony of capital, as Alex Pazaitis argues in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.


My exploration of the concept of value was sparked by disappointment and wonder as I listened to various people mention the word “value.” Wonder at the sheer ignorance or indifference of what value was supposed to mean, and disappointment at what it ended up meaning. The word value, as in values, always seemed to me to be far more important than what was often implied in phrases like “value proposition” or “value added,” i.e., a path to profitability.

However, historical research has proved my expectations wrong. The search for a comprehensive theory of value in political economy soon leads to Adam Smith and the so-called labor theory of value. The theory has been widely criticized and has long been considered obsolete by today’s mainstream economists, especially since Karl Marx used it in his analysis. Reading through the original formulation of Smith’s theory in “The Wealth of Nations,” however, one striking revelation is that, name aside, it is not about labor at all. It is about commodities.

In Smith’s own words, “The value of any commodity,” which was the subject of his inquiry, “to the person who possesses it, and intends not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labor which it enables him to purchase or command” (emphasis mine). Smith documented the emergence of a new mode of production in which goods were produced not to be used or consumed, but to be exchanged. In this system, capitalism, the value of commodities in their exchange for other commodities equals, to put it bluntly, the amount of labor their owner can exploit. In this sense, value in capitalism is, by definition, nothing more than an avenue to valorization.

The pitfalls of this worldview are twofold. First, the exploitation of people’s “toil and trouble,” in Smith’s terms, no longer raises any ethical concerns. It is a rational act, perfectly in keeping with the logic of the system. Second, it makes other forms of exploitation less visible. Most importantly, since trees and air particles rarely strike or protest (at least in the conventional sense), the exploitation of nature is not even considered a worthy factor of production. The results of this rationality and selective blindness, two centuries later, are loud and clear. Our sense of value remains trapped as we run out of people and natural resources to exploit. First, we need to understand how value is created through the common exploitation of workers and nature that unites them.

Value for a post-capitalist world

The late David Graeber defined value as “the way actions become meaningful” within “a larger social whole, real or imaginary.” This definition makes the capitalist theory of value what it really is: a way by which people make sense of their actions. It reveals the most human of qualities, the question of what we are here for. Capitalism’s answer is simple and compelling. We are here to work and consume, to exploit and be exploited. A fair and just world is a fantasy. There is always a bigger fish to fry. Make sure you’re not the smallest while you pledge allegiance to one big enough to exploit you under its protection. Not surprisingly, this system has always been prone to authoritarianism, especially when it is in trouble. “Jedem das Seine” (“to each what he deserves”), read the entrance to the Nazi concentration camps. Value in capitalism is created by the ability to exploit before being exploited.

But Graeber’s view of value demystifies this often primal, almost divine perception of a world as it is. If this value system is one way, surely there can be other ways. Value is nothing more than a social consensus. A collective agreement among people about what gives meaning to their lives. As vulnerable as it is to power and influence, this kind of agreement still relies on collective action for the system to work. Exploitation defines our value system, but the system itself is inherently self-regulating. It works insofar as people uphold the commonly agreed upon rules and norms for it to function. Much like our collective memory, heritage and traditions, the reproduction of our value system is based on the commons; value itself is a commons. Albeit a closed one under capitalist and managerial coercion. And if our views of what is valuable do not give meaning to our lives, then this consensus must change; and it can change. To do so, we must look beyond the walls of our current value system.

Exploring new stories of value

Adam Smith was the first to systematize an emerging industrial order based on three examples: a pin factory, a bakery, and a butcher. In our search for a new narrative of value, we can already identify many cases that offer a glimpse of what Massimo De Angelis calls “the outside, the ‘other than capital’.” These are the stories of our own “pin factories.”

OpenBionics, for instance, designs and manufactures affordable, modular and adaptable robotic and bionic devices, such as prosthetic hands and exoskeleton gloves, to assist amputees and people suffering from paralysis. Their devices are lightweight, use low-cost and off-the-shelf materials, and can be easily maintained, repaired, or reproduced using rapid prototyping techniques. All designs are shared as commons, along with detailed step-by-step instructions. Users benefit from significantly lower cost, weight, or risk of damage compared to commercially available devices. They are also involved in the selection and customization of their device, increasing the likelihood of adoption, ease of use, and long-term use.

Wikihouse designs modular, lightweight, and structurally robust buildings. A growing community of architects, designers, and builders, as well as practitioners, users, and laypeople, share knowledge and technologies around building and construction. Construction is aided by digital fabrication machines that follow detailed fabrication data and instructions. Likewise, electrical systems, foundations, mechanical systems, roofs, solar systems, and other equipment can be built according to the needs, skills, and interests of the users. Wikihouse brings together diverse stakeholders to co-design common pathways to sustainable reconfiguration of the built environment.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Wind Empowerment is a global network that develops locally manufactured small wind turbines. The practice is inspired by a design and manufacturing manual for simple and robust small wind turbines that can be adapted to different contexts, originally developed by Hugh Piggot. Multiple actors around the world share designs to adapt and modify them to context-specific needs, challenges, and resources in different settings. Small wind turbines developed by the network have provided sustainable rural electrification in developing countries in an affordable way, using local resources for manufacturing and maintenance. They empower rural communities to improve their material situation and reduce the tendency to abandon or modify land in ways that disrupt local ecosystems.

In agriculture, cooperative networks of farmers, engineers, and practitioners work together to design and produce customized agricultural technologies. The initial motivation for such groups, such as L’atelier paysan in France, Farm Hack in the US, or Tzoumakers in Greece, was to address the common challenges faced by small-scale, organic farmers in finding machinery appropriate to their farming practices. These open farming communities share knowledge and designs of tools and organizational practices as a digital commons to address similar needs elsewhere. Local sustainable entrepreneurship practices create sustainable innovation systems based on open, customized, and demand-driven production and maintenance, adapted to local environmental needs, and improving local economies.

Thinking outside the books: Commoning vulnerability

Understanding value as a commons can unite the struggles of workers and ecologists. Taking back control of what is valuable becomes part of the struggles to reclaim the commons. A struggle to imagine and act on a different way of making sense of our lives and reproducing our livelihoods. Stories around the commons articulate an alternative political economy, a different way of making sense of production, provisioning, livelihoods, and the arrangements of our lives. A way in which people’s toil and effort mean more than simply producing things that are mostly thrown away; in which nature and its gifts are more than fuel for more commodities; in which our future is more than something to speculate about.

Our defining condition within the capitalist value system today is perpetual precarity. We rationalize the exploitation of others and nature to balance the risk of our own exploitation. Our vulnerability to exploitation divides us. But it can also unite us. Accepting the inherent vulnerability of the human condition brings us all together. In times of precarity, what we need more is each other, and that is all we have. We need each other to become more than abstract measures in a predetermined way of being and acting in the world. To reconnect with our own vulnerable, imperfect, overworked, and dissipating bodies as interfaces for building genuine affective and relational commons; to cultivate and manage our lives and livelihoods together. The practice of commoning will become the central realization of our coexistence, with each other and with the ecosystem in which we are embedded. The artificial separation of labor and ecological struggles will not disappear on its own; it must be transcended by a new political subject that organizes technology, provision, and care around the commons.

A future beyond capitalism begins with a post-capitalist understanding of value. Value as a commons unlocks these options for people to co-create new meaningful ways of finding what we are here for. And many are already doing it. We just need to follow their stories.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

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