December 23rd, 2008 by Darin Robbins

The following is part one of a series that explores various current economic aspects in a way that illustrates the possibility for new alternatives rather than mapping out detailed new plans.

Each economic system has internal parts that circulate value along with objects and ideas. This implies that use value through production must always be transformed into exchange value and that this exchange is the only method for an economy to meet human needs. The examination of value in its relationship with being reveals a structural aspect to exchange value that in turn limits and determines the possibilities of human action. An economy as an example of finite systems will appear as an infinite universal structure. This appearance would also give the impression that the economic system is both natural and eternal and can not be changed or taken apart. But regardless of the economic system, there is the common phenomenon of a method of production and a consumption that is mediated by some sort of distribution. An economy that emulates cultural creation would have the arrangement of an individual production and a collective use of structures. These structures can either manifest themselves as objects or ideas in an economic sense. The externalization of structures in production through the expression of desire can be an authentic process, but the internalization of structures in use through structural alienation can redirect desire toward a drive for commodities. Therefore, use or consumption in an economy can not be divorced from a process of production, or else it would be a method of control that restricts choices.

The transformation of use value to exchange value continues into an establishment of symbolic value and sign value. Use value is unique to each object or idea and exchange value is relative to other objects and ideas. Symbolic value is the representation that obscures the absence of object and ideas while sign value is the representation of the structure of meaning regardless of the existence of objects and ideas. Use value and exchange value deals with material production and consumption, while symbolic value and sign value deal with the immaterial reproduction of structures. The movement from use value to sign value within a system like capitalism allows the communication of independent structures to itself. This communication allows for the structure to perpetuate itself over time. The movement from use value to sign value is also the production of form, and this production of form precedes any direct experience of content by humans. In other words, a structure of meaning develops alongside the more physical process of production, distribution, and consumption and it makes that process intelligible to humans who participate in it.

Two movements occur when one goes from use value to sign value. There is a movement from conscious particular cases to unconscious general states. The interaction between reality and structures changes, where use value is the direct structural reference to reality and sign value is an independent structural reference to itself. Use value is completely concrete and sign value is completely abstract. There is also the movement from objective reality to the objective appearance of subjective reality as it is enacted in the world. Since structures of power and meaning are simultaneous, there is an interaction between them that supports each structure. This is expressed through the economic where free agency can become a hierarchy to give legitimacy to meaning or use value can become sign value as an enforcement of power. When use value transforms into sign value immanent facts become transcendent truth. The overall economic system becomes ubiquitous to such a degree as to preclude any other economic alternatives.

For many years the primary analysis of value has been between use value and exchange value. The communication of value through exchange obscures the unique character of individual use value that is created through human production. The process of use value that becomes exchange value is objective relationships between subjects and subjective relationships between objects. Surplus value in this process can be defined as the difference between use value and exchange value which is subsequently appropriated by the owners of capital rather than the workers. This process of exploitation and appropriation is then itself obscured by symbolic value and sign value in order to allow for a seamless alienation of the products of labor from those who produce it. This more abstract structure of meaning, a product of the economic system, is then consumed by individuals along with the material products as it supports the daily removal of surplus value from workers to owners. Therefore, economic value has a direct impact on reality. Use value relates to reality through an absolute sense of space filled with static time. This corresponds to how a producer will directly interact with their creation. On the other hand, exchange value relates to reality through a relative sense of space and time that forms differential relationships between humans and products. These differential relationships allow for the distribution of products. This change in perspective towards reality makes symbolic value and sign value possible. Overall, the creation and use of value in an economic sphere creates and uses a system of meaning to justify it, and excludes any scenario where the producer is able to consume their own products without the distribution of exchange. An economy is not only physical but ideological as well, and ignoring this ideology as it affects value insures that the economic system will continue unchanged regardless of its lack of justice on the physical level.