Critique of Neoliberal Cultural Pluralism by E. San Juan, Jr.


by E. SAN JUAN, Jr., Emeritus Prof of Comparative Cultures, Washington State University

One approach to disentangling the aporia of equal recognition of unequal cultures, of assigning comparable worth to a multiplicity of singular and incommensurable forms of life, would be to consider this dilemma as a symptom of the failure to grasp the paradigmatic sociality constituting individuals. Individuality equals, as Marx noted, the “totality of social relations” in specific concrete conjunctures.

This sociality of differential valuation, however, is historically specific to late capitalism. So it is necessary in the process of ethical and political judgment to grasp the ways in which the concept of value and its forms is theorized in the political economy of commodity production. Consider the market as an epistemological framework in assaying the worth of cultures.  The usual point of departure is Marx’s comment on the fetishism of commodities in the first book of Capital:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.”

Commodity fetishism is the key to grasping comparative value. It occurs when definite social relations assume “the fantastic form of a relation between things,” when products of labor become commodities. What is crucial to elucidate is the “value relation” which in the process of exchange both reveals and hides the human content, the concrete labor embodied in commodities. That escapes quantification. Marx’s analysis of the forms of value may help clarify the antinomies found in theories justifying the toleration of cultural pluralism, or liberal policies/programs espousing multiculturalism..

Marx begins with the simplest accidental commodity-form instanced in the exchange of any two commmodities of given amounts:

x commodity A = [is worth] y commodity B

In effect, if A is worth B, then B expresses the value of A. So then, by analogy for example, if Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is worth Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, then the African novel expresses the value of Tolstoy’s work.

This is an accidental exchange–no regularity or frequency is implied, given the lack of the political, geographical, and other economic factors to sustain regular trade between two groups, societies, or continents.

In the elementary form of value which comes about when trade becomes a regular practice of various societies, the value of commodity A in the process of exchange is expressed or manifested in commodity B. Commodity A is called “the relative value form” because its value is expressed in B, called the “equivalent form” whose material or corporeal use-value provides the phenomenal form of appearance for the value of A.

Here the two sides of the actual exchange process, the relative value form and the equivalent value form. are opposed but united in a contradictory totality. There are different use values in A and B, the only common feature in them is the abstract value that each embodies in their differing use values. Here the various concrete labor that shaped A and B are reduced to abstraction due to capital’s social division of labor and the logic of exchange.

One commodity which embodies concrete labor is substituted for another commodity. A’s value can be manifested only through its reflective mediation in B; B’s otherness expresses one single aspect of A, namely, the abstraction to which human labor can be reduced. It is in this phase of exchange that liberal democracy posits the equality of citizen-subjects mediated through the market and the bourgeois state apparatus.

Consider the trajectory of this mode of reasoning. The relative value form of culture A (African Americans) incorporating the expenditure of energies by millions can be apprehended only if submitted to an equation (which parallels exchange); its equivalent form, from Taylor’s point of view, would be European culture which would select an aspect of African American culture that it can embody or express: for example, rational argumentation, male supremacy, etc. In other words, the relative form of African American culture can only be appraised or valorized by the equivalent form (here the dominant system of individual rights) the reveals its value.

While value is evidently a social relation, the equivalent form functions enigmatically to hide this contingency by making it appear that it naturally expresses the value of the other. In the primordial stage of exchange, African American culture would simply be worth Western culture in an accidental way: its use value is as good as any other for advancing the saleability of one’s labor-power. In this elementary stage, however, we enter a domain where commodity production is generalized, humans are defined as owners of commodities (labor power) that they can dispose of, and the exchange of commodities predominate. This embraces the historical period from petty commodity production to booty capitalism, soon to be followed by the colonial expansion of Europe in the conquest of territories and the subjugation of peoples (African slaves, aboriginal Indians, etc.) up to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

So far Marx posits value not as an eternal or natural form of social production but as the objectification of abstract labor that undergoes a historical metamorphosis. Value is not intrinsic to a single commodity; it reflects the division of labor of independent producers “the social nature of whose labor is only revealed in the act of exchange” (Bottomore 1983, 509).

While commodities are embodiments of quantities of labor, their value-form derives from a relation: the value of commodity A cannot be identical to its natural self; it acquires objective existence in the physical form of commodity B which then becomes the value form of A. This expression of equivalence between various commodities demonstrates the specific quality of value-creating labor; the process of exchange reveals the general or common labor that has produced all those commodities.

Concerning the equivalent form of value, Marx identifies its three peculiarities thus: first, commodity B, its material body, objectifies abstract labor in expressing the value of commodity A; second, the concrete labor which produced commodity B becomes the form of appearance of abstract labor so that the particular processes of individual work which fashioned it becomes identical with other kinds of labor; and third, private labor assumes directly the form of social labor.

So “while a commodity is both a use value and a value, it only appears in this dual role when its value possesses a form of appearance independent of and distinct from its use value form. This independent form of expression is exchange value” (Bottomore 510). Because the elementary form of value does not fully reflect the universality of exchange value, the multiplicity of commodities circulating in the market, we move to the expanded form of value–the analogue to cultural pluralism, or benign multiculturalism. Here commodity A not only exchanges with commodity B but also with commodities C, D, E, ad infinitum; the equivalent form of value is indifferent vis-a-vis the relative form. Here commodity A is configured within a whole world of commodity production, the social totality.

At this point we begin to understand that it is not exchange which regulates the magnitude of value but rather the magnitude of the value of commodities that regulates the proportion in which they are exchanged. Since here various useful labors are equalized, the series of representations or equivalent forms of the value of A is limitless, fragmentary, and lacks internal unity.

Eventually a stage is reached when one single commodity is chosen to represent the values of all commodities, setting aside the use values of particular commodities and expressing what is common to all of them; this “universal equivalent” belongs to the general form of value. The natural form of this universal equivalent serves as the value form of all other commodities, that is, exchange value, which erases both abstract labor and the socially necessary labor time that measures it. The form of value then appears in the money form and its quantitative measure.

Marx writes: “From the contradiction between the general character of value and its material existence in a particular commodity, etc….arises the category of money.’ In the transition from the general form to the money form of value as universal equivalent, the determinations of the prior forms of value remains: the contradictory unity and reflexive relations between the relative form and the equivalent form in the simple form, the totality and  infinitude brought out in the expanded form, and the mediated character in the general form.

Thus, in the general and money forms of value, the relative value-form of all commodities are gathered at the same time and expressed in the universal equivalent fixed by custom (money). In this stage, all social relations and with it use values are convertible into money relations. In this context, the price-form is a process in which use value, produced by concrete labor, becomes a product of that universal tool controlled by capital: the laborer, labor-power. Price equates an object with all other commodities, its labor with all others, thus rendering it abstract. As Harry Cleaver notes, “The qualitative equality of work has been affirmed and the quantity set socially. Money shows to the commodity that it is a product of abstract labor–a value” (1979, 164).

Anticipating charges of idealism, Marx contends that economic categories are not a priori constructions, they reflect human activities in history. The mode of analyzing the commodity form of value is based on the reality of the process of exchange whereby products of labor are commensurated in capitalism; the process of exchange demonstrates the sociality of production, connects independent producers, and guarantees that the value realized in exchange is the form of appearance of that labor socially necessary to the production of the commodity in question. From this one can elaborate on the law of value (how value is determined by socially necessary labor time) in terms of the categories of capital and its accumulation, the dominance of money relations, and the inversion of social relations of production (commodity fetishism) and its registration in consciousness (ideology).

Viewed from the genealogy of the forms of value summarized here, the multiculturalist Imaginary at first glance remains in the stage of the expanded form of value. Believing in the unrepeatable authenticity of use values embodied in art and other cultural practices, the tribune of multiculturalist nonetheless submits to a process of endless substitutions in the hope that this will do away with hierarchy, with domination and subordination. Both the relative forms of value and equivalent forms are shifting, fragmentary, heterogeneous; their contradictory relation obscures their totalizing and mediating effect.

Amid this instability, or “bad infinity,” Taylor enters the scene and while being appreciative of the range of differences and their dialectical motion, the irreplaceable nature of cultural groups and their right to survival, he doubts if his empathy for those deprived and suffering the injustice of the status quo can really be a trustworthy measure of their relative worth. In short, he doubts if a universal equivalent–the fusion of horizons in a heremeneutic transaction–can be found, a symbolic totalizing intuition or act that can genuinely extinguish Eurocentric bias (liberal theory of rights, the Hegelian concept, etc.) and enable parity of all competing parties, groups, cultures.

Unfortunately, this search for a universal equivalent form of value can lead only into the complete reign of commodity-fetishism–the money form of value–which equalizes everything in abstraction: the liberal banalities that all cultural groups share common concerns, dreams, anxieties, ideals, etc. We are faced here with the allegory of the Zulu Tolstoy negotiating his identity in the sphere of the Lacanian Imaginary, unaware of the lack that would resolve his crisis into a semblance of Symbolic plenitude.

Meanwhile, the Lacanian Real insists on the necessity of recognizing that “socially necessary labor time” mystified, perverted, obfuscated by exchange of vernaculars, polyphonic dialogue, interpellation, by ludic speech and “hyperreal” communication. In “Symbolic Economies,” Jean Joseph Goux has traced the history of the connection between exchange value and the symbolic leading to the exclusion of “the surplus of meaning” in capitalist society, this “deficiency of meaning” arising from the reduction of everything into the quantitative universal equivalent, the money form of value.

This is the milieu of market liberalism where free and equal subjects can exchange ideas despite disparities in resources, opportunities, communal notions of the good. Liberal multiculturalism can perhaps thrive here so long as the roots and sources of culture in concrete practices are not submitted to translation or transposition into the value form. But this is inescapable since multiculturalism implies comparison, translation, critical discriminations of all sorts.

But what is at stake in proposing this return to what may probably be dismissed as traditional and oldfashioned thinking?

In the conclusion to his ambitious work now recently published as American Civilization, CLR James envisioned an “integrated humanism” evolving from the multicultural environment of the United States, one that will make politics “an expression of universal man and a totally integrated human existence.” Such a belief, almost utopian and even naive, in the capacity of the masses to absorb the whole of civilization and radically transform society is almost impossible for anyone who would ignore the reality of commodity exchange, its contradictory nature, and the possibilities of its overcoming. Partisans of multiculturalism can help in this overcoming by a more radical critique of its own formation and a historical sensitivity to the reality of labor, modes of production, and the material underpinnings of culture itself in its largest definition as social praxis.—###



About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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