‘Value’ is one of those terms—like ‘community’ and ‘sustainability’—that I feel I hear more and more in our contemporary lexicon, and as a term that is used often enough and in several different contexts, its invocation is somewhat vague and its meaning even less clear. But like ‘community’ and ‘sustainability’ and any number of other fashionable terms we might come across in political speeches or keynote addresses or advertisements, it is this lack of definition that makes the word ‘value’ and its attendant concept all the more compelling as a subject for consideration. For example (drawn from my experience), we in The Action Mill, the design studio I work with, describe earnestly the value that we provide to our clients and partners (and even the more amorphous public good) through the work that we do. This comes in part from the general feeling that 1) we are doing important work that pushes progressive social change and promotes nonviolent strategy, and 2) our work can be measured in terms of things like maximization of existing resources, earned (that is, free) media from compelling public actions, and the production of knowledge and social capital. Of course, there is also a point at which all of this ‘value’ has to be reified in monetary terms: we are a business and we charge fees for our services. It is in this last point—the price tag, to be gauche—where the questions around value arise. What determines value? Who determines value? How is value mediated or transferred? What do we talk about when we talk about value?
We won’t be so surprised to discover that there is no aspect of life that is not touched by such questions about value. What I mean is that once the urgency of such questions about value was pointed out to me, then the only surprise I felt was that of the “no shit” variety. In reading David Graeber‘s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2004), I’ve begun to understand how a solid theory of value is essential to penetrating so many pressing sociopolitical, cultural, and economical conditions. As Graeber notes, anthropologists have not been very successful in developing such a theory of value—which is why he takes up the task here—but they do seem best equipped to do so. (We certainly can’t allow the economists to have the final say about value!) Anthropology is a curious field with a curious history filled with curious people studying even more curious peoples doing very curious things. The theory and the jargon are dense, but what comes through with a bit of laborious study are many incredible insights that are obviously about the practices of traditional peoples but also importantly about how we might both understand ourselves (first world westerners) and subsequently imagine other ways of being in the world that deviate from our dominant ideologies and paradigms. Hence, Graeber reviews the literature on how key anthropologists and social theorists have discussed value in order to work toward his own theory.
I’m working my way through the text. I’ve got a ways to go. I’m doubling back and rereading a lot. So this brief post is a placeholder for more focused future writing where I can dig in and make more salient connections to other issues and projects I’m working on (e.g. what is the value in producing a large, expensive international biennial exhibition of contemporary art?!). The most basic definition the book begins with is that social theory has dealt with three different conceptions of value that converge in our present understanding:
1. “values” in the sociological sense: conceptions of what is ultimately good, proper, or desirable in human life
2. “value” in the economic sense: the degree to which objects are desired, particularly, as measured by how much others are willing to give up to get them
When we talk about value, as in my example above, generally all of these conceptions factor into the meaning of the term. It is Graeber’s task to chart these conceptions and their convergence in what ultimately is a very politically engaged project. (His commitment to theorizing and practicing a radical politics from an anarchist perspective is clear.) There are some real lucid gems in Greaber’s writing. In closing, I’ll drop two adjacent passages here:
The ultimate stakes of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is. Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively or individually) what it is that make life worth living. In the end, then, politics is about the meaning of life. Any such project of constructing meanings necessarily involves imagining totalities (since this is the stuff of meaning), even if no such project can ever be completely translated into reality — reality being, by definition, what which is always more complicated than any construction we can put on it.
Any notion of freedom, whether it’s the more individualistic vision of creative consumption, or the notion of free cultural creativity and decentering I have been trying to develop here, demands both resistance against the imposition of any totalizing view of what society or value must be like, but also recognition that some kind of regulating mechanism will have to exist, and therefore, calls for serious thought about what sort will best ensure people are, in fact, free to conceive of value in whatever form they wish. If one does not, at least in the present day and age, one is simply going to end up reproducing the logic of the market without acknowledging it. And if we are going to try to think seriously about alternatives to the vision of “freedom” currently being presented to us—one in which nation-states serve primarily as protectors of corporate property, unelected international institutions regulate an otherwise unbridled “free market” mainly to protect the interests of financiers, and personal freedom becomes limited to personal consumption choices—we had best stop thinking that these matters are going to take care of themselves and start thinking of what a more viable and hopefully less coercive regulating mechanism might actually be like. (pp. 88-89)