Occupy Surplus-Value: Toward the Revaluation of Value


It is hard not to despair. The enormity of the problems dwarf the human scale, even though it is we, humans, who have created them. We seem to have fallen under the wheels of an economic system whose signature products are inexorably increasing social inequality, periodic crises from which only the top tier (those whose “irrational exuberance” triggered crisis in the first place) happily recover, and environmental devastation of such a magnitude that it has tipped us over into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, bearing the now-shameful name of a restless species which seems to have answered the ancient call to go forth, multiply, and subdue the earth a tad too enthusiastically.

Many solutions are proposed. But they rarely target the drive toward quantitative increase written into the dynamic of the capitalist system. Growth is an unassailable article of faith in most discursive realms, even today, as the evidence of its unsustainability daily mounts. Its periodic quantitative measure drives not only the economic cycles, but electoral cycles as well. Even the newly energized democratic socialist movement dares not call it out. Part of the reason is likely that the hyper-complex global reach of the capitalist economy makes systemic change capable of so radically realigning the basis of the economy seem a pipe dream. Many of us are at the same time energized by the urgency of the situation, and prey to feelings of paralysis in the face of the enormity of the task. Small gestures and local projects may fire our imaginations, but cannot quell our sense of the doomed inadequacy of our means. In response, some preach “acceleration”: pushing capitalism beyond its limit, or just letting it go, toward a crisis to end all crises, or over a tipping point where our species being is transcended by its subsumption under the transformative technologies its own indefatigable allegiance to capitalism has unleashed.

99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value
is in response to this quandary. It refuses both a reformism accepting of the disastrous systemic general-operating parameters of the capitalist economy, and accelerationism. It proposes an “affirmative” approach to the problems. In light of what was just said, this may come across as disingenuous. Optimism in the face of such rationally grounded despair? How can we not be pessimistic to the extreme? Face it: pessimism is the only rational response. But on the other hand, was it not precisely the economic rationality of the capitalist economy that brought to where we are? Perhaps what is needed is a side-stepping of the alternative between the rational and the irrational, a move beyond the binary choice of pessimism and optimism, hope or despair.

It is a common misunderstanding that affirmative thought and politics are forms of optimism, based on an acceptance of what is. They are anything but. What they are based on is what Deleuze calls “belief in the world” – an actively lived engagement with the potential the world holds for change; with the capacity it always holds in itself for outdoing itself. Affirmation is predicated not on accepting things as they are, but on living the present in so intense a manner – so engaged, so tautly, affectively attuned to the field conditions – as to release a quantum of the charge of futurity they hold. It is to practice “immanent critique”: not standing outside and judging from a safe position of implicit superiority, but rather diving into the mess and complexity, risking failure, accepting the inevitably of being wrong at times, maybe even spectacularly – but gaining by that the possibility that a well-tempered tweak from within might alter the relational cast of the field, deflecting the course of things down an altered trajectory, to however small (but potentially great) a degree. It is, to use a phrase of Donna Haraway, to creatively stay with the trouble.

What is gained by this is not necessarily success – although there is no prospect of success without it. Because a theoretically and programmatically correct eagle’s-eye view of the totality is nowhere less attainable than with the open, complex, rapidly self-evolving system that is the capitalist economy in which we are immersed. What is gained is what might be called an aesthetic yield of intensity: the feeling that whatever comes, it will have been worth it to have lived the moment thus, because it was lived to the utmost. This is an example of what I call “surplus-value of life”: an experienced value that is its own value, worth it for itself. This is a purely qualitative value. It is an incomparable as the timbre of particularly pellucid note of music or the saturation of a breath-taking color. It is incommensurable, unexchangeable. It is such as it was, all and only that, and nothing more than how it was lived. It can be pursued on the smallest or most macro of scales, beginning from right where one is. No need to wait for the correct, final analysis (which will never come) before jumping in. No need for the end-all up front (which will never happen). Any and every moment can yield surplus-value of life, provided the moment is intensely lived.

There is also a common critique of intensity that equates it with pleasure or “positive” affect, in greater than usual quantity. By this account, waxing long on intensity is little more than a pollyanaish romantic indulgence. This is a complete misunderstanding of the concept. Intensity has no more to do with the hedonic categories of pleasure and pain, or with magnitudes of either, than it has to do with optimism versus pessimism. What it has to do with is the living of potential, experienced qualitatively. It doesn’t have to do with the pacifying beauty of a red that is a personal favorite, for example. It has to more do, to hijack Claudel, with the felt conundrum of a sea so blue only blood could be redder: quality of experience outdoing itself, overspilling any effective frame of comparison, standing out, in and for its own character. Utmost quality. Excess of quality.

The first conceit of 99 Theses
is to think that the theory of value can be remolded on the model of surplus-value of life. And that capitalist surplus-value is a quantitative capture and conversion of surplus-values of life that are purely qualitative in nature. And that there are such things as relational qualities, irreducibly collective surplus-values of life that we attain only by outdoing our individual selves in relational engagement and affective attunement with shared field conditions. And that the pursuit of these transindividual values can potentially sketch lines of escape from the capitalist capture of surplus-value of life, which the economy continually appropriates toward its own ends, feeding upon it parasitically. And that these lines of escape might eddy into autonomous zones, vacuoles of capitalist business-as-usual, bubbling pores in the capitalist field that prefigure a postcapitalist future in much the same the way that Marx saw capitalism growing in the pores of feudalism.

There is a need for a critical moment, clearing obstacles to the effective practice of immanent postcapitalist critique. Immanent critique does not exclude negative critique, or even destruction. It actually requires them. But it requires that they be dosed and well-diagnosed so as to positively produce the conditions for the affirmative, creative and constructivist, practice of immanent critique. A not insignificant portion of the 99 Theses is dedicated to this field-clearing task of negative critique. The objects of the critique are the market logic underwriting the capitalist system, the myth of equal exchange as the supposed principle of the market, and money in its market role of general equivalent and medium of exchange. The critique of these concepts opens the way to an understanding of the contemporary neoliberal capitalist economy as in fact predicated on excess: not equal value for money, but the drive to surplus-value, in its specifically capitalist expression.

To understand the excess nature and role of surplus-value, it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the financial markets and their speculative dynamic. This requires feats of extreme abstraction, because the financial instruments that dominate the financial sector (such as derivatives) are themselves abstract to the hilt; or better, they are concrete technologies of extreme abstraction. The present-day economic dominance of the financial markets and their highly speculative modus operandi makes it little more than a wan dream to think that we could right the world by disciplining capitalism’s in-born tendency for speculation and resurrect the centrality of the old productive economy, where value is commensurate with hard work, and price reflects the true “value of money.” This vision of the productive economy is at any rate little more than an extension of the market myth, romantically applied to labor. It conveniently forgets the violence that went into creating the capitalist labor market in the dominant economies, as minutely documented by Marx in volume 1 of Capital – not to mention the essential link between this endocolonial enterprise and the even greater exocolonialist violence of the slave trade and its aftermaths. It also glosses over the ongoing “extortion” of life-time and life-quality that goes into maintaining the labor market, under neoliberalism in increasingly precarious forms – just as essentially linked to the neo-colonial leveraging of global inequalities.

It is the second conceit of the 99 Theses to consider that the speculative nature and excessiveness of the financial markets is actually a better place to begin than the conventional, equal-exchange-based concept of the market. The key is to collectively reappropriate surplus-value of life, breaking free of the mechanisms that capture it for the continuing production of capitalist surplus-value and its murderous dynamic of quantitative increase in unequal accumulation. The task, in a word, is to “occupy” surplus-value. To affirm excess, but in a qualitative key – for a future sea so blue that only something other than spilt blood could be redder. This requires staying with the trouble that is intensity, sorting out its complex relations to quantity, quality, and affect, and understanding their vicissitudes as the conversion to capitalist surplus-value takes place, with the goal of identifying escape hatches. A great deal of the book is dedicated to this philosophical task.

The final conceit of the 99 Theses is that diving into the field conditions of the present, including but not limited to their properly economic dimensions, involves affirming, of all things – gasp! – crytocurrency. Crytocurrency is one of the contemporary field conditions that holds as-yet unplumbed potential. If its yield of potential is paltry as yet, it is because it has yet to correct its birth defect of libertarian market ideology, and its corresponding penchant to reproduce the worst kind of capitalist speculative energies. But in the dawning post-blockchain world, a plethora of projects are brewing that potentially operate by very different logics. They offer the possibility of a range of qualitatively different micro-economies growing pore-like in the capitalist field, and then entering into complex ecologies with each other to start composing a postcapitalist alter-economic field. This is a possibility because these “local” projects are in fact translocal: they are local to networks whose reach can be wide; and they can be made “interoperable” even as each retains its power to define its own mode of governance and its own dedicated value system.

The book delves into some of these potentials, focusing on the project I collaborate on, the SenseLab’s “3 Ecologies Process Seed Bank.” This is an attempt at inventing a non-market-based collectivist economy running directly on affective intensities of creative play (of the most serious kind – as a counter-model to work). The idea is to build a vacuole where the production of surplus-value of life is the operative economic principle, then to finds ways of making it interoperable with other alter-economic projects, as part of a collaborative ecology of complementary and mutually sustaining micro-economies deriving their richness and strategic staying power from their correlative diversity in a way that empowers them to collectively negotiate their transitional relation with the dominant economy, cooperatively shielding each other from being coopted or destroyed by it.

If this sounds impossible, it is. At least, it is in the present. But in the futurity in this present, it is eminently potentialized, we worldly believe. 99 Theses doesn’t purport to have the last word. The 3E Process Seed Bank project doesn’t claim to be the model. The goal of both is much more modest: to help provide a starting point, intense and alluring enough for some to dive into and affirm, and in doing so convey to others that the potential is there, wherever they labor and play, free to be harvested in the non-circulating currency of surplus-value of life.


Brian Massumi is author of many books, including 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto; Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts.

“Brian Massumi has brought a rich perspective to bear on the deepest problem linking capitalism, ethics, and calculation: the problem of quality. This book offers many good reasons to see that the emphasis on number, quantity, and countability is the ruling fiction of the empire of capital and the main obstacle to the revaluation of value in both theory and practice.”
—Arjun Appadurai, author of Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance

“Brian Massumi’s latest philosophical tour de force continues to debunk mainstream economic thinking to make space for postcapitalist alternatives. Reclaiming value as qualitative intensity within an ethical ecology of powers, Massumi pushes the Marxist concepts of capital and surplus value to the limit. He thus shows how the radical task of reverse engineering financial capitalism exceeds both the contemporary cryptocurrencies and cryptoeconomics scene, opening up onto a postcapitalist future.”
—Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age

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