A while ago, while trying to think of law of value in a non-deterministic, probabilistic and non-linear way, I thought that the metaphor of wind energy/sailor could be very useful, especially in terms of understanding the relationship between the law of value and the individual capitalists. The idea first came when I was reading Jim Kincaid’s amazing PhD thesis. Jim was talking about how some capitalists can ‘evade’ law of value by corruption and state protection the national level, but eventually they could not escape from the international pressures. I had never thought of law of value usually associated with a structure-like phenomenon in Marxist political economy with a verb like ‘evade’, which recalls agency. This helped me to rethink law of value with the help of the metaphor ‘wind energy’ and capitalists’ actions with ‘sailing’.

According to the Wikipedia:

‘The energy that drives a sailboat is harnessed by manipulating the relative movement of wind and water speed. When there is a difference in motion, there is energy to be extracted at the interface and the sailboat does this by placing the sails in the air and the hulls in the water. Sails are airfoils that work by using an airflow set up by the wind and the motion of the boat. The combination of the two is the apparent wind, which is the relative velocity of the wind relative to the boat’s motion. The sails generate lift using the air that flows around them. The air flowing at the sail surface is not the true wind. Sailing into the wind causes the apparent wind to be greater than the true wind and the direction of the apparent wind will be forward of the true wind. Some extreme design boats are capable of traveling faster than the true windspeed on some points of sail (and can even sail downwind faster than the wind – although this is not intuitively obvious’

If you are on a simple small boat, a strong wind can turn you over on the sea. You need protection against the wind. But you can do even better. You can use the energy of the wind in such a way that you can travel on the sea not only despite the wind, but thanks to the wind.  Of course you may prefer staying on the land, rather than going to the sea and do safe activities. But then, you miss all opportunities provided by the sea and the new land. On the sea the capitalist is more exposed to risk and uncertainty but also to new opportunities. The wind is not equally strong all the time or everywhere. Neither is law of value. Not all the time and not in all sectors does it operate equally.

The challenge is the following though: When you talk about wind and sailing, you talk about nature, humans and objects. The energy of the wind exists independent of the humans. But in the case of the law of value, even though the law of value takes an impersonal, independent power on its own, such result is the unintended consequence of a set of social practices, which are not necessarily set to create this result. This is, to refer once again to the unrivalled vocabulary of Nicole Pepperell, an emergent property of the historically specific configuration of social relations in capitalist society, but it puts pressure on capitalists to behave in specific ways. Some capitalists, on the other hand can transform this pressure into an opportunity to compete better. This does not need to be a conscious pattern. Sometimes simple intentions to reproduce oneself can lead capitalists to innovate in such a way to build sails, which ‘manipulate the wind’ in order to travel faster on the water and thus putting new pressures on other capitalists.

There may be capitalists who try to “evade” law of value (e) (via rent-seeking, corruption for instance), those who are “eliminated” by the law of value (unable to compete) and “manipulate” the law of value and use at his advantage (innovate and force his own competitors to abide by the same techniques. For instance, under pressure of competition, Japanese car companies who tried to compete with American fordism adopted fordist methods to their cultural context, which generated the lean production systems which became norm and which global car companies had to adopt eventually). Such a metaphor has the advantage of considering law of value as a tendency which functions as an imperative on individual capitalists, but works as such as long as individual capitalists relate to it everyday.

Even the relation of the state to capital can be re-formulated in that regard. The state can help companies to avoid law of value (‘getting prices wrong’ for instance as in S. Korea), the state can facilitate the implementation of the law of value in a specific territory (as in the early periods of capital accumulation), the state can help to cope with the pressures of the law of value (providing safety nets for the small and medium size companies, manipulate exchange rates to help competition).

What is intriguing for me is the following though: During the history of capitalism, you can see that in different sectors and at different times law of value ‘asserts itself’. Competition destroys local industries, re-allocates labour to other sectors, capitalists have to find new ways to survive in the market by reducing costs, intensifying exploitation. This is an uneven, slow and painful process, which may not be picked up immediately or at a given stage of history, but can be identified as a long-term pattern. Of course, some commodities are more prone to law of value, others less: In car manufacturing industry, capital is truly globalised global supply chain networks. There is little national protection. Technology is developing fast. Local companies do survive mostly thanks to joint partnerships. Large manufacturers hedge price risk for their raw materials in the London Metal Exchange or force their suppliers to hedge their own risk. One has to innovate, struggle, cut down labour costs in order to stay in the market. In the energy market, however, due to the nature of energy, networks remain monopolies, some governments still control energy prices for political reasons against cost-based tariffs.

But despite differences, can we argue that attempts to avoid law of value are, sooner or later, condemned to fail? State-led import substitution strategies create insurmountable contradictions, protected chaebols in S. Korea promote liberalization and face overproduction crisis, international buffer stock agencies to mediate prices for commodities run out of money and are replaced with free markets. If we use the conceptual categories of Larval Subjects and Rough Theory, does law of value operate like a strange attractor or gravitational pull?

The strategic implications of this question de-legitimise, once again, the mercantilist/nationalist/third worldist/protectionist scenarios. Rather than struggling against or evading temporarily law of value, we have to think of how we can re-organise relations between humans and objects so that such relations do not gravitate to reproduce law of value. And for this to happen, I wish we had a chemistry laboratory where I can put all components which make up capital into a tube, then take out one component, mix it with another and continue this exercise until my test gives a result which is not capital… I wish we were Marxist alchemists and sorcerers who discover the underground powers of capital and destroy them with magic…