An article on Generative Justice written by Ron Eglash. Originally published at Revista Teknokultura.


Marx proposed that capitalism’s destructive force is caused, at root, by the alienation of labor value from its generators. Environmentalists have added the concept of unalienated ecological value, and rights activists added the unalienated expressive value of free speech, sexuality, spirituality, etc. Marx’s vision for restoring an unalienated world by top-down economic governance was never fulfilled. But in the last 30 years, new forms of social justice have emerged that operate as “bottom-up”. Peer-to-peer production such as open source software or wikipedia has challenged the corporate grip on IP in a “gift exchange” of labor value; community based agroecology establishes a kind of gift exchange with our nonhuman allies in nature. DIY citizenship from feminist makerspaces to queer biohacking has profound implications for a new materialism of the “knowledge commons”; and restorative approaches to civil rights can challenge the prison-industrial complex. In contrast to top-down “distributive justice,” all of the above are cases of bottom-up or “generative justice”.

Generating Unalienated Value

In Marx’s original formulation of “alienated labor value”, he contrasted the meaningful work of traditional skilled artisans, taking pleasure in their craft and earning respect from their community, with the dull repetition, low pay and enervating conditions of factory labor under capitalism. There are at least four challenges to making the alienation concept useful today. First, corporate marketing schemes are increasingly appropriating the artisanal allure: my Starbucks coffee is served by an underpaid “barista”; my cookies claim they were hand-made by Keebler elves. I can buy Domino’s Artisan Pizzas, Tostitos’ Artisan Recipes Tortilla Chips, Burger King’s Artisan bun, and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Artisan Bagels. If artisanal labor is so easily simulated, what chance do we have for making it a basis of social critique? Second, evoking older, pre-capitalist forms could be read to imply that artisanal labor is better because it is more natural. But as I will outline below, some of the best examples of unalienated craft labor today are in highly “unnatural” realms of open source hardware and software. And romantic organicist notions of what constitutes “natural” labor are notoriously tied to stereotype gender roles; homophobic claims that only heterosexuality is natural; nationalist claims that “nature did not intend the races to mix” and so on. Third, older production forms may be a poor fit to contemporary population densities and needs. And finally, the stress on artisanal production often overlooks the gender, race and ecological dimensions of economies of care and histories of colonialism. To address these problems, we need a deeper look at what the concept of “generating unalienated value” could mean if liberated from some of this unwelcomed baggage.

The phrase “generating value” is implicitly referring to the power of “self-generation.” In his 1944 book What is Life? physicist Erwin Schrödinger noted the mysterious way organisms seemed to defy the second law of thermodynamics: “It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of ‘equilibrium’ that an organism appears so enigmatic; so much so, that from the earliest times of human thought some special non-physical or supernatural force… was claimed to be operative” (p. 70). He characterized this self-generative property of life as “negative entropy” (later shortened to “negentropy”). Terms for this phenomenon can now be found at every scale: “autocatalysis” for cycles in which biomolecules produced themselves; “autopoiesis” for an organism’s self-reproduction; “sympoiesis” for ecosystem self-assembly, and so on. When we grow living organisms for food, we tap into this self-generating power; that is to say, some of the value that is normally circulated can be diverted for our own use. It is here that we must choose between either becoming part of the circulation, or extracting— i.e. alienating—that value. Soils for example can be easily depleted of nutrients. Yet traditional farmers and horticulturalists have avoided this problem for thousands of years simply by returning our waste to the soil, and thus becoming part of the circulation of value through a broader array of sustainable practices called agroecology.

Marx made an analogy between unalienated labor and agroecology in Capital volume 1, where he stated that capitalist farming “prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil…” (Marx 1976, pp. 637-638). Recalling Schrödinger’s comment that the negentropic character of life is often attributed to a supernatural force, it is no surprise that Marx’s inspiration for this insight, German chemist Justus von Liebig, originally justified recycling sewage back to farm lands because of a “vital force” that gave living soils their generative power. Marx was dedicated to eliminating “mystification”, but when he invokes the “living labor” of unalienated production, it sounds suspiciously like the vitalist “living soil” of von Liebig. This is not necessarily a flaw. Granted, it does pose the dangers of any organicist or naturalizing discourse, as noted above. But one can also interpret vitalism as humility; as a way of saying “there is something complex and wonderful in the generative force that we do not fully understand”. Indeed that was Schrödinger’s final conclusion. Today we know that the “living soil” concept was not far off: ordinary dirt is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, decaying matter, water percolation, minerals and other features that form a dynamic, evolving network which still challenges our understanding. Analogous complex, selfsustaining networks in the social domain—not the simulation of artisanal labor in the Starbucks barista or Keebler elf—are necessary for real unalienated labor. We will now turn to one exemplar for such a network.

The full article can be found here.

Photo by the pain of fleeting joy

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