Understanding value in (bio) accumulation

The labour theory of value is among the most debated aspects of Marx’s theory. Much of the debate around it centred on verifying its correctness in quantitative and ‘economistic’ terms, following the idea that the substance of value (the Marxian notion of abstract labour) could be translated into a measure of value, thus defining value’s magnitude. An alternative approach to this relies on the Marxian theory of value to understand the logic and form of the reproduction of capitalist society. In this sense, the law of value is useful because it enables a political understanding of capitalism development and the process through which abstract market relations translate into the real world, becoming concrete social relations. This latter is the approach adopted by most of the feminist and eco-Marxist theorists. Under this framework, the idea of value is separate from the idea of exchange value and related to the historical and political process that allows some heterogeneous operations to be compared and - in practice - commodified, while others are devalued and substantially expropriated. It is from this second perspective that the debate on bio-capitalism examines the shifting of accumulation towards new processes and functions, whose ‘capture’ seems to happen outside the wage constraint and be unrelated to time-productivity measurement, and whose ‘output’ does not take the classical form of industrial commodities. The first formulation of these issues can be traced to the Italian tradition of workerism, where it leads to the hypothesis of cognitive capitalism, further labelled as bio-cognitive (Fumagalli, 2011). This provides a Marxist reading of the theories on human capital and the driving role of knowledge for corporate growth in post-Fordist economies, which also led to a discussion of classical Marxist analytical categories in the light of the new forms of labour exploitation and property-relations on which the post-Fordist mode of accumulation seems to rest.

Though most of this debate concerns the transformation of industrial production and the rise of business-platforms, current pattern of nature accumulation also strongly recalls the legal, financial and technological devices already at work in the knowledge and data economies analysed by scholars in bio-cognitive capitalism. Here, again, the relationship between production and appropriation is leveraged on advancement in technological development and private seizure through monopolies, privatisation and restrictive laws on intellectual property. To create a market for a resource (from labour-power to natural capital), it is necessary to convert it into a commodity. In the context of‘bio-environmental markets’, what we witness is the rise of a particular type of commodity, consisting of a property right emptied from its material content. Take, for instance, the carbon markets or the ecosystem services markets. In both cases, what is being traded is not the resource itself, but rather the specific property rights that have been attached to it. The private property of data, seeds or genes, which constitute the main source of value, are also often behind the idea of climate-smart agriculture. Smart technologies introduce a new market for environmental data by introducing artificial intelligence to farming and trading climate and biological information. Again, in green-grabbing dynamics, such as the enclosure of forests or wetlands for conservation purposes, what it is traded is also the intangible green-value that is attached to the ecosystem being protected (Neimark et al., 2016, Birch 2017). Robertson (2012) highlights how the very features of circulation under financial markets turn materiality into a limit: overcoming it requires creating social abstractions of nature that make nature’s exploitation compatible with financial circulation. Similarly, for the biotechnology sector Sheila Jasanoff (2012) explains how the US judicial system has promoted a conception of nature compatible with its economic exploitation basing on the principles of specificity and circulation. Specificity is needed to ensure ownership over something that is distinguishable and replicable. At the same time, the ‘bios’ can be converted into a commodity, provided that it is able to circulate.

Building on these insights, the logic through which the intangible and reproductive capacities of the ecosystems and genetic matter have been subsumed under financialised capitalism are traced back to the process of ‘cognitivisation of labour’ first developed by the Italian tradition of op- eraismo (Birch, 2017; Leonardi, 2019). However, alongside these dynamics there is the emergence of other forms of value extraction, which occupy an important place under neoliberal exploitation and require us to go beyond the classic Marxian conception of labour. These forms of value extraction also necessitate further moving the debate on bio-capitalism to take into account the multiple and situated dynamics of enclosure, value-extraction and dispossession that sustain bio-accumulation. This article dealt with three of them, namely the centrality of enclosure, debt relationships and the direct involvement of human bodies in the process of bio-commodities production. Debt is spreading even more intensively as a structural element related to agrarian work, acting as a prelude to the involvement of small farmers in global commodity chains. This is often the case for contract farming, for which the work relationships begin on debt relationships of farmers buying the seeds they are asked to produce, but it also concerns the spread of micro-financing services and climate insurance devices. On the other hand, the bio-economy field is promoting the involvement of inhabitants of rural areas in global value chains through their participation in clinical trials, in what Melinda Cooper and Catherine Walby have defined as a form of bio-labour. Here, human cells and blood are extracted for use in the production process of bio-commodities and patents.

Though it is not clear that these processes will be able to overcome ecological limitations (the negative value issue) and allow capitalism to move towards a new ecological regime, they are definitely influencing capitalism and its development dynamics in local contexts. This requires a better understanding of how these processes relate to the variegated patterns of inclusion and exclusion that characterise capitalist development today. Indeed, once workers are no longer associated with (dead) machinery but rather with (live) organic matter and financial extraction, the very distinctions between production and reproduction radically changes - and so do notions such as subsumption and exploitation.

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