Fergus Falls, MN © 2007 Jeff Ward

I’m not sure I was aware that Fergus Falls was the childhood home of Mary MacLane when I passed through in 2007; I did know who she was, because I was teaching excerpts from The Story of Mary MacLane in classes in 2002. Her celebrity has faded these days.

She was a bit like a Phoebe Waller-Bridge for her day, with distinct similarities to Fleabag. Her movie performance has been lost to history. Both broke the fourth wall, speaking frankly to their audience. I remember that in the first decade I taught, I’d always try to find something that might connect with students. Mary MacLane had tremendous social value in her own time, with her scandalous books selling in large numbers; using it wasn’t that successful in the classroom.

I liked teaching best of all the jobs I’ve had because it was the least soul-destroying. If you’re doing it right, it makes you glad to be alive and appreciative of your students. I started out teaching an older population, primarily focused on getting jobs, when I started out in Arkansas. Teaching in Minnesota was different, because so many of my students were from an agriculture background and intended to return to farms and continue in the family business. Curiously, the class I taught most was writing for the workplace: the class I hated most as an undergraduate.

The stress of confronting a shrinking labor market wasn’t as much of a factor in the times before the big crash and recession of 2008. I must confess that I really didn’t care for working life, and when the opportunity came to shift to a more domestic role, I took it. Work was unsatisfying for me, for most of my life. I don’t think I fully realized that until I stopped doing it for money. I didn’t necessarily feel alienated as much as I felt that I had little value to the world at large.

One of the most controversial parts of Marxist theory is the law of value, or labor theory of value. The primary problem is that Marx (and other classical economists) placed human work as the determinant for the value of products. To be productive, according to Marx, involved the subject of labor (people) and the instruments of labor (capital), and the object of labor (raw material). Marx’s emphasis was on the social value of labor, where ultimately everyone loses.

The capitalist production of objects entails devaluing humans as instruments and overvaluing capital, which alienates those who possess capital as well. In his commentary on James Mill, he offers a succinct elaboration. We work to produce products in order to exchange them for other products, transforming ourselves into instruments.

Although in your eyes your product is an instrument, a means, for taking possession of my product and thus for satisfying your need; yet in my eyes it is the purpose of our exchange. For me, you are rather the means and instrument for producing this object that is my aim, just as conversely you stand in the same relationship to my object. But 1) each of us actually behaves in the way he is regarded by the other. You have actually made yourself the means, the instrument, the producer of your own object in order to gain possession of mine; 2) your own object is for you only the sensuously perceptible covering, the hidden shape, of my object; for its production signifies and seeks to express the acquisition of my object. In fact, therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, and you have performed menial services in order that the object shall never again do a favour to your desire. If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship.

Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value. (Marx)

Wage slavery, however, is only one aspect of labor. In the case of Mary MacLane, she created her own social value as a rebel, and sold her words and image to create a different sort of relationship, that of celebrity. But as that, she created a persona to be objectified, an object of exchange. The attempt to typify humans as productive instruments often presents a bleak view of human exchange, but Marx offers an alternative.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)

This, I think, describes the craft dream of labour. The labor theory of value is also central to Anarchism, so this makes sense, given the faction of contemporary workers interested in it. But,  it also describes the dream of celebrity, wherein we are loved for an essentially constructed nature. The problem with celebrity is one of scale; only so many people can be famous, even in this age of being famous for being famous. Exchange value, however, is only one way of assigning value to labor.