Four Levels of Use Value Production

Automatic affect


In The Abstract

I want to return to an area that I first entered into many years ago in "The Production of Use Values" and have since wrestled with in the context of immaterial production.  That is the distinction between the various stages necessary in producing a use value, whether material or not.  My initial attempts were based on a simple two-stage model based on the object oriented programming model.  That is, an abstract "object" design/model of which each material product would be an instantiation.  Aside from its, to me now, transparent platonism, the two-phase model simply combined too many disparate things and eventually blocked further progress.

However, since the time of the initial "Product of Use Values", my work life experience with software engineering, gradually illustrated clear differentiations within the layers preceding actual materialisation (in the case of material products).

My current framework has evolved from a two stage to a four stage model. In addition to the multiplication of stages, there is also a passage from the very "thing-centred" conception of OOP - i.e. Object/Instance - to a more process-centred conception of creative labour. Let's outline the phases of the use value production process:

1. Specifying

The end product of the specification process is, where it is formalised, the Functional Specification.  This specifies the use value in terms of it's useful functions whether it's inserting nails into timber, transporting goods from A to B in mountainous terrain without roads or cutting grass.

2. Designing

The end product of the designing process is a Technical Design which may include blueprints, documented specifications for components and so on.  For any given functional spec. many different technical designs are possible.  For example cutting the grass could be achieved equally well by a modern petrol-driven lawn mower as by a scythe, depending on the availability of fossil fuel or muscular energy (and skill) available.  For transporting goods in unroaded mountainous terrain you could choose to go with a transporter helicopter or the humble yak or llama.  The process of creating a given functional spec. into a technical design is both non-trivial and creative. Needless to say, different designs, even taking the same basic approach and using similar components, can be radically different in their efficient use of resources.

3. Planning

The end product of the planning process is an Execution Plan.  Having designed the Model T, Henry Ford then had to work out how his workforce were going to make them.  The production line was part of the execution plan.  In manufacturing, the work of producing an execution plan is now the speciality of the process engineer.

4. Execution

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley" as Robbie Burns wrote.  Despite the best efforts of Taylorist time and motion experts to de-skill the execution of the tasks of production, outside of the McKitchen, in most production processes, the task of actually executing an execution plan will require elements of both skill and creative interpretation. The end product of the execution process is the use value embodied as product.

While the above model may be difficult to apply to an integrated artisanal creative process like writing a novel, it is fairly flexible when applied to the realm of social production.  This is probably best illustrated with a few diverse examples.


Model T

With the Ford Model T we start with the basic functionality of the automobile already having evolved in the luxury market.  Ford's great innovation, at the level of functional specification is to see that the automobile can be transformed from a luxury product for the exclusive enjoyment of a rich, mostly non-productive, minority, to an enabler for a mass market of working people engaged in production, both rural and urban.  The functional specification of the Model T then is to make a robust vehicle, capable of carrying people and produce over farm tracks and unpaved roads, produced at a price the ordinary worker can aspire to owning.

The design of the Model T is famously, the work of Ford alone.  He exercises absolute sovereignty over the design - "You can have any color you like, so long as it's black".  Indeed absolute sovereignty is the watchword for Henry Ford's entire world-view, in this way he is the historical dark capitalist epigone of utopian socialists like Owen and Fourier of a century before.  As such he commands the hero-worship of not only American capitalists, but also Hitler and Stalin.

But in order to fulfil the functional requirement of affordability the design must also take into account the execution plan for workers to produce the Model T.  Not simply in the price of the raw materials and component parts that will be used in it's production, but also more subtly, in the way that production will be carried out and by whom it will be carried out.  Ford's previous experience in the luxury car market had convinced him that he wanted a car that could be produced by mostly unskilled workers.  Hence the design had to fit the mass production plan that Ford had to produce it - this included the famous production line, interchangeable parts, and above all, an assembly process that could be taught to unskilled, recent immigrants with little English (and no union cards!).  Here we see an important general point - the incomplete separation between the levels of function, design and plan.  That is there is a need for a communication of needs between the levels.  The needs of the production line (interchangeable parts) must inform the technical design and so on.  We call this process articulation.

But finally, the plan for production must be executed by workers, and here we have a whole history of struggle where things did very much not conform to Henry Ford's pretensions to absolute sovereignty. Ford's initial plan to use unskilled and non-unionised labour from the pool of recent immigrants did not work out too well.  The workers were far from being as supine as Ford had hope their precarity would make them, but most of all they tended to leave as soon as they'd acquired enough English and social contacts to get a better job or head West. The turnover and lack of stable skills was killing the firm.  In the end Ford went for a bold move - the famous $5 day (after 6 months in service).  But the flipside of the $5 coin was his new Gestapo-like Security Depart of the $5 coin was a new Security, charged with examining every detail of the worker's habits and home life, and above all, of repressing any hint of attempted union organisation.  This resulted in massive battles throughout the 30's.  Ford always said he would close the company rather than recognise the union, the final crisis came with a UAW led sit-down strike that seized and occupied the River Rouge plant.  Ford was only persuaded not to carry out his threat to shut down the company by his wife Clara's threat to leave him (after 53 years of marriage) if he destroyed their son and grand kids legacy.  Ford capitulated and the company became the last US motor manufacturer to recognise the UAW in June 1941.


To take an example from a different arena entirely, let's examine a SQL (Structured Query Language) query of a database in a commercial environment.  The output from this query can be used for any purpose, be it finding book-buyers that a new book should be suggested to (e.g. as Amazon does), stock control of medical supplies for an busy hospital Accident & Emergency ward, through to calculating the Net Asset Value of a hedge fund (probably not one run by Bernie Madoff, though). All of these operationally essential pieces of information will ultimately come from a sql query.

First of all we have the functional specification, this is the information the query must correctly calculate and return from the appropriate records selected from collections of potentially hundreds of millions.  This is the functional specification of the query.

Second we must produce the actual sql query itself.  There are many, many different potential sql queries that will fulfil a significantly complex query.  But they are not all equal.

From a given sql query subjected to the database, the database program will automatically produce an execution plan.  Each execution plan will (eventually) return exactly the same information specified by the functional spec.  However, the efficiency with which they do so, varies drastically - not in an arithmetic way, but exponentially.  For two queries that will return the same information one can run within 10 milliseconds, another will take over 10 hours to complete.  A bad plan can not only take an unacceptable length of time to complete, it can put such a load on the systems resources in terms of memory, cpu and disks that it can bring down the whole system.  Clearly hear we have a need for articulation between the design (sql query) and execution plan stages.  Even though the execution plan is automatically generated by the database program, rather than the sql author, the skill of the sql writer is to understand the workings of the database sufficiently to predict what kind of plan will be produced by a particular sql query and have the knowledge to capture the plan and understand it, before submitting it to be run by the computer(s).

Finally, the query(s) are scheduled to be run (often on a regular basis).  Again the stage of actual execution is automated, but still there are complicating factors requiring some articulation.  Whether a plan is good or bad is dependant on the actual quantity and specific properties of the data which it is querying.  Hence most production database programs will examine the execution plan at the time of each execution and decide whether to re-use that plan or whether, if the data in the database has changed sufficiently, to justify generating a new plan.  This can lead to problems if the process of articulation required has not extended to foreseeing this.  In the end, foresight is far more limited than the potential contingencies of complex systems, so issues do occur and it's the job of the DBA to sort them out.

Returning to the level of generality, first we have moved to the realm of immaterial production and secondly we are encountering the question of automation. Taking the second item first, we can state that automation is not just a factor in the field of immaterial production. Take a modern Toyota factory producing entirely material trucks where robots have replaced human workers at many stages along the production line. What we can say is that generally at the level of execution that automation is taking place. The sql example is unusual in being one of the few areas where automation is reaching up the chain to the execution plan level. Although this is still most common in IT, there has also been development for many years in machine tool based engineering for automation of generating the CNC plans directly from the engineer's CAD design, but what proportion of engineering is fully automated up the plan generation level I don't know right now.

The other aspect of the sql example, as already mentioned, is the immaterial production aspect. I don't want to go into it too much here as it's somewhat out of scope for this piece, but suffice it to say that what is immaterial is the product, not the production process. Although nowadays the execution phase is almost always automated to some degree, let's not forget the original computers were women using adding machines to calculate range tables for new artillery pieces being produced as part of the US war effort in WW2. To reiterate, the production process for immaterial production is no less dependant on capital goods/means of production, including server halls, computer hardware, comms networks and electricity, together with the brain and muscle power (even if only reading and typing) of workers. The difference lies in the ability to generate additional product through means of replication, rather than repetition of the execution process.

Many more example applications of the model in creative and concrete production (including examples outside of capitalist social relations) are possible, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader for now.

This World We Must Leave

What's more interesting with this model is how it applies for broader questions of social transformation.

Marx and Engels famously reproached the early socialists they christened Utopian Socialists, for providing ready-made technical designs for new societies. Consequently, when pressed on the topic of what a post-communist society might look like, Marx tended to reply that he was not in the business of providing blueprints.

Indeed all of us who work in the tradition that "the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself" would see the creation and selection of a specific design for a post-capitalist society will have to be the collective work of the risen proletariat, or it cannot be a moment of self-emancipation.

However, just because we are wary of creating or advocating specific social designs, does not mean that we cannot usefully talk about the functional specification of a post-capitalist society.

And here we return to our theme of articulation, because the process of specifying the functionality of a post-capitalist society is inextricably linked with the process of critically analysing the dysfunctions of capitalist society.

It is possible to invert the four level model and use it for deconstruction and critique rather than creation. In the inverted model we move down from individual instances of injustice or inefficiency, through the operational processes or work tasking that is producing them, down to the design faults of the bodies or institutions that create these S.O.P.s and then, ultimately, to the fundamental dysfunctions in the society that produces and requires these institutions.

As an example, consider police racism or brutality.  On the first level we have the acts of racism and brutality of individual cops.  On the second level we have the operations culture that means the shift these cops work on does not challenge their behaviour or may even encourage it.  In addition we have the connivance of the duty staff at the police station who turn a blind eye to beatings in the cells, deny access to medical aid or solicitors, lie to family of friends phoning up to find their loved ones and falsify the necessary paperwork. At the design level we find institutional racism or de-humanisation of whole sections of the urban working class.  Here the rot goes to the very top level (and not just of the organisation itself, but also its supporters in the government, establishment and media), is ingrained within not only the culture of the organisation, but is part of the motive for it's foundation.  The police were founded specifically as the "thin blue line" to protect "respectable society" from the "dangerous classes".  Finally we move down to the dysfunction of capitalist society that needs and creates police forces to manage the stresses and conflicts of class society.

In the Here and Now

Our challenge in our propaganda is to link the levels to create an articulated critique that allows people to see the connections between instances of injustice, such as acts of police brutality, right down the chain to the irreformable failings of capitalist society itself.

It must be noted that this double-articulation between the inverted critical 4-phase articulation and the creative 4-phase articulation is not symmetrical.  One articulation is analytical the other is active and open-ended.  One is, in theory (if not in practice) practicable at an individual level, the other is necessarily a collective process.

We have to see also, that although the ultimate project of the creation of an entire post-capitalist society must await "that glorious day", that does not mean that we do not need to pay heed to it in the here and now.

All actions are creative.  The problem of capitalist society is that often actions can end up being re-creative of capitalist social relations even despite the consciously willed aims of the actors.  We are all familiar with how the actions of the best intentioned can end up reproducing passivity and dependency culture within the wider class.  As the English councillist group Solidarity said so well, a good few years ago:

7. Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification.  Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.

(from As We See It)

So even within our smallest collective activity and organising we need to be mindful of the pivotal axis of the doubly-articulated 4-phase model, namely the dysfunctional capitalist social relations (and how they can replicate themselves within the group dynamics of even the smallest collectivity) and the conversely required post-capitalist dynamics and practices that serve to block the former and free creativity.




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