The Full Extent of Subjective Valuation

Nominal libertarians regularly invalidate their own claims to support the socio-economic understanding of subjective valuation when they focus simplistically on profit (in the capitalist context) as the main axiomatic goal of economic exchanges, and talk of systems of private property as pure enclaves of individuality. These two systems, which seemingly define modern libertarian thought, are taken to be foundational and static in their conceptual makeup, rather than as constituted systems which involve political and social wrangling. They become conceptually conceived as positively anti-state, which is nonsensical rubbish when looking at the historic developments of these systems. Private property is not just simply protected by the state, but also created through processes of enclosure and the purposeful privatisation of ground rent. That is not to say private property cannot exist in a stateless society, but that it cannot exist outside a social context. Similarly, profit can be something developed through generally consensual means as the product of one’s labours, but its existence as a subjective axiom means it is realisable via the state. Our modern rentier economy is a testament to this inconvenient truth.

What this really reveals is that subjective valuation is much more than a rejection of the labour theory of value. It reveals a much more complex world of different interlocking or contradictory dynamics that influence people’s decision-making processes in markets and non-market institutions. Forms of profit and private property are just a few of the axiomatic potentials of subjective valuation, and focusing on these as essential limits the truly radical capabilities that a subjective understanding of value can develop. This wider understanding of value structures doesn’t just legitimate market exchange, but a multitude of other forms of socio-economic relations such as gift exchange, decentralised planning and concepts of social provisioning. As an example, Dworkin’s thought experiment on the development of a healthcare system in the context of societal freedom suggests a move toward a collective constitution of healthcare provision that combines a community-based form of responsibility alongside the production of plans that cover these responsibilities. Decentralised planning, not markets, act as the main function of this system. In general, a picture of society is painted that involves politico-social negotiations and wranglings that show the social foundation of value structures and their development into larger forms of structuration.

When combined with wider conceptions of the knowledge and economic calculation problems, the libertarian picture becomes an extremely limited one in the whole field of subjective value structures. It also brings into question one of the main dichotomies of libertarian thought, that of coercion versus consent. In a field made so broad by subjective valuation and the construction of identities through multivarious forms of structuration, can anything really be split down to such a simplistic division. Is not the generalisable construction of systems of private property at least mildly coercive in preventing/limiting people’s full extent of choice? Are the rules and regulations that develop from private property not themselves coercive in binding particular people to particular systems (at the expense of expulsion of general social life)? It seems that many libertarians would effectively support the full scaling of private property toward a private form of centralisation, where tolls and tributes replace taxation. That may well be a possible societal scenario (as a wider understanding of subjective valuation would suggest), but that then contains the need for a Gramscian framework of consent and coercion as well as the possibility of multi-sited resistance that could support this sanctified private property.

It may be said that the systems I’m describing as coercive are voluntary because they’ve received forms of direct consent that would be unable to function without them. However this confuses consent for effective efficiency. In the generisable capitalist system of today, people could be nominally said to consent to the system because they participate in relations of consumption and wage labour. However, if alternative systems of socio-economic structuration existed, would not certain elements of the population choose those instead. Systems like private property and markets, both in their modern context and in some libertarian discourses, are tacitly hegemonic, making alternatives fully relative rather than having any options for exit. The restricted understanding of subjective valuation posited by certain libertarians would suggest this as voluntary, yet a broader conception shows a world of multiple pathways for development and resistance, resisting centralised power found in ideological and existential structures. The restricted understanding thus represents only one pathway that ignores the social foundations of economic production and exchange, and that presents a simplistic idea of voluntariness that outside its hegemonic moorings can be coercive.

The reality is that this consent-coercion dichotomy is a false one, and that instead the monopolisation of coercion, and the limitation of alternatives are better areas for libertarians to oppose when developing critiques. The full extent of subjective valuation presents one such mechanism, but libertarians need to unchain themselves from false narratives that focus on private property, profit or markets as the main axiomatic functions of systems of subjective valuation. A broader, radical comprehension means something that provides the instruments for a decentralised society of conceptual freedom, where significant coercion can be limited in reflexive forms of governance and regulation that develop from the bottom-up in a constitutive manner.

10 thoughts on “The Full Extent of Subjective Valuation

  1. Gift economies are not just about “exchange”, they mostly operate on other modalities besides “exchange”, like you have in sharing practices within the family, and free gift to strangers.

    A gift economy is not really that specific a thing, it’s just anything that’s not a commodity economy.

    By “social provisioning”, do you meaning commoning?

    The concept of “planning” is not really a concept you want one would consider as “non-market” because it is still a commercial economy concerned with producing “commodities”, and as economists define/understand, it stems mostly from neoclassical assumptions about human beings ( you know the whole ‘calculating’ ‘maximizing,’ ,’optimizing’).

    Speaking of value have you read this report:


    • I’d argue all the concepts are interlinked in a wider diverse economy of possibilities. All have various definitions as you point out that can make them overdetermined, much like markets are.

      No I have not read it, but it is on my very long reading list.


  2. What do you think of E.P Thompson’s take on markets (“moral markets”) in his book “Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture” (the companion to his famous book “The Making of the English Working Class”)?

    On non-market stuff: are you familiar with any book on the ecological dimensions of Commons and Commoning?


    • I’ve only read E.P. Thompson’s essay on the moral economy. The argument there elucidated a concept of markets as social institutions with political facets which I generally agree with.

      In terms of ecological commoning, I read Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons which covered commons-based governance of land and water systems.


  3. I like Ostrom, but I prefer the work of German school like Silke Helfrich and her associates and the work of autonomists thinkers like Peter Linebaugh (who was E.P Thompson’s student), Silvia Federici and Massimo De Angelis, who all write very beautifully about the commons.

    I think the fact Ostrom mostly still operates within neoclassical orthodoxy is problematic, as one anthropologist said about this:

    ” The commons is a shared interest or value. It is the patrimony or legacy of a community and refers to anything that contributes to the material and social sustenance of a people with a shared identity: land, buildings, seed stock, knowledge of practices, a transportation network, an educational system, or rituals. As the lasting core, though changeable over time, the base represents temporality and continuity. Without a commons, there is no community; without a community, there is no commons.

    Most modern economists — after Galileo, Descartes, and Locke interpret the material commons of a people as an independent, objective entity that can be properly managed only by having! expressly stated rights of access (Ostrom) . They re-read the commons as something separate from a human community, perhaps as a symbol of community but not the community itself. This market and modernist reading separates objects from subjects.

    My use of the term “ commons” is different from that of most contemporary economists political scientists in another way. For them a commons is real property used by market agents and contained within a market; a commons is either an open-access resource, freely available to all, or a common-pool resource, regulated by rules of use (like Ostrom does). These theorists would show how control of certain scarce resources through social rules rather than competitive exchange supports market ends and the achievement of efficiency; thus, they argue, market actors sometimes agree for reasons of self-interest to form limited economic communities with a commons. I think this formulation represents a misunderstanding of the social sphere of value, reduces the social to self-interest, and conflates community and market through the misapplication of the language of trade. Communities of the form I examine are not devised to serve market life; irreducibly social, they operate for themselves as they relate to self-interests and the world of trade.

    On my view, the commons is the material thing or knowledge a people have in common, what they share, so that what happens to a commons is not a physical incident but a social event. Taking away the commons destroys community, and destroying a complex of relationships demolishes a commons. Likewise, denying others access to the commons denies community with them, which is exactly what the assertion of private property rights does. The so-called “tragedy of the commons “, which refers to destruction of a resource through unlimited use by individuals, is a tragedy not of a physical commons but of a human community, because of the failure of its members to treat one another as communicants and its transformation to a competitive situation. Often a community economy does not despoil the environment as rapidly as a market economy does, because in doing so it despoils itself.”

    Anyways, I’m looking for anarchist writings on ecology that go beyond Murray Bookchin’s “The Ecology of Freedom” and Ivan Illich’s “Tools for Conviviality”, and that include/discuss concepts like Commoning and Permaculture. Are you familiar with any?


    • I’d agree with your assessment. The neoclassical school’s tendency to ignore politics as the realm of negotiation and the production of non-market value structures and regulated market and commons systems shows a significant weakness in their overall worldview. Federici’s Caliban and the Witch was particularly illustrative in this regard as it shows the historical lineage and its relation to other social institutions (i.e. crowds and the church).

      I can’t think of any books in that area, but John Thackara and the P2P Foundation have done a lot of work on cities as living systems and sights of commoning. Also the ideas of Buen Vivir talk alot about collective biological cultures. This, which I wrote last year, may have some useful links for you:


      • That’s good article, though I’m familiar with most of your citations. Where do you stand on the “Degrowth” movement?

        Since you seem to be very theoretically inclined I recommend you take a look at this David Graeber article (which is part of his book “Possibilities”) “Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery” :

        Click to access graeber_2006a.pdf

        Speaking of Graeber, it’s weird that you never mentioned his “everyday communism” (or his distinction between “human economies” and “commercial economies”) in your list of socio-economic relations, and since you’re writing about value theory you should check his first book (which was about value theory), Graeber is kind of an expert on value theory).

        His most recent book “The Utopia of Rules” could supplement your critique of basic income very well.


      • Thanks I’ll look at this.

        While I agree with Graeber’s concept of everyday communism, I see as a more generic thing rather than a specific socio-economic arrangement. Everyday communism is expressable in all elements of the systems I mention in the article. Also the article is quite specific in criticising the narrow definition of value theory used by libertarians rather than as a full theoritisation of value itself. However I’m writing a long essay on financial exchange where I intend to incorporate Graeber’s understandings of value.


      • In terms of degrowth theory, I haven’t read a huge amount about it to be honest.


  4. Graeber’s notion of “human economies vs. commercial economies” is also quite useful.
    “Everyday communism” is its own socioeconomic category, it’s just that it’s also a baseline that other categories like exchange (be it gift exchange or market exchange) or hierarchy depend (other anthropologists call this “primary sociality”). Pure communistic practices like those practiced in households and in what anthropologists call “Commodity-free zones” are expressible neither in the exchange logic nor in a hierarchical logic, unless you want to reduce to everything to exchange.

    “Economic planning” on the hand is still a commodity economy and not something people would willingly engage in, in a post-state/capitalist situations. The idea of “economic planning” itself comes from the Walrasian neoclassical model of capitalism which conceives of people as calculating “auctioneers” whose highest goal in life is to “consume”, and it seems weird to me that some like the parecon people (whom I disagree with on almost every point) would base most of their “post-capitalist” system on a neoclassical economist’s model of capitalism.

    It seem to me from what you wrote that, unlike most market anarchism (especially the “rothbardians”) you’re less prone to reduce everything to commercial sphere (and speak as commodity exchange (market) as if it was an element of the periodic table) and you seem to pay more attention to the non-market sphere of “community”.

    Although he still makes the mistake of reducing all non-market relationships to “reciprocity” (and I generally don’t like his Keynesianism), you should take a look at Stephen A. Marglin’s book “The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community”, but it’s an excellent book overall.


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