Life-Value vs Money-Value: Capitalism’s Fatal Category Mistake | Prof Jeff Noonan

Jeff Noonan (2018): Life-Value vs Money-Value: Capitalism’s Fatal Category Mistake,
The European Legacy, DOI: 10.1080/10848770.2018.1524046

Life-Value vs Money-Value: Capitalism’s Fatal Category Mistake

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure, by John McMurtry, 2d ed., London, Pluto Press, 2013, xii + 378 pp.

By Jeff Noonan

Published online: 18 Oct 2018.

Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Ave., Windsor, Ontario N9B 3P4, Canada

The 2008 financial crisis spread from Wall Street to the world almost overnight, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions, even though its causes had nothing to do with the production and distribution of any of the basic necessities of life. Instead, the crisis erupted because the financial system had become unhinged from its real function: supplying credit to productive enterprises. Finance capital increasingly made its money from complex “derivatives,” which are not claims on a company’s profit (as shares are) but on debts packaged and sold as investments. Immense profits were made, which provided the incentive to create more derivatives, causing debts to be piled on debts, all sold with guaranteed returns. Many of these derivatives involved American mortgages. Since these were backed by a physical asset (the house), they were advertised to institutional investors as highly secure, but the models assumed that housing prices would continue to rise. As it turned out, the housing market was a bad-mortgage fuelled bubble. When it burst, the “mortgage backed securities” became worthless, and banks from Athens to Iceland collapsed. Instead of having to foot the bill for their recklessness and greed, major banks were bailed out with hundreds of billions of dollars of public money. Workers lost their jobs, housings, and savings; Wall Street bankers paid themselves bonuses for the greatest failure of the financial system since 1929.

For mainstream economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner and former head of the World Bank, but more recently a critic of globalization, financialization, and the runaway inequality they have produced, the problem was lack of regulation of the financial sector and weak demand in the real economy. Stagnant real wages sapped demand, which in turn meant that there were fewer profits to be made in the real economy, which meant that capital sought higher returns elsewhere. The derivatives market thus became a sink for capital that could not be profitably employed in the production of needed goods and services. What spending there was was largely debt-fuelled, as easy credit replaced rising wages as the source of workers’ expendable income. Debts eventually have to be repaid—as workers and bankers both found out at the same time. When they could not be repaid, the house of cards collapsed—at public expense.1

For Marxists like David McNally, the mainstream critique only tells part of the story. Ignored is the real problem: the underlying dynamics of a competitive economy in which capital must grow or die. It grows by producing more of whatever can be sold at a profit, but profits depend in part on keeping wages relatively low. One way to do that is to replace labour with machinery. This can increase productivity in the short term, but over the long term it causes the rate of profit to fall. In order to combat falling rates of profit, more efficient industries produce more commodities. Increasing production combined with intensifying exploitation of labour is a contradictory process: eventually there is too much to sell to people who do not have enough money to buy it. Credit can attenuate crises in the very short term, but, as 2008 proved, it eventually contributes to, rather than solves, the problem. Since this crisis-dynamic is built into the heart of capitalism it will always recur, no matter how tightly industries are regulated. Financialization and globalization are not causes, but effects. The real problem, according to Marxists, is the unsustainable exploitation of labour upon which capitalism depends. There is no solution short of building an alternative, democratically planned socialist economy.2

Marxists thus argue that, while there is some truth in the mainstream economic understanding of the crisis, it operates at one remove from truth. Perhaps the best way to approach John McMurtry’s argument in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism is to interpret it as doing to the Marxist critique what the Marxist critique does to mainstream economics: lead it to the deeper causes of the structural problems. McMurtry agrees with Marxism that capitalism exploits labour, despoils the natural world, and is given to periodic crises of overproduction. But the causes lie deeper than the sphere of production. At root, capitalism is a value-disorder that systematically steers private and public decisions in life-undermining directions. If McMurtry is correct, contemporary capitalism is a form of cancer which, if untreated, threatens to undermine human life on the planet. This argument was urgent in 1999 when the book first appeared, and has remained as urgent with the publication in 2013 of the second edition.

Life-Value Onto-Axiology: Social Crisis as Value Disorder

To say that capitalism is a value disorder is not to return to a pre-Marxist, idealist understanding of social life. Since all decisions are steered by values, they are part of the material fabric of social life. The production, organization, and governance of social life cannot be understood without understanding its ruling value system, nor can radical change take place unless it involves a radical change in that value system.

The title tells us just what sort of value disorder capitalism involves: confusion at the deepest and most decisive level between values that serve planetary and human life and values that serve the perpetuation and growth of the capitalist system. The latter are essentially monetary values, so we can say, following McMurtry, that the fundamental problem of which the 2008 crisis was an effect was a fatal confusion between life-value and money-value. This disorder manifests itself everywhere in contemporary society whenever the growth of monetary value no matter how produced or acquired is equated with improvements in life-conditions. For example, entire ecosystems can be destroyed for the sake of resource extraction, indigenous communities displaced in the process, but the result extolled as “economic growth” if the corporation in charge makes money. Since life is the necessary presupposition of any and all forms of social organization, value systems that become unhinged from the “life-ground of value” are essentially self-destructive. “Who is to decide what is right? People ask. But the question ignores the fact that the most basic and universal life-matters are already decided beneath the social rules and people’s opinions—such as that all people need sufficient nutrition, clean water, sewage facilities, learning of societies’ symbol systems, home and love, and expert care when ill if their capacities are not to be reduced or destroyed” (1). The material (natural and social) foundation for this agreement is the life-ground of value.

The idea of a ruling value system is thus the necessary starting point for understanding McMurtry’s pathbreaking Cancer Stage of Capitalism. Economics is not just about dollars and cents; it is about the values according to which we steer our collective lives. “Values govern decision and action whether we recognise it or not and an economic value system matters most because it steers for good or ill life at the collective level. So it is good that leading economists now talk of ‘values’ where before 2000 they did not. But the values they speak of are ungrounded. . . . The life-blind nature of ‘economic demand’ and its ‘rationality’ of limitless growth are not recognised. . . as a system disorder. . . .. Carcinogenic money-sequencing. . . is thus built in into the system” (323). The undiagnosed cancer at the heart of “normal” economic growth is the key argument, and has remained so till today. Before analysing it, we need to understand the development of McMurtry’s philosophy between 1999 and 2013.

The two central ideas in McMurtry’s argument are the Primary Value Axiom and life-capital. Both were implicit in the early work, but neither was spelled out until the publication in 2010 of his two-volume magnum opus, What is Good? What is Bad? The Value of All Values across Times, Places, and Theories. Here McMurtry lays out in detail and conceptual precision the fundamental ideas of what he calls “Life-value onto-axiology”: a systematic, comprehensive theory of value which traces its origins and diverse forms to the goods that living beings require, and life-capacities they can express and enjoy if those requirements are met. The work abstracts from a synoptic survey of Western and Eastern philosophy and human historical struggle what he calls the Primary Axiom of Value. The axiom reads: X is value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables a more coherently inclusive range of thought/feeling/action than without it.3 The crucial point in the definition is the qualifying phrase “a more coherently inclusive range,” which allows anyone to use the Primary Axiom to decide hard cases where there appears to be conflict between incommensurable values. In all cases where a choice must be made, that value which includes more of what is life-valuable is the one to choose. Employed properly, it takes us beyond ideology, adherence to established authority, and dogmatism of all forms. In economics, the choice is not therefore between absolutes: global trade or autarchy, resource extraction or return to a pre-industrial pastoral life, but rather between forms of production and use that enable life, human, animal, and plant, to flourish in maximally inclusive ways.

But what does enabling life in maximally inclusive ways mean economically? This brings us to McMurtry’s second key concept of “life-capital,” which helps us answer this question. We can think of life-capital as the economic analogue of the Primary Axiom. If capital in Marx’s use of the term is value that creates more value, McMurtry adds the (perhaps implied) but unstated crucial connection to life. Hence life-capital is any natural resource or social institution, practice, or relationship that enables life to reproduce, develop, and flourish, within the overall constraints of the environmental carrying capacity (untrammeled reproduction of life for the sake of sheer increase of numbers would be incoherent according to the Primary Axiom):

To regain life-ground and measure, real economic performance is evaluated in terms of life-sequences of value over money-sequences of value; life-capital over money-capital, and life-good provision over priced for profit commodities. . . in short, the basis of all real production is life-capital, and the middle term of all life-sequences is the means and support systems by which they are enabled. In all cases, the measure of value is life range with or without it. (82)

For example, if money is invested in tuition-free higher education for all qualified students, it is life-capital invested in the growth of comprehensive social intelligence. On the other hand, commodified education which charges “what the market will bear” excludes all qualified students who cannot pay tuition. In the latter case money is the starting point and end point of the sequence (students invest tuition dollars to get a degree that gives them a competitive edge, enriching the private university at the same time), whereas in the former case public money is invested to develop the intellectual capabilities of citizens. The commodified approach to education subordinates life-value to money-value, and is thus a cancer sequence that undermines comprehensive social intelligence by restricting education to a paying elite and its particular interests in maintaining control over social life. The general problem is thus a systematic confusion between life-value and money which ever more pervasively threatens the conditions of life-support and development, but persists unseen by the ruling value system.

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism

We can now turn to McMurtry’s central argument. In Marx’s classic analysis of capitalism, money is invested to purchase labour power, which power in turn produces commodities, the surplus value of which is realized in sale. He formulated this sequences as M-C-M1: Money is invested in the factors of production to produce a commodity whose sale price is greater than the sum of the all the prices of the factors of production. This formula still operates wherever actual commodities are produced. However, according to McMurtry, the capitalist system has undergone a mutation since the early 1970s (the beginning of the so-called “neoliberal” period).4 Instead of the primary sequence M-C-M1, the useable commodity (useful for life-purposes or not) drops out, and money becomes the middle term between M and M1. The financial industry is the paradigmatic example of this mutation. In the mortgage backed securities, for example, money is invested in a monetary instrument whose subsequent sale after a period of appreciation creates more money. Nothing required by human life is produced, but things required for human life (houses) are threatened. As damaging as financialization in general is, it is not the most malignant form of the mutation. The most malignant form is the privatization of formerly public services, where life-serving and life-saving infrastructures (water supplies, treatment facilities, hospitals, etc.) are privatised and their formerly unpriced services to life commodified: “These protections of the members of society were always deemed ‘against private initiative,’ or—in the last 150 years—communist. But the reforms came to pass anyway through the mass struggle and support of social populations. . . . As these social infrastructures have been attacked, privatised, and dismantled by the mutating global money-sequence system, the cancer has emerged. It is programmed to attack any system which provides unpriced life-goods from which they do not make profit” (128; emphasis added). Often the results of “structural, adjustment programs” forced upon the poorest countries by banks in the Global North are the clearest illustration of the core thesis: capitalism has become a cancer that is appropriating nutrients (life-serving public goods and resources) to its own growth, threatening the viability of the natural and social life-host upon which all living things depend.

Unlike other writers who have suggested that capitalism is cancerous or have employed it as a metaphor,5 McMurtry demonstrates rigorously and systematically that capitalism really is social cancer; that its patterns of invasion and insidious destruction of the life-host parallel the biological disease process. In both cases cancer is the “uncontrolled and unregulated reproduction of an agent in a host body; that does not contribute to any life-function of its host; that aggressively and opportunistically appropriates nutrients and resources from its social and natural host; that is not effectively recognised or responded to by the immune system” (171). In the body, rogue cells reprogram contiguous cells to become cancerous. In society, money disconnected from its function as a means of exchange and becoming an end in itself reprograms social institutions to serve its growth. Neither the body’s nor society’s immune system recognises the problem of invasive and life-destructive growth. The disease metastasises, spreads to other systems, appropriates more and more nutrients to fuel its unconstrained growth, and eventually kills the organism, whether an individual body or society.

The argument thus depends on two elements, one with deep roots in the philosophical tradition, the other arguably McMurtry’s most original idea. The first is the idea that societies are organic wholes, like bodies. McMurtry is aware of the danger of reifying society as an organism that dominates individual subjects. He does not argue that individuals are expendable functions of social positions: “It is not a question here of reducing the individual into a mere function and element of the social organism in which individuality does not exist as a value in itself.” On the contrary, any healthy society is an internally unified institutional structure whose essential purpose is to sustain and enable individuals to freely differentiate themselves and contribute to social life. “The middle way is to recognize the social level of life-organization as the basis and guardian of individual life from which the individual person differentiates as a unique and unrepeatable bearer of life-value” (151; emphasis added). The fundamental value of social life is that it enables individual life, but there are no individuals outside of social orders, nor are the institutional, political, and symbolic structures that define societies explicable by methodological individualist reduction. These structures have their own integrity and solidity, but they do not dominate individuals, or, if they do, they can be altered by individuals forming political movements that reject one value system in favour of another.

But to create such movements for change, people must first be aware of what is going on. Millions of people—from the peasant activists of Via Campesina across the Global South, to indigenous people in Canada fighting for control of their traditional lands, to environmental activists—are aware of the current threats to life and life-development. However, those upholding the ruling value system—almost all mainstream politicians and business leaders—cannot see the threat, just as the body’s immune system cannot detect the advance of the cancer until it is too late. McMurtry’s idea of the “social immune system” is arguably the most original and politically important. Just as the cells of the body’s immune system course through the bloodstream “searching” for pathogenic threats to the body, so too do social institutions like health-care systems, educational institutions, safety regulations, and democratic parliaments enable society to detect threats to itself.

Once we adopt a wider-lensed understanding of human health than that of the individual-patient and recognise that all individuals are also members of a larger, living whole in which their interdependent relations and functions constitute a higher-order of life-system, protecting. . . its living members. . . we become aware of a. . . momentous evolutionary and historical development. . . . At its own level of life-organization, the social body has developed in degrees varying with the public resources at its disposal all the defining hallmarks of immune defence against threats to its integrity and health. (150–51)

The institutions that have evolved to detect threats to social life cannot do so, just when they are most needed, and the social cancer advances. “Whether we are talking about Easter Island or Western civilization today, we know a serious system disease has invaded social life-organization when the life-security of ever-larger proportions of society’s members has become insecure in increasing life-dimensions. For the global system as a whole now the degenerate trends have been identified. . . [but] the grave disorder has not been responded to because the immune system of society has itself become diseased by an act of the global money-sequence system” (159). Yet as long as we have a capacity to think critically outside of and against the disorder, all is not lost. Thus (re)interpreting of the world becomes the condition of changing it.

The Civil Commons and Social Transformation

Although McMurtry’s concept of life-value onto-axiology draws on Marx’s ideas of individual self-realization as well as on his critique of capitalism, it has received little critical attention by Marxists.6 Marxists economists have continued to think like their mainstream counterparts in so far as they regard the economy as a system of production and distribution, failing to see its underlying values. They have failed to see political economy’s need for the concepts of life-capital and life-value. For Marx, value is the product, measured in monetary terms, of the expenditure of abstract labour. He does not discriminate between life-values, which satisfy human needs, and value in general: a gun and a jacket have the same value if they require the same amount of labour, even though one kills and the other keeps us warm in winter. Even those Marxists who have done much to recover the hidden ecological elements of Marx’s work and link socialism to the solution to the environmental crisis have not explicitly distinguished value and life-value, nor taken up the idea of life-capital in rounding off their critique.7  But what else are Marxists fighting for if not for an economy whose defining goal is “to conserve and develop capacities to provide life-goods through generational time?” (202). A life-economy “allocates in accordance with life-necessity. It is opposite in meaning to the reigning system, for which necessity means only what private money sequences require” (ibid.). Every decision about what and how much to produce should follow from the consideration whether it would produce something we need, and whether the level of resource use required can be sustained over an open-ended human future. At the same time, the idea of life-capital includes the activities through which human beings produce what they need. In order to be consistent with the life-value metric, work and social contributions generally must be meaningful for those who undertake them as well as valuable and valued by other members of society. Life-capital both exposes the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and charts the direction for progressive change.

McMurtry believes that change begins with people’s capacity to choose. While Marxists are alive to the role ideology plays in justifying an exploitative, oppressive, and alienating system, historically, most have been loath to see the adoption of ideologies as choices people make, relying, if only implicitly, on mechanical understandings of the relationship between social consciousness and social being. Life-value onto-axiology, by contrast, sees economic crises as crises of social values, the adoption and internalization of which always involve choice. It does not blame people for these choices, which are often the result of pressures induced by the media and education system and material necessity. At the same time, if beliefs were solely determined by people’s social position, it would be impossible to explain any change of belief without a corresponding change of social position.

McMurtry sees people are thinking animals, dependent upon nature, interdependent on each other, but reflectively different from natural and social structures and forces. Our capacity for thought and imagination does not mean that we are impervious to natural and social forces, but that we are never simply their programmed function. We can think before we act, and the moment of thought introduces an empty space that allows for the possibility of doing things differently. True, if we fall off a cliff we cannot counteract the force of gravity, but we could have exercised more caution. Strategies for social change do not emerge ex nihilo; they are a response to unmet human needs, and they begin from recognising those needs and thus involve conscious revaluation of a value system that justifies an unjust situation.

In identifying unmet needs, people also recognise the needs that are met. They can see, for example, that where education is a priced commodity, those who can afford it can satisfy their need for education, while those who cannot pay cannot do so, even though they have the same need and potential to learn. They can see that where basic foodstuffs are priced “by the market” they can become too expensive for some or even the majority of people, even though their need for the life-value they contain remains unchanged. Yet—and this point is important—it becomes clear that the means for satisfying our basic needs are always already present. The problem is access to those means. This seemingly obvious point is of profound political significance, since it is a necessary condition for overcoming the biggest impediment to revolutionary change: people’s belief that there is no alternative. If they are to work for such change, people must first believe that another world is possible. Life-value onto-axiology reveals that this world is not only concretely possible but that it already exists in the form of the civil commons.

The civil commons is McMurtry’s term for all social institutions, practices, and relationships that enable access to life-capital. A reading group, free primary and secondary education, internet discussion groups, national parks, free concerts, and universal public healthcare are all examples of the civil commons. What they all have in common is that they are consciously organized to satisfy fundamental needs for the sake of enabling everyone’s life-capacities, without regard for private profit but for the sake of the intrinsic goodness of the life thus enabled. “The civil commons is the ultimately organizing idea of what is best in ‘civil society,’ ‘the commons,’ ‘progressive movements,’ ‘the left,’ ‘community,’ ‘unions,’ and ‘cooperatives.’ But the deep universal meaning has long escaped recognition. . . . The civil commons equals any and all social constructs that enable universal access to life goods” (237). The political project is thus not to tear down and rebuild societies, as in the standard Marxist view of the overthrow of capitalism, but to preserve what has been built in the past and extend the life-capital principle underlying the civil economy into new spheres (replacing private with public ownership of key resources). This process will be met with opposition and thus require a struggle, but such change can only occur over a long period of time.

McMurtry’s civil commons embodies Marx’s understanding of socialism, while disconnecting it from discredited theories of class consciousness and redefining it as a political, not a social, choice that involves recognition of universal life-needs. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” unpacks the social reciprocity upon which the civil commons depends.8 The civil commons is built through collective labour, which enables the development of people as individuals, who in turn contribute back to the life-capital their development has drawn upon. In capitalist society, this collective labour is often bent to life-destructive purposes. The full realization of the civil commons demands the end of the capitalist class system and is incompatible with any form of oppression. But its truth and value are not relative to any social position or identity. It includes the interests of workers struggling against alienation, women against sexual violence, racialized people against hateful ideologies, disabled people struggling for accessible public spaces, and sexual minorities for the right to love who they love, because they all have needs they must satisfy in order to live freely as who they are. The universality of this principle means that it cannot be captured—as the project of socialism was in the twentieth century—by party leaders claiming “scientific” expertise in the construction of a new society. That kind of claim to knowledge has been historically refuted. The knowledge necessary to build a better world is not the possession of a particular person or class of people but is embodied in civil commons institutions that daily do the job of enabling universal access to life-goods.

Progressive struggles thus need to be focused and concrete. The horizon towards which they tend—the social realization of the primary axiom of value—can only be achieved step by step. Assurances that a different and better world is possible will not convince if those who invoke the platitude cannot explain how clean jobs can be created, how young adults can be educated without incurring debts to private banks, how a local water supply can be protected, or how alternatives to fossil fuels can become our primary source of energy. “The reason why the civil commons principle always works is because it directly grounds in enabling the life-interests of all. . . . [It]. . . is based in the ultimate value of all values, that a more coherently inclusive life is always better for selves and communities alike” (238).

The one and only goal of system critics must therefore be to work out, for every problem of need-deprivation, how to solve it in ways that do not undermine the long-term life-support function of nature, or depend on the exploitation of others. Confidence in this struggle cannot be built by mere slogans, but through the prosaic day to day steps of reclaiming the world’s resources from the clutches of money-power.



  1. See Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 219–20 esp.
  2. See McNally, Global Slump, 1–25, esp.
  3. McMurtry, What is Good?, vol. 1, 213.
  4. See Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism.
  5. See, e.g., Bookchin, The Modern Crisis, 49; Camfield, We Can Do Better, 11.
  6. McMurtry’s first major publication was a close reading of Marx’s entire corpus, which aimed to expose the structural unity of his thought. More recently, he has explicated the precise connections between the basic principles of historical materialism and life-value onto-axiology in Structure of Marx’s Worldview, and “150 Years after Capital.
  7. /See, e.g., Foster, Marx’s Ecology.
  8. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” 531.