On value and values

Hi there,

I’ve decided to produce a Soundcloud podcast of each blog I write. If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to things as much as reading them. I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, so it’s a great way to learn new stuff while I do my housework. I’m hoping that the podcast will attract more people to engage with my blogposts.

Let me know what you think. Read/Listen on!



On Value and Values

I’ve recently revisited a wonderful group exercise called ‘Draw a Fire’ that invites people to explore the values they hold most dear. I ran it with all three of the community learning groups I currently help to run: Oxford Democracy-Builders, My Life My Choice, and Hodge Hill. All three groups are very different and, indeed, each group itself is made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, what this exercise shows very clearly is that the values cherished by everyone in each group are really very similar.

The exercise is taken from a practical community education book called Partners Companion to Training for Transformation (p.118). Here’s what you do…

“Everyone in the group is asked to take paper and pencils and to draw a fire with the help of the following guideline questions.

1. By what was my fire shaped and formed?

2. What is it that motivates me or gives me energy?

3. What is at the heart of it all?

4. What has kept me going/nourished me?

5. What kindles me, what causes me to blaze, smoulder, quench, rage, warm, destroy, bake, spark, etc?”

Participants work alone, drawing their fire. Then, depending on the size of the group, people can come into small groups or can reform as a whole group to share their fires and stories.

I will share three photos of the key words and phrases I took by listening to each participant in my groups when they shared their fires. 

Fire of vision and values

MLMC fire


Bromford fire

What do you notice about these three collections of words and phrases? What values do you see? What visions for the good life and society do you see coming through?

What I see coming through so clearly are a set of values that I believe to be almost universal among us common folk, a central emphasis not on ‘money and things’, but on ‘relationships and experiences’, as one participant put it. The values that everyone throughout these three groups here cherishes are friendship, freedom, community, love for others and for our natural world. Money, riches, possession sare all conspicuous by their absence. This is certainly not because all the group participants have enough money and enough things. Numerous people in these groups very often have not had and/or do not have enough money for some of the most basic things in their lives. So, what is going on? In our Oxford Democracy-Builders group, some questioned whether these values were indeed widespread, suggesting that they might just reflect the values of an already self-selecting group of people passionate about social justice and change. Let’s explore this question…


The universal human value system: extrinsic and intrinsic values

For decades, psychologists have been conducting studies with thousands of people throughout the world in an attempt to understand what humans value. Reviewing this research, one psychologist, Prof Tim Kasser, points to clear evidence for a universal human value system:

“…the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having fun, understanding one’s place in the universe, being healthy, and having close relationships. People in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, although of course to varying extents.”

So, we share a universal value system, but, says Prof Kasser, this system can be divided quite clearly between what he calls ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ values. Extrinsic values give primacy to ‘financial success, image, and popularity, each of which involves a strong focus on rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic values emphasise ‘self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, which tend to be more focused on helping to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs’.


universal human values


According to Kasser, these psychological studies have shown that extrinsic values are linked with unhappiness and poorer health and that intrinsic values are associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. They also show how people’s values are linked to their social behaviour and how these values ‘bleed over’, so, if someone has intrinsic values in one area of their life, this is much more likely to ‘lead them to express stronger desires to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations’.

So, maybe my friends in the Oxford Democracy-Builders group are right. Maybe the complete and consensual emphasis on intrinsic human values we expressed just reflects the values of a small minority, while most others out there actually emphasise those antithetical extrinsic values. Or maybe not…


The intrinsic majority and the perception gap

A recent report by the UK-based Common Cause Foundation presents evidence from its UK Values Survey to show that actually almost three-quarters of all UK citizens ‘attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values’. And, guess what, just as some of my group-mates thought that our intrinsic values might not be shared by most of the rest of our compatriots, the Perceptions Matter report shows that a huge 77% of respondents also believed that their intrinsic values weren’t shared by their fellow citizens. The Common Cause Foundation’s research reveals a large gap between the intrinsic empathetic values that most of us espouse and the extrinsic self-interested values we think others hold. And the Foundation finds that the larger the gap between the two within a given individual, the less likely it is that they will vote in elections or generally be politically engaged.


values perception gap


To recap, here’s the story so far. Three separate and diverse groups perform a group exercise that reveals a universal emphasis on those intrinsic human values of friendships, nature, community, love. The extrinsic values of wealth, possessions, image are entirely absent. But, are we just atypically nice people? There is evidence to suggest that we aren’t; that, in fact, the values we stress are the same values that 3 in every 4 people share.

Two questions come to mind now: (1) If we’re primarily all about cultivating intrinsic values, how comes our whole media and culture is totally dominated by materialism, consumerism, superficiality of body and image, in short, extrinsic values? (2) What about that fourth person? What’s up with them?!


The fourth person: the cultural production of subjectivity

Now we get political. Politics is about power and power isn’t just about making people do what you want them to do. It goes way deeper than that: it’s about creating the very human beings you want or, alternatively put, the creation of political subjectivities that the social system requires through the production of ideology and culture. Who we are, what we think, the values we hold are overwhelmingly related to the kind of society we live in and are influenced by the institutions of communication, culture, and education that structure and reproduce it.

So, what values do our institutions inculcate within us today? For author F. S Michaels, our institutions are seeding within in us a ‘monoculture’ in which the sole narrative we are taught is the ‘economics story’ to the extent that we are forgetting all the other rich stories that make up the human experience. Michaels is undoubtedly right. However, while I haven’t read her book, Michaels seems to be an idealist thinker (believing that ideas are the dominant force driving history). I am a materialist. The monoculture of economism that Michaels identifies reflects the dominance (hegemony) of capitalist class power since the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1960s. To establish political hegemony, a ruling class must naturalise its dominance; it must make us think that the way the world is is not socially contingent, but is as natural as the air we breathe. The fact that every area of life must be beholden to the economy, to the market and every thing we do as a society justified in economic terms – the fact of the monoculture – reflects the success of this capitalist hegemonic project over the last five decades.

The ideological, cultural, and financial resources at the disposal of the ruling class and the depths to which this monoculture has been sown is incredible. Just think of our daily life: the radio/TV/newspaper messages; the images of happiness-through-consumption we are bombarded with; the government propaganda. When one thinks of all that, one should probably be amazed that, after decades of increasingly intensive and sophisticated targeting of this stuff, after countless trillions of advertising, still only one in four people explicitly avow the extrinsic values of the monoculture! But, I’m not surprised! Human beings are intelligent, conscious beings. We know what makes us happy; we know what makes us sad. We might make bad choices for ourselves under conditions of stress, peer pressure, desperation, but, deep down, we know-feel universal truth and we seek love.


Towards a transvaluation of values

There’s a phrase in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that I think I get, but might not! The phrase is the ‘transvaluation of values’. Nietzsche’s work was about showing us that the values or ‘morals’ that dominated a society were not natural, but were the outcome of a long historical development. He developed a philosophical/social scientific method of ‘genealogy’ to look back into history to show us why we believed what we believed. It led him to rail against his own society and its Judeo-Christian ideological/moral foundations.

Just like me, Nietzsche believed in values that transcended history. In stark contrast to me (and, it seems, three-quarters of the UK population at least), Nietzsche’s universal values were individualism and a ‘will to power’ at the heart of which were ‘exploitation and competition’. I like Nietzsche’s historical method (taken up later to incredible effect by Michel Foucault), but deplore his values. Instead, I argue for a transvaluation of intrinsic values as described by Tim Kasser.


Value: the foundation of political economy

At the heart of political economy is the question of value. Human beings come together and use the natural world to produce and exchange goods. These can be produced and exchanged in many different ways. Today, in our capitalist society, of course, goods are produced as commodities for market exchange by wage labour in increasingly complex, global, hierarchical organisations. However they are produced and exchanged, the fundamental question always is one of value: how do we establish how much of one thing we exchange for another? For over a century, the dominant school of neo-classical economics says it’s just a question of ‘utility’: the value of something was simply how much people were willing to pay for it. This subjectivist view really defined economics as a distinct discipline because, prior to the late 19th Century, classical political economists (most famously, Adam Smith and David Ricardo) held the objectivist view that value wasn’t just determined by supply and demand, but that there was an objective, scientific underlying determinant of value, namely labour. Karl Marx took their theories and radically developed them to reveal the secret of capitalist profit-making: capitalist profit (surplus value) comes from human labour-power (and nature).

Capital needs to grow; it needs to accumulate value; it needs to exploit human labour and nature and it needs consumers to continue to buy more and more in order to convert this value back into money capital and start the cycle of accumulation again. Consequently, the values that the capitalist class must promote are extrinsic: wealth, possession, status-through-consumption. There is a conflict between our instinctive and latently universal intrinsic values and capitalism’s relentless extrinsic values.


The political task: a society where our values determine value

One way, then, to frame our political task is to create a society in which value no longer determines, but is determined by our values. In such a society, rather than the economy and economism dominating society and nature and telling us what we should and must be, we would begin with our vision for our lives, our society based on our values and only then would we ask the economic question: how can we produce and exchange what we need in harmony with our values?

As it stands, value dominates values. Our world is upside-down and our suffering, as a consequence, is great. But, in this time of terminal crisis for capitalism, things are already changing. The stakes could not be higher, but, as I work with wonderful people in learning groups and read research that reinforces my beliefs, I feel a surge of hope.

  3 comments for “On value and values

  1. April 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Really enjoyed this Joel. I think the question of where the most effective points at which to intervene in order to address the challenges you outline so well is key. For me, one potentially fertile area is in people’s very often mistaken assumptions about what matters to others.

    If we believe that others don’t prioritise intrinsic values as much as they actually do, then we are likely to feel more reticent about expressing these values ourselves, or being seen to publicly behave in line with intrinsic values. This then perpetuates misconceptions about the importance placed on these values. So this could become vicious.

    One way to intervene here is through finding opportunities to convey a more accurate perception of others’ values. This could be done subtly (without ever mentioning values) and there’s a clear role for many organisations to play here – arts and culture, media, charities, etc.

    • May 3, 2016 at 11:38 am

      Many thanks, Tom.
      I do agree. I’m not sure why you suggest not mentioning ‘values’. I think we should celebrate our values, that we have values, and that these values should and must shape our world.
      Happy to learn more and discuss further

  2. Gary Walsh
    May 5, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Reblogged this on People and Power.

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