Waste, commodity fetishism and the ongoingness of economic life



Waste in general, and e-waste in particular, has become a topic of interest in recent years. One focus of attention has been on how commodities are broken up after the putative end of their lives, with such commodities' constituent elements then being used as inputs into other products. The fact that much waste is recycled in this manner has led several scholars to emphasise the ‘ongoingness’ of economic life. In this context, Lepawsky and Mather have recently drawn on actor network theory to make a case in this journal that analytical attention should be placed on processes of wasting and valuing as a way to look beyond the end of commodities' initial lives. This can be done, they contend, by exploring how commodities are physically transformed into new objects to the point where their constituent elements are no longer recognisable as what they once were and through how waste is ‘performed’ in different ways in different times and places. Although their paper rightly emphasises economic continuity, we suggest that their approach nevertheless ultimately fetishises commodities' form and that their claim that ‘[i]n following ‘e-waste’ qua waste, we were bringing its reality as waste into existence’ represents an idealist approach to waste. By way of contrast, we seek to retain their nuanced conception of ongoingness but without abandoning analysis of the movement of value – conceived of here in the Marxist sense of congealed labour – through the chain of product destruction, the processing of products' constituent parts, and their reuse through incorporation into new products. In order to do so we distinguish between two ways in which value can be used up: devalorisation and devaluation. Such an approach allows us to retain insights into the specifically capitalist nature of waste recycling and to engage with the materiality of Nature.