Post-leftists — a loose school of anarchist thinkers who generally believe that "[traditional] leftism always involves the reification and mediation of social revolt, while consistent anarchists reject this reification of revolt"1 — adore Jean Baudrillard. Post-leftist TikTok has breathed what seems to be a new vigour into his work, heavily promoting him for his conception of hyperreality and simulation. Post-leftist TikToks citing Baudrillard are generally bleak and obscure, filled with walls of text citing the impossibility of escaping capitalism due to the saturation of the social world with the norms of capital. All revolutionary actions are already co-opted, and no fertile ground is left to build truly revolutionary ideas. We are trapped in the desert of the real, with no way out.
It appears that Baudrillard, the prince of postmodernism, has nothing to offer those thinking from a historical materialist perspective. But I would argue the opposite; we should not be so quick to dismiss some of Baudrillard's unique insights into the machinations of capital on the basis of his appropriation by the post-leftists.
While scholars like Douglas Kellner have critiqued Baudrillard’s concepts of the simulation and hyperreality at length with the intention of rescuing them, I am not interested in salvaging his later work.2 Instead, my goal is to retrieve a lesser-known theorization from his earlier work — known as "sign value," which I believe is the key Baudrillardian concept that allows for the most fertile thinking through resistance to capitalism. If we are to take Baudrillard’s points about the proliferation of images and sign production under late capitalism seriously — and we should — rescuing the concept of sign value from obscurity is the best way to do so.
A Brief Overview of Baudrillard's Thought
Before delving into sign value, it is important to take a detour through the development of Baudrillard’s intellectual history. The most helpful way to think about the evolution of Baudrillard’s thought, in my mind, is in terms of an epistemological break, a la Louis Althusser. This break marks a split between a Baudrillard who embraced Marx and the tenets of historical materialism, and a Baudrillard who rejected Marxism. This break is not a fully complete one, nor is it a sudden one; it is a gradual shift that occurs over the course of Baudrillard’s corpus.
Viewed in this way, only the first three texts from Baudrillard’s corpus become directly useful to the historical materialist project: The System of Objects (SO) , The Consumer Society (CS) , and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (FCPES) . With these three texts, it is clear that Baudrillard is working from a Marxist position, albeit a heterodox one that attempts to build new systems of analysis onto historical materialism. SO takes a phenomenological look at the experience of consumption under late capitalism, infusing Marxism with semiotics and psychoanalysis to systematically explain the dominating power objects hold over consumers. CS follows similar themes, speaking more broadly about systems of leisure and consumption in relation to the development of the capitalist mode of production, arguing that production is "entangled... with an order of consumption, which is an order of the manipulation of signs."3 FCPES is a collection of essays tackling Marxist and classical analyses of commodities and consumption, focusing mostly on how their inadequacy in relation to the problematic of signs and signification in consumer societies.
With the publication of his fourth book, The Mirror of Production (MoP) , Baudrillard renounced the Marxist project, dismissing it as simply a "mirror" of capitalist political economy that merely re-inscribes productivism as the sole site of societal meaning. Marxism could not serve as a way out of capitalism because capitalism served as the limit of its horizon. Thus, "historical materialism, dialectics, modes of production, labor power — through these concepts Marxist theory has sought to shatter the abstract universality of the concepts of bourgeois thought (Nature and Progress, Man and Reason, formal Logic, Work, Exchange, etc.). Yet Marxism in turn universalizes them with a 'critical' imperialism as ferocious as the other’s."4 Though some of its critiques certainly land in terms of criticizing a dogmatic, reified Marxism-Leninism, the thrust of the book relies on a misreading of Marx and the critique of political economy. We will return to this strawmanning of Marx and Marxism later, as it becomes a central fulcrum in the more dodgy assertions Baudrillard makes.
The Concept of Sign Value
With the accelerating development of the capitalist mode of production, Baudrillard saw a correlated rise in the production of images and signs, as well as the more important role they began to play in late capitalist societies. This insight is very much linked to the work of the Situationists, who theorized the onset of the "society of the spectacle5" and the mediation of society through the proliferation of images.6 Other Marxist critics have also noted this shift in the importance and proliferation of images in late capitalism: Roland Barthes examined the importance of signs in the development of ideological myths that help to reproduce the system of capitalism,7 and Fredric Jameson linked the mass proliferation of images to postmodernity as the cultural logic of late capitalism.8 It is this shift in the importance of images and signs to capitalism’s reproduction that Baudrillard wishes to tackle.
For Baudrillard, consumption is a form of production on the side of the consumer:
Objects are not the locus of the satisfaction of needs, but of a symbolic labor, of a ‘production’ in both sense of the term pro-ducers – they are fabricated, but they are also produced as a proof. They are the locus of consecration of an effort, of an uninterrupted performance, of a stress for achievement, aiming always at providing the continual and tangible proof of social value.9
In contrast to the presentation of consumption as a passive activity where one is wholly interpellated or integrated into a social position through signs and images, Baudrillard’s model of consumption posits that "individuals and groups use it to their advantage, together with its imperative and distinctive repertory of objects, as is the case with any other institutional or moral code. That is to say, they use it in their own way: they play with it, they break its rules, they speak it with their class dialect."10 Such insights are remarkably similar to those of Raymond Williams, whose cultural materialist conceptions viewed culture and the means of communication as a central component to the means of production.11 Consumption, then, is not simply premised on the maximization of utility, but as the only option available to individuals living under monopoly capitalism to distinguish themselves in the capitalist social order — one must embody the contradiction of fitting into an intelligible social position through sticking-out. According to Baudrillard, it is this being caught-up with the game of signification, the pressure to consume, organize, and present objects, that constitutes the dominant everyday experience of the individual under capitalism. It is through such movement that we can see some forms of resistance begin to show in Baudrillard’s model:
Objects, their syntax, and their rhetoric refer to social objectives and to a social logic. They speak to us… of social pretension and resignation, of social mobility and inertia, of accumulation and enculturation, of stratification and of social classification. Through objects, each individual and each group searches out his-her place in an order, all the while trying to jostle this order according to a personal trajectory.12
The central fulcrum point of Baudrillard’s insistence of the productive nature of consumption is sign value. Sign value is his addition to the Marxist triumvirate of use value, exchange value, and Value (abstract labour) of the commodity form. Sign value is the value a commodity (in Baudrillard’s terms, an object) holds in a hierarchical system of signs, which one can interpret as the prestige or meaning a commodity holds. Thus, alongside the political economy of the commodity, there is a political economy of the sign — which engenders its own critique. In this new, melded political economy, "[the] simplest component, [the] nuclear element — that which precisely the commodity was for Marx — is no longer today properly either commodity or sign, but indissolubly both."13
In his short theoretical sketch "For a General Theory," Baudrillard models the relations between all of these forms of value as such:
UV[use value]-EcEV[economic exchange value]: The field of the process of exchange value, of the commodity form (forme merchandise) etc., described by political economy. Productive consumption.
UV-SgEV[sign exchange value]: The field of the production of signs originating in the destruction of utility… here, the advertising process of conferring value transmutes use goods into sign values. Here technique and knowledge are divorced from their objective practice and recovered by the "cultural" system of differentiation. It is thus the extended field of consumption, in the sense we have given it of production, systems and interplay of signs…
EcEV-UV: This is the process of "consumption" in the traditional economic sense of the term, that is, the reconversion of exchange value into use value… [UV-EcEV] and [EcEV-UV] are the two moments of the cycle of classical (and Marxist) political economy, which does not take into account the political economy of the sign…
EcEV-SgEV: The process of consumption according to its redefinition in the political economy of the sign. It includes the act of spending as production of sign value… but here more accurately we have the ascension of the commodity form into the sign form, the transformation of the economic into sign systems and the transmutation of economic power into domination and social caste privilege.
SgEV-UV: Signs, like commodities, are at once use value and exchange value. The social hierarchies, the invidious differences, the privileges of caste and culture which they support, are accounted as profit, as personal satisfaction, and lived as "need" (need of social value-generation to which correspond the "utility" of different signs and their “consumption”).
SgEV-EcEV: This involves the reconversion of cultural privilege, of the monopoly of sign, etc., into economic privilege. Coupled with [EcEV-SgEV], this reconversion describes the total cycle of a political economy in which economic exploitation based on the monopoly of capital and "cultural" domination based on the monopoly of the code engender one another ceaselessly.14
With this model, we can begin to distinguish between different types of consumption, including that of ordinary consumption (EcEV-UV) and productive consumption (UV-EcEV), but also new forms of consumption related to the production of signs: what we might call conspicuous consumption (EcEV-SgEV), and sign consumption (SgEV-EcEV). Paying attention to these new consumptive relations, in tandem with the traditional consumptive relations of Marxian political economy, reveals a more complex political economy that does not merely see the production of ideology as a mere homogenous reflection of the base, but as a sort of semi-autonomous yet overdetermined practice and labour performed not just by ideological state apparatuses, but also by the individual consumer. Thus, the domineering and totalizing logic of the sign — of capitalist ideology — must, in tandem with generalized commodity production, be ruthlessly critiqued and overcome if one is to engage in effective praxis.
Sign Fetishism: Issues with Baudrillard's Thought
While there are plenty of useful and practical insights to be found in the work of early Baudrillard, there are also many worrisome tendencies that begin to show themselves in said texts. In FCPES, Baudrillard asserts multiple times that modern capitalism has put its core emphasis on sign value and the reproduction of the system through the dogmatic (re)production of the code. For Baudrillard, "sign exchange value is fundamental — use value is often no more than a practical guarantee;" he intends for this to be a critique of a supposed ahistorical view of human needs that Marxists uphold.15
Reacting to this perceived ahistoricism, Baudrillard simply ends up bending the stick too far in the opposite direction. One only needs to look to Marx in Capital, Vol. 1, to combat this over-enthusiastic stick-bending. Marx states that "the commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference."16 It is clear that Marx never saw use values as fulfilling static human needs; indeed, in Marx’s conception, human needs are subject to social-historical transformation, and are fulfilled by social use values. There is thus no need, as Baudrillard does, to disregard use values as ahistorical and false, nor is there a need to conceive of use value as a purely discursive guarantor of exchange value. Sign value is simply that part of the commodity, one might say, that fulfills that social-imaginative need of fitting into a particular position in the capitalist social hierarchy, which is explained by the link between sign value and use value (SgEV-UV).
Baudrillard’s totalizing view of sign value and the code also poses two other problems; it is vaguely defined yet monolithic. Baudrillard seems to think that the code of capitalist society — that of political economy — is singular, without contradiction. This is just not true. As Valentin Vološinov states in his work Marxism and the Philosophy of Language:
Existence reflected in sign is not merely reflected but refracted. How is this refraction of existence in the ideological sign determined? By an intersecting of differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community, i.e., by the class struggle. Class does not coincide with the sign community, i.e., with the community which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communication. Thus various different classes will use one and the same language. As a result, differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of the class struggle.17
Signs are not singular in their meaning, but multiaccentual — they are overdetermined by a multiplicity of codes (class, race, gender, sexuality and so on), and the sign value of a commodity may differ according to how it speaks to these codes. Baudrillard’s monolithic formulation of the code is actually what Vološinov points to as the goal of the ruling class: "to extinguish or drive the inward struggle between social value judgements which occurs in [the sign], to make [it] uniaccentual."18
Forgoing the sign as a site of class struggle, Baudrillard wishes to abandon the logic of the sign altogether, substituting it for what he calls "symbolic exchange." Symbolic exchange, while taking on various definitions in Baudrillard’s thought,19 most concretely refers to any social practice that defies the "repressive, reductive, rationalizing metaphysic of utility."20 Pulling from Georges Bataille’s theory of the general economy21 and Marcel Mauss’s analysis of gift economies,22 Baudrillard sees symbolic exchange as that which defies the equalizing, totalizing logic of the sign – it is ambivalent to the logic of value as such, and acts as the radical negation of the value systems of capitalist society, allowing for the destruction of (sign) value logic and the possibility for other ways of being in the world to emerge. Practices of symbolic exchange for Baudrillard include gift-giving, sacrifice, and excessive festivities. As Baudrillard put it, "the symbolic social relation is the uninterrupted cycle of giving and receiving, which, in primitive exchange, includes the consumption of the ‘surplus’ and deliberate anti-production."23
As Douglas Kellner has noted, the politics of symbolic exchange are similar to the politics of difference and the micropolitics of desire advocated by many of Baudrillard’s contemporaries. The issue with Baudrillard’s version of this politics, however, is that it comes up against his own monolithic, all-consuming, all-encompassing conception of the code, which can seemingly co-opt and absorb all opposition. Thus, as Kellner notes, Baudrillard can only advocate a vague, unhelpful, ultra-leftist practice of "total refusal, total negativity and the utopia of radical otherness;" a position which forgoes any possibility for a material revolution.24
Baudrillard’s sign fetishism only proceeds to get worse over time. Forgoing even the notion of a critical political economy of the sign, Baudrillard later comes to believe that the reproduction of society no longer centres on reproducing the mode of production, but the code itself:
The other production, that of values and commodities, that of the belle epoque of political economy, has for a long time had no specific meaning. What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to overproduce, is to restore the real that escapes it. That is why today this "material" production is that of the hyperreal itself.25
There is no longer a "real" base where production takes place. There is only a "hyperreal," something that appears more real than the real world itself — we live, according to Baudrillard, in a world smoothed of all its real contradictions, and where apparent contradictions merely exist to perpetuate an illusion of what our society is supposed to look like. Taken to its most nihilistic conclusions in Fatal Strategies (1983), this theory asserts that objects have come to rule subjects, and the social has officially been wiped out. We as subjects must accept this defeat and adopt objecthood ourselves.
What is probably most compelling about Baudrillard to many — including post-leftist TikTokers — is what feels like the descriptive power of some of the borderline science-fiction predictions he makes in works like Fatal Strategies. With the development of the internet and its acceleration of communication, it can often feel for middle-class young people that they are living out most of their lives in the hyperreal. The code of corporate social media spaces seems to pull them in, hijack their sense of belonging, and render them passive consumers of content. All media has become seemingly cool — cold, even — and them along with it. For young people who have grown up with the internet as a core part of their social experiences, this can feel all too real. Alienation, for us, is automatically linked to the sensation of simulation, the proliferation of the code, and not immediately identified with material strife.
The issue here, however, is that the world has not been reduced to the code. The development and proliferation of hierarchical sign-systems, the building blocks of ideology, quilted through the power of material institutions in the capitalist mode of production, is undeniable. There is certainly a different ideological apparatus to contend with that requires new thinking and modes of analysis to comprehend fully. But there is still a material base co-constituted with this ideological apparatus; there is still material exploitation at the site of capitalist labour, and the extraction of surplus value is still central to reproduction of capitalist society. Exploitation of labour and the labour of consumption under late capitalism are both significant and central experiences of the subject in advanced capitalist societies; consumption on its own is not. In his sign fetishism and monolithic conception of the code, Baudrillard ended up taking the side of capital, erasing any potential for resistance against capitalism.
The Code as Means of Production: The Value of the Baudrillardian Model
With all of the limitations of Baudrillard considered, what is the value that can be pulled out of his project? As we have seen, Baudrillard can serve as an interesting dialogue with other Marxist thinkers who began to consider how ideology functions in relation to signs and language, which have become even more essential and complex ideological tools in the moment of postmodernity. Baudrillard reminds us, along with thinkers like Barthes, Williams, Jameson, the Situationists, and Vološinov, that the realm of the ideological is that of the sign, and that the production and circulation of signs plays a central role in the (re)production of monopoly capitalism itself, as technological advancement has allowed for the proliferation of signs on previously-unthinkable scales.
But Baudrillard’s sketch of the models of interaction between sign value, use value, and exchange value can also serve as a useful corrective starting point for theories of social domination that attempt to uncritically extend economic models to the realms of the social. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for example, bases his model of the "field" around subjects possessing different amounts of different forms of capital: economic, cultural, social, and so on. These are all related to an overarching container known as symbolic capital: "what every kind of capital [economic, cultural, social] becomes when it is misrecognized as capital, that is, as force, a power or capacity for (actual or potential) exploitation, and therefore recognized as legitimate."26 Subjects in the field compete to accumulate the most valuable capital in the field, as it is the acquisition of these capitals that allows actors to dominate the most powerful positions in a field as well as set a fields' rules of social hierarchization and valorization. In other words, they get to determine which signs and codes are deemed valuable — valued classes are determined by the classifier. There is therefore not just a class struggle, but a classification struggle; there is, like in Baudrillard’s terms, a conception of consumption as a productive act, where individual subjects get caught up in the social game of fitting into the capitalist order. This is a helpful and critical notion, as it pays attention to the rules of hierarchization and social codes in different contexts, and how they all tie back to economic capital.
There is a problem with this model, though. As others have pointed out, Bourdieu simply tries to extend the model of economic capital to the realm of the social, but does so problematically, using the term "capital" to refer to a stockpile of wealth versus the Marxist process of M-C-M', or even the M-M' of usurper’s or merchant capital.27 The notion of production, of exploitation in terms of surplus value, is missing here; what we get instead is a conception of class conflict based around accumulation and circulation, and a conception of exploitation based solely on social domination. So how does one solve this issue? Tentatively, I argue that we can replace Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital with Baudrillard’s concept of sign value, relocating the realm of classification struggles within the commodity and its relations of production and circulation. Classification struggles, then can be seen as a fundamental misrecognition of structural class relations, a sort of ideological smokescreen that distracts from the need to upend the underlying structure of capitalism.
Ideological struggle, reformulated in this way, does not mean consuming sign commodities and presenting them in such a way as to designate to yourself and others your status as a "true Marxist" or a "true leftist." It means fundamentally displacing the logic of oppressive codes as part and parcel of the displacement of the capitalist mode of production — not through a vague radical alterity, but through transformative, material practices of institution-building that allow for the challenging of these codes to occur in real time, on the ground, through intersectional working-class movements thinking self-reflexively about their actions and the codes they perpetuate in their struggle against the mode of production. Concrete material actions allow us to see that another world is possible through the very act of building that world — it was through eschewing material relations that Baudrillard turned away from revolutionary change and towards nihilism, and it is through uncritically accepting Baudrillard’s own code of sign fetishism that post-leftists also turn towards nihilism and follow Baudrillard into the desert of the real. Such thinking refuses to take seriously the power of language, images, and codes through uncritical exaltation of their power. If we are to truly displace and abolish the codes of capitalist society alongside the capitalist mode of production, we must confront the codes of capitalist society in all their complexity and material effects, and avoid simple, cynical explanations that allow us to dance around them.
If there is anything radicals should pull from the works of Baudrillard, it is a reminder that we must not get lost in the fetishism of the sign, just as we must not get lost in the fetishism of economism. There can be no critique of consumption without a critique of production, just as there can be no critique of production without a critique of consumption.
- Jason McQuinn, “Post-Left Anarchy: Leaving the Left Behind,” 2009, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/jason-mcquinn-post-left-anarchy-leaving-the-left-behind.
- See Kellner’s book Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).
- Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, trans. Chris Turner (London: SAGE Publications,  1998), p. 33.
- Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster(Candor: Telos Press,  1975), p. 47.
- See Society of the Spectacle (1967) and the later Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) by Guy Debord.
- While Baudrillard never met Guy Debord or was an active member of the Situationist International, he associated himself in the late 1960s with the radical journal Utopie, whose members took great influence from Debord and the Situationists. He left the journal in the early 1970s.
- See Mythologies (1957) and The Fashion System (1967). Barthes had a massive influence on Baudrillard, and served as one of the committee members for Baudrillard’s doctoral thesis, alongside sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Baudrillard’s advisor, Marxist sociologist/philosopher Henri Lefebvre.
- See Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Jameson has also noted that his theory of postmodernity "owes a great debt to Baudrillard, as well as to the theorists to whom he is himself indebted" (see The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 [London: Verso, 1998], p. 34).
- Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (London: Verso,  2019), p. 7, emphases in original.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- See William’s book Culture and Materialism (London: Verso,  2020), p. 56: "[the means of communication] are not only forms but means of production, since communication and its material means are intrinsic to all distinctively human forms of labour and social organization, thus constituting indispensable elements both of the productive forces and of the social relations of production."
- FCPES, p. 12-13.
- Ibid., p. 151.
- These descriptions of relations between the different forms of value are from FCPES, p. 120-122.
- FCPES, p. 2.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Classics,  1990), p. 125, emphasis mine.
- Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik (New York and London: Seminar Press  1973), p. 23, emphasis in original.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- Baudrillard’s later use of the concept in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) centres around defiance and sacrifice. To be able to return to symbolic exchange, it is assumed that "the logic of exchange and value must ultimately be pushed to its limit and reversed" (see Kellner, Jean Baudrillard, p. 65), which is evocative of an accelerationist logic instead of the oppositional one found in FCPES and MoP.
- FCPES, p. 141.
- See Bataille's The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (1949).
- See Mauss' The Gift (1925).
- MoP, p. 143.
- Kellner, Jean Baudrillard, p. 47.
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Farla Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,  1994), p. 23, emphasis in original
- Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press,  2000), 242.
- See “Bourdieu, Marx, and Capital: A Critique of the Extension Model” by Mathieu Hikaru Desan (Sociological Theory 31, no. 4 : 318-342) and “Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx”by Jon Beasley-Murray, in Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, eds. Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).