[iDC] Some notes on value...

Adam Arvidsson arvidsson at hum.ku.dk
Wed Feb 20 09:14:36 UTC 2008

This came out of a discussion with Bob Jessop in Lancaster a couple  
of weeks ago.. I'd like to share and would be happy for comments-  
it's all tentative.




Brands can be understood to embody a third important form of capital  
in the knowledge economy, along with material capital and knowledge  
capital. Like knowledge capital (IPs) they work to establish a  
monopoly rent from a resource that is essentially socially produced.  
Unlike IPs this resource mainly consists in accumulated affect and  
sociality. (The value of a brand depends on a mass of people  
maintaining a relatively stable pattern of affectivity around it, a  
brand is in this sense something a kin to, almost , a loosely knitted  
community, or maybe a community of weak ties) This way brands are a  
form of ethical capital: they build on the ability and desire of free  
(that is not entirely commanded) actors to create community, in the  
absence of given hierarchies or monetary obligations (cf.  
Aristoteles’ etikos).

Brands thus establish a third circuit of value (M-C-M’) that is  
central to informational capitalism. The first, material, circuit of  
value is the classic one described by Marx, value is extracted by  
submitting commanded labor to discipline. In this situation the means  
of production are monopolized by capital and labor time can work as  
an (approximate) measure that allows the systematic abstraction of  
concrete labor into abstract value. The second circuit is that of  
knowledge capital. This builds in part on the direct command over  
salaried labor and the ‘classic’ abstraction of surplus value. To an  
increasing extent however it builds on the ability to appropriate  
socially produced resources that are not directly ‘owned’ by capital  
and that, consequently cannot be directly commanded. This can be the  
results of state sponsored investments in research and development,  
it can be the synergic productivity of social interaction among  
knowledge workers, research institutions and knowledge intensive  
firms (learning regions, creative cities) and increasingly it is a  
matter of the direct appropriation of knowledge and innovation  
generated in the everyday interaction among ordinary consumers (user- 
led innovation systems, crowdsourcing, etc.). Brands constitute a  
third circuit that appropriates and commodifies the ethical practice  
of ordinary consumers: their ability and desire to build community.  
This ethical practice is itself the dialectical result of the  
(virtual) completion of the capitalist subsumption of the social.  
That process has produced two important outcomes. First, the  
diffusion of consumer goods, media culture and ultimately networked  
ICTs has greatly enhanced the ability of ordinary people to produce a  
symbolic and affective – ethical- framework for life. What Marx has  
called ‘General Intellect’ has thus come at the disposition of  
everybody, as mass intellectuality. Second, the subsumption of the  
social has shattered traditional life forms and generated a  
widespread isolation and alienation. Networked ICTs enable people to  
overcome this condition by generating new forms of sociality. Indeed  
as new media scholars like Danah Boyd and Jean Luis Prada (among  
others) have argued it is mainly the desire for sociality that  
motivates the use of social media.[1] The source of brand value is  
thus the immanent ethical productivity of the social, its new and  
empowered ability and desire to produce community.

But how is the value of this ethical productivity established. This  
question is important not only in order to understand how the  
information economy works today, but also in order to understand the  
future potential of the free social productivity that capital  
increasingly relies on. We clearly have a new mode of production,  
what I call an ethical mode of production, manifested in important  
phenomena like brand value, Open Source Software, peer to peer etc. I  
call this mode of production ‘ethical’ for two reasons: One it is  
mainly based on the desire to construct community (and be recognized  
by that community). Two, its valuable outcomes consist in forms of  
community that can maintain (however temporary) forms of order in a  
complex environment. The valuable contribution of Linux is not  
primary a result of the labor time invested by its participating  
programmers, but of the social organization of those efforts into a  
productive community able to generate a complex outcome. So in the  
ethical mode of production the creation of use value (wealth) no  
longer depends directly on the investment of labor time, instead it  
depends on the ability to create community.

Today such instances of an ethical mode of production are subaltern  
to, if not directly subsumed by the capitalist economy. The question  
is whether this ethical mode of production constitute itself as an  
ethical economy: that is a world economy in the Marxian sense able to  
trade (in some way) the produce of one particular productive network  
with that of another and in that way establish an objective price  
that reflects the socially necessary amount of community construction  
(affect!?) deployed in its production. Can the ethical economy  
develop its own value form? To begin to answer that question we must  
investigate its existing ‘value form’. A good place to begin is to  
look at the brand, the actually existing value form of the ethical  

Brands have a double nature. On the one hand they are commodities,  
objects with certain monetary values that are traded (mainly) on  
financial markets. On the other hand they are a form of ethical  
capital. Their ethical values consist in the investments of mass  
affect that they have been able to accumulate. This is what the  
managerial literature calls ‘brand equity’ (the capacity of a brand  
to generate value) and it is what is understood to underpin monetary  
brand values. This ethical value is also what brand valuation  
companies try to estimate in order to produce a legitimation for the  
financial values of brands. So, in the self-understanding of  
contemporary capitalism, the monetary value of brands are based on  
their ethical values, their ability to accumulate mass affect.

What creates these ethical values? They are not the direct results of  
investments in labor time. You can work as much as you want on your  
music and style, that, in itself will not make you a rock star.  
Rather, suddenly something happens and then, you’ve made it. What  
determines your value are the quality and quantity of affect  
(attention) that you have been able to accumulate. The relation  
between the productive time invested in a project and the mass affect  
that it is able to attract is non-linear, or viral, to use a popular  
marketing term.[2] Models could be found in contemporary mathematical  
theories of network dynamics, and perhaps in Gabriel Tarde’s theories  
of the role of public sentiment.[3] Indeed, the logical relation  
between value and labor is rather the reverse of that usually  
associated with the capitalist economy. Once you have a sufficiently  
attractive brand, you will attract an abundance of free labor as well  
as other resources. Linux has no problems recruiting new programmers:  
people want to work for them for free; people pay to use brands in  
their everyday life and thus freely co-produce their ethical value  
through their constructive consumer practices. On financial markets,  
capital flows to the most attractive brands.  More means more in this  
case, if you have accumulated a significant stock of ethical capital,  
people will freely give you their time and further attention, or, on  
financial markets, their capital.

The logic behind ethical capital is political rather than economic.  
Or better it pertains to what Weber saw as the charismatic,  
irrational side of politics. If you, or your brand, can mobilize the  
affective energies of the polis, its members will freely put their  
resources at your disposition. (Fight for your cause; work for you;  
vote for you; give to you of their hospitality- indeed, as Weber  
claimed, peaceful charismatic leaders mainly live off donations from  
the community that they have created[4]). The source of this valuable  
charisma is, as in Weber’s classic analysis, the ability to create  
community. (By contrast the economic logic of value would be based on  
the ability to command labor (as in the oikos) and thus measure its  
contribution in terms of labor time.) The predominance of brand  
value, reputation, ‘ethical capital’, corporate ethics and similar  
entities as elements to the immeasurable intangible values that are  
increasingly important to contemporary capitalism is an empirical  
indication of the fact that this political logic of value is becoming  
increasingly influential in informational capitalism.

Today such political values can only be translated into one abstract  
equivalent, monetary exchange value. The question is however, can  
such political values be made tradable in other ways; and how, in  
that case, would such a system look like?

One point of departure could be Brennan & Pettit’s idea of an  
‘economy of esteem’. Coming from a background of academic economics,  
they show how that discipline has continuously devalued the  
importance of honor and esteem (central to its precursors like Smith  
and Hume) in favor of a monetary economy of commodities. Yet, they  
argue the economy of esteem is still at work as a powerful force in  
everyday life, in particular within academia (from which most of  
their examples derive). The point of the ‘economy of esteem’ is that  
esteem is a scarce good conferred on an actor by the public in  
relation to his or her performance in some area. This means that even  
though the actor might be motivated to perform well in an area in the  
prospect of achieving esteem, performance is never directly exchanged  
for esteem. There are two reasons for this. One, because esteem is  
subjectively and voluntarily conferred at the actor in question:  
there is no point at which he or she (or they) can righteously claim  
esteem from the public. And, two, because doing so, claiming esteem,  
goes against the principle that the charismatic actor must appear not  
to act directly in order to increase his or her charisma. A brand  
like Nike can acquire esteem if it donates an empty building wall in  
Berlin for young people to express themselves on. It will loose  
esteem in so far as the strategic intentions behind this ‘gift’  
become apparent and talked about. So esteem should not, as Brennan&  
Pettit do, be understood as something that is directly exchanged for  
performance. [5] Since the relation between esteem and performance is  
not subject to rational calculation- it is rather an unpredictable,  
non-linear relation, there is no possibility for any rational  
exchange. Rather the relation between esteem and performance should  
be understood along the lines of a gift economy. If I give this  
performance to the community, I can expect to receive roughly that  
amount of esteem. But there is no legitimate way I can complain, take  
action or withdraw my performance if I receive less esteem than I had  
expected.  But can esteem in one community be exchanged for esteem in  

Traditional systems of honor and esteem have worked in close-knit  
communities. Scaling them towards the contemporary information  
economy will necessarily entail making esteem transferable between  
different communities with different value standards. What is needed  
to accomplish this is a general medium of exchange, which like  
monetary exchange value can guarantee the transferability to values.  
Such a medium would be different from traditional currencies however:

The amount of esteem an actor can acquire thus has a non-linear  
relation to his or her measurable performance. This is mainly because  
esteem is a multifaceted affective quality that originates in  
subjective judgment that cannot be entirely rationalized: it is an  
irrational quality in the Weberian sense of that term. So any  
objective measure of esteem- the first precondition for making it  
tradable- could not depart from some common measurable standard (like  
labor time)- but would had to consist in an aggregation of a  
multitude of subjective judgments. It would be a sort of bottom-up  
currency, where values are defined by the continuous input of public  

Two factors speak for the possibility for the emergence of such  
general media of exchange of esteem. One factor is the increasing  
transparency and visibility of social action. The flip-side to  
increasing surveillance is in this sense the possibility for a new  
ethics: everything you do will be potentially visible to everyone.  
One’s public person could thus form a common point of reference that  
unites estimates of esteem from different communities. Personality  
becomes a generalized medium of communication. The second factor is  
the socialization of the means of organization in networked ICTs. The  
establishment of representative money from the Sumer and onwards has  
been contingent on the administrative capacity of the state apparatus  
controlling the money supply. Now such administrative capacity is at  
the hands of virtually everyone, and consequently we already see the  
emergence of alternative currencies like LETS or Open Money. Some of  
these currencies could be esteem-based. Indeed the world’s second  
largest currency, air-miles, already is.[6] Essentially air-miles is  
a measure of the affective appreciation that an airline has of you as  
loyal customer, and they can be traded for a wide range of gifts:  
free trips, upgrades, car rentals etc. (Again air-miles do not have  
an objective exchange value, strictly speaking, since their relation  
to possible gifts is subjectively and variably determined by the  
airline itself. Relationship should rather be understood as that of a  
stable gift economy. I give my loyalty to the airline. I can  
reasonably expect the airline to give me a certain kind of gifts in  
return.) Slashdot Karma is another one, quantifying the esteem you  
have accumulated by contributing to various blogs, by systematically  
integrating a multitude of subjective ratings of your performance.

With the likely proliferation of such alternative currencies two  
scenarios are possible. One, a new common standard of value emerges.  
One platform or tool for calculating esteem becomes hegemonic, on  
that platform a number of generally accepted values emerge. The  
likelihood of the emergence of such a new common value system is  
supported by what seems to be a common value-structure among the  
knowledge workers who are the primary users of ICTs: a combination of  
post-materialistic ideas of self-realization, a quest for  
atuthenticity and sustainability with a planetary environmental  
consciousness.[7] Indeed a number of alternative currencies that  
measure esteem in terms of precisely these values are emerging, like  
the  The Interra Project, sponsored by VISA founder Dee Hock:  "a  
payment card and transaction platform, that rewards customers for  
purchasing from locally owned and sustainable businesses, donates  
automatically to community organizations and facilitates connections  
to like minded members in a self organizing manner." One would thus  
acquire esteem points in relation to one’s performance in relation to  
these common values. Such esteem-points would make one the recipient  
of different kinds of gifts.

Alternatively a plurality of such currencies might proliferate.  
However the socialization of ICTs and common standards will make them  
easily convertible. As Paul Hartzog imagines the scenario in his ‘The  
future of money’ :

So, here’s a scenario for the future. You go to a rock concert, and  
you’ve never seen the opening band before. You like their music, so  
you get on your mobile device (PDA, cell phone, etc.) and hit the  
band’s "mobile commerce" exchange. Your software negotiates with  
their software to determine what currencies they accept and what  
currencies your various bank accounts carry, including automatically  
getting you the best currency exchange rate at that instant. The  
system discovers that because they are opening for a major musician  
who has his own currency based on his popularity, the opening band  
has agreed to accept the headliner’s currency for the duration of the  
show for people who are actually at the concert. You verify that you  
are there using some kind of brokered authentication (GPS or a ticket  
number); the two systems complete the transaction for you, and you  
have access to the music.

At any rate such esteem-based currencies can develop alongside the  
monetary economy. For example:

My activity as a blogger earns me esteem. That esteem is converted  
into a quantification pf my ethical standing. On the basis of the  
quantification I receive particular forms of gifts (discounts, access  
to certain services etc). Alternatively it is converted into a  
currency that I trade for certain kinds of goods.

A service allows workers, consumers, subcontractors and other kinds  
of ‘stakeholders’ all along the value chain to rate the performance  
of a brand according to their ability to live up to their own  
corporate values (or some other standard). Swiping my cellphone over  
a branded product I get an index of its ethical value. That index  
will affect my decision to purchase the product, or what I want to  
pay for it.

I subscribe to a service that calculates the environmental impact and  
sustainability of my consumption patterns. according to the index  
thus produced I receive certain kinds of discounts or access to  
certain services or goods.

In any case such quantifications of esteem will serve to rationalize  
the ethical economy that we can already see emerging, both in the  
ethical value logic behind intangibles., and increasingly popular  
blended value strategies like Ethical Consumerism and Socially  
Responsible Investment.  Indeed the implementation of such systematic  
alternative value standards will give business and other actors a  
stronger incentive to adapt to an emerging ethical economy, or which  
is the same thing, to begin to act politically, with the polis in mind.

In capitalist societies value is embodied in money: we work (ideal- 
typically) in order to get paid. In many non capitalist societies  
value is rather embodied in public displays of honour, standing,  
hierarchy- ethical standing. Such societies generally use what Turner  
calls ‘concrete media of circulation’ (as opposed to money as an  
abstract medium of circulation) such as public rituals, to  
communicate and embody value. Most such value-conferring rituals  
unfold in societies that have elaborate and relatively static social  
structures. This is clearly not the case for the information society  
where structure is dissolving into flexible networks. On the other  
hand, there are examples, like the Baining of Papaua New Guinea, that  
have little in terms of an elaborate social structure, but still  
largely envision value as ethically embodied.[8] Among the Baining,  
the embodiment of value occurs through a continuous giving of gifts,  
a practice so common that it is part of virtually every social  
encounter. Now social media could work as platforms for such a  
continuous embodiment of ethical value, enabling some sort of ranking  
(conferral of esteem in a quantifiable way) mechanism become an  
integral part of most social interactions.

[1] Prada.J.M. ‘Web 2.0 as a new context for artistic practices’  
Paper presented at !st Inclusiva-net meeting, Medialab, Prado,  
Madrid, 2007 (posted to IDC-list, 22/12, 2007), Boyd, D. ‘Identity  
production in a networked culture: Why youth heart MySpace’, http:// 
www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html, accessed 5/2-08.
[2] Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point. How Little Things Make a Big  
Difference, New York; Brown & co, 2002.
[3] Barabasi. A. L. Linked: The New Science of Networks, Cambridge  
(MA);Perseus Publishing, 2002. , Tarde, G. Psychologie économique,  
Paris, Alcan, 1902.
[4] Weber M. ‘The sociology of charismatic authority’, eds. Gerth,  
H.H. & Mills, C.W. From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, London;  
Routledge, 1948, p. 247.
[5] Brennan, G. & Pettit, P. The Economy of Esteem, Oxford; Oxford  
University Press, 2004, p. 72.
[6] The air-miles in circulation in 2002 were worth more than $ 500  
billion, making air-miles second only to the dollar in terms of value- 
in-circulation, see ‘Air-miles threaten dollars dominance’ BBCNews,  
22/5, 2002 (available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/ 
1966290.stm accessed 26/1-2008).
[7] Ray, P. & Anderson, S. The Cultural Creatives. How 50 Million  
People are Changing the World, New York; The Rivers Press, 2000.
[8] Turner, T. & Fajans, J, ‘Where the Action Is: An Anthropological  
Perspective on “Activity Theory”’ with Ethnographic Implications’,  
unpublished manuscript, University of Chicago, 1988, as cited in  
Graeber, D. Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, New York,  
Palgrave, 2001, pp. 69, ff.

Yours Sincerely,
Adam Arvidsson

Actics Profile:

Associate Professor, Media Studies
Department of Media, Cognition and Communication
University of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 80
2300 Copenhagen S


tel	+45 35328124
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Skype-ID adamerica70
Blog: http://blog.actics.com

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