[iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value I:II

Adam Arvidsson adam.arvidsson at unimi.it
Sun Oct 25 16:11:57 UTC 2009

I'd like to give my contribution to the discussion about web 2.0 participation ( or mroe generally, 'social production') and the labor theory of value (or the 'law of value' in its classic Marxist version) that have been going on on this list for while. Here's the first part: 

“Right. So perhaps you can see that even though I am critical of   
Christian Fuch's particular deployment of the political economic  
categories in his post and in some of his other writings, I am also in  
full agreement when he says, "The law of value does not, as claimed by  
autonomous Marixsts, become unimportant today (Christian Fuchs, "A  
Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Transnational  
Informational Capitalism," RETHINKING MARXISM VOLUME 21 NUMBER 3 (JULY  
2009)). The question is, what are the emergent categories, or, more  
exactly, the new mediations of the value form that continue to  
contribute to the massive accumulation of capital and dispossession of  
persons that is anything but discontinuous with prior eras of  
capitalist violation. If anything has changed it is that the law and  
value (the law of value?) has greater purchase on human creativity  
than ever before. I am not being glib here, it would be a grave  
mistake to assume that the law of value has been transcended or  
rendered defunct. Rather,  I am endeavoring to telegraph (not tweet)  
the hypothesis that the law of value has penetrated our corporeal  
practices and our cognitive-linguistic practices: a situation which at  
once renders them all suspect and also posits them as sites of  
struggle. “

the law of value has penetrated our corporeal practice and our cognitive linguistic 
practices. What does this mean? that everything we do and say generates value
for capital? clearly not. That everything we do and say is somehow commanded
by capital and its law of value, and posited as a resource that can potentially create value,
that is, as always, already abstract labor? That our sociality quite naturally unfolds on platforms- like Facebook- where it can be effortlessly transformed in to the kinds of resources
that feed into capital accumulation? That, in other words life has become labor,
tout court?  That seems to be a bit closer to reasonable, at least for some people
in some places. But, the problem is that to the extent that life becomes labor, 
then the law of value or at least the law that organizes productive activity so that abstract labor becomes the measure of value, can per definition no longer hold. This is because labor
only creates value in so far as it is commodified, that is in so far as it is scarce. But if labor and life coincide, then labor is per definition no longer scarce and the process of commodificaiton no longer operates. (indeed, the 'labor' of facebook users has no price, it is free from the point of view of
Facebook, hence it can not be the origin of value. It can be the origin of a giant wealth that Facebook could eventually valorize, but not of its value.) So, the more life and labor coincides,
 the less abstract labor can operate as a measure of value. And the less the law of value, in its traditional form, applies.
This is one possible interpretation of Marx cryptic passage in the Grundrisse where he (makes the mistake of) predicting communism as a consequence of the  collapse of the law of value driven by the increasing role of cooperation and General intellect, to the extent that wealth if produced outside of the processes commanded by the wage relation- that is, the extent to which wealth creation is socialized and made to coincide with 'life itself',  then 'exchange value will no longer be the measure of  use value' -go print that on a t-shirt! 

Our activities on Facebook are not commoditized- we are not paid to undertake them 
(unless you view The Facebook Experience itself as a compensation for the labor time offered,
à la Smythe) and from the point of view of Facebook, people's ability to network and
friend is not what is scarce. So our online activities can not be construed as a form of
labor that creates value. Chirsitian Fuchs (I think it was) put this well: cooperation
is the oil of the information economy. (well actually, oil is the oil of the information economy..) 
but oil is a source of wealth, not value. Same thing with Facebook, its millions of users
are the source of its potential wealth, but not of its value. Indeed, it can be argued
that Facebook has been singularly bad at valorizing this wealth (should have sold for 10 billion USD when they could). And it seems to me that the main ways in which the wealth of social cooperation is valorized, inside as well as outside of the web 2.0 economy proper, are exemplary
illustrations of the lack of a coherent theory of  and law of value. One way of valorizing
this wealth is by selling online advertising. But contrary to Dallas Smythe's well
behaved audience commodity- passive in front of the television screen- online attention
is notoriously difficult to valorize, and the advertising industry as well as media companies (with the possible exception of Google) are struggling with this absence of a precise measure. 

(It is perhaps symptomatic that Smythe gave us a theory of the audience commodity based on an idealized version of the Fordist mass consumer, that, a the time of his writing was already disappearing- the advertising profession had  been  complaining about the unruliness of consumers since the late 60s, and in the early 80s the media globalization and the multiplication of tv channels that would seriously undermine the model that he described began in earnest. I have argued elsewhere that the  emergence of the brand as a new way of valorizing attention can be construed as a response to this declining relevance of the audience commodity model, cf. Arvidsson, A. Brands. Meaning and Value in Media Culture, London; Routledge, 2006).

 Which leads us to the second way in which social cooperation is valorized, on financial markets, in
the form of so called intangible assets (and this is particularly true for web companies, the valuations of which tend to fluctuate with the dynamics of financial markets
much more than they fluctuate with the dynamics of audience participation- Facebook is not worth
10 billion dollars anymore ,not  after the financial crisis, even though it has much more users now..)
And on contemporary financial markets, the labor theory of value blatantly does not
hold- even economists recognize this, witness them abandoning rational expectations for
behavioral finance as their main explanatory tool. 

So it does not really seem to me that there is not much point in defending the labor theory of value. It is clearly not the key to understanding how contemporary  capitalism operates. Does this mean that capitalism has been superceeded, of course not, Marx was wrong on this point. does it mean that capitalism has become simply despotic, relying on brute force to uphold its command on the social production process ( or as in the case of intellectual property law, brute legal force), yes
 to some extent. But, probably not in the long run- capitalism requires legitimacy and
it is difficult to get that without a functioning law of value. (It is important to remember
that the law of value is not only an instrument of oppression, it also provides a
discursive arena where questions of the just distribution of value can be resolved in
legitimate ways. The labor theory of value was behind scientific management, but it was
also behind social democracy..). So can we envision a new law of value? That would entail
a mutation of capitalism- a rare, but not unprecedented event (merchant capitalism, industrial 
capitalism, cognitive capitalism...). Maybe we could ever argue that cognitive capitalism will not be born, in its true form, until a new and different theory of value becomes institutionalized and begins to operate (just like industrial capitalism only found its form with the institutionalization of the labor theory of value..)  I have some ideas about what this might look like, but I'll tell you about them in the next post. 

Adam Arvidsson
Associate Professor
Department of Social and Political Sciences
University of Milano
via Conservatorio 7
20122 Milano, Italy
tel. +39-02.503.21209

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