Adam Arvidsson: The new ethical economy is beyond measure

Here is our second excerpt of the remarkable essay by Adam Arvidsson:

This absence of a measure points towards a power vacuum within the information economy. There is no common measure simply because nobody has been strong enough to impose a common measure, or to put in more Nietzschian terms, to decide what the values should be. Indeed, the issue is not so much ontological as it is sociological. It is not that you cannot measure ‘ethical things’ like love or respect, there are systems that do this as we will show below. It is rather that the ethical economy presents a problem of measure for the capitalist monetary economy because it largely unfolds largely beyond its direct control. The situation was similar, two centuries ago. The way in which industrial capitalism established itself was by imposing its own measure of value as the societal standard, as against the moral economy of peasant tradition Modern management, emerged (with Taylorist scientific management) as an attempt to break down the complex networks of craft production into simple units of worker-machine interaction that cold be measured in terms of labour time. (And modern consumerism was largely shaped by the need to impose a different conception of the value of time: that it was better spent productively to acquire more goods than idly in rest once one had accumulated enough, cf..) Consequently, productivity could be defined as output per unit of labour time. Although this kind of measure originated with the situation of material factory production it has since been extended to various forms of immaterial labour, like the taylorized production of services at McDonalds restaurants, call-centers and increasingly, British universities. So the problem of measure is not about the nature of immaterial production. It is rather about its sociological relation to ‘the (capitalist) machine’ that mediates productive interaction within the factory or organization. Indeed, the further we move from the original situation in which this philosophy of measurement developed, the less the quantum of time spent interacting with a machine that also acts as a disciplining device (whether a material machine or an immaterial, organizational one), and the more emergent factors like networks, tacit knowledge and social organization- what Marx called ‘General Intellect’- matters, the less valid this form of measurement becomes. And we can argue that the main productive contribution of information- and communication technologies is unleashing of such General Intellect on a societal scale, which is difficult to control and measure. (And the reason why the relation between investments in ICTs and productivity growth is tenuous is precisely that productive contribution of this General Intellect largely unfolds outside of the monetary economy.) The result is a ‘crisis of value’: a lot of the actual wealth produced cannot be measured, or can only be measured with great difficulty. And what cannot be measured can hardly be managed.

In many ways the contemporary proliferation of Non Financial Performance Metrics can be read as a response to the crisis of value that confronts contemporary capitalism. Sometimes these metrics originate with NGOs or other actors who want to make their particular value agenda prevail. They are then welcomed by corporations, in part because they offer new and complimentary ways to estimate their social value. Often such metrics are developed by consultancies as a way to legitimized increasingly blatant discrepancies between the market values of companies and their ‘book values’, captured by antiquated accounting systems designed to capture the material realties of industrial production. Most such systems, like brand valuation for example, are not developed to measure the empirical performance of a brand, but to provide an explanation for what is chiefly an accounting problem. The point is that these measurements have no common origin, but emerge out of a multitude of agendas and concerns, most of which are not primarily preoccupied with actual measurement.”

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