Adam Arvidsson: Value in Ethical Economy. Part One: Brands as the third circuit of value

In an earlier landmark essay (to which I collaborated somewhat for an updated version), Adam Arvidsson had posed the key problem of our emerging era of peer production, or what he calls the ethical economy, namely that we are increasingly creating vital but hitherto ‘unacknowledgeable value‘. In this new essay, no less of a landmark I would say, he starts developing the answer to that question.

The draft essay was first published at IDC, and reflects a conversation with Bob Jessop. Go the IDC version for the references.


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 economy.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.