Adam Arvidsson: Value in Ethical Economy. Part Two: The Valuation of Esteem

Part two of a draft essay by Adam Arvidsson that was first published at IDC. Go that version for the references.


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 another?”

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