Book of the Week: Adam Arvidsson on Ethics and the General Intellect, 1

This is the second chapter of Adam Arvidsson’s new book draft on the Ethical Economy, a follow-up on our earlier publication of the first chapter.

We strongly recommend it as Adam has a thorough understanding of both peer production and the market.


For quite some time now there has been a strongly developing interest in ethics, and a multiplication of the points of view that lend themselves to an ethical perspective. Perhaps this ‘ethical turn’ began in the 1980s, when thinkers like Levinas, Buber and, following them, Bauman, argued that ethics was to become the central concern of the philosophy of ‘post-modern’ times. Since then we have seen the explosion in business or corporate ethics, ethical consumerism, various policies that aim at micro managing the ethics of everyday life, like smoking bans or sexual harassment policies, and, most recently, a renewed popularity of the conceptions of the ‘ethical state’ whether of religious (Bush) or secular (Berlusconi, Thaksin) inspiration.

In these more recent developments ‘ethics’ is not simply a ‘philosophy of the good’, but a technology of management. Corporate, or business ethics is no longer simply about benevolent positioning and PR. It is about the rational management of investments in initiatives that aim to shape patterns of behaviour and affect in order to reap what management theory now speak of a ‘Return on Values’ (RoV). Indeed a recent McKinsey report states that … Here then investment in corporate ethics, is clearly productive. Its productive contribution comes from its ability to fine-tune the behavioural and affective patterns that underpin the complex network of cooperation at work in modern corporation. The productivity of ethics thus resides in its biopolitical function, its ability to fine-tune the formation of subjectivity and sociality. Similarly, as Clive Barnett (et al. 2005) have argued, ‘ethical consumerism involves both a governing of consumption and a governing of the consuming self’, reaching far into and configuring the way people relate not just to commodities, but to other people by means of commodities (cf. Miller. …). Here as well as in the case of brand management more generally (Arvidsson, 2006), the ability to mobilize a consistent affective pattern from the multitude of such micro-configurations that arise out of ordinary practices of consumption can be the source of substantial monetary values. As in the case of corporate ethics, this would be a case of ‘advanced liberal government’ (Rose,.Dean..) put to work directly for the valorization of capital.

The directly productive role that ethics has acquired as a branch of management suggests that the general upsurge of ethics as a branch of advanced liberal governance might be connected to an overall reconfiguration of the relations of production. The novelty, as suggested by a wide range of recent business phenomena, from ‘crowdsourcing’ to ‘web 2.0’ would be that of the directly productive role of autonomous forms of social interaction. The rise of ethics, thus conceived, would be a reaction to the new productive power of the social, what Paolo Virno (2004) has called ‘mass intellectuality’. In this paper I shall attempt to outline the contours of that relationship.

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