This is part of the new ‘Book of the Week’ experiment, where we will publish excerpts of new books. Adam Arvidsson’s book on the Ethical Economy is a draft, to which you are strongly invited to contribute. You may do so in the form of comments, separate blog entries, or by using the discussion page at the Wiki version.
In this and the following instalments (which I hope will appear with a certain regularity) I will suggest that the contemporary information economy can be successfully re-branded as an ‘ethical economy’. What do I mean by that? Let us start with what I do not mean. The term ethical economy does not suggest that contemporary economic relations would in some way be ‘more ethical’ more benevolent or nicer than what was before. I do not propose any kind of optimistic evolutionary narrative; I don’t think that contemporary corporate capitalism is compatible with an ethically sound social order, and I view (as I shall expand on further below) the trend towards corporate ethics, corporate social responsibility, ethical consumerism, and such as merely surface manifestations, reactions to something deeper and much more fundamental. It is this deep, structural movement that I want to capture with the term ‘ethical economy’. This terms intends to capture the fact that in contemporary capitalism the most important source of value is rapidly becoming what has always, from Aristotle via Arendt, been considered the root of the fundamentally human ethical problematic: the human capacity to create an inter-subjective order through processes of communication and interaction. It is this ability co-construct, a however transitory, common social world, that has an ethical relevance- shared symbols, forms of social relations and community and affectively rich experiences- which now increasingly also underpins both the production of use values, and the capitalist appropriation of surplus value. Surplus value becomes increasingly based on surplus-community, or what Maurizio Lazzarato has termed an ‘ethical surplus’. What was once considered external to the cold and rational sphere of economic production and exchange, the ethically rich inter-subjectivity of private life and, or what Habermas called the ‘lifeworld’, has now become the core workshop of the contemporary cognitive capitalism.
The production of such an ethical surplus is generally not organized by a logic of monetary exchange value, but by an ethical logic of sharing and respect. Some actions are motivated by genuine altruism, by the desire to be or do something for others. Other acts are motivated by the quest for the recognition of others, whether this be one’s peers in a community or a friend or a loved one. (Other actions might be motivated by fear, fear of the loss of face or of standing within the community.) In any case, the ethical economy builds on a structure of ethical motivations: motivations that in some way take account of the other as a subject. The ethical economy is similar to some versions of traditional gift economies, as Barbrook has pointed out, only that the expectation of reciprocity is weaker and more indirect than what is generally the case in gift economies. Also the anthropological literature on gifts and gift economies tends to underline how gift-exchange serves to maintain and reproduce existing social bonds. The ethical economy, on the other hand is geared towards the production of new such bonds: towards the production of an ethical surplus.
Neither is the ethical economy premised on a direct exchange of use values- it is not a barter economy. Rather exchange and production are coordinated by a non-monetary medium of exchange: respect. Respect is a quantitative medium, in the sense that people have more or less of it, but it is not, at least not as yet, endowed with an objective measure. This absence of a measure (which we will come back to latter) is a key characteristic of the ethical economy, and the focal point for contemporary and future struggles around its institutionalization.
In some ways we have a return of pre-capitalist relations of production. Like in the fundamental economic unit of the Greek economy, the oikos, production is motivated by the fundamentally affective sentiments of love, fear or respect. The difference is that contemporary ethical economy functions according to an affective logic of respect which has been disembedded from fixed role-structures. There are no longer any apriori determined positions of Master and Slave, rather these allocations can (but must not) be determined as the process unfolds. This way the power-game looks more like S&M play than like an actual slave economy (and maybe this is why Queer Theory has become so popular in the social sciences- it actually offers a good way of understanding the emerging logic of contemporary ethical relations of production).
This state of affairs is ambiguous: It has a darker side as well as a more positive one. On the one hand, the capitalist putting to work of the ethical capacity of human beings entails a real subsumtion of life as such within the capitalist valorization process. People live, interact and form a common within capital, and this activity is increasingly subject to management, surveillance and control. (Everything is commoditized and ‘branded’ Because they are now becoming directly productive in radically new ways, our intersubjective relations are also directly policed in radically new ways. This is the fundamental scope of a whole series of contemporary strategies of governance, from brand management, to corporate culture, political correctness and the policing of internet habits. On the other hand, the fact that the ethical capacity of interaction has been thus rationalized, mediatized and technologically enhanced means that immense productive powers which are at once economic and political have been unleashed. If people, as Hannah Arendt once wrote have always been capable of creating a common world though communication and interaction, the size, complexity and scope of that common is now far greater than before. This carries a great promise for future forms of social transformation. Like the printing press ended up revolutionizing the very political structure of Europe and introduced the distinctively modern phenomenon of mass politics, networked information and communication technologies seem to have the promise of achieving a reorganization of political and social life with equally revolutionary implications.
Wiki Entry to Ethical Economy