[iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Fri Oct 30 07:33:24 UTC 2009

I am glad that Michael Goldhaber took the time to formulate some 
critique of the extravagant and quite pointless use being made of Marx's 
labor theory of value and its associated concepts, in order to explain 
what's at stake in contemporary social media. I find bizarre this desire 
to cast relations of consumption, on the one hand, and of relative 
autonomy, on the other, in the terms that Marx so carefully forged to 
describe the relation between the industrial capitalist and the waged 

Rather than wanting to discover some hidden productivity in social media 
that would allow you to explain with Marx's 19th century concepts why 
the contemporary capitalist bothers to invest in the likes of Facebook, 
could we not find an explanation that corresponds at least minimally to 
what we have before our eyes? I see two things at work here, neither of 
which Marx had much to say about. One, and the most important by far, is 
the will of capitalists to prey on middle-class consumers via complex 
and not always particularly functional formulas, algorithms, schemes, 
tricks, which by now have become the common stuff of our mendacious and 
conniving commercial culture, from the most complex derivatives to the 
simplest advertising via the surveillance, audience metrics and 
statistical tabulation of online behavior that many people on this list 
have described in detail. Consumers' acts are scrutinized and their 
psychology is analyzed in extreme detail because there is money to be 
made by selling them things -- for unlike Marx's proletarians, the 
people who use the Internet very often have savings accounts and 
fungible assets and retirement packages and life insurance portfolios, 
etc etc etc.

You do not need the labor theory of value to know why a salesman wants 
to sell you a product, and why he or she might arrange for you an 
agreeable environment within which, or as a consequence of which, that 
product might be sold. Nor do you need the theory of an attention 
economy either, I'm afraid. But you would have to admit that most 
Internet users are being treated as marks, that is, as unwitting targets 
of someone else's predatory strategy, and that they usually have a lot 
more to lose than their chains. Apparently these admissions are somehow 
unpleasant, so we reach for our Marx. Hmmm, marks, Marx, I never noticed 
that before. Yes, it's sad and quite undignified that middle-class 
people are being treated like marks, but they are, as every aspect of 
the recent housing boom has shown; and I don't know why concocting 
intricate theories to describe them as proletarians makes it any less 
banal or disagreeable. After all, proletarian labor is pretty banal and 
disagreeable too, just entirely different from middle-class consumption.

The other thing that I see happening on the Internet these days -- and 
here I think Michael Bauwens is quite right -- is the relative autonomy 
of people trying to enjoy themselves and cooperate more or less 
playfully with others. If you take some care, you can indeed increase 
the degree of that relative autonomy, and it is a very good thing to do, 
especially when so many predatory corporations are expending so much 
time and energy building virtual worlds in which to channel your 
energies and manipulate your emotions and your beliefs, the better to 
pick your pocket. The article by Greg Elmer and friends that Bauwens 
forwarded explains all that very well, and without even mentioning the 
labor theory of value! Because in this context, it's simply unnecessary. 
The one thing that the misplaced use of Marx does achieve, I suppose, is 
to distract the attention from any consideration of the varieties and 
qualities and sources of care for one's autonomy: that is, one's 
capacity to search, in the company of others, for ways of consciously 
shaping the basic relations of coexistence. I guess we could pay a 
little more attention to that, for all kinds of returns.

best, Brian

Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
> Let me say a little first about  Marx's labor theory of value. He was  
> clearly referring to labor in making commodities in the industrial  
> age, where by "commodities" was understood objects that were  
> interchangeable and effectively identical with others of the same sort  
> made in other factories or factory-like settings, under the control of  
> other capitalists. Only in such circumstances does the phrase  
> "socially necessary labor time" have meaning. Here I take "socially  
> necessary" to refer to (a) the level of skills  reached by a  
> sufficiently large pool of workers at the moment and (b) the technical  
> capacities of available factory machinery, also at the moment.

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