Friday, 21 June 2013

Value, Measurement and the Power to Act

Andrea Wittel recently gave a paper which reconsiders Marx's notions of 'value' in relation to digital capitalism.

While his paper is grounded in Marxian theory, he argues against Marx's attempts to measure or even explain the value of commodities.The paper consists of three parts. In the first part Andreas briefly reviews and contrasts Marx' s approach to value in Capital vol 1 with his approach to value in the Grundrisse. While the labour theory of value (as developed in Capital vol 1) is by and large unable to explain value in cognitive capitalism (replace cognitive capitalism as you like with post-fordism, immaterial production, the information age, or digital capitalism), his concept in Grundrisse is much more promising: In Grundrisse, Marx argues that 'the creation of wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed […] but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology […] Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself' (p704) What comes to replace labour is the 'general intellect'.

While such an approach seems to be better suitable for an explication of value, it also remains rather vague. In the second part of this paper Andreas argues that this vagueness is at the same time its real strength. In digital capitalism value is beyond measure. 'What has irreversibly changed however, from the times of the predominance of the classical theory of value, involves the possibility of developing the theory of value in terms of economic order, or rather, the possibility of considering value as a measure of concrete labor.' (Negri 1999: 77-8). The measurement of value, understood as an economic term and as a category of exchange is the problem of capital only. Marx's (labour) theory of value is not a trans-historical theory, but a theory of value in capitalist societies only. The task of today is a more generic understanding of value. Rather than focusing on free labour (Terranova) or audiences (Smythe) to understand the production of value in media environments, we are better off to give up on this project and develop alternative models of value that include processes of counter-commodification such as the digital commons.
Negri suggests to transform the theory of value from above to a theory of value 'from below, from the basis of life' (1999: 78). Drawing on the work of Spinoza, Negri sees value as the power to act. What does it mean to understand value as something that empowers people to act? 

The third part of this paper attempts to respond to this challenge. This is an attempt to rethink value not just as a theory but as a theory of practice. In the current crisis we need to strengthen an understanding of value that links it tightly to political engagement.

Andreas Wittel, 'Value, Measurement and the Power to Act', VII International Conference on Communication and Reality: Breaking the Media Chain, Universitat Ramon Lull, Barcelona, 13-14 June 2013.


  1. It seems to me that the willing to act can be boosted only by motivation. The bigger it is, the more fruitful results you have. 15 Rules of Motivation.