Brands are of increasing importance to capitalism. As an insightful book by Franck Cochoy argues, this is part of the logic of commodification, which generates a perpetual demand for product differentiation. At the point that a product becomes a commodity – i.e., at the point that it leaves the bazaar, where individual vendors measure out products like food in bulk to individual customers, and enters the process of circulation in a capitalist market – it becomes necessary to distinguish commodities from one another. This is because the initial process of commodification first produces a necessary standardization (where weights, notions of what a given product name signifies, etc. become more uniform – in Marxian terms, where exchange value becomes measurable and money becomes the primary way by which one measures equivalence between commodities whose use value is presumed equivalent), from which producers then have to distinguish their commodities. This demand for differentiation generates packaging, brands, trademark, and the final detachment of commodities from brands, such that brands have value that can be applied to other commodities. A good literature from anthropology and cultural studies illustrates this process with such products as “quality” salmon, canola oil, and teak.
There is currently a lively debate in the context of the internet about whether brands actually produce (surplus) value in the Marxian sense. The pro side is represented in a recent piece by Adam Arvidsson and Elanor Colleoni, who argue that standard Marxian notions of labor apply poorly to the generation of value in places like social media, because the Marxian notion of labor is too tightly connected to time spent laboring. Instead, and following Negri specifically and autonomist Marxism more generally, they claim that “in effect, social media platforms like Facebook function as channels by means of which affective investments on the part of the multitude can be translated into objectified forms of abstract affect that support financial valuations” (146). That is, prosumers produce surplus value by means of affective investment in brands (it is perhaps worth pointing out that this argument is not confined to theories about information; for a similar argument from the anthropology literature, see this piece), and this unremunerated attachment is harvested by social media companies as surplus value.
In a critique of Arvidsson and Colleoni’s claim that brands produce value, Jakob Rigi and Robert Prey argue that affect “does not produce new value but instead helps the owner of the brand to appropriate a larger portion of the surplus value produced by workers in the realm of production” (400). They identify three primary ways this happens: (1) by allowing brand owners to increase demand for their commodity at the expense of other commodities, enabling them to sell their commodities at prices above their value; (2) by allowing brand owners to extract monopoly rents in the form of intellectual property licensing; and (3) by allowing speculative value and what Marx calls “fictitious capital” to attach to the brand via the stock market. I want to take a closer look at the first claim here, because it comes across to me as mistaken. At the very least, it seems to me to require more argument than Rigi and Prey supply to defeat the supposition that brands create value, even if Arvidsson and Colleoni aren’t quite right to speak in terms of affective labor (though I’m going to defend at least a version of that claim below; part of my goal here is to be able to define it more precisely. As I’ve suggested in the context of big data (see also here), I think that the surplus value discussion here is incomplete without reference to primitive accumulation).
The central moment in Rigi and Prey’s argument is that successful brands allow owners to appropriate more of the buying power of society, at the expense of other vendors. As they put it:
“The sellers of the commodities with higher demand make surplus profits at the expense of the sellers of commodities with lower demand. Branding plays a central role in such a transfer of value by enhancing the effective demand for branded commodities. Arvidsson and Colleoni thus confuse the transfer of value with the production of value. We thus argue that Arvidsson and Colleoni take the fetishism of the brand at face value …. In short, brands may help shift demand from one commodity to another and allow the company that produces the branded commodity to charge a higher price for the commodity, but a brand does not increase the value of a commodity” (400)
It seems to me that there is a different fetishization going on here – one of use value, and that recognizing this fetishization of use value opens up a way to see the brand as in fact producing value through affective labor on the part of prosumers.
Many years ago, Baudrillard warned that Marxists tended to fetishize use value. Here is Baudrillard:
“Utility, needs, use value: none of these ever come to grips with the finality of subjects who face their ambivalent object relations, or with symbolic exchange between subjects. Rather, it describes the relation of individuals to themselves conceived in economic terms – better still, the relation of the subject to the economic system. Far from the individual expressing his or her needs in the economic system, it is the economic system that induces the individual function and the parallel functionality of objects and needs” (“For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,” in Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, 67)
Capital, in other words, rigs the game even more thoroughly than Marx realized. The very description of commodity fetishism uncritically imports capital’s measure of what people do with objects: they use them to “satisfy preferences” or “maximize utility.” Fetishization, as Marx emphasized, obscures the production process in the abstraction from “labor” (hammering nails, moving around crates of Brillo pads) to “labor power” (as an average amount of labor expended per unit time). What gets completely buried in the Marxian description, and thereby rendered completely unintelligible, is a parallel but unnoticed abstraction from “things that one does” to “use.” Lost entirely are economies that do not depend on use value. Baudrillard mentions gift economies; one might also propose Bataille’s general economy in this context. (self-plagiarism notice: this paragraph was copied nearly verbatim from this earlier post).
One should add two items to these uses that emerge when one de-fetishizes use value. First is affect. For the consumer who purchases a branded commodity – say a Hello Kitty lunchbox, for example – not just the exchange value, but the use value of the commodity is higher than the use value of an unbranded commodity. This purchaser likes the product more, and derives more satisfaction from its use, than she would from purchasing a generic lunchbox with identical utilitarian functionality. The question, then, is how such use value gets there. It seems to me that the affective labor of other consumers is an important part of that value. The reason dates to Hegel’s theory of personality, according to which we externalize our personalities by appropriating objects in the world. As John Tehranian explains in the by way of arguing for the importance of IP use rights, this process involves investment of one’s personality in brands (for this reason, there is also an alienation argument to be made when owners attempt to restrict access, though I am not going to pursue it here).
In the case of branded products, that means that we are involved with a complex interplay of affects between branded products. On the one hand, we purchase them because we believe that they somehow reflect or augment our identities. There is even an empirical literature on this point, which argues that individuals who believe that their core personalities are not malleable in fact purchase brands to signal those personality traits; those who view core personalities are malleable may purchase branded goods to tweak their personalities. On the other hand, that we visibly consume branded products and invest them with our own identities in turn adds value to the brand, both because of the presence of an additional person identifying with the brand, and because our own affective investment subtly contributes to the brand personality. In this sense, it seems to me that affective labor is precisely a source of value for brands. This does not mean that the owners of brands are not also able to extract greater portions of resources available for consumption, but I think it does establish the point that the affective labor of attaching to a brand in fact adds value to it.
The second point is related: a de-fetishized use value would also add a concept of network value, i.e., the use value of some commodities varies with the number of others who also use it. This is a familiar enough point, and the telephone is often used as an example. If only one person owns a phone, the device is useless. If two own one, then it has some use value. The more people that are connected to the phone network, the greater the use value of a given phone. It seems to me that Rigi and Prey’s analysis completely ignores this source of value. For example, at the end of the paper, they argue that:
“In conclusion, the “work” of watching ads does not produce surplus value. Advertisers do not buy “audience power” … but instead rent access to potential future consumers. Prosumers also do not produce surplus value through the information-work that they engage in, because, as discussed earlier, information in an era of digital reproduction has an exchange value bordering on zero” (402).
Let’s first think in terms of Facebook, where users spend lots of time adding to their profiles. Here it seems clearly to be the case that the more a given user is on the site, and the more time she spends doing the work to get others on the site (by making her page more interesting, by ‘liking’ more things, and so on), the more she adds to the value of the site. Since the user is expending effort (even if pleasurable), that effort adds value to the site and thus to its owners, and since she is not remunerated for her efforts – often at all – it seems to me that this ought to be a case where affective labor again generates surplus value. At least, it seems to me to support the thesis originally advanced by Tiziana Terranova that work of internet users means that the entire internet can be viewed as a means of surplus value extraction. In that sense, it adds evidence to support the application of Marxian theories of surplus labor to the value of brands and branded commodities; one just has to be careful not to fetishize value.