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).