How value and affect converge in the information economy
“Wealth Management Group” uses the Values Tool to identify the values profile of client portfolio holdings in order to measure alignments with the value profile of clients. [..] What is of great benefit here is that relationship managers do not need to depend purely on their own judgement to identify their clients values, but are assisted by a powerful technology.
Sales Document from small internet startup addressing a large wealth management group.i
…hence exchange value must cease to be the measure of use value
Karl Marx, Grundrisseii
The modern economy was organized around what David Stark has called a ‘Parsonian Pact‘, by means of which ‘value’ and ‘values’ were kept separate (Stark, 2009:7). This applied in theory, where value concerns and questions about the origins, desirability or legitimacy of preferences and motivations were considered to be outside the object domain of economics, and, conversely, the question of how economic value was formed was considered beyond the reach of the disciplines, like sociology and anthropology, that studied ‘values’. More importantly, it also applied in practice.
The main criterion for the objectification and measurement of value that was applied throughout the modern corporate economy was a notion of productive time that was considered to be devoid of any affective dimension.
While there were of course alternative ‘voices’ within the vast corpus of modern managerial thought – including, notably, the Hawthorne Studies and the tradition of Human Relations Management that arose out of them (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939, cf. Rose, 1975) – the basic principle of modern Cost Accounting, and of the whole Taylorist managerial system of which it was part, was the organization of productive relations so as to render them measurable in terms of standardized productivity rates that paid no attention to the messy mesh of emotions, opinions and social relations that made up the reality of concrete everyday work. This was not just a question of measurement systems abstracting from and not taking into account the actual affective dynamics of work life, but also of management philosophies actively trying to limit the space for, or even obliterate, unforeseen or undesirable forms of affect from the workplace. As Alan Liu argues, this creation of ‘abstract labor time’ (to use Marx’s expression) as the principal criterion of value measurement involved ‘a complete system of emotional labor management that disallowed workers any “productive” emotion at all‘ (Liu, 2004:94, cf. Gramsci, 1971).
Today it seems that this ‘Parsonian Pact’ is in the process of being overcome. Phenomena such as Ethical Consumerism, Corporate Social Responsibility, Fair Trade, and Socially Responsible Investment are all on the rise (Vogel, 2005, Stehr et al. 2006). And they all testify to a willingness to allow a broader range of affective concerns to influence the prices of assets and consumer goods, enabling value decisions about the legitimacy and desirability of the goals that guide economic pursuits to enter the picture. Beneath these trends lies a deeper structural tendency in which so called intangible assets, and in particular, brands have become ever more important as components of the market value of companies. (In 1950 intangibles accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the market value of the S & P 500, today the figure is 70 per cent. Brands account for, on average 30 per cent of market value, although this varies considerably between sectors and companies (Lev, 2001; Mandel et al, 2006; Nakamura, 2001; Gerzema, 2008)) Like many other intangible assets, such as ‘knowledge capital’, ‘reputation’ or ‘corporate identity’- the terminology is diverse and ill defined in this field – brands represent the pricing of a wide range of affects, like the experience that consumers, and, increasingly, other actors such as employees, attribute to a brand, their perception of its ‘fairness’ or social utility, or the loyalty that they feel towards it.
The contemporary tendency towards the fusion of ‘values’ and value might to some extent be driven by pressure on corporate actors on the part of new consumer desires and the growing strength of a new, networked public sphere, where consumers and other actors can find new ways to express concerns that are related to diverse orders of worth, such as environmental sustainability and social justice (Garriga & Melé, 2004). However, this article will claim that the main reason behind this development is that the corporate economy itself has opened up to the inclusion of such diverse orders of worth by means of the calculative devices that it deploys to determine value.
This opening up has occurred through the rise of ‘intangibles’ as a new paradigm for calculating the value of assets and consumer goods. In turn, the rise of intangibles has been driven by two developments. First, a transformation of productive relations that has decreased the representativeness of ‘the productivity of time’ as a criterion for the measurement of value. Second, a development towards the objectification and measurability of affect, which has enabled affect to enter into the calculative devices by means of which economic values are set. Drawing on Gabriel Tarde, among others, I will suggest that this ‘becoming objective’ of affect has a long history that goes back to the origins of the modern, mass-mediated public sphere. But this trend has accelerated in recent years through the proliferation of social media together with a host of new technologies including, principally, data mining techniques such as network and sentiment analysis, that are able to represent individual affective investments as manifestations of an abstract general equivalent, what I call General Sentiment.
I will suggest that these techniques, and the General Sentiment that they are able to represent, contains a new possibility for the stabilization of affective value, something that has so far been lacking in measurements of intangible value.
The conclusion of this article will draw out some tentative conclusions about the possible consequences of these developments for practical politics.
Before telling that story, however, it is necessary to give a brief description of the transformation of productive relations that have made values valuable and, consequently, such measurements desirable in the first place.
i‘Wealth Management Group’ is a pseudonym. I have obtained permission to quote the document on condition that the identity of the actual companies involved is not revealed.
iiTrans. Martin Nicolaus, Marx, 1973(1939):705.