2 March 2007

Keeping it Real

What is the best way to persuade somebody to give something away? Obviously it helps if you believe that it is worthless or, better still, that it does not exist at all. The issues of what is or is not, what exists or does not exist, what does or does not value clearly have great economic significance. The long struggle between capital and labour over the value of production no longer takes place in the world of the real. Yet those prophets of the illusory and the delusional—the French postmodernists philosophers—have not seen their iconoclastic insights gain much purchase within the discipline of economics. Perhaps because they were gaining much more practical significance in the economy itself.

Three examples of the extraction of value follow. In each case a theoretical situation is developed to create a virtual entity, developed as the doppelganger of a real economic thing. The virtual entity is then expanded into a hyperreal entity, supported by a mythological system, into which the value of the thing is poured, leaving the thing itself as an apparent husk. The hyperreal is now bought and sold and its value determined by a mythological marketplace. The real good is seen almost as a by-product.

Let us take as our first example a cup of Starbucks coffee. Naomi Klein used this as a prototypical example of the selling of a brand rather than a product. The price of the coffee, the energy made to produce it and the wages paid to the Starbucks employees are a fraction of the price you are asked to pay for it. What you are paying for the is the privilege of being a person who can self-identify as a drinker of Starbucks coffee. You are paying your membership fee to a club. The value that club is created and maintained by Starbucks when they advertise their brand and associate it with other things you like, such as music stars or flash cars or sexy young people.

For a second, and more practical example I turn to Tower Colliery in the South Wales Valleys. I have argued long and hard with academic colleagues about whether the Colliery is important as more than a myth. My argument always proceeds along the lines that, mythology and markets apart, in a cold winter the anthracite will warm your hands whereas the myth can only ever warm the cockles of your heart. However, I recently saw for sale in my local farmers market coal from the Forest of Dean, washed and packaged in a lovely bag, and with a whole history of the industry in the Forest and the rights of local people to extract the coal as Freeminers, a right extending back to the middle ages. I am waiting to see whether this audacious piece of brand creation is successful.

More amorphously we can see the same process at work in the investment of money in stocks and shares or on-line gambling. Punters have here lost track of what they really value. The thrill of the chase, of the unpredictable outcome, has replaced the original incentive of real material gains. Owners of homes are prey to similar delusions when they seek comfort from news of the increasing ‘value’ of their home, which continues to offer them the same four walls and the same degree of material comfort. The supportive mythology suggests that there is some relationship between real world events and stock-market values. But the influence of the coldness of the winter on the oil price or the rate of consumer spending on the value of M&S stock has dwindled as the power of ideas has increased. Rational expectations have generated self-fulfilling prophecies and delusional dreams in a market where belief itself is the primary value.

These are all example of what Ben Fine has called, in another context, ‘making capital out of the ephemeral’. In each case the hyperreal is supported by a system of mythologizing, as so wittily pointed out by Baudrillard and Barthes. In the late form of capitalism, dominated by the 'creative industries', the extraction of surplus value has been developed in new and creative ways. Now it is meaning itself that is extracted, leaving only the sign of that meaning. The intellectual minimization of the use value and its substitution with a hyperreal value whose material worth can be extracted by the creator and owner of the hyperreal, invariably a global corporation such as Honda, which sells its brand under the rubric ‘The Power of Dreams’.

The philosophy of the postmodernists has been commodified and revalued to be used to generate economic value in the hyperreal they pilloried, and thus provides another trick to enable the unfair distribution of resources. However, the movement of capitalism’s age-old game of value extraction into the realm of the hyperreal is excellent news for those of us who seek to live alongside rather than within this economic nightmare. If we can wear the badge of lowly status endowed by the proletarian shopping brands with pride we can buy better quality real usable goods for absurdly cheap prices, thereby reducing our need to work. We need also to create our own real currencies to exchange between ourselves.

Although our intuitions and needs have been distorted by the advertising myth-makers it is not that difficult to extract yourself and to decide what you really want. No wonder keeping it real has become the mantra of our age.

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