Although Post-Capitalistic Auction reflects more, I hope, than just a utopian dream, its conception can be traced back to the youthful utopian mind of my 18-year-old self, when I was a freshman at university. A casual conversation between my cousin and myself ended with me asking: “Why do artworks end up in the hands on the rich? Why isn’t it people who really understand art and artists who own their work? Why does money decide everything? ” My cousin’s silence and his indulgent smile gave me a clear answer: “Isn’t that how it should be? Doesn’t everyone agree on that?”

Born and growing up in Beijing, the capital city of newly wealthy China, I have witnessed in the 12 years since leaving university, the rapid and deep embedding and justification of capitalism in every aspect of economic and cultural life — although obviously not on a national, ideological level. In China, as in the capitalist West, whoever holds the biggest share in a corporation, has the final say. In commercial movie making, whoever invests the most money, has the power to make decisions that can extend as far as  selecting the cast.

I have no intention of criticizing corporations or the commercial movie industry here, as they are so evidently inextricably bound up with the capitalist mechanism. But what about art? Is it by definition different? In the past, artists such as Joseph Beuys and movements like Situationism persistently tried to de-commodify art. But despite the push to abstraction and conceptualization, art and artists have struggled to extricate themselves from the very material pull of both financial and social capital.

Art auctions are a powerful reflection of the paradox that even though we create an aura of ‘otherness’ around a work of art, its material (and therefore prosaic) value remains. I am not claiming that people who buy art don’t have a true love of art, or that an auction is nothing more than a financial game. Many collectors have a close and ongoing relationship to, and understanding of, the work that they buy. But, as Henri Neuendorf – a journalist at artnet Berlin – observes, others are certainly in it purely for the money. And regardless of who is buying, in an auction environment, it is always and only money that talks. And this is an exchange in which artists have no voice.

Moreover, money translates to social and symbolic capital for the exclusive group of participants in an art auction or fair. Despite postmodernism’s attempt to challenge the elitism of the art world, it has continued to defend the territories of its various cliques. Since it seems unavoidable that everything has its price, that money is power, and that status is also tied to the value of ideas, how can art extricate itself from this complex of forces? The values we attribute to art are a reflection of how we evaluate within the social, cultural, political and economic structures within which it is embedded. In the end, value reflects what are important for us.

Can I suggest a new value system to replace the current one? No, I can’t. But this does not mean we can’t call it into question. And already, the rise of information-based social structures is a challenge to capitalism. Journalist and author Paul Mason claims the transition to post-capitalism has already begun. It doesn’t matter if we agree on what post-capitalism is, or indeed whether we are heading towards being a post-capitalist society, it is clear that the internet and information technology has had a huge impact on our social and economic relationships. Economic and Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin discusses this in detail in his book The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, as does Futurist thinker Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable. Financial capital plays an unprecedented role in the development of business. On the other hand, big data and attention resources are predicated by many to be the next most valuable capital. Company mergers are more and more prevalent, but at the same time we see that the spontaneous rise of collaborative production and a sharing economy is challenging private ownership and the monopoly of big corporations. The behavior model and values of the digital generation should address a familiar question but in a new context. What change will this make on how art is accessed, possessed and valued? Rooted in this social and economic change, Post Capitalistic Auction looks into our current value mechanisms, as well as trying to propose new parameters.

Post Capitalistic Auction is an opportunity to bid for art using currencies other than money. But it doesn’t exclude money, and doesn’t intend to orient the bidding towards a non-money or anti-money result, since capitalism, as a long-establish economic system functioning in many ways like a religion, is deeply bound up with how human beings co-exist on many levels. In Post Capitalistic Auction, different values come together in dialogue. People within or outside the art field, with or without auction experience, are equally involved. Artists, collectors, dealers, critics, art lovers, art sceptics, etc. encounter each other and present their perspectives. There is reflection, but not judgement, there is investigation but no manipulation, there is dialogue but no exclusion.

This project is planned as a long term, ongoing series in different countries, aiming to investigate within different social and art economies and ecologies. Imagine how different the results of Post Capitalistic Auction will be in Beijing – a new booming market, where the evaluation of art is highly financialized, in comparison to London, where there is not only a strong tradition in both the mainstream academic and underground art scenes, but also a mature capitalist art market, in comparison to Berlin, where the spontaneous art scene has been developing in recent decades. Bergen, as my current home city, is a natural place for it to begin. What surprised me, interestingly, is that, during my communication with artists in Bergen, it became clear that there is not a strong culture of exchanging private money for art. Not many people collect art. And it seems there is not a commercial gallery that operates as most do. There is not yet an auction house in Bergen. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Post-Capitalistic Auction has no point here. On the contrary, Bergen, whose art scene could be defined as insular, and is obviously highly dependent on public funding, will generate its own discussion reflecting the possibilities of valuing art. Bergen’s rather unique position further convinces me of the importance of conducting this project in different cities, so to form comparative research results.

People might say that this project is riddled with paradoxes. That is very true. I hope this is also where the significance and value of the project lies. Post Capitalistic Auction is an investigation, a case study in how we value art, and, finally, in how we evaluate value itself. It will not immediately, in reality, change the rules of auctions or of the art ecology. Nevertheless, at least for one night, we can make an alternative and very real auction happen that both reflects the value system we have undoubtedly accepted for too long, as well as being a vehicle for envisaging future possibilities.

This project from concept to realization has involved more than 50 people’s contribution which I am deeply grateful to. I would like to specially thank my collaborator in Bergen Idun Vik and dramaturge Iris Raffetseder who have contributed tremendous energy in the development of this project with their enthusiasm. Thanks to Sven Åge Birkeland, the artistic director of BIT teatergarasjen who has believed in this project since the very early stage of my conception.

Jingyi Wang

Concept and Director

Conversation on Value and Art

This article is an interview by Tuva Mossin to Jingyi Wang after Post Capitalistic Auction. The article gives insights behind the concept and the reflection on the premiere performance in Bergen. Published on Replikk the journal of Bergen University on May 30th,2018.  Conversation on Value and Art

All Shall Be Unicorns. About Commons, Aesthetics and Time

We share this article by Marina Vishmidt, which investigates “commonist aesthetics”. (commonist – not communist!)


Marina Vishmidt

With this investigation into the relationship between commoning and aesthetics via the dimension of time, Marina Vishmidt contributes to the theme of Commonist Aesthetics. Vishmidt views temporality as a framing condition for thinking “commons” as a practical and affective project that traverses politics and aesthetics. The exploration of Commonist Aesthetics is an editorial collaboration between Open!, art critic and historian Sven Lütticken and Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory.

In the following set of reflections, I would like to draw out the implications of the proposition “commonist aesthetics” in relation to time. The first step is to describe the cluster of practices and theories associated with “commons”.1 The second is to juxtapose this with “communism”. I finish with a view towards the consequences for a theory of the production of art as a revolutionary, or, at minimum, transformative practice. The overall hypothesis throughout is that temporality – or, a practice oriented towards the future as the promise of both another way of organising society, but also as the horizon of another experience of time – is key to approaching current conditions from the standpoint of their elimination. That is, the future is contingent on a distance from or refusal of the present rather than on a practice that favours melioration or more rational reproduction. This leads us into a view of temporality as a framing condition for thinking “commons” as a practical and affective project that traverses politics and aesthetics.

From Art In and Out of Time to Commons-Based Production of Time

In setting up the background for an investigation into the relationship between commoning and aesthetics via the dimension of time, we can refer to some baseline assumptions that have infused art throughout the whole era of modernity. Modern art, like the notion of modernity per se, had adhered to a paradigm of progressivism, taking part in a movement towards a definite and inexorable future; one, however, not so inexorable that collective cultural endeavour was unnecessary to realise it as experience in the present. The historical avant-garde shared and radicalised this future orientation, espousing the need for a more intemperate, negative attitude to art – from the standpoint of its destruction – in order to truly bring about the conditions for modernity. This progressivist view towards art saw it as a collective project of human autonomy in an age of accelerating social and economic abstraction and mass political organisations, rather than as a process of inevitable industrial development and generalisation of capitalist life forms. At the pinnacle, or perhaps swan song, of high-modernist philosophical discourse on art, Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1969), the basis for art’s negativity towards the established order is exposed: for Adorno, art is redeemed time, that is, labour freed of compulsion and open to a sensuous, undetermined relationship to the world. Art therefore is viewed as holding a space for the future in its very negation of the present. It is the potential “practical criticism” inherent in art’s experimental attitude to materials and social relations not organised around coerced labour, instrumental reason and the capitalist accumulation which they make possible.

It can thus be argued that modernism, as tendentially affirmative, and the avant-garde, as relatively negative, were both tied to the idea of movement into the future and the perfectibility of human nature-culture. We could consider this a rational production of difference and development of the senses. Or indeed, as a nihilistic corrosion of the fetters obstructing an authentic reinvention of the parameters of the human. Such a move would do away with art, but with the proviso that these two sides lay along a spectrum of emphasis rather than forming reified polarities, apart from the culture of the manifesto which pervaded the twentieth-century avant-garde.

This is a story familiar to us from the reconstruction of the twentieth-century avant-gardes provided by art historians like Benjamin Buchloh and Peter Bürger, or by the Situationist International alike.2 As some have noted, taking this as a reified opposition would only hold true for the capitalist West (and perhaps for the “real socialist” East). It would not hold, however, for a society in revolutionary conditions such as the early Soviet Union, where an affirmative project transforming social existence and human nature was fused with a simultaneous eradication of art as an insular, elite pursuit. Its reconstruction was instead presupposed on the basis of a living practice contributing to this total social project.3

Moving into current times, the “commons” has become a compelling theoretical, socio-economic and aesthetic paradigm. It is one that leads to a conception of practice which is immanent to its field and not locked-in to a vision derived from an abstractly political paradigm of a better society to come. Instead, the principles of commons tries to develop prototypes of that society in existing circumstances, evoking the earlier libertatian socialist and anarchist idiom of “prefigurative politics”.4 Prefiguration could be viewed as premised on action in the present helping to realise a desired future scenario rather than putting everything off for a chiliastic moment of total rupture which almost by definition never comes. Yet, it is a still more “future-oriented” idea than many notions of the commons or commoning we see around us today. Accordingly, a recent press release for the 2014 exhibition The Need for Practice at, Bratislava, which staged affiliated collective practices in the field of art states: “What if (…) we understand utopia, as a continuous process of becoming in which we participate? That is, instead of viewing the future as an end, a goal we should attain in an ever-delayed ‘some day’, we actualize it in the present, perform it in the everyday?” Here, there seems to be a notion of temporality not as the production of difference through the “medium” of time, but as an embodied and experimental production of “right living” in the very present that we share. “We” here is defined in the actuality of doing, rather than as a subject generated by structural antagonism, or even a shared political subjectivity won through the experience of an “event” in Badiouan terms. Questions about the definition of this right living or collective good, predicated on the open question of how a collective subject of this sort may come into being, have to be left suspended by definition, as the question will itself be subsumed in the realisation of utopia in everyday practice. From this, we could go on say that the notion of commons arguably does not have or actively jettisons a concept of temporality as part of its novelty as a politics of immanence. This priority of immanence does not so much oppose the present as propose an active reconstruction of it from within. Social bonds are re-forged through an interrogation of production for private profit as the bedrock of the social contract. Such an interrogation, however, does not go beyond the horizon of “adjacency” which writers such as Peter Osborne have noted to be the hallmark of contemporaneity seen as a disparate but neutral arrangement of globalised times.5 They are neutral times in the sense that the scale of totality or a futural orientation drawing on contradictions within that totality are both equally foreclosed to it.

What many discourses of the commons seem to propose is that the future could start in the present simply by a gradual spread of “commoning practices” over capitalist social production. Because there is no notion of a future as a contingent outcome of a break with the present, there is also no notion of transition, leaving time literally suspended. Could it further be ventured that with the commons, we are encountering something like (an idea of) communism minus (an idea of) progress? And might this also mean the commons has no idea of regression, much less of destruction as a means to produce a future many of whose lineaments simply cannot exist in the present? And what of its role in relation to, or even embedded within, the destruction which is currently overtaking our mode of social productionand biosphere alike?6

Important to cite here as well is the categorical distaste multiply elaborated in liberal and leftist thought to a horizon of futurity and radical rupture as equatable only with historical calamity, a hubris whose logical end is totalitarianism. This ideological mode, which enjoyed its highpoint with the nouveaux philosophes, and the hegemonic literature of disenchantment of much postmodern theory that followed over the next two decades, recently made a comeback with art historian T.J. Clark’s 2013 New Left Review essay, “For a Left with No Future”. In this text Clark looks to the theory of tragedy to furnish a prophylactic against any speculative temptations in emancipatory thought. Clark’s intervention has been met with several generative and wide-ranging critiques, including those of Susan Watkins,Alberto Toscano and Daniel Spaulding among others.7 I mention it here in order to be able to situate the contention that temporality is central to the commons / communism distinction, and in passing, to allude to the history of conservative political thought which has always branded as illegitimatethe concept of futurity as a horizon for communal life.8

War Is Over if You Want It

The proposition to be explored here, then, is what kind of structural and ideological affinity already holds between “commonist” politics and the field of art practices. That is, insofar as both are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, often interstices and spare capacities, “making do” as in the “sharing economy”. Initially, we could identify a shared emphasis on plurality, experimentation, pragmatism and a certain “soft utopianism” which animates many variants of the political and the aesthetic approaches to the discourse of the commons. The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006) to several of a number of cultural scenes of inquiry into “the commons” would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilisation. It is a premise that perceives a change in behaviour (one might well distress this premise by renaming it “consumer preference”) as the driver of social change, rather than in a reciprocal and historically determined relation of behaviour and cognition to its material conditions of possibility. There are of course structural affordances that promote this kind of voluntarism, which becomes an expression of a moralising, if at times perfectly relevant, insistence on “doing something” as a counter to the academicist and often priggish emphasis on “rigor”. We can shortly describe these structural affordances as the current vogue for production over display for art institutions, as well as the penchant of funders for quantifiable ‘outcomes’. Such a position can be evaluated with reference to the mix of pragmatism and idealism characterising the historical and current bourgeois class character that cuts across the sphere of art and the post-political and localist organisational roots of projects informed by commons discourses. However, this would be of limited interest, because the thesis of this text is that the commons is not a phenomenon whose appeal can be captured in sociological, or even ideological, terms. The commons and commonising is primarily an attitude to time; it is an attempt to eradicate the social abstraction of capitalist life, its ersatz community of money and preference, in the now, without a perspective on the future or the totality which capitalist civilisation has likewise ushered in through modernity, and is now busy obviating entirely.9It would also be important here to include another seismic shift in the ruling ideas of organised resistance that the production of being-in-common in its polyvalent contexts embodies: the shift from ends to means as the basic structure of political thought, epochally diffused through publications such as Giorgio Agamben’s Means Without End: Notes onPolitics (2000) or The Coming Community (1993).10 This shift in emphasis can be perceived from the position of politics, ontology or strategy. It is construed as a welcome remedy to decades of totalising revolutionary thought which placed all genuine change onto a future horizon and onto the eventuality of an absolute break, along with a mechanistic unfolding of social contradiction and neglect of the textures of domination in daily life. That is, the mode of politics that finally generates only inertia and melancholy and, perhaps, conferences, once its historic moment has passed. The reductiveness of such a schematic account is plain, both from the side of its writer as well as that which I claim to sketch. An initial objection could be mounted purely in factual terms, that a revolutionary agenda was the only historical force capable of implementing even the patchy social democratic reforms, i.e., “genuine changes”, which have been vanishing from the earth like so many endangered species in the past few decades. Yet the larger risk of not only reversing a priority between means and ends, but conflating them, is that it does not only have the salutary effect of adding reflexivity to the organon of revolutionary praxis but rather mistakes such reflexivity for the praxis itself. Yet, the relation between means and ends is itself a corollary of the shape praxis takes in its historical and geographic conditions of specificity. This itself must be seen against a total horizon of capitalist rule reproduced (or non-reproduced) in our forms of organisation as the antagonism that drives them – or the defeat and identification with power that guarantees the life of the status quo. The reification of means and ends and their procedural transposition, even if rarely undertaken consciously, informs a gamut of tendencies we can observe as practitioners and analysts of the commons debate as it pervades the institutions of art. One of these is the refusal of transition as an illegitimate “postponement” of all change until everything changes.

Thus the notion of the commons as a politics dispenses with the concept oftransition.11 It is a way of organising “after the revolution” as if the revolution has already occurred – on the scale such a revolution would have to have so as to make even the most pragmatic reorganisation of property and social relations around communal resources generalisable. This evokes Yoko One and John Lennon’s Vietnam-era billboard facing an L.A. freeway that proclaimed “War Is Over if You Want It”. The phrase synthesised the assumption that the revolution happens through adopting different ways of life and perspectives. This assumes that there is only a perpetual now, without a struggle against an enemy whose monopoly on violence and law sets the terms for how we can deviate from the current structure of the economy, or the role of our powerlessness in the face of bloodthirsty geopolitics in maintaining an everyday apathy. Neither does it say anything relevant about the contradictions that autonomous living and an existence immersed in the capitalist habitus and logistics must, in their different ways, confront us within any socially transformative project. The effective absence of a concept of futurity and antagonism, an absence which grows out of and is predicated on the unwinnability and undesirability of a direct conflict with capital and the state, also forecloses a more nuanced and powerful understanding of negativity as a component of social change. We could, counter-intuitively in many ways, turn to Hegel here: the real is the rational insofar as what exists is not simply a fallen world to be negated in every respect. This is a position which the more schematic moments of, as an example, communisation theory, flirt with. But the rational is the real needs to be understood instead in its context of ‘sublation’; that is, aspects of our reality must be taken up and re-articulated in whatever comes next, because they didn’t arbitrarily become part of the reality that we want to change. The most systemic domination contains its utopian moment of emancipation. This is, in fact, what preserves dialectical negativity from gnosticism, from the millenarian ideologies that are simply the obverse of the programmatically pragmatic approach to social change which is at once the “minimum” and the “maximum” program of commons-based struggles. It is thus that they can be located on a vast political spectrum that includes direct action, withdrawal and gathering in squares under the banner of a hypothetical democracy that would be more real than the one currently on the market.

The politics of the commons unfolds on the terrain of “reproduction”, as demarcated by capitalist social relations – the maintenance of life and sociality, from healthcare to education, public and private. As such, the specific temporality of the commons that maintains a community rather than producing a new, and necessarily abstract, global society is reflected in the politics of reproduction that evacuates modernist (and capitalist) future-orientation in favour of a cyclical or even a static experience of time. Neither productive nor destructive, at worst this relationship to time opens up commons-based thinking and praxis to charges of conservatism, if envisioned as a current variant of nineteenth-century self-help: an insular self-provisioning which is objectively depoliticising, and prone to bourgeois (and worse) illusions of organic autonomy. Such experiments are also always vulnerable to repression and expropriation because they do not attempt to contest property relations in anything but a small-scale, immanent way.

Silvia Federici’s notion of the “reproductive commons” celebrates urbanmarket gardens run by women in economically devastated metropolitanareas in places such as Nigeria and those run by activists in the “globalNorth”. It can be argued that even this advocacy is not able to avoid thepitfall of romanticising this necessity as a programmatic goal, containing initself a more desirable set of social relations than the ones which currentlyobtain. Since the thinking of the commons is largely about property rightsrather than labour, many un-monetised social practices are treated as acommons in the sense that neither property rights, nor the liberal civilrights based on them, apply to it. The example here is women’s work, whichis what Wages for Housework argued several decades ago and whichFederici’s celebration of de-monetised subsistence economies seems tohave forgotten. Feminist contract theory such as that in recent writing byAngela Mitropoulos or, earlier, the work of Carol Pateman, clarifies therelationship between property and legal personhood as itself a rivalrousgood, denied to women and others for centuries of what we considermodernity.12 Nowadays, struggles around indigeneity and intellectual property also remind us of the fundamentally contested notions of property which are elided in the social justice framework of commons discourses, bound as they are to a Lockean notion of property through cultivation. This tends to obfuscate the question precisely of how labour becomes property, and of course, how this labour becomes abstracted as a general measure of value in capitalism. What is thereby put in place is a requirement for general measures of social co-ordination – a clock that we, literally, cannot turn back – but which can be broken.

Common Properties

What the discussion so far has left out is how the prefigurative character of commons-based practices changes when it encounters legal institutions. The debates, initiatives and innovations in the digital commons around intellectual property – FLOSS (free, libre and open source software), copyleft and copyfarleft – have consistently kept the question of property and control in the forefront of critiques and activism on the terrain of informational capitalism. The focus there on licensing has shown attentiveness to the inextricability of social innovation from codes of law. But where this issue seems to acquire more gravity and helps us connect the discussion back to aesthetics as a propositional space with actual transformative powers, is when notions and practices around the resource commons actively confront the legal structure which renders them illegitimate. What is fascinating about these struggles is the points at which they actively intervene in the property relations of capital and state. These relations would prevent or undermine new ways of organising common life and resources from stabilising into institutions and thus attaining a kind of commonsense status which would make them dangerous to existing interests. They thus succeed in taking account of the poignant reality that many more “alternativist” commons discourses avoid at all costs: the primitive accumulation conducted by state and capital works not just to repress all past modes of social reproduction but all alternative modes as well in the attempt to preserve capitalist value as value. We need only look at the scale of domestic foreclosures in the US, the privatisation of welfare mechanisms in the UK, and the exacerbation of squatting laws in the austerity era to see the corroboration for this. Hence, a confrontation with the structural violence embodied by the systems of national and international (EU) law as much as the market is crucial if commons are to intervene in the discussion of totality and futurity on a strategic and political level. The impact of the sovereign debt crisis on European standards of living, particularly in Ireland, Portugal and the Mediterranean, itself reflecting the last couple of decades of vicious structural adjustment in the east and south, would also exemplify the tight link between legal regimes, looting by the advantaged few and the dispossession of most others.

Here we could bring into the frame the ongoing beni communi (common goods) movement in Italy. Beni communi can be traced through the successful 2011 referendum against water privatisation in Italy, the NO-TAVcampaign against the construction of a redundant and environmentally destructive high-speed train line in the Susa Valley, and the multiple occupations of theatres and cultural centres under threat of closure in cash-strapped municipalities, perhaps the most well-known being Rome’s Teatro Valle. Most salient on the agenda of this movement is the explicit acknowledgement of the antagonism and social complexity any politics which proposes to reconfigure property relations for the whole of society must both develop subjectively and implement in new legal instruments and institutions which keep the violence of the state at bay. In brief, it is an “aggressive” rather than a defensive (or passive-aggressive) concept of the commons which does not just seek to more horizontally administer the few leftover resources that can be scavenged for the “community” from the rapacity of capital and state. It is interested in overturning the millennia-old apparatus of private property, which both state and capital represent, however nostalgically these might still be polarised as agents of different value systems.

Ugo Mattei, the jurist and protagonist of the beni communi agenda, involved in setting up the legal foundation for Teatro Valle, has written of the scale of the challenge a commons-based politics faces vis-à-vis historically and socially embedded Western legal regimes:

“It could be said that the commons disappear as a result of their structural incompatibility with the deepest aspects of the Western “legality,” a legality that is founded on the universalizing combination of individualism with the State / private property dichotomy. (…) The dominant vision of the commons as a poorly theorized exception to either market or government is rooted at the very origins and in the very structure of the dominating Western vision of the law. That is how a social fact becomes real.”

A social fact which is based on the dichotomy between subject and object:

“Private structures (corporations) concentrate their decision making and power of exclusion in the hands of one subject (the owner) or within a hierarchy (the CEO). Similarly, public structures (bureaucracies) concentrate power at the top of a sovereign hierarchy. Both archetypes are inserted into a fundamental structure: the rule of a subject (an individual, a company, the government) over an object (a private good, an organization, a territory). Such pretended opposition between two domains that share the same structure is the result of modern Cartesian reductionist, quantitative, and individualistic thought.”

There is thus an acknowledgement that for struggles in the framework of the commons to succeed beyond transitory spaces and limited spheres of empowered adherents, they need to become viable and resilient. That means contesting the time and space to which they can lay claim in the hostile field of law:

“If properly theorized and politically perceived, the Commons can serve the crucial function of reintroducing social justice into the core of the legal and economic discourse by empowering the people to direct action. (…) The commons cannot be reduced to managing the leftovers of the Western historical banquet, which is the preoccupation of the contemporary political scene. To the contrary, we believe that the commons must be elevated as an institutional structure that genuinely questions the domains of private property, its ideological apparatuses and the State–not a third way but a challenge to the alliance between private property and the state.”13

The continuing Teatro Valle experience presents a compelling demonstration of the “legal paradox” which we see emerging here.14 In order to combat the unjust consequences of the existing legal apparatus, this same apparatus has to be injected with other political content and redeployed to create solid legal structures. These then enable not only the defence of experiments in commoning from the reflexive repression the symmetry of state and private law exists to legitimise, but to extend its horizons and its power – both experiment and example. This negotiation of the spaces traversing the possible and the real seems to bring us back, quite logically given the example of the theatre (although the other campaigns I have mentioned are equally fascinating and trenchant with respect to a militant practice of the commons), to the aesthetics debate. And in fact Teatro Valle (Occupato) has from the beginning provided a hospitable environment to visual artists whose own work thematises questions around the (political) theatre of community. Artists such as Keren Cytter, Clemens von Wedemeyer and Maia Schweizer, or Anja Kirschner and David Panos have worked on projects there. Panos has recently transfigured this experience into an “auratic” artwork for the LISTE Art Fair Basel in 2014 and an upcoming London solo show, presenting a video and a sculpture derived from an improvisation workshop with participants at and of the occupied theatre whose goal was to perform the human labour congealed in a commodity. Such a topical and “objective” proximity between community and commodity can be viewed as a central question to a struggle around the common appropriation of space, as ambitious and as photogenic as the Teatro Valle undoubtedly is. However, this is not to disregard the implications of an equally far-reaching question: that the means of legality re-appropriated for ends wholly incompatible with legality as we know it reminds us of something still very poignant for this debate – self-legislation, or, autonomy. But in what sense, particularly when geophysical, and thus trans-human, considerations must now condition every thought of social emancipation?

To Live and Die in the Park

While a militant commonism starts to look a lot like communism, the final dimension we need to think is contingency of the relations between subject and world which ground the dialectical aesthetics familiar from thinkers such as Adorno and allows us to sublate these into a viable “commonist aesthetics”. Such an aesthetics would ideally have some relation to the “de-propertisation” of the subject as ethical centre of cognitive and sensual autonomy or at least advancing some other conception of property than a principle of accumulation. It is important that the subject is sublated in the full Hegelian pomp of conceptual and social contradiction, within painful and ambiguous historical processes, rather than being turned away at the security checkpoints of object-oriented philosophy or pop criticism, which perform the elimination of the subject much as capital does: with maximumforce and minimal thought, as a matter of “logistics”.15 The recent collaborative writing of Harney and Moten is illuminating in the sense that, for them, de-subjectivation is the learning to unlearn the object character that has always infused subjectivity as a modern form of personhood coterminous with capitalist interiority as a personalisation of economic property relations. The subject’s intrinsic object character is evermore accentuated by class decomposition, precarious labour and logistical modes of governance. She can thus learn to become other than the manipulable unit she has been socialised to be in part through an aesthetics of de-propertisation, a sensorium that is experienced as and in common in what Moten and Harney call “the general antagonism”. They write: “We are the general antagonism to politics looming outside every attempt to politicise, every imposition of self-governance, every sovereign decision and its degraded miniature, every emergent state and home sweethome.”16

We can route back to the earlier discussion about the futurity-deficient aspect of a politics of the commons, its preoccupation with maintenance and preservation as intrinsically solid and benign. Harney connects the principle of self-determination dominant in that politics with a liberal, possessive individualism, albeit transposed to the level of a community:

What kind of communism could there be where I could just allow some people to do some shit for me, at the level of scale, and at the same time those people would also at other moments allow me to be doing that kind of thing? So, in what ways are we practicing, when we’re for a dispossession of ourselves and allowing ourselves to be possessed in certain other ways, allowing ourselves to consent not to be one, at a moment that also lets people act on us and through us, and doesn’t constantly require us re- constituting ourselves, which I think is implied? And this is, I think, the anti- communism of (James) Scott. Scott’s smallness is about self-determined autonomy. When you’re small and inresistance, you’re always in control.17

If a commonist aesthetics implies teasing out the historical and political implications of objecthood in the present as a condition of being-in-common, it could likewise mean that we need to re-ground our rationality in the object. Or at least we need to apprehend the subject-character of what we have deemed an object, or an object-world, even as this relationship has meant we as subjects are irreparably more like objects as a result. A commonist aesthetics thus needs to fundamentally reckon with strangeness and unknowability – the “absolute contingency” should be a “xenopolitics”, reckoning with the unknowability of this frangible, fissiparous subject-object relation as it traverses the materiality of the natural and the social. A rationality premised on sensuous non-knowledge, on an embodied approach to contingency as historical reality, describes both the political ecology and the political aesthetics we should take as our task to acknowledge in the practices where it exists and develop it where it doesn’t.

If the alien includes ourselves, our own constitution as a community is the figuration of a relationship to time and property which is both ruptural and propositional, in other words, social. This figuration is tangled with an aesthetics which engraves on the senses the objective of historical change and a becoming-other than what we are. And this displacement of subjectivity and rationality as it is transformed by its material conditions of existence constitutes the process of sublation referred to earlier, where a new rationality is tied to a new relationality – to ourselves as contingent others, developing a species-being at rapidly greater and greater disjunction with myriad unknown others – the non-human. While this plane of co-existence has been formulated, somewhat opaquely as new materialism, or in terms of the “vibrant matter” following political theorist Jane Bennett, that lends a panpsychic mystique to the all-too-technocratic horizontal ontologies of theorists like Bruno Latour, it might be more pertinent to conclude, finally, with an instance of xenopolitics in the exhibition complex.

The exhibition Vegetation as a Political Agent at Parco Arte Viviente, Torino in 2014, seems – not unlike 2010’s The Potosi Principle at Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, incidentally also held in Spain – to be interested in the articulation of passive nature with human ambition, fusing biological alterity with a materialist reading of history. Here the focus was on botany and agriculture as central actors in economies of subsistence and accumulation, thus key to colonial and anti-colonial projects alike. At the same time, and perhaps more typically of our geist of zeit, there is Nature after Nature, held this year at the Fredericianum in Kassel, only two years ago the site of a puissantly new materialist Documenta. Perhaps – in a more modest way – the exhibition replicated Documenta’s abdication of materialism through the sheer generality of its articulation of nature and culture, a constitutive flaw shared by most discourses of their inseparability under such rubrics as the “anthropocene”. The production of an abstractly culpable and contemplative viewer is the usual outcome of such curatorial visions, however refractory and astute the artistic practices they strive to subsume often turn out to be. But the wager of a thought of commonist aesthetics is that it is precisely not subsumable, or at least not wholly, in an administrative version of what was once the pugnacious concept of a “second nature”. Instead, the rational core of an aesthetics which comes out of a social drive towards “de-propertisation” is that it makes us experience, not just apprehend, the radical unknowability of the world and ourselves, and the way this unknowability presses a claim on reality as contingent, transformable. Thus, it is perhaps the “aesthetic” which retains the dimension of futurity – an alterity within time and within us insofar as we are also in time – and lends it to the commons. The gap that subsists between them prevents a simple revivification of a communism which erases its own historical actuality and our historical contingency. For Søren Kierkegaard, the space between the aesthetic and the ethical was there to be traversed by a decision, the decision to commit to God and leave the vacillating aesthetic attitude to existence on the other shore. In our diagram, instead, the gap between the commons and aesthetics contains time, and, by implication, the future. Neither can be collapsed into the other at risk of extinguishing time as the “space” of historical novelty, or the politics whose promise, whose attempted actualisation can only ever reproduce the real contradictions keeping both aesthetics and commons from being the answer.

Marina Vishmidt completed her PhD, entitled Speculation as a Mode of Production in Art and Capital at Queen Mary, University of London in 2013. She is the co-editor of Uncorporate Identity (Lars Müller, 2010) and WINTER: Poetics and Politics (Mousse Publishing, 2013). She is currently writing a book with Kerstin Stakemeier on the politics of autonomy and reproduction in art (Hamburg: Textem, forthcoming). She has taught at Middlesex University, Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martins and Universität der Künste Berlin.

Footnotes and references:

Artistic labor and the production of value. An attempt for a Marxist interpretation

Dr. José María Durán will partake in the panel debate on Post Capitalistic Values at our seminar Thursday 15 March. He is a lecturer of European cultural studies at the HfM Hanns Eisler in Berlin, and author of a number of articles on the subject of the political economy of art and has edited in Spanish William Morris’ late political writings, William Morris: trabajo y comunismo (2014). His books include: Hacia una crítica de la economía política del arte (2008), Iconoclasia, historia del arte y lucha de clases (2009) and La crítica de la economía política del arte (2015).

We are glad to share one of his latest publications here: Artistic labor and the production of value. An attempt for a Marxist interpretation.



The production of value is addressed under consideration of the artistic labor process with focus on the visual arts. First, the commodity form of artistic works is examined and the theoretical challenges that we face are pointed out. Second, a specific ideology of the artistic labor process is considered. This ideology serves to conceal the economic relations of production that shape artistic labor as producer of value. Finally, an analysis of the substance of value is proposed. Intellectual property rights are examined from the perspective of value production.

By Dr. José María Durán. Url:, email:



The paper is motivated by an apparently simple question: what is a commodity?, or, put differently, why are the products of labor commodities? As an art historian I have to deal, mainly theoretically, with works of art that are easily characterized as commodities, being the obvious proof of it the simple exchange process in the market or willingness to pay: two contract parties agree on a price and it is over (Klamer 1996, 23). At the same time, works of art are often seen as some sort of exception to the rule of commodity production in capitalism. On the one hand, because of the particularities of their own labor process (Roberts 2007, 25-26) and, on the other hand, because clearly their price diverge immensely from production costs (Bourdieu 1993, 76). I have to say that my analysis concentrates primarily on the visual arts, although I believe that it can also be applied to literature and perhaps music (at least from the perspective of the composer), but not to cultural industries (like book editing or film), nor to the performative arts (in a broad sense) with a clear division of labor.

I have always wondered, whether the commodification of works of art can be explained without resorting to the ubiquitousness of market exchange relations. In some sort of remake of Marx’s labor theory of value (not his own term) for the arts, I would like here to put forward an examination of the production process of art as a process of value production. Although I am not interested in the technical aspects of the production process, rather in its social form or appropriateness. It only takes a quick look into the first pages of the first volume of Marx’s Capital to realize that being a commodity is far from an obvious matter. As Marx put it, there are things that have use value, without having value; and things that are the product of human labor, “without being a commodity”. Finally, there are “social use values… transferred to another… by means of an exchange”, i.e. commodities (Marx 1996, 50-51). The piano-player from the Grundrisse, who produces music, i.e. a social use value, although she is unproductive because she doesn’t produce capital since she “only exchanges h[er] labor for revenue” (Marx 1986, 231), she is also the singer from the famous Chapter 6 of Capital (unpublished) who, “when engaged by an entrepreneur who has her sing in order to make money, is a productive worker, for she directly produces capital” (Marx 1994, 448; emphasis in the original). In this example the position of artistic labor in relation to capital has changed without any intrinsic quality either in the labor itself or in the product of labor impeding its appropriation by capital; so the pianist could work in exchange for some revenue (in money or in kind) in jam sessions during the week, and for an impresario at the weekends. But both, the pianist and the singer, enter market relations as producers of use values, or, in other words, because they are able to produce a concrete outcome that can be appropriated for a profit. This situation is qualitatively different from that of the wage earner who sells her (abstract) labor power. I use here this distinction as my working premise. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that the selling of the own labor power as well as the selling of the outcome of the own labor power refer to the same law of capitalist relations of production that underlies exchange relations: individuals enter market relations as commodity owners.

Here lies the crucial point of the whole paper; that is, thinking about the commodity form of the work of art implies to think critically about ownership regarding the production process and its outcome. My position is the following: regardless of the productive or unproductive character of the labor, the artist in general has to claim ownership over the products of her labor in order to sell them to a capitalist or an art’s lover in exchange for revenue. This social position of the artist is sanctioned by intellectual property rights. Only then the products of artistic labor become commodities. This paper delves into this.

2.Boris Groys and the market

German philosopher Boris Groys articulates the question of the commodity form of works of art in a way that looks like common sense. Groys writes: “Works of art are commodities like any other” (Groys 2003a, 9). Groys wants us to believe that today art doesn’t involve a production process (Vorgang der Produktion) but an “act of selection” (Akt der Selektion) of those commodities that make up the work of art. If being a work of art means the use of distinct commodities, according to Groys (12), then production simply consists in the artist going shopping. Beyond the fact that any production process relies on accumulated labor expressed in the form of commodities, one can see how the characterization of the process of production of art as consumption process implies a theoretical displacement: the work of art is placed outside commodity production, and only market relations account for that thing we know as price or value in exchange. Value is established in the market and it has no existence prior to it.

Groys’ thesis functions as self-evident truth. It is easy to see works of art circulating like any other commodity in the context of the market economy, thus following the usual laws of this economy, Groys writes (9). These are undeniable facts, he asserts, concluding that from this point of view it is easy to say that the work of art is a commodity. However, these usual laws of the market economy are not made explicit; as a matter of fact, they are simply taken for granted. In short, according to these laws the relation of exchange is based on a contract on use values between independent parties. But this understanding relies on a specific theoretical framework, that of neoclassical economics, which too often is presented as the natural order of things. So the visible truth of the work of art acting like any ordinary commodity subject to relations of exchange serves as legitimating the theoretical framework presented then as self-evident truth. From this point of view, the economic analysis of the work of art has nothing to contribute by itself, since its principles are those of the general economy, and the Marxian discussion on value seems pointless if applied to the arts (Towse 1996, 102).

But, isn’t Marx’s work a way of defying generally assumed truths? If we want to defy the common sense, as Groys expressed it above, we should begin calling the obvious facts of everyday experience and practice into question, as the French philosopher Louis Althusser put it, appearing the results of this questioning “as the contrary to the obvious facts of practical everyday experience, rather than as their reflection” (Althusser 1990, 15; emphasis in the original). This means for my discussion here to raise questions about key issues that in the Marxist economic literature have been posed about the labor theory of value.

If we agree that works of art are commodities, that is, works of art enter relations of exchange in our market economy, it means calling this obvious fact into question that we ask, what is it that makes the work of art a commodity—being the difficulty of this analysis already pointed out by Rubin (1973, 166). Let me briefly comment on that.

Rubin’s discussion, as one reviewer of this paper rightly pointed out, has to do with the fact that subsuming unreproducible objects, like original “works of art by certain masters”, under Marx’s law of value is unfeasible (Roberts 2007, 28-29; Gouverneur 2011, 51; Rodríguez Herrera 2015, 208). The mode of production of traditional visual arts like painting, characterized by production of unique works, to which, as Hobsbawm noted, “the visual artist was committed, and from which he or she found it difficult or even impossible to escape” (Hobsbawm 1998, 16), has been seen as the foundation of the lucrative art trade (17). Nevertheless, I think that we need to reconsider the notion of reproducibility for original works of art without having to put into question the basic premise that the socially necessary labor required for the production and reproduction of a commodity doesn’t apply to unreproducible works of art whose supply is given; they bear a fancy price, as it is commonly understood (White 1999). We still are caught in the traditional belief that sees the artistic field as an uniform amalgam of individual artists, each of them with their own independent concerns and interests, busy with finding buyers with a sympathetic understanding of their individual work. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the artistic field has its own interests in reproducing specific kinds of art and artists whose works of art are, as a matter of fact, exchangeable, that is, on the whole, they are not scarce. Although, it isn’t the socially necessary labor time that which makes these commodities commensurable and exchangeable, which, I do believe, is irrelevant for the valuation of visual arts. On the other hand, many successful contemporary artists are engaged in producing reproducible unique (original) pieces (which seems to be a contradiction but it isn’t), like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami or Anselm Reyle. Their production bears no contradiction whatsoever with Marx’s law of value, being in these cases uniqueness or originality little more than an ideological framework that serves, on the one hand, to conceal the fact of value production, on the other hand, to drive prices up. Again, this is merely a generalization and the great majority of artists do not behave like Damien Hirst (Sholette 2011).

2.The question of the work of art as a commodity

The social use values that Marx refers to as commodities in the first chapter of the first volume of Capital are exchanges values (Marx 1996, 51). To be seen as such, that is, in the plain sense of values for exchange we need to make abstraction from their “material elements and shapes”, as well as from the concrete labor embodied in them (48), although “being an object of utility” (51), Marx acknowledges, is their necessary condition. But utility is not at stake here. As Marx put it in his “Notes on Adolph Wagner”:

in every price-list every individual sort of commodity [distinguishes] itself from the others as goods, use-value, as cotton, yarn, iron, grain, etc., and [represents] “goods” qualitatively different from the others toto coelo, but simultaneously [represents] its price as qualitatively the same but quantitatively different of the same essence. It presents itself in its natural form for him who uses it, and in value-form, which is quite different from it and “common” to all other commodities, i.e. as exchange-value. (Marx 1989, 550; emphasis in the original.)

It is important to recognize that to access the use values of these social products one has to enter first market relations. I mean with it, that these social use values or commodities must first realize themselves as exchange values before they can be of whatever use. But the social relation of exchange here is a peculiar one, because it is one in which equivalents are exchanged in so far as they represent something common which is independent of their natural form, as Marx put it above. This common substance, which manifests in the exchange relation, Marx calls it value. And value is the product of human labor “in the abstract” (Marx 1996, 48), “homogeneous human labour” or “one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units”, each of which “is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such” (49). It seems then apparent that the category hidden behind the visible truth of market exchange relations is that of abstract labor. If commodities have value because their identical social substance is abstract labor, can we speak of an identical social substance or abstract labor regarding the production of works of art as commodities?

The question is of great importance. If we contend that in the art market that which enters in the exchange relation is the concrete labor of the artist as it manifests itself in a discrete piece of art, being this concrete labor considered as contributing (i.e., as one factor among others) to the value of the work of art in exchange, we have then transformed the exchange relation into a relation between an individual, i.e. the artist or the art dealer acting in his or her name, seeking monetary incentives, and a consumer trying to satisfy her wants. But in this manner we have opened the door for mainstream economics, according to which exchange relations are the cornerstone of sociability (Cowen 1998). Marx was well aware that such analysis was not only far from true. It has also an ideological scope: to present capitalist social relations as relations between independent individuals moved by their free will.

Marx writes in the Grundrisse:

In money relations… individuals appear to be independent…, appear to collide with each other freely, and to exchange with each other in this freedom; but they appear independent only to those who abstract from the conditions, the conditions of existence, in which those individuals come into contact with each other (and these in turn are independent of the individuals and appear, though produced by society, as it were, as natural conditions, i.e. beyond the control of the individuals). (Marx 1986, 100.)

In the case of artists the independence that money relations come to support can be addressed as follows: What does the artist have to sell as her sole property? This is important in so far as we acknowledge that the answer to this question shows that fundamental distinction between the artist and the wageworker already pointed out in the introduction. While the wageworker sells her labor power, the artist sells the products of her labor. To clarify my position once again, I am thinking about the visual artist, or even the writer, who in selling her piece of work (and this can be simply a sheet with instructions) presents herself as the owner of the production process, that is, she doesn’t work for someone else.

Paradigmatically, Marx illustrates this point referring to the work of John Milton: “Milton, for instance, ‘who did the Paradise Lost for £5’, was an ‘unproductive’ worker… Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason as that which makes the silk-worm produce silk. It was an activity wholly natural to him. He later sold the product for £5” (as quoted by Prawer 2011, 310). Prawer’s classic reading of this passage is a good example of an interpretation that sees market relations imposing economic value on works that have no value at all. “The general point Marx is making”, writes Prawer (312), “remains clear enough. The true poet’s labour could remain—in Milton’s time at least—unalienated to the extent that he took no account of market value. Such a poet writes what he has to, from the centre of his being, and leaves it to others to convert his poem into a profit-bearing commodity.” In the 1970’s artist Robert Smithson expressed this point in a similar manner, showing thereby his own uneasiness about it:

Paintings are bought and sold. The artist sits in his solitude, knocks out his paintings, assembles them, then waits for someone to confer value, some external source. The artist isn’t in control of his value. And that’s the way it operates… Whatever a painting goes for… is really somebody else’s decision, not the artist’s decision, so there’s a division, on the broad social realm, the value is separated from the artist, the artist is estranged from his own production. (As quoted by Owens 1992, 122.)

Owens is right in pointing out that Marxism has been particularly keen on this version of art as unalienated labor, as for example in the work of Sánchez Vázquez, one of the leading Marxist writers in Spanish language, whose interpretation of Marx’s concept of labor in general (from chapter VII of the first volume of Capital, chapter V in the German edition) as creative labor has been very influential (Sánchez Vázquez 1973; similarly Wolff 1984, 14-15; see Durán 2015; Bryan-Wilson 2009, 26-32).

Nevertheless, we should recognize that in the aforementioned example Milton’s selling of his manuscript to the publisher, that is, Milton’s acting as commodity-dealer, can only be the product of historically determined social relations (Lindenbaum 1994; Dobranski 1999). In this respect, I would like to emphasize something that I think is crucial. That Milton is able to act socially as commodity-dealer cannot be taken for granted. It doesn’t emerge naturally, despite Marx’s ambiguous tone and his comparison with the silkworm. It can only rest on a specific form of economic proprietorship over the products of labor. In general terms this economic proprietorship means: possession of the means of production, control of the productive process and appropriation of its results (see Economakis 2002, 161). For example, visual artists during the Italian Renaissance weren’t, strictly speaking, the proprietors of the result of the production process, although they could own the means of production, at least partially. That’s why some artists could speak about their patrons as artistically skilled as themselves. It is well known that in ancient Greece production was determined by users, not by craftsmen (Vernant 2006, 290). There are important differences in the mode and relations of production among these examples. They show how far still we are from a real historical understanding of the relations of production of artistic production as economic relations.

In the manuscript known as Urtext Marx points out that commodity owners produce “under such conditions of production and relations of commerce which resulted only from an historical process but which appear… to be a natural necessity” (Marx 1987, 465). In Milton’s case, the social relations that appear to him as natural necessity are those which lead to the selling of the manuscript, which comes about only on the presupposition of ownership over the products of one’s own labor, namely, the labor of writing. Therefore, Milton’s independence, as Prawer wants to assert it, is illusory in so far as it can only exist within a social dependence: the law of appropriation through one’s own labor (463). I would like to develop this point further (see moreover point 4 below).

Marx writes that property in the result of one’s own labor makes the “basic premiss of the bourgeois society… the society of the developed exchange value” (ibid, emphasis in the original). This premise, Marx continues, “rests on the premiss of exchange value as an economic relationship dominating the whole aggregation of relationships of production and commerce, and so is itself a historical product of the bourgeois society” (ibid, emphasis in the original). The exchangers must appear, according to Marx, “as the proprietors of the exchange values” (462). Within an understanding of this relation of exchange as economic relation between individuals, that is, taken it in its simplest form, becomes clear that such description of exchange relations between individual proprietors of exchange values could lead to think of exchange relations as relations of exchange in kind: “In accordance with this conception”, write Milios, Dimoulis and Economakis (2002, 16-17), “for a person to be able to purchase something he/she must first sell, or more precisely purchase by selling (the aim being the attainment of the maximum subjective utility).” For Marx it is clear that this assumption has as it basis “the society of the developed exchange value”. In addition, it has an ideological scope: within it circulation appears as the “realm of bourgeois liberty and bourgeois equality”, concludes Marx (1987, 464).

Milton’s economic relation with his editor seems perfectly congruent with this outline. To be able to enter in an economic relation with the editor, that is, to be able to sell him the product of his labor, Milton has to appear first as commodity owner, i.e. as proprietor of the products of his own labor. Lindenbaum is of the opinion that Milton’s contract with the printer Simmons, the earliest known of its kind that has survived, which makes Marx’s remark on Milton even more relevant, shouldn’t be considered within the framework of the patronage system, but belonging already “to a system in which the writer emerges as an independent professional” (Lindenbaum 1994, 180). “[W]e see an author”, writes Lindenbaum, “who is fully acknowledging the condition of authorship [although he didn’t explicitly claim authorship in today’s terms, that is, as intellectual property rights – JMD], viewing himself as the possessor of property that gives him definite rights” (ibid). And within these rights there is the right to alienating the product of his labor, or to its transformation into a social form, as Marx put it: “Circulation is a movement in which one’s own product is posited as exchange value (money), i.e. as a social product” (Marx 1987, 464).

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Milton’s economic relation with the printer Simmons resembles Smith’s model of commercial society based on the market exchange between independent commodity producers. These independent commodity producers are independent in the sense that they work for themselves. McNally writes:

They operate, therefore, in a network of market relations with others; but they do so from a position of independence. It is easy to comprehend the attractions of such an outlook given Smith’s moral philosophy. An economy of independent commodity producers comprises relations between individuals who are (at least formally) equal. The butcher, the brewer and the baker must conduct themselves prudently in order to elicit the sympathetic understanding of those with whom they exchange, just as they must be capable of entering into a sympathetic appreciation of each other’s position in turn. A commercial society in which ‘every man is in some measure a merchant’ thus constitutes in principle for Smith a network of equitable relationships between free and independent individuals. (McNally 1993, 54.)

McNally points out rightly that the notion of a society based on economic relations between free and independent individuals is “one of the classic apologetic claims of vulgar bourgeois economics… which was to be crucial to the development of political economy as a pure and simple bourgeois ideology” (55). This enters the aesthetic ideology with Kant, as Kant, who was well aware of Smith’s argument (Fleischacker 1996), writes in §43 of the Critique of Judgment about art differing from the handicrafts by virtue of being an occupation that is free, i.e., it doesn’t depend on wages. Kant had in mind independent commodity producers, who are their own masters and have some property (Williams 1983, 145), and thus in full agreement with Smith’s discussion about brewers, butchers and bakers in the first chapters of the Wealth of Nations. Paradigmatically, Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961) illustrates Smith and Kant’s point perfectly well, presenting the artist as petty commodity producer as well as merchant in a clearly romanticized way at odds with the US-American society founded on wage labor (Lüthy 2002). According to my reading here, Oldenburg’s presentation, which could be seen in the context of an understanding of artistic production as remnant or survival of some artisanal mode of production (Schapiro 1994, 235; Prawer 2011, 313; Bryan-Wilson 2009, 69 on Carl Andre), is perfectly consistent with bourgeois ideology’s way to present economic relations.

Regarding my working premise above: that the difference between the artist and the wageworker lies on what they sell in the market, so the artist differently to the wageworker sells the products of her labor, appearing then as petty commodity producer, we see now that this social position cannot be considered the result of a natural relation, but it is an historical one presenting a clear ideological undertone. Still, we must distinguish the ideological expression of it from the real social relations that have shaped it. Marx writes in the Urtext:

The basic premiss about the subjects of circulation having produced exchange values, products directly posited in the social determinateness of exchange value, and so also subsumed under a definite historically shaped division of labour, incorporates a mass of other premisses which do not stem from the will of the individual or from his immediate natural character, but from the historical conditions and relations in virtue of which the individual already finds himself to be a social individual determined by the society… [it] rests on a whole range of economic conditions through which the individual is conditioned on every side in his connections with other individuals and in his own mode of existence. (Marx 1987, 464-465, emphasis in the original.)

In principle, I think that there is no mistake in characterizing artists as petty commodity producers or self-employed laborers. But in doing so we must consider artists’ economic positions in relation to the general structure of the capitalist economic and social relations without fully subsuming artistic labor in them, as if artistic labor were a simple reflection of them. In this respect I am interested in now, how these economic relations are concealed, i.e., how artists as commodity producers are presented socially.

3.The ideology of work

While we may be ready to admit that an ancient artifact with a form given by an artisan or a group of them is the result of complex social relations that consist of material and ideological aspects transcending purely individual achievements (see McNally 2001, 101 on heterotechnic cooperation), it appears not to be the case if speaking about modern art. So, for example, the given form of an ancient Athenian jar, used to store grain, that models on the woman’s uterus, can be related to a religious understanding of the earth as giver of all riches and, in a specific social context, this form given becomes the so-called Pandora’s box from the myth of Prometheus as told by the ancient poet Hesiod; i.e., it encompasses class and gender relations as well as specifically economic ones. The form given is the product of complex social interactions, or social praxis, and as such its conception cannot be possibly attributed to a singular individual, the isolated craftsman. We might say that the social fabric is condensed in the form of the jar, or that the social fabric unfolds in the form given of the jar in the sense that the social fabric is this very form, among others. Nevertheless, there is an understanding of modern art, one which we can put in relation to the hackneyed notion of autonomy and that today is presented as self-evident, that emphasizes the individual achievements of an outstanding personality. I have here in mind a critical reflection (still to be further developed) on the idea of creativity or imagination conceived as prior to realization. It follows from it a conception of the artist as principle of causation. I draw now from Montag’s reading of Spinoza, according to which the artistic will or intention does not exist outside its realization but it is coextensive with it (Montag 1999, 47). That’s why I used the example of an ancient artifact to illustrate this point. Because an artifact, which we cannot possibly attribute to a singular subjectivity, appears to be more obviously, as Montag put it following Spinoza, the result of a chain of “disparate elements that combine in such a way as to produce an effect” (Montag 2005, 189). In this respect, the chain of determinations that end in a discrete work of art should be the true object of analysis. The view of the artistic process as the result of an outstanding personality, which is tied to the category of authorship (see below), has important consequences from the perspective of a critique of the political economy of art. In regard to it I would like to give now an example of the ideological representation of modern artists’ labor.

Following the picture of contemporary society as post-industrial and, then, knowledge and information based, contemporary artist’s studio is presented as place for experimentation and research, a place where creative work takes shape. Artist Antony Gormley describes it “as an industrial space for creative work. It’s a very movable feast. When I think of what I do, it’s impossible not to say ‘we,’ the studio (with his eight assistants) is a much larger organism.” The division of labor that takes place in the studio is rewritten as creative collaboration, concealing the fact that between the head of the studio and the assistants real economic relations take place. Ursprung describes Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin as follows: “Eliasson does not act as his collaborators’ superior, but rather as a kind of ‘client’ who approaches them with ideas for projects and asks how they might be realized” (Urspung 2009, 165). But despite the emphasis on the process of research, more than on tangible products, Eliasson’s art relies on the production of saleable commodities (169-170). And Eliasson’s iconic commodities do not make transparent the economic relations of labor in his studio. “Notwithstanding the rhetoric of teamwork and its participatory and collaborative structures”, writes Ursprung (180-181), “it remains clear that Eliasson is the sole author. The collaborators are paid employees whose job it is to produce surplus value.” This is an important point. According to the classical Marxist analysis, the ownership of the means of production is key for an understanding of the economic and social (i.e. class) relations between laborers and capitalists. Everything that Eliasson’s assistants create in his studio, with whatever means at hand, belongs to him. But the private property in the products of labor, which Eliasson is able to claim, doesn’t exactly rest on the possession of specific means of production that allows him to control the productive process. Distinct about artistic property in the products of labor is that the results of labor are understood, and then legally protected, as manifestations of an unalienable subjectivity. It doesn’t matter who actually works, as long as the products of labor can be attributed to a subject, i.e., as long as they are regarded as the embodiments of the subject’s idea. “I think that one becomes an author through the artistic idea”, affirms an assistant of Eliasson—a phrase that recalls that famous statement of artist Sol LeWitt in 1967: “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (quoted in Jones 1996, 372)—and when the idea makes the art, who needs working? Eliasson is an author who “pays for making things for him… It’s ok”, says Eliasson’s assistant (as interviewed by Dell 2010; my own translation).

In this respect, we see now that Eliasson’s social position, that which enables him to claim ownership over the products of labor, is understood as based on the possession of ideas, something that today is more fashionably conceptualized in terms of human capital theory (Towse 2006). But having ideas isn’t determining in itself. In order to claim ownership over the products of labor the artist has to appear not only as having good ideas but also as rightfully proprietor of these ideas, being this property considered to stem from the labor of his mind. This means that in order to be able to produce a commodity the artist needs first to invest the real, on which he works, with property (Edelman 1979, 38-39).

Therefore, Eliasson’s conceptualization of work in his studio implies not only concealing the labor of others but also a perception of the labor process and its results as an extension of his subjectivity, of the creative self, and, as such, as naturally his property. Artistic proprietorship is based on the assumption that what is fabricated or simply chosen, i.e. the artistic object, is the material realization of the subjective and, thus, unique and singular intellect. Before the artist appears socially as owner of the products of thought, he is constituted as private owner of thoughts. It is this private ownership which is sanctioned by intellectual property rights.

4.The exclusive property rights

My thesis says that the commodity form of the work of art is the product of a specific relationship, historically determined, between the activity of the artist and the result of this activity as her property. Paraphrasing Marx (1987, 463) I would like to suggest that the commodity form of the work of art is the result of an appropriation through labor. I am referring here to a process that takes place before the artist ‘alienates’ her work; that is, a process that takes place while laboring but which isn’t intrinsic to labor itself, but the effect of a social relation.

We are so accustomed to see works of art naturally bound to an individual subjectivity that we easily forget that this bond is the product of concrete social relations, those which provided the fertile ground for what Macpherson first called “possessive individualism” (1962). Thus the assumption that from this bond derives a relation of property between the creative artist and the result of her labor has also a historical basis. Milton’s possession of his manuscript and his subsequent selling of it implies historically determined social relations that couldn’t be, for example, possible in an oral society (Ong 1988). The property relation takes a specific superstructural form in the intellectual property law. Thus I propose an understanding of intellectual property as historical category, itself the product of those social relations that have put the artist after the break-up of the feudal mode of production in the position of having to claim ownership over the products of her labor in order to enter market relations and then to get access to income, once, for example, patron relations receded; and that is, what Milton’s example illustrates. I shall direct my analysis now to the emergence of literary property, as it has been the subject studied at best in this respect.

The possession of what has been written is based on the assumption that writing is the manifestation of subjectivity. In its way to give thoughts a form, the individual is presented as a unique and singular, and therefore subjective. Each writer, wrote the German philosopher Fichte in 1793, “must give his thoughts a certain form, and he can give them no other form than his own because he has no other” (as quoted by Woodmansee 1994, 52; emphasis added). From the foundation of the Self as self-positing, that is, absolutely independent and autonomous, Fichte deduces something that is going to be truly decisive: The writer cannot “be willing to hand over this form in making his thoughts public, for no one can appropriate his thoughts without thereby altering their form. This latter thus remain his exclusive property” (ibid; final emphasis added). According to Fichte, this form is an intrinsic part of the ‘I in itself’ (Ich an sich) and cannot be subject to external appropriation, i.e. it is unalienable. Having assumed Fichte’s premise (see Woodmansee 1994, 35-55), the task will be to protect this form legally as it materializes in an alienable object, by considering the artist as an originator (Urheber) of a material object that has a form that is originally, idiosyncratically (eigentümlich) part of her subjectivity. The task performed by intellectual property law consists then in sanctioning the Self’s claim that the products of her intellect are hers, that is, her private property, because they originate in her unalienable subjectivity; or, which amounts to the same thing, it consists in legally constituting the artist as private owner of commodities. The works “which are to be protected are the fruits of intellectual labor”, wrote the Justice Samuel F. Miller in 1879, i.e., the works subject to protection “are founded in the creative powers of the mind” (as quoted by Jaszi 1994, 37; emphasis added); and so are these works considered original from the perspective of the law, it means, they have their origin in the creative mind. It has been now recognized that the law protects the material embodiments (books, paintings, and so on) of the creative mind, i.e. of intellectual labor expended on the production of a commodity, although regardless of the amount of labor time invested. That is, the law protects the sensible object or vehicle that renders the creative mind available to everyone, that is, economic calculable. Sherman and Bently write:

The particular difficulty which the law faced… was that as the work of a lifetime could be concentrated into a page of mathematical symbols, there was no measure of the amount of labour. With the move away from the labour embodied in the creation towards the object itself, however, these difficulties were resolved: while it was difficult to place labour in a form for it to be calculated, the closed work and the contribution that it made to the economy could be calculated. (Sherman and Bently 1999, 180)

That which is truly important about the axis author/work is the recognition of labor as source of property and, hence, of value, since ownership of thoughts and ideas becomes socially relevant only a posteriori, once these are made available for economic exploitation, i.e. once they are materialized through labor in saleable products or services. The focus on labor, which is considered to be creative labor, that is, labor that originates in the creative subjective mind, shows little concern about the real concreteness of labor (Sherman 2002, 408; Towse 1996, 100). In this respect, intellectual property law treats all artistic products on the same footing: as the original labor of an author (as subject in law, see Edelman 1979; Pashukanis 1983). It considers that the creative mind invests labor in that which has been generally acknowledged as commons, namely, in the ‘field of knowledge’ (Hess and Ostrom 2011) or, put differently, in whatever an artist considers worth using. The labor invested becomes the source of property in a very Lockean sense and from it derives the right of alienating the resulting product, so it can enter relations of exchange; that is, the product of one’s labor can then be posited as exchange value. Therefore, what the law does, as Pashukanis pointed out, is specifying “the most universal abstract conditions under which both exchange can take place according to the law of value, and exploitation can occur in the form of the ‘free contract’” (Pashukanis 1983, 39). In this respect, the concrete labors are only interesting once they have realized themselves as property, which is the previous step in the process of transformation of artistic works in commodities. Works of art are commodities in so far as they have the same social substance, i.e., in so far as they are the effect of an appropriation through labor.

For Fichte it was clear that the printer could only possible act on behalf of the writer. Possession splits. There is, on the one hand, possession of the form of the words, that mysterious thing called intellectual property that achieved general recognition and legal status in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, there is possession of paper and ink on the side of the printer/publisher. But paper and ink are not important in themselves. They constitute the property of the printer in so far as they are bearers of that form which is the exclusive property of the author. Therefore, author and printer enter a legal relationship—one that rests on a historically shaped division of labor—regarding the writing; and the user, who buys the printed book, doesn’t buy its property but the right of using it, as he pleases. The contract between the property in the form (author’s intellectual property) and the property in the reproduction of this form for commercial purposes cannot be damaged by the user. He buys the right to read, not the reproduction rights of the book. Similarly, one buys the right of contemplating a painting, not the right to modify it or reproduce it.

I am not going to rewrite now the history of intellectual property rights coming to be in the context of the European enlightenment (Bosse 1981; Hesse 1991; Rose 1993; Woodmansee 1994; Nuss 2006; Johns 2009). I want to emphasize that intellectual property means, after all, the legal recognition of the artist/author as commodity owner. The law establishes a legal framework that sanctions the production process as a process of appropriation through labor; one which enables the artist to enter market relations as the rightfully proprietor of a commodity. Thus the law is the superstructural expression of a social relation.

Private ownership through labor shapes exchange relations within the legal framework of intellectual property rights. For example, it makes possible for the artist to get access to different forms of income, like the royalties typical for reproducible works. At the same time, for works that are not supposed to be reproducible, copyright law (a concrete expression of intellectual property law) is crucial in sanctioning uniqueness, since the violation of uniqueness and originality means an injury to the individual rights of the artist as proprietor, as these rights are incorporated, i.e. realized or embodied, in the discrete work of art.

Having said that, can the market position or value of these artists be still considered in terms of a Fichtean form, i.e., an inborn ‘asset’ which is different in each individual and enables those more gifted “to achieve a high level of ‘artistic productivity’—great performances—that few competitors can supply” (Towse 2006, 877)? There is a strong analogy with the Ricardian theory of rent from the perspective of human capital theory, being the differences in income between artists explained in terms of differential inborn talent or ‘natural fertility’ in relation to demand. Intellectual property law sanctions the economic importance of this inborn ‘asset’ protecting the labor invested in getting it expressed or communicated, either as a living performance or discrete work. But human capital theory takes for granted that which needs to be explained, namely: why does the output of innate ability express itself in terms of a relation of property? The output of innate ability is understood as private property because it is considered naturally part of the unalienable Self, which is able to transform its ‘capital’ (i.e. ‘human capital’) through labor into an alienable work or performance subject to economic exploitation, that is, a commodity. The claim regarding the economic role played by innate ability is made on the assumption of this property relation between the Self and its externalization through labor, however leaving this relation unexplained. But without proprietorship functioning as category for social relations the role played by innate ability simply loses ground.

I suggest that the substance of value of the created commodity resides precisely in the relation of appropriation between the artist and the result of her expended labor, as it is sanctioned by intellectual property rights. From the perspective of the law all artistic labors represent the same substance: intellectual property. Correspondingly, any commodity being the product of artistic labor is treated as bearer of the same social substance in this respect. We may then consider that it transforms the concrete labor of artists in something homogeneous, that is, in an identical social substance or abstract labor. However, I do recognize that within the sphere of production the process here outlined exists only as possibility, i.e. potentially. Its realization takes place once relations of exchange, the sphere of circulation, step in, i.e. once the products of labor are realized as commodities.

There is still a lot of theoretical work to do in this regard. But we cannot deny the fact that the emergence of intellectual property parallels the consolidation of capitalist market relations. It also evidences the disappearance of those social relations that in some way or another had shaped the economic positions of artists before the appearance of capitalism.


I have pointed out that there is, in principle, no mistake in characterizing the economic position of artists as that of a petty commodity producer or self-employed laborer. But, in doing so, we should avoid easy generalizations of the kind that the work of art is a commodity like any other (Groys 2003a; see Jameson 1991, 4). Such a generalization can only lead into a cul-de-sac if we don’t make first clear what a commodity is, since being a commodity bears no explanation by itself. We should also try to avoid anachronistic characterizations that explain the production of art resorting to some pre-capitalist mode of production, as for example artist Carl Andre expressed it: “my social position, really, in the classic Marxist analysis, is I’m an artisan” (as quoted by Bryan-Wilson 2009, 69; for a similar argument see Prawer 2011, 313; King 2007, 326). A version of the latter proposes an analysis of the production of art within an understanding of capitalism as developing in successive stages following Marx’s well-known distinction between formal and real subsumtion. Nicholas Brown has suggested that the selling of the products of one’s own labor occurs under conditions of formal subsumtion, because under these conditions, as Milton’s example illustrates according to Brown, the production process doesn’t change, it is only drawn into capitalist economy, allowing “for Hegelian externalization to continue under capitalism” (Brown 2012, 11; see Virno for a similar argument in Lavaert and Gielen 2009, 82).

My exposition here is fundamentally different: I have outlined an explanation of value production in the arts by analyzing the social form of the production process of art without having to subsume its concreteness under the general rule of capitalist production or under market impositions.

I have proposed a way to examine the substance of value of artistic production, that is, that property which is at the basis of the relation of exchange (Iber 2005, 35). In this respect, I have considered crucial the examination of property relations regarding the labor of the intellect. Property relations that originate in the labor of the intellect cannot be considered a natural trait of the individual, but they are historically determined. In a specific historical context, property relations make possible for artists the appropriation of the results of the production process in order to enter market relations, and this appropriation takes a specific superstructural expression as intellectual property rights.

We should pursue in this research if we want to achieve a real understanding of the production process of art in terms of economic and socially determined relations.



I am grateful to Ian J. Seda-Irizarry for his helpful comments and his support in having this paper published by Rethinking Marxism.


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Have we really, though?

Paul Mason boldly claims that the end of capitalism has begun, and that we’ve already entered a post capitalistic era. Quite a few disagree. Amongst them Jacob Hjortsberg, a PhD candidate at the University of Bergen, who’s written quite a biting review of Mason’s book. Check out his critique below, previously published at Counterpunch.


Have We Really Entered the Age of Post-Capitalism?

Not least for it’s sheer optimism, I was happy to read Paul Mason’s new book, Postcapitalism. In it, Mason makes two broad and largely commonsensical observations regarding the rapid development of information technologies – first, that as our information technology is getting increasingly more sophisticated, it is possible to automate away more and more jobs; second, that as this happens, more and more people will spend their time producing information of different kind – suggesting that these two development will together force capitalism to evolve, largely without any violence or class struggle, into a “postcapitalist” world order.

Is he right? Probably not.

Mason’s main suggestion is that the more our economy is organized around the production of information and knowledge, the less will it make sense for this economy to take the form of capitalism. Why? Because, as Mason puts it himself, “markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant”. Imagine here the difference between sharing an apple and sharing an idea. If I have an apple and share it with you, I end up having only half an apple. If on the other hand I share an idea with you, I get to keep the whole idea only now you have it too. Thus, while ideas are inherently abundant, apples are inherently scarce – and capitalism, Mason points out, is really only equipped to deal with the production and circulation of the latter category of things.

In economics, this difference between scarce and abundant goods is known as a difference between rival and non-rival goods, and the main reason why our current economic system is so bad at dealing with the latter is because money is itself a rival good. If I share twenty dollars with you, we both have ten and not twenty each. The problem is that, when the exchange of information (as well as other non-rival goods) is mediated by money, we will all have to act as if information is also a rival good, and that sharing it for free consequently diminishes it’s value – which, of course, is true in terms of the money that we use to measure its exchange-value, but horribly misleading in terms of the actual use-value of the information. To quote open source pioneer Aaron Swartz, when we do treat information as a non-rival good, “It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral – it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy”. Popular wisdom notwithstanding, then, while it is no real problem to equate apples with oranges, we run into serious troubles when the equation is made between apples and information.

This, I would say, is the gist of Masons diagnosis. Let me now suggest why I don’t think it will lead to “postcapitalism”.

That we are currently living in an economic system modelled on the production and circulation of rival goods, yet witness how this system is increasingly based on the production and circulation of non-rival goods, is no doubt a major contradiction, and Mason is right to suggest that its severity should make us question the very viability of capitalism. Of course, he is not the first to do so, nor to do so precisely on this ground. For example, literary theorist and activist Michael Hardt made a similar case quite a few years ago, suggesting that the shift in capitalism from an older reliance on “material production” (production and circulation of rival goods such as shoes and apples) to a new reliance on “immaterial production” (production and circulation of non-rival goods such as information and ideas) would bring about nothing less than the material conditions of a communist revolution, as the free sharing of information, ideas and images would, as he phrased it, put “the common in communism”. That hasn’t really happened, though.

More than anything, it seems to me, the main problem with this particular line of argument is the assumption that, by demonstrating that capitalism is ripe with contradictions (preferably adding some new contradiction to the list), one has effectively demonstrated that the end is near, too. This, however, is not at all self-evident. After all, precisely this prediction has been made many times before, and we are still living in capitalism. On the other hand, of course, to point this out is just as little an argument for why capitalism could never fall under the weight of its own contradictions. So let’s see if the argument seems plausible, this time around.

At one level, Mason’s critique is the oldest one in the book; in fact, it’s found on the very first page of Marx’s Capital. This is the observation that capitalism rests on a contradiction between use-value and exchange-value. As we’ve seen, in Mason’s argument, this manifests itself as the newly emerging contradiction that an exchange-value modelled on scarcity is increasingly relying on the production of abundant use-values. But of course, in its most everyday expression, the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value has been around since the birth of capitalism. As David Harvey puts it: “Nothing could be simpler. I walk into a supermarket with money in my pocket and exchange it for some food items. I cannot eat the money but I can eat the food. So the food is useful to me in ways that the money is not.” The reason why this amounts to a contradiction in its own right is because those use-values that I buy at the supermarket are ultimately produced in order to maximize exchange-value – and in the long run, the maximization of exchange-value (which in terms of total economy means endless compound growth) will lead to the eventual depletion of use-values, not their maximization. This, at least, was Marx’s prediction when he wrote that “[c]apitalist production … only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the workers”, a statement that has turned out to hold water, considering the unprecedented levels

of both ecological and human devastation that two centuries of capitalist civilization has brought the world.

Still, even if we accept that the contradiction between use-value and exchange value is both foundational to capitalism and at the root of much of our ecological and social misery – and I think that this is a proposition that stands up to testing – it doesn’t in any way support the claim that capitalism is about to come to an end. It might very well imply that human society as a decent and ecologically sustainable place is coming to an end, but this is not in itself something that will compel capitalism to “evolve” into something better (as should have been made abundantly clear by Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything). No matter how much the internal dynamic of capitalism contradicts our ecological and social needs, capitalism will only crumble under the weight of its own contradictions once its ability to produce economic growth is severely threatened. Otherwise, we will still, unfortunately, have to struggle against it.

In order to be considered plausible, therefore, Mason’s argument will have to demonstrate just this: how the contradiction between scarcity in exchange and abundance in production will actually threaten the logic of the exchange system. If this can’t be demonstrated, there is once again no reason to assume that capitalism will wither away, as Mason predicts, on the backs of “something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system” – a new

use-value regime that finally will be able to abolish capitalism by “reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours”. Fortunately, there are ways to test most of this against empirical evidence.

The strongest reason provided by Mason as to why his particular
version of the exchange-value/use-value contradiction will prove
fatal to capitalism is that people have already started to develop
alternative exchange systems – ones that are much more in synch
with the abundance characteristic of the information economy –
within the shells of the old market system. “Almost unnoticed,” he
writes, “in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole
swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different
rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.”

Notice, here, how Mason repeatedly tells his readers that these new and supposedly postcapitalist economies are “almost unnoticed”, “barely noticed”, and “almost unseen” – by people in general, and economists in particular. To me, this seems to be an important ideological function of the argument. What apparently is being insinuated is that, if these new economic forms are “barely noticed by the economics profession”, then, surely, this must be

because the economics profession could never incorporate them into their theory of capitalism. Their absence from economic theory thus proves their radical potential; their marginality signals their significance.

Yet as with any message that is too insistently repeated – think of how frequently racist parties insist that they are not racists – suspicion lurks that it betrays its opposite. And sure enough, if one actually consults the economics profession, what one finds there is a rather large (not to say “abundant”) literature dealing exactly with this transition from a form of capitalism based on rival goods, to one based increasingly on non-rival goods. What has gone almost unnoticed by the economics profession, one the other hand, is the prediction that this will somehow lead to postcapitalism.

One good example is a book released 2014, The Second Machine Age, by the two MIT- economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Like Mason, these authors argue that we are currently witnessing a second technological revolution, one that is “doing for mental power – the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments – what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power”, the former being “at least as important for progress and development – for mastering our physical and intellectual environment to get things done – as physical power”. And just like Mason, they identify one crucial difference between the two, which they also locate in the distinction between scarcity and abundance.

For Brynjolfsson and McAfee, however, the story begins with the relation between economic growth and wage developments. Historically, when society has seen increases in productivity, the general result has been an increase in living standard for the majority of the population. The reason behind this, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, is that whenever capital could produce the same amount of goods from less labour, both production and wages have tended to go up – so that, as the total supply of goods and services increased, effective demand did so as well. Society thus produced more commodities, but it also produced a workforce that could afford to buy more.

For economists, this has in many ways been the big argument for economic growth. But, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, with the rise of information technologies, economic growth has been largely disconnected from positive wage developments. For example, they show how between 1999 and 2011 median income in the US fell from almost 56 thousand dollars per year to just above 50 thousand – and this despite the fact that GDP hit a record high in 2011! The reason behind this new disconnect, Brynjolfssen and McAfee argue, has to do with the kind of productivity increases that information technologies are likely to bring about. For example, while it makes a great deal of macroeconomic sense to increase wages when technological development allows society to produce more cars or houses from the same amount of labour input – since all of these new things have to be bought by someone – it makes pretty much no sense to do that when technological development allows people to share information, ideas, or music with each other for free online. Yet, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, it is precisely this latter kind of technological development that has been driving economic growth the last twenty-or-so years.

Predictably, the result has been a “trickle up” of wealth to a small percentage of the population – economic “superstars” like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. What’s new about this new group of “economic winners”, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, is that they make money not so much from producing new things and selling them to people, but by owning and controlling different information technologies that manage to be productive without having to invest in almost any labour (Facebook, for example, has only about nine thousand employees). Instead, the use-values that are produced from these new technologies are produced for free by everyone, all the time – from sharing images on Instagram to sending an email to uploading text on Facebook.

Up to this point, then, the story is more or less the same as Mason’s. Markets are not designed to deal with non-rival goods, because either they force us to behave as if sharing them is like sharing an apple (installing copy-rights and other forms of enclosures in order to create artificial scarcity), or they simply have no way of expressing the economic value of this new abundance, since nothing can both have a market value and be shared for free.

Beyond this basic observation, however, disagreements begin to surface. Mason, as we’ve seen, describes this new sharing economy as a form of “collaborative production” in which “goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy”, mentioning Wikipedia as an example of a product that “is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.” In contrast to this, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that, while it is generally true that it’s become harder and harder to get paid for producing information of different kind (from books to music to software), this does not mean that it’s no longer possible to make money from the production of such things. The only real difference is where that money ends up: in the hand of capital (the owners of the means of production) or in the hand of labour (the actual producers). And, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee have shown in the form of falling median wages relative to GDP, a major transference of wealth from labour to capital has indeed taken place.

Now, as credit to Mason’s argument, were this particular trend to completely dominate economic development, we would no doubt be looking at a process that could eventually only spell the end of capitalism. This, indeed, is precisely what Mason has in mind when he references Marx’s short text from Grundrisse, “The Fragment on Machines”. Mason writes: “In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must […] be ‘social’. In a final late-night thought experiment Marx imagined the end point of this trajectory: the creation of an ‘ideal machine’, which lasts forever and costs nothing. A machine that could be built for nothing would, he said, add no value at all to the production process and rapidly, over several accounting periods, reduce the price, profit and labour costs of everything else it touched.” The key phrase here is “costs nothing”, which of course means “requires no labour input” (in production as well as maintenance). And sure

enough, a capitalist economy running entirely on machines that require no labour input whatsoever would soon collapse, because no labour means no wages, and no wages means no demand, which in turn means that these “ideal machines” would end up producing commodities without any market value.

The problem is that Mason seems to believe that this is essentially a realistic description of the direction that our economy is taking. It emphatically isn’t. In fact, people are working more than ever; and, following Brynjolfsson and McAfee, it shouldn’t really surprise us that this is the case. After all, if economic growth is increasingly being produced in sectors of the economy that require little or no labour, the immediate result is not that capital becomes weaker but stronger. And capital, though it has been incredibly good at coming up with new technologies that allow us to produce more goods for less labour, is fundamentally not about such technological advances. Instead, it is and will always be about the purchase of labour. As John Stuart Mill once argued, never was a labour-saving device invented that actually saved anyone a minute’s labour. The irony is that this is something that Mason seems to be fully aware of, as he rightly describes how a fully automated capitalism would self-implode due to a lack of effective demand (or at least makes an approving reference to Marx making this point). However, he seems to imagines that capitalism does not get it.

The question then is: does capitalism get it? It seems so. While information technologies have greatly reduced capital’s need to employ labour in certain sectors of the economy – facilitating in the process a huge transference of wealth from labour to capital – this has not in any way kept capital from employing labour in ever-new ways. In particular, capitalism has been very good at producing low-paying jobs in the service industry. In the US, for example, the three biggest employers – in order, Walmart (with 2.2 million employees), Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, with 523 000 employees), and McDonald’s (with 440 000 employees) – are all low-pay, low-security jobs within the service industry (and out of the ten biggest employers, six are in the service industry). Again, this should not surprise us. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee points out, when it comes to replacing workers with robots, “high- level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources”, so while robots have long since surpassed humans in playing chess or figuring out which is the best way to drive to the airport during rush hour, we’re yet to see a robot that is cheap and capable enough to replace even the worst McDonald’s employee (this tendency is known as “Moravec’s Paradox”).

Still, it would probably be wrong to attribute the persistence of human labour in the service industry solely, or even mainly, to the inability of robots to make a Big Mac. As a large number of social theorists have noticed (e.g. Arlie Hochchild, Kathy Weeks and Hardt & Negri) most of the what’s being produced in the service industry is largely indistinguishable from the social relations in which it is being produced. As Weeks puts it, service work “involves putting subjectivity to work in jobs that are less about manipulating things and more about handling people and symbols”. In other words, what’s being asked of people in the service industry is not simply that they perform mechanical tasks that robots aren’t (yet) able to perform, but

precisely that they don’t act like robots – selling not only Big Mac’s or T-shirts but also their care and their smiles. And recent movies such as Ex Machina and Her notwithstanding – both telling the story of people falling in love with AI:s – we are most likely far from seeing robots whose smiles, touches, compliments or words of comfort produce the same effects as when coming from other humans.

Yet we can’t all be service workers – that, after all, would rather defeat the purpose. According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, therefore, the best way for individuals to “race with machines”, as they put it, is to do the second thing that robots aren’t very good at, besides being human beings, which is to come up with innovations. “We’ve never seen a truly creative machine,” they write, “or an entrepreneurial one, or an innovative one”. These generic references to “creativity” and “innovation”, of course, really signify something quite specific. For Brynjolffson and McAfee, this is on the one hand the ability to come up with information and ideas that are truly new and possible to sell (like a poem or a journalistic story), on the other the ability to come up with information technology that is truly new and possible to sell (like Facebook or Windows). “These activities”, they write, “have one thing in common: ideation, or coming up with new ideas or concepts. To be more precise, we should probably say good new ideas or concepts, since computers can easily be programmed to generate new combinations of preexisting elements like words.”

Now, while this observation about ideation is obviously true (though also something of a truism), the more interesting thing about these two forms of creativity, it seems to me, is the way in which they differ from each other. This perspective receives no explicit discussion from Brynjolfsson and McAfee, yet it comes out of their description. The first kind of creativity, they say, achieves a market value mainly by having not yet been made redundant by information technology. “We’ve seen software that could create lines of English text that rhymed,” they write, “but none that could write a true poem”, assuring the world’s poets that they can still feel safe. At the same time, this is a rather fragile assurance, because the second kind of creativity is geared precisely towards coming up with technology that will make other people redundant – from open-source encyclopedias like Wikipedia to, indeed, computers that can produce all sorts of creative writing. So while human beings might “race with machines” by being creative in a uniquely human way – thus complementing the machines – there is always the risk that some other human will create a machine that can simulate this ability, rendering it basically useless as a way to earn a living.

Perhaps however it’s time now to call this for what it is: a profoundly ideological vision. Consider, again, the short comment above on computers and poetry. Here, the implicit message seems to be that the only real difference between a computer and a poet is that the former cannot (yet) produce credible poetry; “a true poem”, as the author’s put it – and not that poetry is essentially a form of communication between human beings. Apparently, from the point of view of economics, the only question that matters is that of the Turing test: can you tell the difference between a human and a computer? If you can’t – if the computer has made you believe that a human wrote the poem – then the computer has effectively created

poetry. Simple as that. Still, it would seem that for anyone who is seriously interested in poetry, its value lies not in its ability to simulate human emotions but to actually express them – and in so doing invite the reader to share them, however briefly. If we teach our computers to simulate that experience, we haven’t taught them how to produce poetry – we’ve taught them how to lie.

The important point here though is that this ideological blindness regarding the difference between a computer and a poet signals a broader blindness that is inscribed into the very DNA of capitalism. Marx called this blindness “reification”, i.e. the tendency of capitalism to reduce human beings to things. He argued that, even though a particular human practice originated as deeply embedded in and indistinguishable from social relations (say, the reading of poetry or the cooking and serving of food), if it is possible to strip it of all that and sell it in a “pure” way as a product or a service (i.e. something more akin to a thing), this is what capital will do. Thus, in economic terms, all that matters really is the Turing test.

It is in this context, I think, that we should read a recent essay by the French activist group The Invisible Committee, memorably entitled “Fuck Off, Google”. In this essay, the authors make a compelling case for a distinction between “technology” and “techniques”. All human societies and forms of life, they argue, are technical in the sense that they represent “a certain configuration of techniques, of culinary, architectural, musical, spiritual, informational, agricultural, erotic, martial, etc., techniques. And it’s for this reason,” they write, “that there’s no generic human essence: because there are only particular techniques, and because every technique configures a world, materializing in this way a certain relationship with the latter, a certain form of life.”

Different techniques, in other words, are radically incommensurable: there is no universal human being who can pick and choose between them as she pleases, and no world in which techniques can be neatly displayed as so many means towards the same end. Instead, “Every tool configures and embodies a particular relation with the world, and the worlds formed in this way are not equivalent, any more than the humans who inhabit them are. And by the same token these worlds are not hierarchizable either. There is nothing that would establish some as more ‘advanced’ than others. They are merely distinct, each one having its own potential and its own history.” Still, the authors argue, such an equation and hierarchization of different techniques is precisely what the field of technology offers. This is the important point. According to the authors, technology introduces “an implicit criterion making it possible to classify the different techniques”, a way of imagining techniques as if devoid of any ethical, and thus unique, character. In the case of capitalism, this criterion “is simply the quantifiable productivity of the techniques, considered apart from what each technique might involve ethically, without regard to the sensible world it engenders.”

If you want a definition of the difference between a computer and a poet, I would say that this is pretty much it. The only situation in which it would ever make sense to replace a poet with a computer is one in which the ethical character of poetry as a technique of communication

has been replaced by the attempt to produce more from less. Understood from the perspective of technology, poetry produces the same thing as a can of tomato soup or a pack of cigarettes, only in a different way: shareholder value for whomever owns the means of its production, the “bottom line” of business. If a computer does this more effectively, it does it better. Understood as a technique, on the other hand, poetry produces an ethical relation between the reader and the poet, so that, when reading Goethe, I am not trying to achieve in a more efficient manner the same thing that I achieve when reading Shakespeare – and even less than when I use my dishwasher. Rather, when reading Goethe, I am seeking to enter a distinct ethical world. For most people, this is a reward in and of itself.

From this perspective, a world in which everything is either mediated or replaced by technology starts to look rather bleak – far from the glimmering visions offered by optimistic economists, in which everything “smart-“ is envisioned as the brave new future of all humanity. In fact, following the Invisible Committee’s suggestion, it seems that such a world must become increasingly “world-less”. As French philosopher Alain Badiou puts it: “Any world, for Plato and for me, only becomes visible, is only thrown into relief, by the differences constructed within it […] But within a horizon in which everything is equivalent to everything else, no such thing as a world is discernible, only surfaces, supports, apparitions without number.”

Perhaps in such a world, it is rather that we will be “post-“ everything but capitalism.