Thoughts on the economy of sign value and materialist value theory, or, The POWER of the 21st-Century CONSOOMER

What drives the Consoomer? What product is most valuable to the Consoomer?

I’ve always been at least a little bit skeptical of the turbo-Marxists who still cite his 19th century theories as gospel. With Marx’s value theory, my hunch was that dictating value in our current market went far enough beyond materialist theory, especially given the present day’s saturation of media, culture and brand-power that’s incomparable to the way things worked almost 200 years ago. How does this conception of value deal with the art market of the 21st century? And what about awarded qualifications and certifications in a time when colleges and universities function more like businesses than schools?

It was cool to find out Baudrillard’s reassessment of Marx’s theory of value highlights this apparent deficiency. I still need to look further into both, but it seems like a pretty useful insight.

Baudrillard suggests that sign value, which can for the sake of this argument be thought of as branding power, holds significant value in the contemporary market, and that Marx’s theory didn’t sufficiently account for this because it focuses on the material view of production and was insufficiently sociological according to Baudrillard.

The important distinction between Baudrillard’s ideas and Marx’s commodity fetishism seems to be the extent of the sign’s value and how it came to eventually to extend even to nonmaterial products like college degrees. According to Baudrillard Marx’s theories didn’t comprehensively explain how value is truly measured and allocated in such a wealthy, “post-subsistence” society. (see the peripherally-related Postmaterialism). For Baudrillard, sign value contains the bulk of capital at this stage.

Given the culture and technology of Marx’s lifetime, this isn’t surprising. He didn’t exist in an intensely media-saturated culture because it didn’t exist at the time. In regards to use-value, he says:

“A use-value has value only in use, and is realized only in the process of consumption [which Baudrillard agrees with]. One and the same use-value can be used in various ways. But the extent of its possible application is limited by its existence as an object with distinct properties. It is, moreover, determined not only qualitatively but also quantitatively.” – from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

The distinction Baudrillard seems to be focusing on is that cultural value can at this stage be increasingly divorced from the material realities of production. You could even make the argument that some commodities effectively are divorced from the circumstances of their material production (more on that later).

The majority of the West is living with disposable income— their material necessities are met. The above-poverty population is the demographic responsible for producing and reproducing culture (because it requires an excess of resources beyond subsistence).

Being that this is the case, commodities exist that are unrelated to material necessity and subsistence. Luxury clothing, accessories, high-end vehicles, entire lifestyles— these are imbued with cultural significance that exists in many ways separate from their material value (though the material value still plays an important role in determining its value).

For example: an aspiring prestige brand is marketed as prestige, but it is not until a culturally-acknowledged-as-prestigious person conspicuously consumes the brand that it can become culturally valuable and fulfills its desired prestigious status once widely acknowledged as such. The sustained reproduction of this code of signs, the code that affirms cultural value, is upheld by the consumers. 

Now, the Marxist response might be that the value being imparted to a product by a culturally-important figure is a direct effect of their “congealed labor time,” or their labor that was required to gain their status as culturally significant, and is therefore material. But in a time when celebrity is becoming further divorced from “hard work,” such as viral internet sensations that are culturally valuable for socially agreed upon reasons like humor or endearment and not labor (relational aesthetics come to mind), this “congealed labor time” is insufficient to explain a product’s cultural value. Artistic value can’t be simplified into “X amount of labor hours” because it’s too subjective.

And yes, the material cost of production of a good obviously reflects in its cultural value. A very well-made coat will inevitably cost more, and that cost itself distinguishes the maker as a high-value product. But what makes brands more popular than others?

This is a socially granted value, which is only confirmed on the consumption side of economics, by the power of the consumer. Even when taking into account sponsorship deals and other marketing techniques, it is ultimately the consumer’s own will (coerced by culture/advertising or not) to consume a given product. 

Marx anticipates and refutes (or attempts to refute) this idea of consumer domination in Das Kapital: “In bourgeois societies the economic fictio juris [assumption of truth] prevails, that every one, as a buyer, possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of commodities.”

This critique of consumer capability holds water in regards to the materialist side of things. But as far as cultural value is concerned, the consumers en masse are now more than ever (given the autonomy of the consumer in creation (the producer/consumer or prosumer) enabled by technology, more specifically the internet) the ultimate dictators of what is deemed culturally valuable. You see this play out in the rejection of corporate attempts at injecting valuable cultural significance through millennial marketing: “SILENCE, BRAND”

The power of the CONSOOMER

With this line of thinking, given the proper consensus, the consumers’ collective will to refuse capital (through strike, boycott, self-sufficiency) could have massive effects. Along the line of Gramsci’s War of Position (or maybe even subverting it entirely), the working class is more and more able to cultivate their own values (possibly/ideally antithetical to those imposed on them by capital and the ruling class).

The internet and freedom of information/content production makes this more realistic than ever before as culture is increasingly being produced bottom-up. The imposition of culture and value from the ruling class is being overturned.

Those influential few in the upper cultural echelons of society grant a brand a high-sign value for any reason they choose, whether it be artistic appreciation, or something as simple as boosting their new girlfriend’s little brother’s clothing company to stay in good graces (gain social capital with them).

(Kurt Cobain famously sporting a Daniel Johnston (RIP) t-shirt and kick-starting Johnston’s career is a good example of this. Did Daniel Johnston put in 10,000 hours of musical training? Maybe, but he’s not exactly renowned for his technical expertise. He’s a goddamn angel and that’s why people love his music. The “hard labor” of his work is vastly disconnected from its culturally determined value.)

Because cultural value is socially determined, and in many ways divorced from the material realities of the commodity and its production, it becomes a, if not the significant factor in determining the value of leisure commodities. In a society inundated with media and “culture,” the majority of value-assessment is on a social and cultural level, with “lifestyle” being more important than the nitty-gritty materialism of “how you live.”

We see this value-determining force playing an increasingly significant role in the market as social movements gain momentum and information that holds moral weight becomes more accessible and widespread (the plights of the environment, the disenfranchised, oppressed nations, etc.). This is being assimilated by corporations through morality-marketing, “woke” brands, with both conspicuous consumption as well as allegedly ethical production/consumption being the vehicle for their ascension above the competition.

The Green movement is the pendulum of consumer choice swinging toward brands and products we deem preferable, which is effectively a soft-boycott of brands that are not up to moral snuff. While the green-environmental consumption movement is ultimately grounded in material reality (in the physical production circumstances and methods and the product’s own attributes that make it sufficiently “Green”), in other cases, such as culturally significant figures advocating a product, this sign-value is more or less completely divorced (or at least very significantly divorced as to be the most important factor) from the production’s material reality and exists entirely in the social realm.

“It is the very genius of political economy, a genius that makes it immune to traditional Marxist critiques, that the signs exchanged in communication have no referent. Capitalism detaches the signifier from the signified, making the signifier its own signified. What is crucial about, say, a given underarm deodorant, is not that it has a given exchange value or a given use value, not that the workers who produced it were alienated or exploited. The secret of this commodity is that it can totally transcend all of these “referents,” that it can become a totally detached object of exchange and that the person who consumes it can find a “meaning” in it to be appropriated that is totally divorced from the mechanisms of production and distribution.” – Mark Poster in his introduction to Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production

Capital (or I should say cream of the crop marketing teams) understands this by now, and has assimilated to this new economy of cultural value.

In Baudrillard’s decades’ later work The Transparency of Evil he again references this idea in a way I thought was pretty concise, especially given the aforementioned context:

“In an ideal sense, Marx’s analysis is still irreproachable. But Marx simply did not foresee that it would be possible for capital, in the face of the imminent threat to its existence, to transpoliticize itself, as it were: to launch itself into an orbit beyond the relations of production and political contradictions, to make itself autonomous in a free-floating, ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus to totalize the world in its own image.”

This is what we’re witnessing now with the ascension of identity politics and the symbolic competing for precedence over a focused materialist critique. This is a huge point of contention within the left today, particularly among the “class-first” and “social justice” crowds. But beyond that, this method of analysis, if anything, feels like a more comprehensive way of interpreting how value is assigned and distributed in the 21st century.

This all isn’t to say (and I hope I made this somewhat obvious) that Marxist materialist views should be thrown in the trash. We will always exist at a fundamental level in this materialist cycle. The principles of Marx will always be relevant, but the significance of sign value becomes increasingly important as we move further and further away from “mere” subsistence and into what is largely “post-subsistence,” a hyper-saturated media culture where the consumer has more power than ever before.

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