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For examples drawn from critical media studies, see: Terranova, 2000, 2004 (although she refers to “free labour” as opposed to prosumption, for the latter concept had not yet been imported systematically within critical media studies literature at that time); Fuchs, 2010a, 2010b; Caraway, 2012;
and Fuchs, Dyer-Witheford, 2013. For the sociology of consumption, see: Codeluppi, 2012; Ritzer et al., 2012; and Rey, 2012.
material labor of the prosumers on Web 2.0 sites and elsewhere (e.g., in the creation of brand meaning)’ and, therefore, ‘able to exploit consumers and in the process earn even greater profits than they would from the exploitation of workers’ (since ‘even the lowest paid workers are paid something’, while ‘prosumers work without any financial compensation’) (Ritzer et al., 2012, p.383).163 On the other hand, prosumption is seen as entailing ‘little alienation’ as ‘the digital economy’ – which functions as model – ‘feeds off of a multitude of prosumers... selfmotivated and requiring only a platform through which to express themselves’, with internet users ‘willing, even eager, to participate in activities that profit companies’ (through the sale of data on users to advertisers), ‘so long as nothing interferes with their ability to do whatever it is that they want to be doing’ (Rey, 2012, p.416).164 However, this 2.0 version of the “audience commodity” argument is subject to the same flaws plaguing the original version. Indeed, ‘accepting the conception that audiences’ (or, in the 2.0 version, internet users) ‘work, are exploited, and produce surplus-value’ has little to do with the Marxian ‘tenet that surplusvalue in capitalism is generated in the direct process of production’, where workers ‘are compelled to work longer than is necessary to produce the equivalent of their wage’. In ‘essence’, the argument emphasising prosumption as an exploitative mechanism of production and extraction of value amounts to ‘stressing surplus-value as the result of the ripping-off of consumers – although its form of presentation’ gives a Marxist veneer to the analysis through use of (misapplied) Marxian terminology and concepts (Lebowitz, 2009, p.219). Furthermore, by emphasising the sale of data on users by social media (such as Google or Facebook, for example) to advertisers as surplus-value extraction, the debate on prosumption implicitly espouses, as analytical starting point, ‘the self-conception of the media-capitalist in competition’. Indeed, from ‘the perspective of the media-capitalist, what it does is to produce audiences for the advertiser; what it does is sell audiences and audience-time to the advertiser. From the perspective of the individual media-capitalist, its profit is a direct function of its size of audience. Rather than as part of the process of selling the commodities of industrial capital to consumers, it necessarily appears as if the media-capitalists in competition Similarly, see Fuchs, 2010b, Rey, 2012, and Ritzer, Jurgenson, 2010.
There is some parallel, here, with Benkler’s (2006) “commons-based peer production” and Söderberg’s (2008) “play struggle”. For Benkler (2006, p.3), the capacity of networked computers to allow ‘cooperative and coordinate action’ to be ‘carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies’, is to be understood as leading social cooperation (i.e. nonmarket and non-proprietary production) to play a greater role within contemporary capitalism (as opposed to earlier epochs); following from this, for Benkler, social cooperation can, at present, effectively come to supplement, complement or even replace market exchange. Similarly, for Söderberg (2008, p.3) networked computers bring to the fore the category and ‘politics of play struggle’, whereby the latter concept is meant to emphasise ‘the distance’, in contemporary capitalism, ‘between doing and the wage relation’, with play (epitomised by hacking) showcasing ‘how labour self-organises its constituent power outside the confines of market exchanges’ (p.3). See also Terranova’s (2000, 2004) concept of “free labour”, which represents an antecedent of the use of the concept of prosumption within critical media studies, and van den Broek, 2010 for a critique.
sell consumers to industrial capital’ (Lebowitz, 2009, p.221). By doing so, though, and positing a particular business model as essential for redefining the functioning of capitalism,165 the analysis is limited to the level of appearances (as opposed to delving under the surface by starting from an abstract model of capital-in-general), thus implicitly rejecting the Marxian methodological premise (Lebowitz, 2009, p.222).
However, the issue is not exclusively one of method, but also (and consequently) one of how to interpret correctly the dynamics at hand. For instance, Foley (2013) clarifies these issue and dynamics by drawing on the distinction between ‘value creation, surplus value generation, and surplus value appropriation’ (p.259). Indeed, while surplus value is generated at the direct point of (capitalist) production, ‘[t]he actual exploitation of productive wage workers’ also contributes to the constitution of a ‘global pool of surplus value’ for which firms compete and
from which surplus value can be (and is) appropriated in a variety of ways (for example:
‘monopolization of sectors of the market; marketing and advertising; establishment of intellectual property rights through patents, copyrights, and trademarks; ownership of scarce energy or other natural resources’; and ‘superior cleverness in arranging financial transactions or structuring financial property rights’) (p.260). Incomes generated from these activities are, in effect, part of, and a deduction from, the global pool of surplus value; and, while classical examples of this are readily found in financial incomes and rents over land and natural resources, the same applies to ‘incomes’ accruing ‘to knowledge- and information-based activities’ (p.264). Thus, ‘the existence of business models that generate revenue without any direct payments of users at all, such as social networking and web search’, can be readily understood in these terms, for ‘[t]he connection to the global pool of surplus value in these cases is rather direct, in that the incomes supporting these activities come from advertisers … willing to pay to divert spending toward themselves’ as they compete for ‘shares of global surplus value’. Therefore, “end users”, who(se data) ‘might just as well be viewed as a free input to the production process’, receive ‘a use-value (access to social networking or organized information) with no apparent payment at all’ (p.265).
Two considerations follow from this. These “new” ‘business models’, which ‘seem to defy basic laws of economics’ and ‘promise an expansion of welfare without the expenditure of resources’ (and are even taken to signal the appearance of new, pervasive and all-embracing forms of exploitation), are nothing but ‘applications of old (and sometimes ancient) economic ideas to new technological possibilities’ (although they testify to how technical change can redefine and renegotiate the modalities of surplus value appropriation – see below for more Despite evidence of its shakiness, attested by the fiasco of the recent Facebook stock market debut and the perplexities on its viability expressed by analysts, for example Lanier, 2010.
on this point). Further, while these modalities of surplus value appropriation can be viable for specific individual capitals, to treat them as valid for (if not as redefining of) the system as a whole amounts to ‘a fallacy of composition’, for ‘[a]ny individual creator can expand her or his income effectively without limit, but this does nothing to expand social value production or surplus value appropriation’ (p.265). The latter is especially true as there has to be a pool of value from which to draw on in the first place, and this is only constituted through surplus value generated at the direct point of production.
Secondly, the enthusiasm for prosumption within the sociology of consumption extends the model of token examples, such as user-generated content on the internet or self-service in supermarkets and fast-food chains, into a reading of increased autonomy of the productive process within contemporary capitalism as a whole (see, for instance, Ritzer, Jurgenson, 2010 and Ritzer et al., 2012). However, this rests on a one-sided reading of characteristically capitalist dynamics, mistaken for radically new features redefining capitalism and its workings.
Indeed, capitalism is ‘a dynamic force’ based on ‘the interrelated processes of commodification and accumulation’ (Huws, 2003, p.152), with the former denoting ‘the tendency of capitalist economies to generate new and increasingly standardized products for sale in the market’, whose ‘sale will generate profits’ increasing ‘in proportion to the scale of production’ (with standardized products including mass-produced material products and services alike) (p.17). This provides an in-built imperative to pursue ‘greater routinization’ and ‘increased productivity’ of work, as well as ‘centralization’ of activities and operations, resulting in ‘an ever-increasing amount of “consumption work” being foisted onto the consumer’ (also in the form of self-service) and the transfer of ‘expenditure of time, energy, and transportation costs’ to users (p.27). While this does not necessarily translate into greater control for consumers over their living and working lives, it often results in ‘a loss of control over the labor process of consumption work’ and reproduction, closely paralleling the ‘loss of control over labor processes in the workplace’ (p.54). On the other hand, ‘the substitution of the purchase of commodities for the hire of services also has the effect of substituting the unpaid labor of the consumer for the paid work of the service worker, and creating a number of new tasks connected with the purchase, operation, and upkeep of these domestic appliances’ (p.44). Thus, the ‘movement of some activities out of the sphere of unsocialized labor and into that of manufacturing’ and services is paralleled by a movement, mediated by technological change, of activities out of the service sector into manufacturing (p.65). In turn, these ‘new manufactured products’ give rise to ‘new consumption activities in the home or new forms of unsocialized labor’ (p.67). Therefore, the boundaries between socialised and unsocialised labour are, under capitalism, not only extremely porous, but also continuously and dynamically renegotiated as a result of surplus-value production and the role of technological change within it. Indeed, ‘far from simply or exclusively exhibiting a tendency to absorb and (capitalist) commodify non-capitalist production... capitalism equally has a tendency to expand non-capitalist (commodity) production’ through ‘the cheapening and availability of the means of production that non-capitalist producers can purchase from capitalists’, ‘the creation of the reserve army of labour... within which non-capitalist forms of commercial activity survive on the margins (lumped together within the term “informal sector”)’, and ‘the tendency to socialize economic and social life... through the agency of the state’, leading to ‘the displacement of capitalist by non-capitalist production and the expansion of a wide variety of non-capitalist forms of provision that are embroiled with capitalist production and provide markets for them’ (Fine, 2012b, p.451). Thus, it is the dynamic of capitalism itself (as opposed to new technologies or organisation and production methods) which constantly generates spaces for social autonomy at the same time as it generates and accumulates surplus-value (as opposed to univocally constraining or expanding the space and scope of commodity relations).
Having assessed the resurgence and the shortcomings of the concept of prosumption, the link between Formenti’s analysis and the Negrian consensus is easily understood. Indeed, although not explicitly and purposefully deployed within Formenti’s analysis, the validity of the concept of prosumption is presupposed, functioning as metaphor implicitly grounding Formenti’s account of the processes of class recomposition. As evident from his critique of the neoliberal apology of the amateur, Formenti conceives of prosumption as super-exploitation. Although devoid of the positive effects in terms of increased autonomy from capital attributed to it in the debates in critical media studies and the sociology of consumption, this attitude simply reverses the portrayal of prosumption provided within contemporary managerial discourse without contesting the concept itself. Indeed, as the analysis of the concept, its history and trajectory provided above shows, at a theoretical level, prosumption is incoherent relative to Marxian value theory and its analysis of capitalism. Therefore, Formenti’s acceptance of this concept contradicts and undermines his own professed wish to ‘rediscover Marx’ (Formenti, 2011, p.146) and his commitment to revive an analysis of contemporary capitalism rooted in the purposeful deployment of Marxian categories (which assumes the validity of value theory, as evident from the discussion of Formenti’s own account provided in section 3.3 above, Formenti, 2011, pp.107-119). Moreover, since Formenti is critical of post-workerism on the grounds of the ‘excessively abstract character of’ its ‘idea of work’ coinciding with ‘any manifestation of vital energy’ (Formenti, 2011, p.101), the acceptance of the concept of prosumption is even more striking, given how the latter portrays activities outside the point of production as productive of value, and distinct activities such as production and consumption as one and the same.