A 62 page Deep Dive hosted by Commons Strategies Group in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and David Graeber.
What is “value” and how shall we protect it? It’s a simple question for which we don’t have a satisfactory answer.
For conventional economists and politicians, the answer is simple: value is essentially the same as price. Value results when private property and “free markets” condense countless individual preferences and purchases into a single, neutral representation of value: price. That is seen as the equivalent of “wealth.”
This theory of value has always been flawed, both theoretically and empirically, because it obviously ignores many types of “value” that cannot be given a price. No matter, it “works,” and so this theory of value generally prevails in political and policy debates. Economic growth (measured as Gross Domestic Product) and value are seen as the same.
Meanwhile, the actual value generated outside of market capitalism – the “care economy,” social labor, eco-stewardship, digital communities and commons – are mostly ignored or considered merely personal (“values”). These types of “value” are seen as extraneous to “the economy.” …
The absence of a credible theory of value is one reason that we have a legitimacy crisis today. There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives. Especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational” free markets as a fair system for allocating material wealth has become something of a joke in some quarters. Similarly, the idea of government serving as an honest broker dedicated to meeting people’s basic needs, assuring fairness, providing ecological stewardship and advancing the public interest, is also in tatters….
The conventional economic definition of “value” has a significant rhetorical advantage over other notions of value/s. It can be encapsulated in numbers, manipulated mathematically and ascribed to individuals, giving it a tidy precision. Value defined as price also has an operational simplicity even though it flattens the messy realities of actual human life and ecosystems. It purports to precisely quantify and calculate “value” into a single plane of commensurable, tradeable units, as mediated by price.
Through discussion, workshop participants set forth a rough alternative theory of value based on a radically different ontology. This theory sees value arising from relationships. Value does not inhere in objects; it emerges through a process as living entities – whether human beings or the flora and fauna of ecosystems – interact with each other. In this sense, value is not fixed and static, but something that emerges naturally as living entities interact.
“In a commons, value is an event,” said Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies Group. “It is something that needs to be enacted again and again.” The difference between the standard economic theory of value and a commons-based one is that the latter is a relational theory of value, said Helfrich…..
Everyone agreed that a relational theory of value has great appeal and far-reaching implications. It means that the “labor” of nonhumans – the Earth, other creatures, plants – can be regarded as a source of value, and not definitionally excluded, said Neera Singh, the geographer. Indeed, this is a point made in a John Holloway essay on Marx’s ideas about “wealth”: the nonhuman world produces such an excess of wealth that it overflows what capitalism can capture in the commodity form, said Sian Sullivan, a co-investigator with the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value in the UK and Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University. “This of course leads to the paradox of capitalism trying to use commodity form, an engine of accumulation, to solve ecological crises that the commodity form created in the first place. It does not know how to protect intrinsic value.”
The report deals with a wide variety of other issues related to the “value question”: Can abstract metrics help build a new value regime? How shall we value “nature”? Should we attempt to de-monetize everyday life? The report also includes a major discussion of commons-based peer production as a fundamental shift in understanding value. This point is illustrated by open value accounting systems such as those used by Sensorica, and by organizational experiments in finance, ownership and governance.
While workshop participants did not come up with a new grand theory of value, they did develop many promising lines of inquiry for doing so. Each prepared a short statement that attempted to identify essential elements for a commons theory of value. (See Appendix B in the report.) We hope that the record of the workshop’s discussions will help stimulate further discussion on the question of value – and perhaps bring forth some compelling new theories.