Marazzi argues that post-Fordism has discovered ways of extracting surplus value without the production of goods and services. Marazzi refers to the so-called ‘consumer-as-producer phenomenon’ as an example of the new methods by which surplus value is extracted without production beyond the factory gates. Ikea, he tells us, ‘externalizes the labor of assembling the “Billy” bookshelf’. But while it is true that the consumer of Ikea furniture also produces the furniture (as a use-value) through assembling its parts, this does not mean that the consumer produces value. (Consider the idea that the poultry farmer who sells eggs ‘externalises’ the labour of making a cake, and therefore extracts surplus value from the consumer of eggs.) Ikea profits and extracts surplus-value from customers paying extra for a trained Ikea employee to assemble the item in your home.
The same error occurs in the suggestion that Web 2.0 businesses such as Facebook, Flickr and Myspace ‘valorize user browsing’. If all this means is that these companies make a profit from selling advertising space on its pages or selling data about its users, then this is true and uncontentious, but Marazzi and others claim, rather, that these businesses enjoy ‘the extraction of surplus value from the common actions like linking a site, flagging a blog post, modifying software, and so forth’. Web 2.0 companies make profits from our use of social networks, but they do not draw surplus-value from our networking activities. Marazzi believes our status updates and tweets are ‘the “free labor” in the sphere of consumption’ But the profits for Web 2.0 companies do not derive from productive labour, and certainly not from ‘productive consumption’. Let me explain.
A comic strip signed by the artist ‘geek’ depicts two pigs having a conversation. One says, ‘isn’t it great? We have to pay nothing for the barn.’ The other says, ‘yeah, and even the food is free’. Underneath the image are two lines of text. The first reads: ‘Facebook and you’. The second reads: ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold’. The pigs, of course, are products. They are commodity capital, in fact, and will realize their value through sale, usually through a merchant capitalist of some sort such as a butcher or supermarket chain, but perhaps also as raw material for the production of a new commodity such as pork pies. The barn and the food are overheads for the farmer who tries to keep such costs to a minimum. The pigs are not the customers of the barn and food, as the comic rightly points out, the farmer is the customer and he consumes these commodities by providing them to the pigs. Facebook is free to its users, but its users are not the customers. This, again, the comic gets right, although it phrases it in a way that suggests being paying customers is the best possible relationship we can have with goods and services.
Contrast this with the case of a borrower at a public library. Reading books for free and therefore not being the customer of a library (as if it were a bookshop) is not necessarily preferable to a reader, and it does not mean you are a product.
But nobody makes profit from a public library and a great deal of profit is made from Facebook, so we need to examine the source of this profit. Facebook earns 82-98% of its income from advertising. The rest comes from selling ‘credits’ for online games. In the case of advertising on websites, the users are neither the customers nor the products. The companies that buy advertising space are the customers; the product is the space that they purchase. In fact, we can see Facebook as a machine for passing money from a large number of capitalists to the share-holders of Facebook. It is possible to pass this money from one to the other because Facebook has a monopoly on advertising space on its pages. Vercellone would rightly call this rent. Companies pay a fee for a certain space over a specific duration of time to the owner of the space. The users of Facebook are neither the consumers nor the products in this profit making transaction, as the joke has it. Facebookers are not, as Marazzi claims, the unpaid labourers who produce the value that Facebook appropriates. The users of Facebook are the addressees and potential customers of the companies who advertise on Facebook. To understand the economics of Facebook, we need to understand the economics of advertising.
The reign of Edward VII, from 1901-1910, was the first era of branded goods. Canning techniques, industrial boxing, printing and the standardization of products through industrialization and mechanization are among the chief reasons for the triumph of branding in this period. Branding was also a means by which productive capital gained an advantage over merchant capital, as part of the expansion of operations from the production of its own raw materials to the control of the product at the point of sale. Branded goods also fetched premium prices because of their guaranteed quality. Branded tea, for instance, marketed itself as a product for which the consumer could have confidence because its quality was assured by the manufacturer. Loose tea in a barrel might be mixed with anything and the quality of the tea could vary from one scoop to another, but Tetley tea, one of the earliest British tea brands, passes through rigorous quality control checks to ensure that it tastes the same every time. Facebook is a brand, of course, but it is Edwardian in another sense. Brands need publicity, and so the Edwardian period was also the era in which advertising became central to the capitalist mode of production.
Advertising predates branding but is reborn with it. The sale of advertising space is an innovation of industrial capitalism. Mass production requires mass consumption. Advertising was invented to create familiarity with unfamiliar products and the companies that produced them, to allow industrial producers to compete with familiar local producers, and to heal the rift between the commodity and the community (a relationship sundered by the centralization of industrial production). Branding is a continuous labour of abstract attachment through mediated familiarity. Branding and advertising, therefore, predate Fordism, even though Ford is itself a brand name. Ford in the period of the invention of the assembly line is a prototypical Edwardian company. In fact, standardization is one of the essential ingredients of branded goods. Advertising, branding and marketing are the mechanisms for the industrialisation of consumption.
There is nothing post-Fordist about the immaterial, semiotic and symbolic circulation of advertising. From an economic point of view, Facebook is an Edwardian venture. Facebook is a brand that is also a medium through which others brands advertise their products. It is Facebook’s reliance on income from advertising that links it economically to the beginning of the twentieth century. There is nothing post-Fordist about how Facebook makes profit. The idea that we have entered a new phase of capitalism in which surplus value can be drawn from consumption and the general intellect is not supported by an economic analysis of Facebook.