Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Productive vs. Unproductive Blogging

This is a continuation of yesterday's post. More on this topic can also be found here, here and here on I cite as well as here on Foucault Is Dead.

Yesterday, in The Labor Theory of Blogging, I argued that most blogs are not themselves commodities because the vast majority of blogs are not produced for exchange. They are not sold on the market. (Let's ignore the possibility for now that I may be working for free for Google and producing this blog as a commodity for them to sell.) However, even given that most blogs aren't themselves commodities, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that commodity production is not still taking place here in the blogosphere as we work together on the collaborative production and distribution of rants, raves, snark, and other useful information.

In the second half of Jodi Dean's post on Productive Labor, she writes:

The early Marx was concerned with alienated labor. Blogging may be unalienated labor. Even when we are sick of it, we chose to blog. We chose to link, to post, to read, to comment. Blogging's value, then, may escape or elude, at least in part, the commodity form. Capitalists don't want us to know this, so they provide us with indicators that point to possibilities of monetarization: page hits, visits, counts, neighborhoods, stats, referrers, totals. Somehow these numbers give us a sense of value. But this is misleading because, again, a different kind of value is produced.

What sort of value? Is it a value of self-knowledge or self-display or even just a momentary sense of self? Is it a value of connection, of hope, or possibility, of the positing others who read and react? How might we best conceive the value of blogging?
I think the claim that "Blogging may be unalienated labor" is perhaps overly optimistic. Alienated labor for Marx describes the process by which capital separates the worker from both the products and process of his or her own labor, from other workers, and even from human life itself. This discussion of alienation is closely tied to Marx's analysis of the commodity form and most importantly to the imposition of that commodity form on ourselves. We are produced as the commodity labor-power and we must then sell ourselves as workers for capital's use. Labor-power is habitually produced and reproduced in order to be alienated and sold for a wage. This brings us back to the question of blogging and commodity production.

The commodity that blogs help to produce and reproduce is that singularly useful and important commodity, labor-power. But to see why this is, we need to look at one of the more unsavory passages in Marx on productive versus unproductive consumption.

In the first section of Chapter 7 in Capital, Volume I, Marx writes:
Labour uses up its material factors, its subject and its instruments, consumes them, and is therefore a process of consumption. Such productive consumption is distinguished from individual consumption by this, that the latter uses up products, as means of subsistence for the living individual; the former, as means whereby alone, labour, the labour-power of the living individual, is enabled to act. The product, therefore, of individual consumption, is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption, is a product distinct from the consumer.
The distinction Marx introduces here between the productive consumption of capitalist commodity production versus the unproductive consumption of workers and their means of subsistence has been the source of a number of frustrating debates within Marxism. The trouble is that Marx needs to be able to talk about labor-power as itself a commodity that is bought and sold and that has its own distinct process of production – namely, the consumption of the "means of subsistence for the living individual." He seems to undercut this possibility in the passage above.

Be that as it may, if blogging is to be described as a form of productive consumption of labor, then blogging ought to result in the production of a commodity "distinct from the consumer." If blogs themselves were a commodity produced for exchange, then this might be the case. But as we've seen, blogs tend not to fit in this category. There are a few commercially successful blogs out there that are the result of this sort of productive consumption of labor-power that results in the production and sale of a commodity. For the vast majority of us, though, blogging may be more like the unproductive "individual consumption" described by Marx that results in the "consumer himself." That is, we are what blogs help to produce.

On this view, blogging is like all those other so-called unproductive activities we do such as cooking, cleaning, child care, sleeping, reading, dancing, yard work, bowling, therapy, and sex that help to produce and reproduce us as the living, breathing, thinking commodity of labor-power that we are. Blogs that bitch and moan and rant provide a release that allows us as workers to go to work another day. Blogs can also inform, entertain, enlighten, confound, confuse, anger, soothe, and bore. Blogs about cats and hobbies do this. Academic blogs do this too (with perhaps a heavier dose of 'bore' thrown in). They all help produce people who are then ready and willing to alienate the rest of their lives as wage labor. This is why I think the claim for blogging as unalienated labor is too strong. It's not easy to escape the mode of production. And if blogging has become part of our social, cultural and intellectual means of subsistence, then blogging is also part of that individual consumption that produces us as alienated labor.

This is, of course, the negative moment of capitalist production where everything produced by capital functions only for capital. Fortunately, resistance and struggle also always happens. This is where the "value of connection, of hope, or possibility" that Dean writes about can gain a foothold. Here's one formulation of the relationship between blogging and capital I can endorse: blogs are also a site where class struggle occurs. People are very creative at resisting the alienating destinies planned for them by capital. Blogs may be another place where this resistance can grow and spread. And this is not just true of anti-war blogs and academic blogs. Cat blogging too is a part of that struggle over finding new ways to carve out some unalienated space of one's own and craft new strategies against commodification.

I don't think the blogosphere has any special resistance to being colonized and commodified by capital just like so many other areas of our life have been. It's important not to overestimate the radical potential of blogging. But there is also no reason to think that blogging is any more susceptible to capital either. And revolutions always surprise.


  1. I loved the middle part of this post, in which you talk about the production of the individual herself through her blog. In terms of the Baudrillardian critique of production, such an analysis leads us towards a very negative view of blogging.

    But your ending is suitably ambivalent. And, hell, if the bloggers lead the revolution, I won't get in the way...

  2. This is a provocative post. I'm not sure I understand it, though. Marx talks about a product distinct from the consumer. But, it seems that you reject that distinction, in the end? Or not? The Marx passage seems to distinguish between the individual consumer and labor power. The latter is what productive consumption produces. So, is your point that blogging produces the individual consumer or that it produces labor power (consumer as bearer of labor power)? Only if it is the latter is blogging fully within capitalism. If it is the former, then possibly there is an excess that is not yet appropriated and put to work.

  3. The distinction Marx makes between productive and unproductive consumption is one he inherits from classical economists like Smith and Ricardo. It doesn't fit well with the rest of his theory and it would have been cleaner if he had avoided it. This passage is the source of much of the domestic labor debate concerning whether unpaid domestic labor produces surplus-value for capital or not. I think the answer is that it does produce surplus-value since it produces cheap labor-power for capital to exploit. Yet this passage from Marx relegates all domestic labor into this odd category of unproductive consumption. A slightly different version of this would come out of Marx's discussion of productive vs. unproductive labor in his Theories of Surplus-Value but their classical source is even more apparent there and just as problematic.

    What spurred this discussion for me was simply the title of your original post, "Productive Labor." I think blogging may fall prey to this same messy distinction between productive and unproductive consupmption that makes domestic labor difficult to discuss from within Marxism.

    My preference would be to stake out the production of labor-power as a form of commodity production from the outset. Then unwaged work like housework, childcare, and blogging can all be seen as forms of commodity production -- the production of the commodity labor-power. This matters since then housework and blogging aren't work outside of capital at all, but unwaged work for capital.

  4. Funny, we are second in "weighted" overlap with your books on LibraryThing, but we draw very different conclusions regarding what is "alienated" regarding labor...

  5. Welcome to the blog. We do share a lot of good books in common on Library Thing. I don't think I have anything particularly exotic in mind, though, when I talk about alienated labor -- producing a commodity, working for a wage -- these are the usual examples of alienated labor for Marx.

  6. Well yes, that is how Marx employs them. As we mention in our blog post, Baudrillard posits that in doing so Marxism "assists in the cunning of capital." The distinction we were drawing was that rather than viewing man [sic] alienated by the sale of labor power, Baudrillard sees him alienated AS labor power...

  7. I'm not opposed to using Baudrillard or Hardt and Negri when needed. I find them very valuable to think along with. But I'm not convinced they are needed in this particular case. Perhaps it's a sort of occam's theory razor at work for me -- the simplest solution is probably the best one.

  8. hi LP,
    This is a great post. A great series of posts, actually. I'm going to have to return to all these after I get some sleep. I couldn't agree more with your preference "to stake out the production of labor-power as a form of commodity production from the outset." I would _love_ to exchange notes with you on this, either by blog or email. I agree that Marx isn't great on unproductive labor. One place where he's a little better is in this quote from v2 of Capital - "Productive consumption (...) includes the individual consumption of the labourer, since labour-power is a continuous product, within certain limits, of the labourer's consumption". (page 93 of the international publishers edition.) You may know this, but there's an article on the family wage by the historian Jean Boydston. My notes on it are here -

    take care,

  9. Hi Nate. Thanks for your comments -- both here and over on I cite. Thanks too for the references. I don't crack open v2 very often, so now I want to go read around in that section. And your post on the Boydston article looks very interesting as well. I think this link between blogging and unpaid domestic labor is a useful one. I'm looking forward to hearing more from you about it.

  10. Thanks LP. I've been interested in domestic labor as a theoretical question for a long time and I'm a relatively avid dweller in the blogosphere but I'd never made the link between the two. I like that very much. I'll have to think about it. Unfortunately that thinking has to be put on hold for a while, I need to start doing all the domestic labor I put on hold while my semester was wrapping up.
    take care,

  11. attention paid

    these uses of marx's work are metaphorical - they're examples taken out of context. 'productive consumption' doesn't designate an activity that requires being seen/read - i.e., blogging.

    if a blog *were* a product (in the capitalist mode), then the amount of time researching or thinking about a specific blog one intended to write would be 'productive consumption'. as would be the wear and tear done to the computer upon which one writes it. so, for example, looking up and reading that passage from marx did consume a portion of your time, and a portion of some computer's life, and would thus meet the definition presented - in its barest sense, what one has to use to be able to produce.

    tangentially, isn't it high time to stop using the word 'alienation' in a pejorative sense *every* chance we get? alienation is simply another word for letting go of something during an exchange. if i give you something - a gift, let's say - then i forfeit my right of future exclusive use. i have thus "alienated" it from me - which is merely to say, it is now, in a certain sense, foreign/alien to me (i.e., no longer mine). that's all.

    there are other forms of exchange besides buying-and-selling, and one can adopt the empty form of buying-and-selling though no money changes hands - e.g., one purchases a bit of attention for a bit of published opinion.

    and so i thank you all for the payment i've just received. =P