Comments on Graham and Sander's Analysis of Value and Software

Before going about the problem of the value of software itself, I just want to make a comment about Graham's answer to me (Jan 28) on productive/unproductive work. Sander has since then written a long text on this specific question saying most of what I wanted to say, particularly on the productive nature of services.

Graham writes (Jan 28): "Of course all workers are exploited" and, a few lines later: "in this real process, some workers create surplus value and others do not." But, how can capitalist exploitation exist without creation of surplus value?

I think, there is a question of meaning of the word surplus value. In fact, surplus value may recover three realities corresponding to three moments of its metamorphosis:

1 At the origin, it is surplus labour, in the form of goods and services;
2 Second moment, when it is sold, in the form of money;
3 Finally, when it is re-introduced in the productive process, in the form of new capital (constant or variable).

All wage exploited workers create "surplus value" in the first two forms, or meanings, only those whose work is not unproductively consumed do it in the third. From the point of view of global capital, and only from that point of view, the surplus value from workers producing, say, "missiles, or tawdry luxuries" (to take Sander's examples) cannot be transformed into new constant or variable capital.

It is true that the third moment is the most specifically capitalist. But how to call the surplus labour that was extracted to the workers whose work is unproductively consumed? I think that it's not because the surplus value has not reached its third form that one should not call it surplus value.

Graham asks me: "I don't understand the urgency for you in proving that all workers generate surplus value." Maybe is it the fact that I had to discuss in the past the idea that some workers are exploiting others because some are "unproductive" and others no...


About Sander's text, I agree with what it says against the idea that services do not create value and about the fact that the content of work is not decisive for the "productive" nature of a capitalist exploited worker, at least at the immediate level of exploitation. Nevertheless, I think that at the level of global capital and its reproduction the content of work is important since it may be productively or unproductively consumed. Again here, we should try to agree on the meaning of words. The question is: how to call the work which is unproductively consumed. Is "unproductive work" the best term? Is, thus, "productive" the only work which is not unproductively consumed?

I used these words with that meaning when I wrote to Graham (Jan 18): "I agree with your formulation: 'a service worker may be productive for a particular capital without being productive for capital as a whole', except that I think it is true not only for service workers."

Sander doesn't give the same meaning to theses words when he writes: "So your view that 'a service worker may be productive for a particular capital without being productive for capital as a whole', based on the material content of his labour, disagrees with that of Marx. Im open to the possibility that he was wrong, but so far it seems to me that youre mistaken."

Sander and Marx don't reject the concept of unproductive consumption. They simply don't call, at least in this case, unproductive the work which is unproductively consumed.

In general, I think it is naturally difficult and a source of ambiguity to deal with the concept of "productive" without adding the object of production and the context in which it is used.

If I had to summarize what seems important to me in the context of this discussion I would say:

- Every worker (services or material goods producer) under capitalist relations is productive of surplus value;
- The work of some of them is unproductiveely consumed.


But it's time for me to tackle the original discussion: the value of digital goods and software. I must confess that I have some difficulties do deal with that question. At a general level I agree with Sander's and Graham's main concerns:

- Graham says: "Like Sander I'm seeing this as 'a conflict between capitalism and the law of value". I also agree. Free reproducible goods, which by definition tend to escape scarcity are not easily manageable within the framework of the law of value, born to deal with scarcity. The "natural" effect of this law is to tend to pull down the value of these products to zero and thus capitalism must counter this effect. As Sander puts it: "Law and order against the law of value."

I also agree with them that in many cases the profit made by the sellers of digital goods is "almost entirely due to the use of monopoly to move surplus value from other sectors" (Graham, Jan 13), but I don't think this is always true neither that none of the work spent in the creation of the original good is transferred into the copies of it.

Graham and Sander maintain that last point, but for different reasons. For Graham there is no value transferred to the copies because the original has no value, it is not a commodity. For Sander, because the value of the copy is the value of the copy itself and, for a digital good, this is almost nothing.

I'll try to say what disturbs me in these two visions.

Graham says that "writing programs... creates no value". "Labour is spent on creating the original, but spending labour is not equivalent to creating value. Even the legal process of marketing software confirms this: software is never sold by distributors, since it has no exchange value; instead, they sell a license to use the software. Using labour is not sufficient to create value; value is realised through a market, and software is not sold on a market (and is not a commodity). Just ask Microsoft if they will sell you Word ;-)" (Jan 13)

I don't think this corresponds to reality. There is maybe here again a question of meaning of words. But, I understand by commodity a product of human work that has use value and exchange value. As far as I can see, commercial digital goods have all this qualities. It is true that to be treated as commodities, digital products, because of their capacity to be freely reproducible, they need to be "encapsulated", subject to specific "law and order", namely copyright. But, in that legal framework they are commodities. Microsoft may not sell to me the original code of Word, but it might sell-it to another big corporation as it bought many original codes of software from other companies, usually smaller.

When you buy only a copy of Word, the use value of the product is strictly limited (you can not copy or modify it, you might be able to use it only for a limited period of time if you are a corporation) but it possesses an exchange value, you pay for it, and a use value. In the case of Word it may be used as a consumption mean (to write your personal correspondence) or as a mean of production for a professional editor. Regardless of the question of the measure of its exchange value, it is a commodity.

In order to prove that digital goods, or at least software is not a commodity, Graham gives another argument: "People accept that taking something with value is theft. They accept that paying for commodities is normal, provided there is an approximate proportion between the labour required to create the commodity, the amount they are paid for their own labour, and the price of the commodity. They do not in general accept that copying a program is theft, or that paying for something they can copy themselves without labour is normal." It is always a little hazardous to attribute opinions to "people". Even opinions polls are not always reliable. But my feeling is that people's opinions are more complex than that. Very often when you say "digital goods and software should be free" (as in "free beer") a lot of people, even some who regularly copy "illegally" digital goods, object that the creators, the producers must survive and thus it is normal you pay for the work they have done. At least a good share of people see "illegal" copy as a theft, but, first, as a small, very small theft, especially if it concerns a product of which many copies are sold; second, a theft that deserves, as the Spanish proverb says, "a hundred years of forgiveness" since the victims of robbery are most of the time thieves themselves (Microsoft, Universal music, etc).

In any case, I don't find Graham's argument convincing.

At a different level, Graham gives another argument: "if this [digital information] somehow inherently has value - even if it is small - then the success of laws to enforce property rights over digital information is inevitable (without a revolution), while if it has no value, then we have the beginnings of the basis of a new system with which property laws are quite incompatible." (Jan 13)

One of the only things we can be sure about the future is that the share of digital goods and software in material products can only increase and thus that the amount of social work devoted to create digital goods will inevitably develop. Capital won't leave that part of production out of its grip. "Enforcing property rights over digital information" is indeed "inevitable" as far as its production is paid by capitalists, even if these will be obliged to produce and use also free-software. A revolution will remain necessary to get rid definitely of copyrights, etc. That reality doesn't prevent what Graham calls "the beginnings of the basis of a new system with which property laws are quite incompatible", but this happens outside the capitalistic logic of value, in the non-market practices allowed by the ICT (P2P, Wikipedia, Setis, etc.).

Graham also writes: "If software is simply an extreme case of the general tendency to reduce the direct labour component of commodities and increase the scientific component, the part played by the 'collective worker', then it introduces nothing fundamentally new." (Jan 13) I am not sure it is "simply" that, but as such I think that it is a qualitative leap in that general tendency and that is "fundamentally new".

On that point, I agree with Sander's approach as he sees that tendency to "valueless production" as "the most pronounced expression" of a general trend of capitalism, even if I have some doubts about the way he sees that in the concrete reality.

(to be continued)


February 20, 2006

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