David Bollier: 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.”

My colleagues and I wondered if it would be possible to develop a post-capitalist, commons-friendly theory of value that could begin to represent and defend these other types of value.  Could we develop a theory that might have the same resonance that the labor theory of value had in Marx’s time?

Marx’s labor theory of value has long criticized capitalism for failing to recognize the full range of value-creation that make market exchange possible in the first place.  Without the “free,” unpriced services of child-rearing, social cooperation, ethical norms, education and natural systems, markets simply could not exist.  Yet because these nonmarket value-regimes have no pricetags associated with them, they are taken for granted and fiercely exploited as “free resources” by markets.

So we were wondering:  If modern political/economic conceptions of value are deficient, then what alternative theories of value might we propose? In cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation and anthropologist David Graeber, who has a keen interest in these themes, we brought together about 20 key thinkers and activists for a Deep Dive workshop in September 2016 to explore this very question.  So much seems to hinge upon how we define value.

I am pleased to say that an account of those workshop deliberations is now available as a report, Re-imagining Value:  Insights from the Care Economy, Commons, Cyberspace and Nature (pdf download). The 49-page report (plus appendices) explains that how we define value says a lot about what we care about and how we make sense of things – and therefore what kind of political agendas we pursue.

Here is the Contents page from the report:



A.  Why “Value” Lies at the Heart of Politics

B.  Should We Even Use the Word “Value”?



A.  Can Abstract Metrics Help Build a New Value Regime?

B.  How Shall We Value “Nature”?

C.  Should We De-Monetize Everyday Life?


A.  Practical Strategies for Building New Systems of Value

B.  The Dangers of Co-optation and Wishful Thinking

C.  But Peer Production Still Relies Upon (Unpaid) Care Work and Nature!



Appendix A:  Participants

Appendix B:  A Commons Theory of Value

Appendix C:  Readings for Value Deep Dive


Below, some excerpts from the report:

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.

“We cannot do without a value regime,” said Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation and cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.  “Today, we have a dictatorship of one kind of value as delivered by the market system, which determines for everyone how they can live.”  Consider how the labor of a nurse is regarded under different value regimes, he said:  A nurse working as a paid employee is considered value-creating – a contributor to Gross Domestic Product.  But the same nurse doing the same duties as a government employee is seen as “an expense, not a value-creator,” said Bauwens.  The same nurse working as a volunteer “produces no value at all” by the logic of the market system.

Bauwens said that his work in fostering peer production communities is an exploratory project in creating a new type of “value sovereignty” based on mutualism and caring.  An important aspect of this work is protecting the respective community’s value sovereignty through defensive accommodations with the market system.  “The peer production system lives a dichotomy,” explained Bauwens.  “It is based on contributions for which we don’t get paid.  We therefore have to interact with the market so that we can earn a living and get paid for what we have to do.”  Maintaining a peer community within a hostile capitalist order requires that the community “create membranes to capture value from the dominant system, but then to filter it and use it in different ways” – i.e., through collective decisionmaking and social solidarity, not through the market logic of money-based, individual exchange.

…. One participant, Ina Praetorius, a postpatriarchal thinker, author and theologian based in Switzerland, asked a provocative question:  “Do we need to use the word ‘value’ at all?”  She explained that as an ethicist she does not find the word useful.  “Value is not part of my vocabulary since writing my 2005 book, Acting Out of Abundance [in German, Handeln aus der Fülle].  It’s perfectly possible to talk about the ‘good life’ without the notion of value.”  Praetorius believes the word “value” is useful to merchants and economists in talking about money and markets.  But it has little relevance when talking about ethical living or the human condition.

Praetorius is also suspicious of “value” as a word associated with the German philosophical tradition of idealism, which she regards as “an unreliable authority because of its strange methodological origins” – “Western bourgeois men of the 19th and 20th Centuries, who created an invisible sphere of abstract concepts meant to denote certain qualities, as a means to forget their own belonging to nature and their own basic needs, especially towards women.”

But ecophilosopher Aetzel Griffioen, based in The Netherlands, regards the word “value” as “a necessary abstraction that can be used in some places and not in others.”  In his dealing with a labor union of domestic workers, for example, Griffioen considers the word too philosophical and abstract to use.  However, “for commoners trying to tackle what so-called economists call ‘value-creation,’ it is a practical necessity to use the word in trying to create commons based on their own values.”

Again, the value/values dichotomy cropped up.  Economics claims the word “value” for itself while everyone else, in their private and social lives, may have their own personal “values.”  This rift in thinking and vocabulary is precisely what this workshop sought to overcome.  Economists are eager to protect their ideas about “value” as money-based and make them normative. Commoners and others, by contrast, want to broaden the meaning of the term to apply to all of human experience.  This conflict prompted Ina Praetorius to conclude, “Language is politics.”  For herself, she has no desire to contest with economists over control of the term.  Others, however, are determined to continue that very struggle.

Towards a Relational Theory of Value

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.

According to Nick Dyer-Witheford, this idea aligns with Marx’s thinking.  While some observers say that a Marxist theory of value ascribes value to things, Dyer-Witheford disagreed, noting that “Marx condemned the idea of value inhering in objects as commodity fetishism.  He believed in a relational theory of value – the relations between workers and owners – even if Marx may not have considered the full range of social relationships involved in the production of commodities.”….

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.

Event photography by Pedro Jardim

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