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Adam Arvidsson, Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture.

London: Routledge, 2006. 168 pp. ISBN10: 0415347165 (pbk)


Review by Uri Ram
Ben Gurion University, Israel
Karl Marxs famous maxim to the effect that The hand-mill gives you
society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial
capitalist (Marx, 1977: 202) echoes loudly in Adam Arvidssons proclamation
that brands are a paradigmatic embodiment of the logic of informational
capitalism (p. 13). The book Brands: Meaning and Value in Media
Culture is devoted to the theoretical and empirical exploration of this thesis
and its implications.
In Arvidssons view, brands gained a prominent position in the 1980s.
What makes brands so important is that they create a vital link between
economy and culture: they extract value from shared experiences and
common tastes and are spun into the social fabric as a ubiquitous medium
for the construction of a common social world (p. 3). The functioning of
brands is facilitated by two intermingled grand shifts that capitalism underwent
in the 1980s: a shift to a neo-liberal political economy and a shift to
a post-Fordist regime of production and consumption; two shifts that were
premised upon the explosion of a new wave of communication technology
and mediatization of all walks of everyday life.
What is unique to brands, even if not entirely exclusive, is that in them
it is not the products as much as the brands that matter (p. 5), or, that they
are a form of immaterial capital (p. 7) that is produced by immaterial
labour (p. 9). In other words, what matters most in brands is the symbolic
or signifying dimension of the commodity, compared to the material use
value of the older type of products. Furthermore, brands not only switch
the roles between the material and ideal dimensions of products, but also
switch the roles between production and consumption, whereby value is
not extracted at the point of production, but rather at the point of
consumption; these are the consumers who through their cultural creativity
or politics of identity produce the newly added value of the products.
In his interpretation, Arvidsson draws on the Italian Marxist school,
known as the autonomists, that articulates anew Marxs concept of thegeneral
intellect.With Marx, the concept related to the subsumption of
labour under capital, so that only management can oversee the overall
productive process. With the autonomists, in distinction, the concept
relates to the subsumption of the whole social environment under capital,
so that the labour process comes to encompass not only the productive
process of the factory system, but the general process of communal and
cultural creativity.
Thus, the overall thesis that the book proposes is that the brand is not
only a new form of interface between production and consumption, but a
new form of the intermix that turns consumption and with it social life
itself into a source of produced value which is extracted by capital. It is
suggested that for consumers, brands are means of production, of style,
mood, experience, community (p. 93), while for capital, brands are means
of appropriation . . . a way to capture the productivity of the social and

subsume it as a form of value generating immaterial labor (p. 94). The


overall result is that brands represent the transformation of the context for
life into capital, and of life itself into labour, which is typical of informational
capitalism (p. 94). Besides Marx, Arvidsson draws on Michel
Foucault, and especially his understanding of modern power as constructive
rather then restrictive, and thus relates to a governing from below
through tactics of enabling, empowering and programming (p. 128).
The book holds six chapters, of which the first offers a general
overview of the thesis and the last outlines the theoretical conclusions.
Chapter 2 addresses the consumption of brands, and argues that the
mediatization of consumption, especially through the electronic media,
enhances the agency of consumers and their capacity to produce a common
social and cultural space. Chapters 3 through 5 address the other side of the
coin the new strategies developed by capital to valorize the productivity
of consumption, which is diffused in the social space and in the new
electronic space.
The least convincing aspect of the book is the hypothesis suggested by
it too late and too little about the coming crisis of informational capitalism.
The crisis is supposed to stem from the emergent discrepancy
between the growing dependency of capital on diffused social sources (the
general intellect), and the growing independence of these sources from
capital. Yet, rather then a crisis of capitalism, this discrepancy seems to
suggest, in my view, a crisis in the analysis of Italian autonomist Marxism.
It is a moot point whether the expansion of productivity into the domain
marked as a general intellect is potentially more liberating, because it
escapes the domination of any specific capital agents, as the
autonomistsassume; or whether indeed it is potentially more repressing, since
no space remains free from the domination or manipulation of capital. It seems
that in the last instance, autonomy has been in fact appropriated by
marketing. It seems thus that the major thesis of the book, about the new
sturdiness of capitalism, is stronger then the expectation it harbours for a crisis
of capitalism.
All in all, the book aims to decipher the inner logic of the system of
informational capitalism through the prism of the brand. It is rich in
empirical analysis and in theoretical articulation and it belongs with the
much called for endeavour carried by too few scholars to offer a
sophisticated empirical analysis of contemporary capitalism with the tools of an
updated MarxistFoucauldian theory.
References
Marx, K. (1977) The Poverty of Philosophy, in David McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx:
Selected Writings, pp. 195215. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Journal of Consumer Culture 8(3)
432
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2009