The Number of the Collective Beast: Value in the Age of the New Algorithmic Institutions of Ranking and Rating

January 19th, 2014

Paper delivered here. Unpublished. An italian version here.


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Abstract. How to measure value? Any form of (cultural, artistic, academic, material) production is today immersed into the same machinic sphere of valorisation: namely into a network. My paper focuses and frames only this partial perspective: it does not discuss networks as medium of production, exchange, communication, organisation or even money minting, but as medium of collective valorisation (that is of collective value generation, amplification, accumulation and speculation). The network form appears to be the most empirical model available today to describe such a process of social valorisation and, more importantly, its measurement. I will discuss four cases: the obsessive reference economy of the university, the pervasive link economy of Google’s PageRank algorithm, the geopolitical influence of international rating agencies and also the mundane hierarchies of the art world. They all function according to a collective, network-based and vortical generation of value. The role of speculation is not properly distinguished from the collective valorisation process and regarding this my paper likely falls short (or maybe it just  envisions a future where speculation will be reclaimed as a collective power of value sabotage). Nevertheless a political critique of these machinic institutions of rating and ranking, that are collectively and socially generating the new “number of the beast” (or, the measure of collective value), I argue, is still missing.


The field of value and the collective beast

1. The bicephalous conception of value in Marx. Some authors argue that in Marx (1867) we find a bicephalous conception of value. In his interesting book More Heat than Light Mirowski (1989), for instance, shows how Marx drew from two models common to the science of his time to describe the arcane of the genesis of value, that is from the new field of thermodynamics and from Newtonian physics. In Marx, there would appear a measure of value based on the number of hours spent at work and a measure of value based on socially necessary labour, a thermodynamic measure of value and a gravitational measure of value, a measure inspired by Carnot and a measure inspired by Newton, a metric one and a topological one, one based on horsepower and the other on the field of forces, a more substantial one and a more relational one. Clearly none of the two models fits perfectly the flesh of living labour and we are still struggling within this dilemma like in a straitjacket. How to measure economic value and in particular labour surplus value?

Interestingly, according to Deleuze (1986), also the innovative rupture represented by the Foucauldian biopolitics was about the introduction of a vision of power as a field of forces, as an abstract social machine that came to replace the old models of power and political economy based on industrial thermodynamic machines. In an interview with Negri, Deleuze once noticed that a regime of machines is related to a specific model of society and power, but a machine in itself does not explain anything, as it is the broader  economic and social ‘machinic assemblage’ that must be analysed beyond any technological determinism:

Each kind of society corresponds to a particular kind of machine with simple mechanical machines corresponding to sovereign societies, thermodynamic machines to disciplinary societies, cybernetic machines and computers to control societies. But the machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component. (Deleuze 1990)

Tools, techniques, machines, protocols, algorithms “do not explain anything”. They must be taken as manifestations and configurations of more profound processes. Indeed Deleuze suggested a parallelism and homology between technological forms and political forms, that can be extended to economic forms: can machines tell us also something about the form of value in a specific age too? This is the line of research of another book by Mirowski (2002) Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. But I think that this question becomes more interesting, when it is turned inside out: can the form of value tell us something about the evolution of technology in a specific age? If you were an economist, you would prefer to see the world of machines from the perspective of value. If you were a cybernetician, you would be tempted to see economy just as an extension of machines. Marx (1867) had a simple and elegant solution for this dilemma (not surprinsingly inspired by the father of computation Charles Babbage): the structure of  a machine always mirrors and replaces a previous and more primitive division of (mental and manual) labour and so it improves the production and accumulation of surplus labour. In this regard machines always tell something about the value form. My very basic question is then: which model of machine do we unconsciously apply today to our view of society and our understanding of value? Intuitively we may say that the information machine (and its assemblage into information networks) is the primary model of value today. Yet this answer must be properly explained and expanded.

2. The Western tradition of the measurability of the Being. The previous question can be reformulated as follows: which form of value are contemporary machines measuring? The problem of the substance of the value is also, philosophically and politically, the problem of its measure and the problem of which devices are used to measure it. We could say that mathematics exist precisely because there is always something that escapes measurability. Economics itself can be said to be the attempt to domesticate excess, to come to terms with surplus and capture it. Capitalism have always been trying to control the substance of living labor by applying, in different ages, different devices of measurement. These measuring machines are those machines in Deleuze of Guattari (1972) that we always forget to mention: not the desiring and producing machines (machines of the first synthesis), but the recording machines (machines of the second synthesis). The recording machines cut the flow of the desiring production and inscribe in it codes and numbers to extract the surplus value of flow. All the times Deleuze and Guattari were describing machines of production, they had in mind also machines of registration and measure — to capture and regulate that very production.

Why do we need ‘to take measures’ at any cost? Why this animal drive to arithmetics and geometry? Marx himself is said to belong to the very Western and Aristotelian tradition of the measurability of the Being for his desire to mathematically calculate surplus value. Yet Marx’s formulas are not formulas of economic equilibrium, but on the contrary formulas that, going beyond Hegelian logic, show the inherent asymmetry of capital and try to identify its internal crisis, its disproportion, its dismeasure, as in the case of the famous equation of the law of the falling rate of profit (Marx 1894). There are schools of thought, however, that do not subscribe to this idea of an objective crisis of capital and address a subjective crisis of capital, that is an external intervention and rupture by a new political subject. Autonomist Marxism, for instance, has been always underlining the autonomy of labour against the autonomy of capital, since Tronti’s (1962) famous Copernican turn. According to this tradition, it was the excess of the social body, the dismeasure of living labor, the insubordination of the working class to set the industrial revolution out of joint, to generate an international workers’ movement and to push the evolution of capitalism towards post-Fordism, the development of the information revolution and eventually finance capitalism itself— in capitalism’s desperate attempt to escape the gravity force of class conflict and its threats to political stability. What capital indeed attempts to measure, monitor and capture is precisely a surplus, that is not just a power of collective value generation that comes before capital, but also a destituent power always ready to produce political instability. What we must underline at this point is that there is never an individual production of value — value is in itself always a collective relation, a collective measure, a collective abstraction preceding any monetary technique. Money is indeed ‘the currency of the common’. Speculation can germinate and proliferate only on the basis of a common ground and common rules.

3. Intermezzo: the status of political economy in five contemporary schools of thought. For sure we lack a Gesamttheorie, or unifying theory of value. On this question of measure and dismeasure of value, taking a break and making few conceptual jokes, we could divide the contemporary interpretations of political economy into five schools of thought: purificators, calculators, autonomizers, circulators and accelerators. First, purificators are those who refuse to study economics and specifically Marxian economics for the fear to commit the sin of ‘economicism’ (like Badiou) or those who recognise economic disciplines as a mere reincarnation of the old Christian theology from whose damnation no escape seems possible (like Agamben). Second, calculators are the loyal comrades to the supposed inherent rationality of economy, which always calculate labour value with a watch in their hand and only within the perimeter of the factory walls, and in this way they measure also rights and welfare for the whole metropolitan population (mostly ‘kitsch Marxists’, to use an appropriate expression by Negarestani). Third, autonomizers are those that recognise the excess of living labor beyond any measurement of economic rationality, the entire metropolis as a productive subject and the spontaneous organisation and collective intelligence of new subjectivities (that is Autonomist Marxism in general). Fourth, circulators are those who, today more than ever, support a monetarist turn in political economy, the hegemony of the circulation of money over production and the idea to control the economic and democratic crisis via the injection or invention of new currencies, for instance. Fifth, accelerators are those that envision the end of capitalism by hijacking its technological tendencies, designing new hegemonic infrastructures and introducing radical basic income (see the recent Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics by Williams and Srnicek 2013). These are, of course, just illustrative simplifications.

4. Gattungswesen: Marx’s collective beast emerges again. Let’s go back to the problem of collective value generation and the collective nature of value. This scheme affects any definition of collective goods and specifically the contemporary debate on the commons or the common (singular, without ‘s). As presented in Commonwealth by Hardt and Negri (2009), the notion of ‘the common’ is originated within the crisis of Marx’s measure of value, that is  the crisis of time as unit of measure of labour. Private time and labour time cannot longer be distinguished from each other: the metropolis cannot longer be distinguished from the factory, they argue. Within the social factory, within the metropolis as expanded productive space, time can no longer be the unit of measure of production (Hardt and Negri 2009: 317). Going back to the Marxian idea of capital as an accumulation of social relations, Hardt and Negri call ‘the common’ then such a broad production of valorising social relations that are subsequently captured by capital. However what this productive common ground does not appear to immediately feature is its anti-productive and destituent power, that is the power to sabotage value accumulation.

In the 1844 manuscripts the young Marx (1932) was discussing another similar collective entity: Gattungswesen, the human as a species-being. The species-being is the main feature of the human for its social nature or, if you prefer, for its dimension of political animal. As Nick Dyer‐Witheford (2004) reminds, the concept of Gattungswesen emerges in Marx from the concept of alienation and it has been criticised for still being humanist and naturalist (nevertheless it is right here that Marx states “Nature is man’s inorganic body”). Today we could re-elaborate and adopt Gattungswesen as a concept of post-humanism, homologous with Foucault’s field of forces, Deleuze and Guattari’s body-without-organs (who found inspiration also in this passage) and the becoming machinic of the multitude. Gattungswesen can become the concept of a social monster, yet of an alien intelligence proceeding from the future and not emerging from of an unconscious principle of nature. Similarly, the theory of ‘the common’ attempted to show a collective beast at the centre of contemporary capitalism. Specific apparatuses of measure, control and capture are necessary then to domesticate such a collective beast. Evoked the social monster, we have to understand how capital is able to capture such a network of relations and field of forces: how it is able to impose today a number to the collective beast. 


For a topology of the field of value: the new apparatuses of ranking and rating.

5. Topological models of the value field. New empirical models of valorisation must be introduced to understand the metamorphoses of capital under the pressure of the social forces of the last decades. I propose to describe the field of economic forces first as a topological space and not just in a quantitative way as orthodox political economy still does. This topological space follows the contours drawn and made visible by the new institutions of rating and ranking. I propose here four examples: the reference economy of the university, the attention economy of the internet, the prestige economy of the art world and the geopolitical influence of international rating agencies. They all function as networks of valorisation and accumulation, as multi-armed giant octopuses immersed in the waters of different oceans. For reason of clarity, I suggest to distinguish between ranking, that is a machinic and objective form of measure, and rating, that is a political and subjective form of measure, but actually these two models can be considered different incarnation of the same machinic diagram of the social field. In a similar way, I suggest to distinguish between (informal) social networks and (formal) institutional apparatuses.

6. Distinction between algorithmic ranking and political rating. By ranking I mean a position in a certain range according to an objective procedure, a method, an algorithm (as it happens in the evaluation of academic journals, in the results of the Google search engine or in the calculation of the number of followers on Facebook and Twitter). This is easy to understand: think how much you are important, as a person or as a company, according to the number of followers you have on Twitter, friends on Facebook or links pointing to your website. On the other hand, by rating I mean the position along a scale according to a system of subjective assessments, based on recognition, trust and support by persons with whom a complex network of relations has been established. See the art world where you don’t have a “number”, but your value is generated by an informal and continuous labour of personal relations. See especially the international rating agencies, which offer their assessments to investors within a fabric of pure political relations and monstrous conflicts of interest. I define the first diagram as algorithmic because it implies the use of codified procedures, and the second diagram as political because it implies the ancient political art of building consensus, trust and social alliances on the basis of informal relations. Actually both cases are machinic systems, according to the definition of Deleuze and Guattari, as they mix automatisms with social relations. Similarly to Marx’s definition of machine (1867), where machine always occupies the abstract relations of a previous division of labour, some ranking algorithms happen to be formally installed on previous informal structures of rating (see also how social media like Facebook and Twitter map our previous social relations, install themselves into them and deform them).

7. Distinction between social networks and institutional apparatuses. Obviously, the global digital network and its social media are the best example to illustrate the giant apparatuses for the production and registration of social relations. On a smaller scale, but with a significant economic impact, we could take the case of the art world, that it is also based on networks that are informal, fluid, non-hierarchical and not necessarily institutional. This mesh of social relations constitutes also the substance of institutions that are apparently monolithic: if universities and rating agencies show all the rigidity of institutional hierarchies and political power, their ontological constitution is not so different from that of the social networks of the internet and the metropolis: they are in other words a condensation of social relations. The distinction between formal and informal networks, between institutional and spontaneous apparatuses is just introduced for the sake of clarity, as even here we are just moving across the same machinic continuum.

A1). The reference economy of university as institutional and algorithmic apparatus of  measurement. It was in the German university at the end of the 19th century that a ranking system for academic publications was introduced by tracing and calculating the number and the matrix of bibliographic citations. More citations to an article or a book, the greater the academic influence of its author. As it is well known, every university researcher is still captured today in this measuring apparatus that determines her/his own career and gradient of competition. It is not enough to publish a book, it is crucial to show and continuously accumulate references to one’s own work. This ranking system crosses and shape  universities also on a global scale: like any academic teaching position, universities fall into a global ranking system. The top ten of the best universities of the world is constantly updated by measuring different features that we cannot discuss here, like performance of their research, published books, registered patents and so on. These indexes measure the prestige of all the universities and so their ‘global value’. As you know, especially reading the recent Anglo-American chronicles, such a network of valorisation has a deep impact on the social status of a given university, on the tuition fees and thereafter directly on student debt. Student debt could be defined as the reversal of the cognitive pyramid of university ranking, reproducing its segmentations and economic hierarchies like in a mirror.

A2). The attention economy of the internet as social and algorithmic apparatus of measurement. The algorithm of the search engine Google was born applying the old German model used to ‘measure’ academic publications to each document of the web. Basically Google’s PageRank algorithm automatically calculates the network value of each web link and decides the importance and visibility of a given document depending on the number and quality of links pointing to it. Google’s PageRank algorithm can be taken as the most empirical diagram of the accumulation of value in cognitive capitalism (see Pasquinelli 2009, 2011) and as the main accumulator of that valorising information that already Alquati (1963) traced at work in the first cybernetic factories. More in general, internet today finally shows its whole dimension of ‘social production’ in the attention economy of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where in a similar way to Google’s PageRank algorithm the personal prestige is calculated precisely on the basis of number of ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and ‘friends’.

A3). The prestige economy of the art world as social and political apparatus of measurement. At closer inspection, the attention economy that the internet has made visible has always been at the heart of the spectacular economy of mass media and especially of the art world. The work of art functions today as a unique irreproducible signifier whose value is measured, accumulated and speculated within a complex social matrix. In this network of valorisation surrounding the artwork very codified roles are connected to each other: authors, curators, critics, gallerists, collectors, exhibitions, magazines, museums and eventually the audience (in a coprophagic assemblage called the ‘human centipede’ by Negarestani). It is enough to browse the main art journals to see how contemporary art is a careful social engineering more concerned about the delicate hierarchy of name dropping than aesthetic issues. Compared to the impassive algorithms of digital networks and the rigid university indexes, the art world, like all the spectacular world of commodities, is organised around vortices of valorisation that appear much more fluid and informal, easy prey to the incursion of financial speculation (that indeed has no need for a basis in such a social valorisation process, see Malik and Phillips 2012).

A4). The trust economy of rating agencies as institutional and political apparatus of measurement. At a geopolitical level the rating agencies show mechanisms very similar to those that I tried to explain at other scales. From the recent chronicles of the global crisis, we see that the fate of public debt is in the hands of private rating agencies, the armed wing of giant financial interests, that in this way influence the destiny of entire countries. We could say that the political and institutional apparatuses engineered by these organisations represent most clearly the machinic substrate of the economy of debt, since the degree of speculation on debt depends on the amount of trust that is numerically assigned to a given company or country. Moreover it is the media amplification of the rating announcements from this agencies (the incredible mass hysteria associated to simple codes like AAA, AA, A+, etc.) that makes these agencies machines of political and biopolitical governances. These agencies are clearly private actors but their influence plays across the public sphere of language and performative acts: funny enough, when they are into legal troubles and sued by some governments, they protect their rating decisions with the First Amendment of United States constitution, that is as freedom of speech. The techniques of international rating agencies are complicit and organic to the violence of financial speculation.

8. Abstract machines always replace social machines. Rating and ranking mechanisms replace the traditional discipline of time of the Fordist metropolis with a fluid form of biopolitical control that prompt competition, spectacularization and speculation. I do not mean to introduce here a strict opposition between the temporal field of Fordism and the social field of post-Fordism, both being branches of the same law of value and the same machinic evolution. As the machines described by Marx in a chapter of Capital, these measuring systems do not invent anything new: they just come to occupy and map a network of pre-existing social relations and behaviours. The economies of social production clearly existed well before the rating and ranking systems came to overcode, measure, control and capture them. Also the machine of debt came to overcode these relations. The ‘factory of debt’ (Lazzarato 2011) can be considered the specular and negative image of these networks of valorisation.

9. The factory of indebted man is cognitive and machinic. The new apparatuses of ranking and rating are the same ones that describe, in a reverse fashion, the networks of debt of financial capitalism and keep alive the apparatuses of subjectification and competition of neoliberalism. We could say that the degree of trust measured and projected by the rating agencies runs politically specular to that sense of guilt which is the basis of the debtor-creditor economic relationship (see Lazzarato 2011 on ‘the factory of the indebted man’). This new apparatuses of debt have not displaced the apparatuses of cognitive capitalism, but it is a very cognitive and machinic capitalism to provide facilities and devices for the governance of debt and the measure of its value. It is a cognitive and machinic capitalism and a new breed of measurement institutions that allow debt and all the tricks of financial speculation to become pervasive and persistent, chasing us wherever we go.




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