Future Capture: Vol I

«The Value of Everything» Mariana Mazzucato


I admit it has been…more than a few months since I finished reading Mazzucato’s masterful 2018 work The Value of Everything,1 and even longer since I announced the start of this project here on this blog. That was back when I was young and full of verve. In terms of the global structure of, well, everything, we can say that not much has changed since the book was written.

Types of Debt Flowchart (from the WorldBank)

Banks still receive massive government subsidies, the Fed keeps interest rates lower than the pants on a 90s MTV boyband,2 and massive tax evasion and value extraction remain the norm.

It’s been a long two years, stuck on this nightmare carousel of capitalist hypermodernity.

Mazzucato’s book is a fantastic intellectual history of economics, one which can help contextualize our present notions of “value,” and “deservedness” with regards to capital and material. It should be noted that the book is highly Euro-centric, the presence of Marx aside. While this is definitely a weak point for economics more generally, the book’s intention is not to provide a comparative study of economic historiography. The finance that is now eating the world was born out of a specific, contingent history, largely in England and later on in the United States. The “we” present in the book will rightfully include every human on earth who must live under modern capitalism—especially those who were colonized and had no say in how we got here.

Book Structure

Mazzucato’s book is written in a lightly chronological fashion, as is befitting an inquiry into the origins, and definition of, “value.”(p.6) We meet the fathers (for they are almost invariably men) of economics, what was once called “moral philosophy” from François Quesnay to Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the 21st Century”) even gets a mention (p.5). Karl Marx and Marxian analysis is also present throughout, but Mazzucato’s analysis is not strictly a Marxist one.

Divided into 10 sections, we progress from agrarian accumulation in the early 1700s to modern “Casino Capitalism” (p.135) and “Extracting Value through the Innovation Economy” (p.189). Along the way we learn about how GDP has been calculated, and the undervalued public sector. Ending on a positive note, the last section is titled “The Economics of Hope” (p.270).

I recommend reading the book in its entirety, as the arguments are developed in a linear, nearly chronological, order throughout the chapters. Readers of her earlier 2015 work “The Entrepreneurial State” will recognize a few of the arguments and data sources, but there is sufficiently new material (wrapped in a new argument) to make even the section on public de-valuing worth reading.

Mazzucato lays out the book’s scope at the end of the Preface (xix):

Economists must take a sizeable share of the blame for the lamentable outcomes of the prevailing story about value. We have stopped debating value—and, as a result, we have allowed one story about “wealth creation” and “wealth creators” to dominate almost unchallenged.
— Mazzucato (p.xviii) [emphasis added]

Key Arguments

What Counts Gets Counted

Mazzucato delineates what she calls “the production boundary” (p.8), which is a nebulous, and foundational, idea in economic thought. What actions are “productive” and which are “not” has extremely important implications for politics, wealth, and power. In recent decades, many feminist scholars have articulated the necessity for thinking of housework as labor: to render maintenance and care-giving (cleaning, cooking, etc) as “unproductive” merely because they are unpaid is disingenuous—and a pillar of patriarchy.3

Over the past few hundred years, conceptions about what “counts” as work, as production, and as value have shifted, changed, and being argued about endlessly. As value is socially created, there can be no final resting spot for economic theory: it will remain a project that requires recurrent engagement with the present, and is also a product of that present.

Otherwise we run the risk of allowing wealth to be extracted (stolen) and hoarded (hidden) in ever-greater quantities. Why, we may ask, has the world’s richest person always been alive in the present? Each year “more” is generated, stocks go up, production and GDP rise. But where does this all go, and where, really is it from? Where does all of Jeff Bezos’ or Zuckerberg’s or Ma’s wealth really come from?

The Classicalists

Originally, Quesnay (Tableau Économique 1758) considered only agriculture to be truly “productive.” Industry, government, lawyers, and services were all considered unproductive (p.29). After all, what did all of the lawyers, soldiers, clergy, and clerks depend on for survival? Humans have no physiological need for money, only for “bread and land.”4)

Adam Smith, in his seminal5 work The Wealth of Nations (1776) began the tradition of attaching economic importance to regulation, bringing critical, conscious action to the realm of commercial intercourse. It is not with Smith that the modern nation-state-cum-economic-steward is born, but his ideas have proven highly influential up into contemporary forms of capitalism.

Value, it was clear, came from the land and human effort. A spoon was worth the materials it took to make it, and the human-hours needed to mine the ore, process it, and craft a spoon. Physical product was key: was productive. Landlords, investors, and capitalists were unproductive, even if in part enablers of the system of production.

Rentiers were, at best, parasitic, and at worst actually prevented value from being realized. It is important to remember that, at the time Smith and Ricardo were writing, that feudalism was effectively the political organization of the time (some say it is still around after a fashion…all these business dynasties), and that most of this theorizing was happening on the early cusp of the industrial revolution.

The Marginalists & Neoclassicalists

The marginal theory of value upturned the labour theory that was proposed by Smith and Marx, coming in the early 19th century to suggest that “value” of a thing was an abstract quality itself subject to market forces. The theorists we meet here include Léon Walras and William Stanley Jevons as well as Carl Menger, founder of the ‘Austrian school’ (p.59-60).

The new theorists posited it was the individual entity (corporate or corporeal) that determined value. What theory could say whether a luxury good was really worth $60,000? Value could not be accurately expressed by summing up all the inputs necessary for a product. Value was a judgement, made in the heat of the market transaction. The logics for this was described by the mathematician and Cambridge professor Alfred Marshall (p.61).

Effectively, marginal utility is the “judgement of remaining utility (value)” that an agent would assign a product (or service). To most of us, anything on the Financial Time’s How to Spend It website would seem a gross excess, a flagrant waste of money. But if you sit atop a hoard of billions, well. A $43,000 toaster isn’t really that big of a commitment. You can get a new one every week instead of cleaning it out. After all, who are we to judge whether a Loro Piana jacket is overpriced at 60,000€?

Marginal utility theory, however, is an argument from a sort of nihilism: we cannot value anything, because a thing’s only value comes from anyone’s potential value. Thus, “value” is expressed most often in cash, in currency whether fiat or crypto. This “flattens” the entirety of all possible goods and experiences into an exchangeable commodity. One car is worth so many thousands of apples, which is worth two months of insulin (life) in the United States, or 10% of a hellfire missile, or three months rent in New York City, or processing fees for adoption papers, or or or…

It is this marginalist notion of value that underpins the decision by pharmaceutical company Gilead to raise the price of its live-saving Hepatitis-C drug to $94,000 for three months (p.xviii). The “value” of the drug comes from its “use” to the customer: not dying. If you can’t pay that much, well, your life must not be worth [that much] living.

This also leads us to the tautology underpinning capital reimbursement, and the common cultural association of money with intelligence. Why is Elon Musk rich? Because he is “worth it” (he is smart). And we know he is smart because he is rich, of course. If the market rewards excellence, then whatever on top must deserve to be there. The corollary of this is that those on the bottom deserve to be there as well. Judgement is individual: ahistorical and utopian.6

Taken to its extreme, the logic of marginal utility can result in anarcho-capitalism, which even online is endorsed by only a very niche field of commentators.7 Although disqualifying the theory entirely because of this is a straw-man argument, anarco-capitalism is a good reminder that theories are imperfect, functioning in and requiring critical contextualization.

Theories Are Like Scripts

This is not an abstract debate. It has far-reaching consequences […] for everyone. How we discuss value affects the way all of us […] behave as actors in the economy and in turn feeds back into the economy, and how we measure its performance. This is what philosophers call ‘performativity:’ how we talk about things affects behaviour, and in turn how we theorize things. In other words, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If we cannot define what we mean by value, we cannot be sure to produce it, nor to share it fairly, nor to sustain economic growth. The understanding of value, then, is critical to all the other conversations we need to have […].
—Mazzucato, (p.xix) [emphasis added]

In linguistics it is often repeated that the aim of linguistic inquiry is “descriptive, not prescriptive,” with linguistic proscriptivists (“grammar police”) mildly ridiculed by “more serious” students of human language.

It is an important epistemic revelation that no fact, no utterance, and no knowledge may exist “outside” the realm of history. That is, there is no objective reality. This is not to say there is no such thing as reality: but that material existence and its interpreation as reality are contingent, structured, and created things. Knowledge, existing as statements about the world, are bound by language, an invented thing, and interpreted and acted upon by culturally and historically directed beliefs.8

Mazzucato is not alone in applying the concept of performativity to economics, but it is most definitely an unpopular move amongst contemporary orthodox economists! Economics tries its best to appear scientific, full of charts and numbers and models, but the issue of human behaviour not precisely conforming to models is omnipresent.

This is not to discredit the entire field of economics, but rather to draw attention to the need for contextual, critical, and openly self-aware theories and theorists. It is a philosophical move that lifts the veil on the hidden underlying assumptions guiding orthodox economics as a field.

For discussions of value, all to often, we accept that certain ways of being are productive, and that certain types of actors and people are “entitled” or “deserving” of compensation while others are not.

The Innovators

We laud the CEOs or directors (or founders) of companies for work that they never actually did. Any billionaire success story is built with millions of humans working together, each adding pieces to the system that allows the markets to function. Microsoft would not exist ex nihilo with just Bill Gates, it requires workers in the Congo, in Senegal, in Thailand and China, in the Southwest United States, in Redmond, and a host of other places to function. It required those people to exist! No amount of genius ability would allow you to even make a laptop in the current era.9 No individual can mine, process, and lithograph a CPU chip!

Two chapters in the book cover our current thinking about “innovation” (how I hate that overused word) and the role government (read: the public) should play in “the economy.” If it seems there is an overabundance of scare quotes in that sentence, well: there is. But both innovation as a concept and the economy as a space are poorly defined ideas whose uncritical acceptance in business-as-usual have led to some very troubling places.

In the first chapter, “Extracting Value through the Innovation Economy” (p.189), we find ourselves immersed in the dreamland cult of Silicon Valley. If anyone reading has never spent any time there, you may watch the show, Silicon Valley, and get a rather accurate sense of life there.

A revolutionary, truly visionary and innovative app that will track your parakeet’s bowel movements for optimal birdie health! With $6 million in secured VC funding.

In the land of disruptors, it seems, disruption itself is ripe for innovative destruction.10

Mazzucato identifies briefly three sources of innovation:

  1. Cumulative innovation — Long-term investments that build incrementally, basic research that much later on yields additional insights and avenue for investigation. The sort of “innovation” that is disguised as incremental progress. Once a product becomes sufficiently cheap enough, as with computers, to be popularly affordable and available.
  2. Uncertain innovation — Most investigations lead nowhere, most experiments end with cancer not being cured. Knowing the odds of success are so low, most research is backed by government, as businesses want to stay in business and are comparatively risk-averse to funding potentially radical research that is also destined to many failures.
  3. Collective innovation — As per the diagram above for the iPhone®, and tying in to the second point, most “innovative” technologies have roots in publically funded research. So the public funds research for products while a private entity is granted a monopoly license (patent) for it.

But we grant companies rights to the technology—itself a massive form of government intervention—to profit off of. The NIH spends an average of $31.5 billion a year funding biomedical between 2009-2016, in 2009 constant dollars (p.201). And pharmaceutical companies rake in billions upon billions from their monopolies on drug patents. We can remember Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli, or recent news stories about the deaths of diabetics in the US who, unable to afford the skyrocketing price of insulin, die. “This is not an abstract debate (p.xix).”

[In the interest of space and theme, I will be spinning off this section into a future essay, pulling in Anand Giridharadas’ «Winners Take All». We can be done here for now.]

Faked Reality: Seeing Unicorns

All of this points to the very serious need for discussion that challenges current economic orthodoxy. Mazzucato’s book does not dwell on the current state of things11, but only because we are spending time so far beyond what is commonly allowed to be said that to engage in current debates would be disingenuous. Rather than debating “Which billionaire should we allow to send indentured servants to Mars?” we should be asking whether billionaires should exist in the first place. (Hint: They should not.)

Power is always happy to hide out of sight, offstage behind false walls and non-explanations of “human nature” or “that’s just the way it is (youtube).”

Nothing is necessary in this world, and the freedom that that entails is terrifying. But in order to change, in order to improve something, we have to be aware of what the current state of the world is. As Gramsci put it: “knowing thyself as a product of the historical process to date.”

We cannot be free if we accept the present sysem as natural, inevitable, or unalterable. To do so, whether through laziness or maliciousness, is disingenuous and dangerous. The planet cannot support our nine billion worlds living North-American style material lives, nor can it sustain business-as-usual. Our physical and political environments are polluted, and this has a direct impact on our internal state.

The world is not an abstract thing, it is a real, visceral, lived experience, and it belongs to all of us, not just the “innovators” and plutocrats.

Intellectual freedom requires intellectual work.
— H.G. Creel

To me, that is the most important function and argument in Mazzucato’s book: it opens space for discussion that has been “off-limits” under past discourses. Instead of taking perpetual growth, government inefficiency, and financialization for granted, she interrogates the history of the arguments, exposing the nakedness of their argument-from-nature. There is no one way to structure an economy, and there is no such thing as “natural” or inevitable value.

Amidst ever-worsening wealth inequality, debate is not only valuable, it is necessary. Facing down the anthropocene, we should be able to openly discuss what type of epoch we are actually making. Arguments have the power to change the world, if people act on them.

«The Value of Everything» is not a treatise proscribing that we should structure our economies this way or that way. It is not a polemic arguing for the torching of the present order nor does the book call for unquestioning obedience to such an order. It is a call to consideration, in all of its potentiality.

Anyone who says ‘this is just the way it is’ is really just saying that this is how they want it to be.
— Louis Chude-Sokei

Future Capture

Next: Anand Giridharadas and his 2019 book «Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World».

  1. Mazzucato, Mariana. “The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy.” London: Allen Lane. 2018. Print. [All page numbers are in reference to this edition.] 

  2. Financial Times: “Call to crack down on multibillion-euro tax tricks as scandal bites. Source is paywalled, alternate here (Dacbeachroft) 

  3. Comic in The Guardian, by Emma —An illustration of the idea, if not a scholarly source. For that, see this entry in the SEP on RadFem thoughts on work and class, OR Melanie Simms 2019 “What do we Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work?” 

  4. Fanon, Franz. “Wretched of the Earth.” New York: Grove Press. 1963. (p.14 

  5. Always a word I have found mildly disturbing, with a dash of alluring transgressiveness. 

  6. Utopian in the original sense: “of no-place” 

  7. It’s really a very very strange assortment of folks that fly the yellow-black flag. If you feel sufficiently well-prepared, you can look at the ancap subreddit

  8. This idea is not new, and it not strictly a single academic or philosophical tradition. We could say this expressess tenants of variously: existentialism, nihilism, poststructuralism, historical materialism, postmodernism… I do not wish here to go off into this absolutely fabulously fascinating tangent. This footnote will have to suffice. We move on! 

  9. This is one of the biggest plotholes with “lone genius” sci-fi stories (and great man* theories) in particular. All production, from the very language we think in to the conception of our “self” comes from interactions with others. Which means it is historical, and contextual. No amount of isolated individual intelligence could create a trillion-dollar company, or a time machine, or an interdimensional portal gun. 

  10. One of my favorite examples of the modern discourse of innovation is WeWork. Adam Neumann did what “any rational actor” would do: he lied. He promised investors the moon, the world, the sun, and all of the stars (but never his heart), and I believe he did deliver. WeWork is a perfect example (we could also use Enron) of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the market, with its logics and facile hero-worship. And Neumann, after lying and “losing” more than $30 billion, walks away with a severance equivalent to $4 billion. Further illustrating that, once you get high enough, you literally cannot lose! 

  11. We can agree that they are bad.