Nancy Fraser raises several questions about what we propose to call an economy of enrichment. They concern, first, our conception of capitalism and, in particular, the relationship between our ‘forms of valorization’ and Marx’s ‘trinity formula’ of profit, interest and rent; second, the links that bind the different economic sectors of the world-capitalist system together—in particular, the enrichment economy and the financial economy, Fraser’s ‘candidate for contemporary capitalism’s dominant sector’; third, the historical birth of the economy of enrichment; fourth, a measure that would determine its importance—which, according to Fraser, we overestimate; and fifth, what follows from our account for the task of critique.
Fraser’s questions are very important, and unfortunately we can only partially address them here. A more complete analysis can be found in our book Enrichissement: Une critique de la marchandise, published in France earlier this year, and it is on this analysis that we will draw in our response to Fraser. In what follows, we will first differentiate and explicate those forms of capitalism which are, more precisely, forms of valorization—our analysis has expanded from three to four such forms. We will then give a brief historical overview of the economy of enrichment and explain the relationship between profit and surplus-value in this kind of economy. Third, while we cannot measure the enrichment economy, as we lack the statistical tools to do so, we will nonetheless offer an example, namely tourism, that suggests its relative importance, and illustrates the displacements that produce profit and structure the relationship between forms of valorization. Fourth, concerning the articulation of the different sectors, we will propose the concept of integral capitalism. Finally, in order to indicate one of the potential lines of development of a new critique of capitalism based on our analysis, we will draw attention to the problematic of what we call forbidden surplus-value.
In our society, social actors, whether they are buying or selling, are constantly immersed in the world of commodities, upon which, more often than they would like to admit, their experience of what they conceive as reality largely depends. The process of exchange would be indeterminable if people did not have frameworks that enabled their judgements to converge, or at least move closer together, as they confront what might be called commercial tests. It is these frameworks that tend to inform their reasons for acting and that we will refer to as commodity structures. Such structures are at once identifiable in their environment and integrated into other cognitive resources available to those actors as they orient themselves in reality. This is why, in order to describe the operational foundations of these structures, we will speak of forms of valorization.
These forms of valorization make it possible to link objects to the perspectives from which they must be viewed in order to be properly valued. They have an effect on the organization of commodities only insofar as they influence the composition of the discourse on objects considered as commodities—that is to say, in association with a price. It is precisely, however, because they affect, not the things themselves, but the discourses surrounding them that they are structured—as is every argumentative procedure based on the use of language. It is in this way that they, in turn, help guide the structuring of the commodity.
In the case of commodities that give rise to frequent transactions in our societies, we have identified four forms of valorization whose relationships can be articulated as a set of transformations, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term. An advantage of this type of model, as Lévi-Strauss showed, is that it can be translated into mathematical language. The four forms of valorization share a way of understanding things that has two principal aspects. The first aspect concerns the way in which an object that gives rise to a transaction can be so described as to highlight those differences which, given a certain price, can give it an advantage over other things that might be liable to substitute for it. Along this axis, one can make a distinction between things that differ a lot and things that differ little. The second aspect concerns estimates of the ways in which this object’s price might evolve over time—that is to say, what one might call its market potential. The opposition between short-term and long-term can be drawn along this axis. Each of these aspects can, in turn, be subdivided according to two distinct modalities. The differences can be valorized by presenting them in the form of a limited number of characteristics, possibly with reference to numerical data, according to a modality resembling codification. In this case, one would speak of an analytical presentation. Or, conversely, differences can be valorized by linking a story to the object at the centre of the transaction. We would then speak of a narrative presentation. If we now consider estimates of the object’s market potential, we see that it, too, can be distributed between two modalities. Such estimates may reckon that the object’s price has a high chance of falling over time, as is the case for most industrially produced objects, whose prices are at their peak when they are new and inevitably drop when they are exchanged on the second-hand market. Or they may, on the contrary, calculate that the sale price of the object has every chance of increasing over time.
By combining these possibilities, we get four forms of valorization—not just three, as we initially assumed.footnote1 We will call the first one the standard form, set by the development of industrial mass production. The standard form favours an analytical presentation of objects whose price diminishes as they go from new to used, before becoming—their inescapable destiny—mere waste. A second form holds sway in the now-booming sectors of luxury goods, heritage, arts and culture—activities that we will group, along with tourism, under the rubric of an ‘economy of enrichment’. In this case, the valorization of an object will be based on a story—usually rooted in the past—and hold out the prospect that the price of the object enriched by this narrative stands a good chance of increasing over time. We will call this the collection form, to stress the fact that it generalizes a form of appreciation initially shaped by the practices of collectors.
The two other forms have different ways of combining mode of presentation and market potential. Like the collection form, the trend form—which prevails, for example, in the fashion world—values things by connecting them to a narrative, but one that is based on contemporary figures like celebrities, rather than people of the past. Unlike objects of collection, however, things that are valorized by reference to fashion have very limited market potential. Their price is destined to fall rather quickly, making this a field of obsolescence par excellence. A final form of valorization completes the set. This is what we have called the asset form. Transactions take this form when the exchange is mainly motivated by the possibility of re-selling the object for a profit at some point in the (more or less distant) future. In this case, the intrinsic properties of the object—let us say, a work of art that could be auctioned—are effaced by its financial determinants, for example its liquidity or otherwise, as calculated in an analytical presentation. Based on these forms of valorization, specific arenas of transaction develop in which the prices of things can be justified or criticized according to a range of different arguments.