Marxian Value Theory and the ‘Crisis of Measurability’: A Case Study of Work in the Creative Industries in the UK and the Netherlands

Frederick Harry Pitts


Condensing the argument and findings of my PhD thesis, this paper argues for the relevancy of Marx’s theory of value to the study of contemporary labour. I stress the importance of measure as means of relating what goes on in the workplace and with what goes on in the market. I do so through a case study of work in the creative industries. I use an interpretation of Marx’s theory of value to confront the empirical problem of how measure persists where work is hard to quantify and commensurate. In so doing, I critique the post-operaist claim that immaterial labour precipitates a ‘crisis of measurability’. In responding to this claim, I draw upon the New Reading of Marx and Open Marxism. Taken together, these suggest two things. Firstly, the law of value relates to the abstraction of labour in the production and exchange of commodities. This differs from the traditionalist labour theory of value which stresses labour's concrete expenditure. Secondly, they tell us that this abstract labour stems, practically and historically, from antagonistic social relations of production- not only employment relations, but those that guarantee a world in which we have to sell our labour-power to subsist. I employ these strands of Marxian theory to understand work in the creative industries. This brings a focus on value, labour and antagonism lacking in much mainstream scholarship on this area. This critique opens out onto the future of work, and to ’postcapitalist’ alternatives based on reduced working hours or a basic income.  Creative worker lifestyles are often implicitly or explicitly referenced in aspirations for these alternatives. Via value theory, a close study of the reality of creative labour confounds these aspirations. My critique of the conditions, social relations and practices that make measure possible in the contemporary workplace is supported by a case study of labour in graphic design, branding and advertising in the UK and the Netherlands. I use interviews to explore how workers experience abstraction via measurement. In turn, the interviews interrogate how measure abstracts from the concrete experience of creative work. The interviews redeem this experience. By inviting participants to remember what measure denies and forgets, I chart possible grounds for resistance. The case study uncovers one principal means of measure in the fields investigated: billable hours. This is how jobs are priced and billed out to clients. But it also acts as an accounting mechanism internally. It structures the experience of work. It disciplines workers through the constant completion of timesheets and monitoring by time-tracking software. These measures, participants suggest, seldom relate to the reality they claim to represent. No hour of labour is like any other. This is especially so in the differentiated and impulsive work carried out by the creatives involved in the study. But, nonetheless, the measure to which they are subject brings into existence the measured. It defines a smooth quantitative space wherein the differences between hours and tasks disappear. The case study aims at recovering what disappears in this space. It brings focus to what is forgotten and denied when concrete experience is abstracted from in measure and quantification: desire, spontaneity, antagonism.

value - abstract labour - labour process - time - creative industries - creative labour - new reading of Marx - open marxism - post-operaismo - value form analysis