THE WORK OF THE NEW ECONOMY: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation



My goal in this article is to apprehend claims about person–product relationships now circulating in the world of business. I take up approaches that presuppose the embeddedness of economic action in shifting networks or assemblages of people and things (human and nonhuman actors), and that call attention to the agency distributed within such networks. I discuss the work of Michel Callon and his colleagues and specifically their notion of “the economy of qualities” (Callon et al. 2002). I pose two sets of related questions. First, can we translate marketing claims that relationships between consumers and corporate brands define a locus of value creation into the terms of Marx's theory of value? And how might this translation revise not only the marketing claim, but also Marx's understanding of surplus value creation? Second, can we translate the claim that value creation hinges on a dynamic relationship between corporations and consumers into terms of a theory of participatory democracy? That is, what sort of political potential might inhere in this relationship? In particular, how might this relationship endow consumers with agency not only in value creation but also in “making things public” (Bruno Latour 2005b)? I address these questions of commodity networks and consumer agency with a set of visual props drawn from my research into the sociotechnical lives of an iconic type of global commodity: Coca-Cola brand soft drinks.