The Politics of Value Three Movements to Change How We Think about the Economy
by Jane L. Collins
University of Chicago Press, 2017
Cloth: 978-0-226-44600-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-44614-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-44628-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.001.0001


The Great Recession not only shook Americans’ economic faith but also prompted powerful critiques of economic institutions. This timely book explores three movements that gathered force after 2008: the rise of the benefit corporation, which requires social responsibility and eschews share price as the best metric for success; the emergence of a new group, Slow Money, that fosters peer-to-peer investing; and the 2011 Wisconsin protests against a bill restricting the union rights of state workers.

Each case shows how the concrete actions of a group of citizens can prompt us to reflect on what is needed for a just and sustainable economic system. In one case, activists raised questions about the responsibilities of business, in the second about the significance of local economies, and in the third about the contributions of the public sector. Through these movements, Jane L. Collins maps a set of cultural conversations about the types of investments and activities that contribute to the health of the economy. Compelling and persuasive, The Politics of Value offers a new framework for viewing economic value, one grounded in thoughtful assessment of the social division of labor and the relationship of the state and the market to civil society.


Jane L. Collins is professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author, coauthor, or coeditor of several books, including Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“Collins has provided us with an enlightening survey of innovative ways to structure a capitalist economy.”
— Dean Baker, author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive

The Politics of Value is a brilliant contribution to current economic debates. Through a rich and persuasive analysis of three diverse reform movements, Collins reveals ongoing debates about which economic activities are productive and which are unproductive. She makes a powerful case for the radical possibilities of a politics of revaluation.”
— Fred Block, coauthor of The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique

“Through the prism of value, Collins shines a bright light on vernacular economics in the United States since 2008. She attends to the possibilities of what is emergent without euphoric embrace: this is not an account of neoliberal logics on the point of collapse. It is engaged political, economic, social, and cultural analysis at its best:  grounded, lucid, and timely.”
— Tania Li, author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier

"The Politics of Value speaks to how diverse members of the various groups of intellectuals as well as ordinary people attempted to deal with the challenges of the great recession of 2008. Collins reveals that the great recession led many to mount monumental criticisms against the diverse economic institutions of that time....Exploiting her knowledge and understanding of these movements, Collins isolates and thoroughly discusses the prevailing cultural conversations regarding the various types of investment and the degree to which they impacted the ongoing economic health of the people who were directly involved in them. Recommended."
— Choice

"The Politics of Value constitutes a fascinating examination of the growing, yet largely understudied, contestation of the dominance of market fundamentalism in American life. . . . there is much to commend about The Politics of Value.”
— American Journal of Sociology


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.003.0001
[labor theory of value;Karl Polanyi;feminism;environmentalism;globalization]
The chapter argues that while value is a discourse, it registers, critiques, and sometimes seeks to reconfigure social and material arrangements. Earlier generations of theorists critical of the market as the sole measure of value offered the labor theory of value as an alternative. Feminists, environmentalists and others have argued that both the labor theory of value and traditional forms of market valuation did not take into account many aspects of social and material life, including unwaged work and the many subsidies nature provides. This chapter develops an expanded and reconstructed version of the labor theory of value that takes these criticisms into account. It connects this newtheory of value to Karl Polanyi's efforts to conceptualize social and material "limits." Finally, it argues that globalization is changing the social division of labor in ways that make this new framework for assessing economic value essential.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.003.0002
[benefit corporation;shareholder value;economic embeddedness;corporate social responsibility]
The benefit corporation movement began in 2007 as an effort to create a new kind of corporate charter that not only allows, but requires, firms to consider how their actions affect workers, communities, and the environment. The movement contests prevailing shareholder value doctrines that contend that maximizing share price is, and should be, the sole goal of the corporation. The movement also developed new certification procedures that allow firms to measure their impacts on a wide variety of stakeholders, replacing the single indicator of share price with a more complex and multivalent set of measures. Based on interviews with proponents and critics of the new corporate form, this chapter tells the story of how the movement mobilizes new understandings of economic value and seeks to create a new system for measuring it.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.003.0003
[Slow Money;economic embeddedness;communitarianism;economic externalities;economic multiplier effects]
The Slow Money movement emerged in 2008 as a way to foster what its proponents call line-of-sight investing. Its loosely affiliated network of groups developed new mechanisms for investors to support local businesses, mostly in the food sector. Activists argued that the economy had become "too fast," companies too big, and finance too complex. In response to what they call "global market logic," they seek to encourage local investment practices that allow the investor to literally "see" the social and environmental effects of the firms they support. At the same time, activists argue that local investing creates multifaceted economic value in a single place by preserving farmland, providing local jobs, and developing dense economic networks. Based on interviews with activists and critics, this chapter recounts Slow Money's efforts to create a contestatory understanding of value that specifically measures the economic contributions of place.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.003.0004
[public sector;public goods;Wisconsin Uprising of 2011;public sector unions;Keynesian economics;social reproduction;austerity politics]
In the spring of 2011, elected officials in the state of Wisconsin rescinded most collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and cut the state budget in ways that reduced public services. Conservative lawmakers justified these actions by arguing that public employees "do not produce anything" and are a net drain on the public purse. State workers and their allies responded that they produce "engineers, doctors, healthy children, roads, bridges, garbage collection, and clean drinking water." Throughout 2011, as a dozen other states passed laws similar to Wisconsin's, this contest over the value of public goods was replicated in statehouses, public meetings, and coffeehouses around the nation. This chapter is based on interviews and observations with parties on both sides of the issue, and recounts Wisconsin's 2011 struggle over the question of whether, and how, public goods and services contribute to economic growth and well-being.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226446288.003.0005
[economic embeddedness;economic value;globalization;incorporated comparison]
The social movements described in this book respond to what they see as an insolvency in a particular sphere of the economy (corporate practice, local communities, the public sector). They seek to develop new ways of conceptualizing and measuring economic value that draw attention to the unmeasured, unremunerated, or undervalued contributions from labor, civil society, and the environment. This chapter argues that the three cases, read in relation to one another, reveal a larger-scale shift in the societal division of labor over the past two decades, in which government cut-backs and new business practices shifted risk and responsibility to individual citizens. While the benefit corporation movement seeks to require corporations to take back some of those risks and responsibilities, and public sector activists call for a return to a robust state role in the economy, Slow Money works to create mechanisms for communities to absorb the new risks and responsibilities. Each movement offers a distinct angle of insight into the erosion of bargains struck in earlier decades and works to construct more expansive definitions of economic value grounded in recognition of the market's embeddedness in the natural world, in human labor and in social arrangements.