Notes on Three Economies: Hyper-real, Real and Hidden

by David Mertz

<approx. 5000 words>

Thesis. There are three structurally different, but always interlocked, economies of visibility within late Capitalism (possibly elsewhere): The hyper-real, the real, and the hidden. I want to start with a very preliminary and tentative sketch of my distinction. I will follow this with a few preliminary correctives to my initially simplifying language. During the discussion, after I talk for a bit, I would be enormously interested in comments on all the myriad areas I've missed in my complexifying correctives. So first, the simplest story.

What is required in hyper-real commodities is a wild divorce from "socially necessary average labor time" (hereafter, SNALT) of production, as in a painting which can fluctuate overnight in "value" by multiple orders of magnitude. Another example of hyper-real commodities is stock-options, and to a lesser (though significant) extent, stocks and securities. Most stocks tend toward a prevailing Price/Earnings rate -- historically situated, of course. What fluctuates the value of an option, on the other hand, is not just concrete reported changes in quantifiable things like P/E, Debt/Equity, but also is information, rumor, and hearsay: the very stuff of the hyper-real economy.

Still another example is that of antiques and "collectibles" -- which objectively are nothing more than the cheap mass-produced items of a bygone day, but which function so as to mark an imagined status for their possessor.

In another example, it may take $X to perform an initial Taylorist analysis of a given plant's process, and $X/2 to repeat the analysis in a second plant in the same industry. It is not possible simply to communicate abstractly what was discovered by the analysis of the first plant, but nonetheless, a significant gap exists between production and reproduction costs. This is to be contrasted with the "real" economy where one widget costs the exact same amount to produce as the next (absent a contribution from the "hidden" economy -- i.e. absent technological change). Within competitive-capitalism "hidden" commodities must not be visible in the marketplace, or else no competitive advantage is attached to them -- in fact, their visibility would amount to an unreimbursed capital transfer to competitors. The inputs of hidden commodities, however, themselves generally belong to the real economy (as in technicians' salaries), or even to the hyper-real economy (as in Ivy-League education).

As hence indicated, the essential mark of "hidden" commodities is the restriction of their circulation. The principle of this economy insists that "hidden" goods be purchasable, but that they be finitely rather than indefinitely purchasable. The hidden is a class of commodities which are produced specifically in order not to be reproduced. The kind of commodities whose nature brings them into this sphere and manner of circulation is knowledge-commodities; other commodities may also sometimes fall within this tendency -- as, perhaps, with commissioned artworks (to be opposed to generally circulated artworks, though the tendencies intertwine).

Initial Criticisms (thanks go to Karen G.):


Base and Superstructure is an orthogonal division to the division of three economies I suggest; each "economy," in the sense I speak of the three, has its own superstructural and "economic" (in the sense of opposition to superstructure) formations. My hypothesis on how to understand base and superstructure vis-a-vis my own tripartite division will have to be particularly sketchy, within an already sketchy idea I'm trying to explore. The main point to understand, though, is that although I do believe, in a certain way, in the distinction between base and superstructure, it's a different kind of distinction than that I'm getting at in these remarks.

Consumption and Production, as a well known economic distinction might easily be confused with the typology I suggest. A first reading -- and a reading suggested by the hyper-real's roots in the Situationists, and in parts of Baudrillard -- could conflate the hyper-real with the realm of consumption, while assuming the real occupies the lonely place of production. Insofar as consumption nearly always has a hyper-real tendency within it which has been generally unrecognized by economists, this reading is well motivated. But it's nonetheless wrong.

Inclusion of the Commodity Labor. That most central and mysterious of commodities, labor, does not escape a trifurcation into my three economies -- or at least a bifurcation into the first two (the hidden may exclude this commodity).