Praxis

May 11, 2008

Use-value

Filed under: Derrida, Marx — duncan @ 6:59 pm

This is really just me going over ground that’s already been comprehensively covered by N Pepperell’s posts on the early chapters of ‘Capital’ (to which it’s just totally indebted, to the point of outright theft). It was all meant to be part of a longer post on ‘Specters’, which recently collapsed under its own weight, onto its shaky foundations. There’s something I’m not happy with in the below – something that doesn’t seem right. But I can’t figure out what it is – so I’m ignoring it. Perhaps sometime eventually we’ll get to temporality in Derrida.

~~~

When the commodity comes on stage, in ‘Capital’, according to Derrida, it comes on stage first of all as a ‘Thing’. “To say that the same thing, the wooden table for example, comes on stage as a commodity after having been but an ordinary thing in its use-value is to grant an origin to the ghostly moment. Its use-value, Marx seems to imply, was intact. It was what it was, use-value, identical to itself. The phantasmagoria, like capital, would begin with exchange-value and the commodity form. It is only then that the ghost “comes on stage.” Before this, according to Marx, it was not there. Not even in order to haunt use-value. But whence comes the certainty concerning the previous phase, that of this supposed use-value, precisely, a use-value purified of everything that makes for exchange-value and the commodity form? What secures this distinction for us?”

Yes, what? Derrida insistently reads Marx in terms of a before and after – a before of pure presence; an after of spectral capital. First use-value; then exchange value.

But this reading requires a somewhat doubtful interpretation of Marx’s text. For when the commodity first “comes on stage”, in ‘Capital’ – in the book’s first sentence – it comes on stage not as a simple Thing, but already as a commodity.

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ [Marx citing his own earlier ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.”

Marx begins with the commodity; he then disassembles the commodity into what “appear” to be its component parts: use-value, and exchange-value. And once Marx begins this disassembly, he does indeed “appear” to give temporal priority to use-value.

“The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its properties satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” [my emphases]

First of all an external object – a thing. What could be clearer? But it is perhaps worth emphasising: this “thing” is not in itself a use-value, not as such. Rather, use-value is the product of the ability of external objects to satisfy human needs – and it is only this relation that makes an object into a use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value.” Thus an external object ”is” a use-value, but it is a use-value (of course) only through its involvement in human society. Use-value is socially conditioned, or produced.

“Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. [And these “two points of view” may “appear” to map on to the use-value / exchange-value distinction.... (“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ only in quantity…”)… but this parallel will be complicated as ‘Capital’ advances.] Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history.”

Marx is enough of a Hegelian that we should prick up our ears when he mentions “the work of history”. And there is a footnote appended to this phrase:

“’Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron.’ (op., cit., p. 6).” And then Marx adds: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity.”

This comment disrupts the associations that the concept of “intrinisck vertue” may seem to carry. (It is, perhaps, moments like this that lead Engels to insist, in his Preface to the third edition, that Marx should not be read as endorsing the theoretical views of the economists he quotes.) For on the one hand, the property of attracting iron is intrinsic, is a material property; on the other hand it is a use-value… thus use-value is material. But, of course, since a use-value is only made into a use-value by its social and historical position, in another sense this “intrinsick” virtue is far from intrinsic at all. “[G]eometrical, physical, chemical or other natural… properties of commodities come into consideration… to the extent that they make the commodities useful, .i.e. turn them into use-values.” Commodities, as Marx here says, have to be turned into use-values – just as they have to be turned into exchange values – and this transformation, this ‘turning’ (like the table-turning that Derrida later discusses) is “the work of history”.

So use-value is both social and historicised. And in the next sentence, Marx draws out the parallel between historicised use-value and historicised exchange-value.

“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of these things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects.” [my emphasis.]

The historical and social processes that give a material thing its exchange-value also give it its use-value; and use-value is not assumed to exist prior to this general social entanglement.

All this is, perhaps, tediously obvious. Of course in some sense use-value is already social, or relational – whoever thought to deny that? But I think it’s important to emphasise this stuff if we’re to discuss Derrida’s reading of ‘Capital’.

Here’s a famous passage, from the start of Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism, that is one of the key moments Derrida uses to convict Marx of a metaphysical privileging of the purity of use-value.

”A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it [and this is the position Derrida emphasises in his reading – an apparent treatment of use-value as non-mysterious, as escaping the mysteriousness of fetishism, and therefore as the locus of the metaphysical idea of purity that fetishism contaminates], whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour [my emphasis]. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”

There seems to be a movement here from ‘ordinary’ use-value to the ‘metaphysical’ subtlety of exchange-value, or of commodification. But it should be emphasised that (as Marx says quite plainly) the “ordinary, sensuous thing” that is an object in its use-value, only becomes a use-value through the same social processes that make it into a commodity, and thus make it “transcend” sensuousness. “[I]t first takes on these properties as the product of human labour”. Ordinary sensuousness is not, in itself, enough to make the table a use-value – even though the use-value is that ordinary sensuousness.

The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value. Derrida seems to assimilate use-value to materiality in general, in his reading of Marx – which is why he calls Marx’s idea of use-value ‘ontological’. And this has some justification – because a commodity’s use-value is its materiality; Marx says this very plainly. But this is a materiality – an ordinary sensuousness – that is not use-value in itself, but that has to be made into use-value, through labour (which is the basic institution of capitalism), and through the social and historical production or invention of the needs use-values satisfy. Use-value, like exchange-value, is an outcome of the general social system Marx analyses.

Is this belabouring the obvious? Maybe. But I think Derrida neglects this aspect of Marx. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that some other time.

11 Comments

  1. Actually, that first sentence emphasizes, rightly, “the capitalist mode of production”, so I don’t think Derrida is so off the mark, here. Which came first, the system or the sale of eggs? Use value does seem to be defined in terms of some human transcendental – as with the discovery of the magnet (of which, I must admit, I find Marx’s statement bizarre – “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity” – as if there isn’t a ‘use’ encoded in our very blood streams. It is one of those moments when Marx temporarily loses his grip on his fundamental notion that thought serves the life process rather than the other way around.) It would be a mistake to say, well, Derrida just thinks Marx is wrong. Rather, he thinks that there is a motivation here, responding to a choice. The broader features of that choice would be that everything is defined in terms of a completely humanized world, which slowly but surely alienates us from the reality of the world – which is not and will never be fully humanized. Hence, for instance, “use” takes on this psychological coloring. The presence to itself of the use-value – the intactness of the table in all pre-capitalist systems of exchange and reciprocity – obviously does not escape from the determinants of the social process, but at a certain point Marx seems to think those determinant are self-evident – that the process has a fundamental level which simply responds completely and directly to human needs.

    Now, perhaps what is needed is to say that this is a regulative fiction, rather in the way the neo-classicals take equilibrium not as a fact, but as an apriori of intelligibility.

    Comment by roger — May 11, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  2. Hi roger – If I could butt in :-)

    I have a bad cold at the moment, so apologies if this is a bit fuzzy, but just to say that what is at issue is whether Marx does conceptualise use value as “present to itself” or that “the process has a fundamental level which simply responds completely and directly to human needs” – since I’m posting through a bit of a fog, I may be mishearing or misunderstanding (apologies if this is the case). But this is a common sort of position in a certain kind of Marxism, so it’s not unreasonable to attribute it to Marx – a great deal of the work I’ve been trying to do recently on Capital attempts to show that many positions like this are something like the target of the critique happening in the text. So positions like this will sometimes be voiced in the text, but this is done as part of an overarching argument whose strategic intention is to demonstrate how such positions come to have a social plausibility under capitalism, within a framework where a “critique” is understood to be a process that demonstrates the (transient and transformable) conditions of possibility for the position criticised. In simpler terms: Marx is often intending eventually to criticise the positions he initially allows to speak in “their own voice” in his text.

    There is a lot I would probably write if I were well :-) But on the bizarre-sounding magnet comment: Marx’s point here is a Hegelian one. He is trying to draw attention to a certain habit of thought or to a certain way the argument is being posed, when someone talks about “intrinsic” properties of matter, which then come to be “discovered” by humans – Marx sees this as a parcelling out of the essential and the inessential into two separate substances or worlds – so, matter is “essence”, and the “discovering” human is inessential, looking on as if from the outside and discovering what has been there “all along”. The comment suggests that Marx prefers something more relational, something more dynamic – the notion that these “new” properties suddenly discovered in some bit of matter should be regarded as arising from a new form of interaction, in which we and the matter can be conceptualised as component – equally essential – moments. There is a “payoff” in shifting from thinking in terms of “discovery of something that has always been there”, to thinking in terms of “a new form of interaction that generates new potentials”: it becomes possible to analyse the various moments in the interaction that generates this “property”, without tacitly naturalising some of those moments by treating them as making passive contributions to whatever is being analysed, as though they subsist in some separate world outside the interaction.

    So in a sense I’m saying that Marx would suggest it isn’t quite as self-evident as you suggest (am I hearing you correctly? – apologies – I really am very fuzzy at the moment) when you say “as if there isn’t a ‘use’ encoded in our very blood streams”. But perhaps I misunderstand why you make this particular comment. In any event, Marx spins this line of attack from Hegel, but the point isn’t all that dissimilar to what you might find in some sorts of ANT theory today (with the caveat that I’m just reaching for a familiar analogy here, and not trying to assimilate Marx’s position to any contemporary theoretical approach, or vice versa).

    Marx’s bigger concern, of course, isn’t with claims that we have “discovered” properties of loadstones, but with forms of analysis that use similar habits of thought to explore social phenomena. He wants to understand why such habits of thought become plausible – and thus criticise them by demonstrating their tacit presuppositions – in this argument, social-practical presuppositions that these habits of thought do not grasp. This is, among other things, what the argument about the fetish is trying to do. This strategic intention would be a bit difficult to achieve, if Marx were asserting the presence to itself of use value and using such a concept as his standpoint of critique. Something much more complex is at play…

    (And apologies for writing such a comment when I’m not completely… er… present to myself… It may result in something even more confusing than what I might otherwise write…)

    Take care…

    Comment by N Pepperell — May 11, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

  3. N Pepperell – only saw your comment when I logged on to post the following. Sorry – will reply tomorrow as it’s appallingly late.

    Roger – thanks for this. I’ve been beating myself up over this post ever since I put it up here. I’m convinced I’ve fucked up drastically somehow – but I can’t figure out how… I guess I shouldn’t post on ‘Capital’ until I’ve got a better grasp of the text…

    But to respond to what you say… I agree, of course, with the sentiment of “as if there isn’t a ‘use’ encoded in our very blood streams.” And this: “that everything is defined in terms of a completely humanized world, which slowly but surely alienates us from the reality of the world – which is not and will never be fully humanized.” Absolutely. But I’m not sure (I mean, I’m really not sure – it’s late and I’m not parsing your comment well) what you are attributing to Marx here, and what to Derrida. You mean that both Derrida and Marx are responding to a dominant idea of a completely humanized world? And that Derrida has a different take on how to respond to this choice than Marx? For my money [or my gift…], Derrida’s world, in ‘Specters’ (though not, of course, in all his works… not in ‘Glas’, which is heroically Darwinian) is far more ‘humanized’ than ‘Capital’s. This stuff about use-value (the table’s hule) being abolished in the omnipotence of thought… this reduces Marx to the terms of phenomenology, and totally obliterates his materialism. This is the real problem with Derrida’s take on use-value, in my opinion: that he equates material existence with usefulness-to-us – which parallels the assimilation of permanence to iterability that Searle (ignorantly but accurately) criticises. Use-value, for Marx, just is material properties, but it is material properties ‘worked over’ by the social and the historical… the residue of the material, which cannot be assimilated to the human, is maintained in Marx’s use-value, but obliterated in Derrida’s…

    “It is one of those moments when Marx temporarily loses his grip on his fundamental notion that thought serves the life process rather than the other way around.” I don’t see this… if Marx were discussing the use-value of rice, okay, maybe – but he’s discussing the magnet, the use of which is dependent on complex systems of thought or socialisation that in turn serve the life process… I don’t see a contradiction here…

    There’s also, I think, the question of the social production of the concept of use-value. Marx begins by discussing the commodity, and telling us that the commodity can be divided into use-value and exchange-value. But these are features of the commodity. I’m not convinced that Marx, in ‘Capital’, thinks it makes sense even to speak of use-value outside the context of the capitalist mode of production, or of social organisation. (Though of course most of the things contained in the concept of use-value could be applied to any society.) Marx’s concepts are also products of the society he describes….

    Finally, I’m not sure about this – “human transcendental”. I don’t know if Marx believes this – I really don’t know. But equally I’m not sure if is necessary to ‘Capital’s argument…

    Ach, I seriously need to spend more time with these books… (Something I fear I’ll be saying for the next ten years or so…) And now I need to sleep. In any case, many thanks for the comment…

    [NB: Your last remark is excellent, and I’ll cogitate with it. But how about this: What’s needed, in order to escape the hegemony of orthodox economics, is not an alternative regulative ideal, but the absence of regulative ideal… That would be the Derridean position… no?]

    Comment by praxisblog — May 12, 2008 @ 12:12 am

  4. Just very quickly on this:

    I’m not convinced that Marx, in ‘Capital’, thinks it makes sense even to speak of use-value outside the context of the capitalist mode of production, or of social organisation. (Though of course most of the things contained in the concept of use-value could be applied to any society.)

    I think this is right. “Use value” is a concept that achieves what Marx elsewhere calls a “practical reality” in capitalism: you can run through history if you want, applying the concept to other societies, but the concept didn’t arise, as a concept, in those other societies – for Marx, this is a clue that there is something materially/practically different about “use value” for us, and use value as we might apply it to make sense of other things. I’ve written elsewhere on this issue, using Marx’s discussion of Adam Smith’s concept of “labour” from the Grundrisse. To reproduce the “highlights” ;-), Marx writes:

    It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial and agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the old Physiocratic system. (104)

    At this point, it could look as though Marx is complimenting Smith for achieving a sort of conceptual abstraction – for “throw[ing] out every limiting specification of wealth creating activity” – as though the matter at hand were Smith’s conceptual powers. The following passages clarify that this isn’t quite what Marx has in mind (although this doesn’t, for Marx, reduce the importance of Smith’s conceptual achievement). What is at stake, however, in Smith’s move is something like the theoretical articulation of a practical achievement:

    Now it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference toward any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference toward specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. (104)

    So the category “labour” might appear to be a mere conceptual abstraction, but this abstraction possesses a practical reality. If we think of “labour” as simply a conceptual abstraction, we tacitly position the category as a “negation” – as a sort of remainder or something that gets left behind once we’ve stripped away all positive determinations. Marx is trying to suggest, instead, that abstraction can actually be a positive determination – a positive determination we will never see, unless we turn our attention to how this abstraction is enacted in practice. Marx’s point here is similar to one Hegel makes on a number of occasions – say, early in the Science of Logic, where Hegel argues:

    Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which is can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.

    Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being – is determinate being – but that this latter as finite being sublates itself and passes over into the infinite relation of being to its own self, that is, thirdly, into being-for-self. (emphasis mine)

    Back to the Grundrisse, Marx argues:

    Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society. (104-105)

    He qualifies what he means when saying this relation is “valid in all forms of society”, by arguing:

    Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. (106)

    That “essential difference” relates to the practical enactment that makes such abstract categories precisely not mere conceptual abstractions, but rather enacted entities, for us.

    Apologies for the long post – practising for something I need to write on the concept of real abstraction :-)

    In terms of what might be bugging you about your formulation, I would at least be cautious about this:

    The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value

    Marx tends to think relationally – there may not be “materiality as such” for him – I suspect he would regard this as a strange sort of idealist move, as it already implicates the notion that our concepts sit somehow outside materiality, projected onto it… But I’m too fuzzy to develop this point adequately…

    Apologies for the long comment… Likely overlong (sorry – hard for me to edit or even think adequately what might interest other people – shouldn’t post until I’m well…)

    Comment by N Pepperell — May 12, 2008 @ 1:19 am

  5. Hey, Praxis, I’m all for your improvising on Marxian themes as you advance to a better sense of Marx. This is good, I think!

    Now, as to use value.

    1.While I appreciate that Marx has a sense that he wants to give use value that arises out of the classical tradition, I also feel that one can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore the common pool of language – the vulgar language – in which the term use arises and applies. This is, of course, a very Derridian point – that the decision which is taken to put a reliable, impermeable border between one vocabulary – a specialized one – and ordinary language results in a game in which the terms operate in two registers. So it is with use and need – or Gebrauch and Beduerfnis. The political economists before Marx have already used these terms with reference solely to human uses – the bee is not useful here to the flower, but the honey is useful to human society. As opposed to a pre-economic way of thinking that would find intrinsic vertues in things – remember, there is nothing wrong with this in itself, it is only wrong in a system in which all use is defined as human use, and economics takes off from the radical de-privileging (horrible term) of nature, with a code set up to penalize “anthropologizing” nature in order to make it wholly for human use. Now, oddly enough, that makes the very human machine, as I pointed out, technically useless. Or at least until we discover the ionic properties of the iron in the bloodstream. This moment of uselessness before/useful afterwards seems, to me, to drive an ideology that we all know about, since we live on, perhaps, its crest – the moment before its collapse. It is one that promotes the industrial-technical system as the telos of history, in the name of which all the great geo-engineering projects of the last hundred years have been performed. It entails a certain odd sense of time – for what humans count in the definition of use? The dead? They can’t count, obviously. They can’t use the table. Future humans? No, again they can’t count. Individual humans. No, because use is systematically defined. So the slice of humanity that counts, here, is the present. I think that one has to ask – what kind of society would believe these things, and what would it do?

    2. One of the things that is striking, to me, in the magnet example is that Marx, who has explained materialism as the inversion of the usual Hegelian fare – that production comes before thinking – is here making thinking – and thinking of a very technical kind – the determinant of use. To my mind, Marx’s dilemma here was created by the very idea that production, work, and mind are somehow to be sorted out before we get going on our materialist project. I don’t think that can possibly be right. These are aspects of the same thing – a routine. True, you can automate that routine and even substitute a non-thinking machine to do it, but that substitution doesn’t show that the human doing it was non-thinking, or that the thinking was a waste product. It doesn’t even show that the routine, at its most tedious, was separate from thought – in fact, I would say that it is part of the life of the routine that as it becomes more automatic, thought is used to change it, adapt it, find other contexts for it, or even dream of machines to do it. Again, I am thinking of the social extension of this way of thinking about production. Encoded in it is a hierarchy between the laborer and the technician or engineer which makes them enemies. A social logic ensued, at least in the post war years, in which the factory became, at least in Eastern Europe, the prison defended by the prisoners – automation couldn’t be dreamt of, for the factory was the laborer’s life, but it was a life of more and more tedious routines.

    Personally, I think trying to adopt a notion of matter that comes out of 18th century materialism – which outlines a mechanical picture of the world, in which laws govern corpuscular masses – to dialectics does not give you dialectical materialism. It gives you, at best, a vantage point from which to dethrone the primacy accorded to ideas and start over with different terms that refer to systems that have arisen in a certain history, which Marx very plausibly outlines. I (arrogantly) think the conflict between idealism and materialism is futile. You might find something inconsistent with my objection – that Marx follows the wrong impulse in his work when he identifies the material with labor – as if labor was somehow done without thought – and at the same time his conceptualization of use in terms of discovery – from his example – overemphasizes human thought. But I think he is driven to this from the misplaced dualism by which he separates matter – labor – from ideas. Marx is very confusing about this – because I think he knew that it couldn’t be right to separate them so absolutely, or to say that one depended on another. It was an overreaction to the young Hegelians. Once one abandons the idea that not being materialist is somehow dreamy or soft or an appeal to the emotions, and accepts ideals and ideas in the human productive system as intrinsic to it, than I think we can think more clearly about the system of capitalism as Marx describes it. Marx also calls consciousness “Sein” – being – which is a step in the right direction, out of the cul de sac of materialism.

    3. These are some dilemmas in Marx. I agree with Pepperell that Marx includes voices with which he is in argument, but I don’t think that his position is always the same vis a vis those voices. I think, Pepperell, that the tendencies you are tracing in Marx are generally in line with the way I want to see Marx.

    Comment by roger — May 12, 2008 @ 3:16 am

  6. use value “before” exchange value – the priority is logical not temporal.

    “use value” is the relation between people (socially) and things they use.

    “exchange value” is a specific social relation between proprietors of things in certain specific conditions which appears as a relation between the things to which people have the relations of “use value”. It is ‘latent’ in use values because use values all have something in common, that they are made and used by people, say “wanted” or “needed” but you don’t have to go that far even if it sounds moralising. “Used” is enough. Used for whatever reason, frivolously, maliciously, whatever.

    the exchange value of commodities in capitalism is itself a new feature of the use value of things – exchangeability, a property, is acquired by all things in their form as commodities, in addition to their other properties. For the commodity money, use value is exchange value; for the capitalist, the use value of commodities, as commodities, is their exchange value as well, their ability to be transformed into money and thus into all other commodities.

    the use value of each commodity has its own story, its own history, which is the story not only of its individual concrete properties but of people’s knowledges and capabilities, the story of whole societies, of meanings and customs, etc.. It will be in many cases a story much longer than the story of capitalism. Marx says if you want to know about the use value of specific commodities, ask manfacturers of them. the story of exchange value, of all commodities in capitalism, is one story.

    when Marx says use-value is straightforward, an ordinary thing, he means not that everyone knows everything, the whole unique history of the use of every unique commodity, or that we know everything about the infinite universe, about matter and energy and human perception, but that it is agreed in principle what kinds of accounts you can make of the histories of the uses of things and products, how they acquired their meaning or came to be used as they are, how they were used before, how they impacted society and the use of other things, etc. This is specifically in contrast to exchange value, whose production remains myserious – he is going to explain it – and which appears to be, and thus is, “social relations” between things – a society of ghouls! – when it is “really” relations between people through things.

    Use comes first, historically. Before value – value is a social relation which appears with exchange or at least comparison operating socially. Use value is derived from socially determined use. There is continuity from use to use value. (you could maybe speak metaphorically of flowers “using” bees, but not of valuing or evaluating.) This is the basis of a materialist understanding of social life – people and stuff, people using stuff, stuff that is found and stuff they produce, including intangibles, customs, skills, one another. That total of stuff, the wealth, the capacities, the means of social life, to which people have relations – which people use, produce and consume, accumulate and destroy – is “use values”. In different social arrangements, this stuff is used differently and divided differently. In the capitalist mode of production – private property, propertyless workers, market organisation of production and distribution – an increasing sum of it is enclosed in private property and produced for exchange, as commodities. These relations give a new property to all this stuff – exchangeability. There is nothing ‘impure’ about this property compared to other properties like cookability; money “meets the need” for money that people in capitalism, in those concrete conditions, have as “completely” as arrows meet the need for arrows in another mode of production and other social conditions. Hoarded wealth in money and capital assets is as authentically/inauthentically useful to its owners in capitalism as hoarded cattle in another social arrangement. Each is equally “human”/”inhuman” – the product of human social relations. The use value of use values is not made defective by the acquisition of exchange value. Use values is a key term of the portrait of humanity and human society Marx draws and mustn’t be mystified, it refers to the total means of the reproduction of the whole of social life concretely. It is everything used in the reproduction of social human life. In capitalism, all this is enclosed in property and reproduction is arranged a certain way. But use value, the relation of people to things, is not obliterated by these social conditions; it is enformed and structured by them, relations between people and what they use are arranged. The “origin” of most use value – that which is not found in nature -is human labour. Human labour retains its use value of course as it acquires exchange value; the use value is the precondition of exchange value, for this as for all other commodities. The use value of labour to the capitalist is that he can make other use values (other elements of the diverse total stuff people use) with it – the exchange value of which product is greater than the exchange value of the labour power used. The “contradiction” between the use value of labour and the exchange value of labour power is what produces surplus and profit to the capitalist. The difference between the use value to the capitalist and the exchange value of labour power is objective, not just conceptual. It is a certain quantity of use values, which have a certain sum of exchange values, that is, which are quantities of alienated human labour, the common denominator of use values. The use value of labour power is not “impaired” by its acquiring an exchange value; this is simply a necessary mechanism in its exploitation in capitalism as opposed to other modes of production. Indeed in capitalism, the exchangeability of labour power – its exchange value – becomes its primary useful quality for the labourer, since s/he has no other way to acquire what he needs than to sell it in a labour market for wages, in money, which can be exchanged for other commodified use values.

    It’s a mistake I think to pursue the word “use” beyond the pale of the genre here: “use” is the modifier – “value” is the noun. It’s not a code for some idealist concept of utility. There’s no hidden moralising; vats of boiling oil to put heretics in, thumbscrews, napalm, nuclear weapons and capital all have use value.

    Comment by chabert — May 12, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  7. Thanks all. I wonder if there’s some inverse relation between quality of comments and quality of original post? Anyway, great comments…

    I’m going to try to hack a haphazard way through them, before sort of giving up:

    Chabert: “The use value of labour to the capitalist is that he can make other use values (other elements of the diverse total stuff people use) with it – the exchange value of which product is greater than the exchange value of the labour power used.” Yes – and [/but] isn’t this use of labour also the production of (capitalist) ‘value’ in a way that can’t be described just in terms of the production of other use values? As you say, the use value of money is its exchange value… but also the use value of labour is (I think) in the production (and transmission) of ‘value’ in a more general, and odder, sense… labour’s use value is a use value that (to use sorta non-Marxist emphasis) doesn’t just direct itself towards any obvious sort of consumption (not human consumption – because labour is used, consumed, by machines – but not consumption in a lot of broader senses, either, I think…)… Labour’s use value is partly directed towards the creation of a general social sense of value – a sense of value that can only be created from within a society governed by the institution of wage-labour… wage labour (and the exploitation associated with it) presupposes but also creates a social space that partly determines what ‘we’ choose to value, as a society (or as classes within that society) – and that also generates the forms of social understanding (including, I guess, a certain concept of use value…) that ‘we’ use to analyse this production of value… (Although of course what we value is also determined to a considerable extent by human needs that are not determined socially… we need to eat no matter what. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not (I hope) disputing that.) I’m not sure if you’d see this as mystification – I’m not sure if I even agree with it (with myself)… but for what it’s worth …

    Roger: “So the slice of humanity that counts, here, is the present.” I’m not totally sure about this. The commodities created by labour will be used by future humans… just as the usefulness of a machine needs to be calculated across its useful life. So the present creation of value needs to make a detour through a projected future – and, in good Derridean fashion, this detour may always also be a derailing. (There might be a financial crisis, for instance, and the value of commodities will collapse simply because of the loss of the imagined future that underwrote their present value. Of course – this is exchange value, not use value. But:) Value’s present is therefore divided against itself for Marx – and since labour’s use value is (partly) in the creation and transmission of value – and since value requires a detour through the future to be understood – use value is also divided against itself, by the future (and the past)… labour’s present use value can’t be grasped without making these detours…

    N Pepperell: I agree with the ANT analogy – though I don’t know enough about ANT to know whether I should… J I think you may be right about the metaphysical concept of material residue… but if this is what’s bugging me, I also think it’s part of some still larger and still more calamitous error… which I’ve probably repeated in the above.

    Sorry I can’t say more – I realise I’ve ignored almost everything… but I feel like Wile E. Coyote: I keep on running (or writing) but I’ve long since left the solid ground of any serious textual engagement… All this should be understood as blunderings, not considered ideas… But thanks everyone for taking the time to comment…

    Comment by praxisblog — May 13, 2008 @ 2:48 am

  8. πραχις φιλησθαι κρυπτη

    (Actually, I’m not sure about the endings for the infinitive and the present tense verse. Lousy ε-contract stems.)

    Comment by the thing is... — May 15, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  9. I’m afraid I have no idea what this means…

    Comment by praxisblog — May 15, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  10. Just fooling around with the Heraclitus fragment that Heidegger makes so much of, which is

    φυσις κρυπτεθαι φιλει, “Nature loves to hide itself.” (Literally Nature to hide for itself loves)

    so this is “Activity (praxis) hides so it may love.” The endings —ηθαι and —η may be wrong. It’s been years. And frankly, I never was that good at my Greek. :shrug:

    Comment by the thing is... — May 17, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  11. TTI… thank you. That’s great. Alas, I have no Ancient Greek to work or play with. But loving the fooling. (The hiding to fool.) :-)

    Comment by praxisblog — May 22, 2008 @ 10:08 pm


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