June 13, 2008

A plea for more attention to use value

Note: If I quote from page numbers, I am using the 1976 Penguin edition. But to save time, when I do not include page numbers, I am quoting directly from the online Marxists Internet Archive. To locate those quotes in the chapters, you can just copy and paste the line into the search box.

I read Chapter one with an emphasis on deciphering what Marx means by "use value." Sure he defines it a few times in explicit terms, but if you pay attention to the way use value changes in function throughout the chapter, I think you could argue that there are at least two types of use value.

Hold on, backtrack. The real crux of capital is, of course, exchange value, or value itself. Use value could easily be seen simply as a supplement to understand exchange value. That is: by defining what operates outside of the exchange value of the commodity, one can more accurately delimit the contours of exchange value. But let's flip around the operation; knowing what exchange value is, how would you answer the question: "what is use value?" In Derridean terms, exchange value functions as the marked term, and use value is simply its outside: the unmarked term.

There seem to be two conflicting definitions of use value at the outset of the chapter. Marx writes:
Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history....The utility (usefulness) of a thing makes it a use value.

Then writes:
A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities....The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities.
In the first definition, use value is a transhistorical given, independent of specific uses or how those use values emerge. He only describes an item's "usefulness" or "utility," and without exchange value as supplement, there is no "value" in "use value." The second quote attaches use value to a situation wherein commodities and commercial activity are an integral part of human existence. In other words, where the first quote indicates that one could find use value by living alone, the latter indicates that it is a quality of commodified and exchange-based societies, which are thoroughly social. This is most explicitly spelled out in the following quote, which I found the most significant in the chapter (emphases added):
A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values... Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.

To sum up, the two use values are 1) a use value that can exist without being part of a commodity or 2) a use value that part of the dual nature of the commodity. That is, the difference between a non-commodified society and a commodified one; one wherein things are produced for oneself and wherein things are produced for others. This discussion really circles around the break from a precapitalist or noncapitalist socio-economic form of organization to one of capitalist commodity production. One's philosophy for talking about that type of history (the history of the limits of capitalism, the precapitalist past) deeply implicates use value as the pre-history of exchange value.

Marx's theory of time and history in capitalism can be seen very clearly here. While Marx states that the use values and exchange values continually reinforce one another, he also states that exchange value absolutely separates itself from use value: "As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value."

Exchange value conceals history. As a quantitative mode of thinking, it excludes the qualitative; in order to commensurate things, it reduces their singularity; as a marker of consumption, it excludes production. use value is really the pre-history of exchange value: what came before the leveling of everything into an "an immense accumulation of commodities."

Think about the structure of chapter one. Marx spends the majority describing how commodities and exchange value are conditioned by social processes, which reaches a climax with this quote: "It thus becomes evident that since the existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form."

But then in the last section on fetishism, Marx suggests to us that we CAN'T really know this social process because it is masked by the commodity form:
Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.
Where earlier Marx said the investigation of history was the investigation of usefulness, now he says history is inaccessible to the reified mind which sees the world as a given, natural state of affairs. If it is true that, insofar as we live in a society dominated by commodities and labor, then how does Marx step outside of his present in order to understand the past? How does he have access to this world of use value which precedes commoditization? He doesn't. Just as the structure of the commodity form renders the world into a collection of objects and hence makes the past knowable to us only retrospectively - post festum - I think Marx's comments are also speculations on what came before the present from the standpoint of looking back from the present rather than from the beginning. The naive historian's position is flipped on its head; any attempt at getting at how people "really used to think" is necessarily mediated by how we understand the present. The last section on fetishism places the rest of the chapter into a completely new light.

This seems absolutely clear from the fact that in his brief genealogy of world history, Marx begins with Robinson Crusoe: an EXPLICITLY FICTITIOUS tale. The other examples he draws from -- Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, wide-ranging speculations on so-called Asiatic societies -- might as well be fiction. They are more instructive about the contours of European capitalism more than they are about the Ancient or non-European worlds.

So, to return to the use value discussion, I think that the two use values are ultimately related. In the conventional sense, use value is that spectral feeling we get when we buy something and think "hmm, there probably is more to this than its appearances," but in lieu of actually understanding how it was made or how it will be used after it is purchased, we bracket it off and label it "use value." Homologically, we are firmly entrenched in the present, but we have a vague sense of the history before our present. We bracket off everything that came before as "use value," or a history of societies that existed otherwise than contemporary commodity-based societies.

In her scrumtulescent essay "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value," Gayatri Spivak makes similar arguments about how use value unravels the textuality of the commodity form. As something that stands both inside and outside the commodity -- inside and outside the capitalist present -- use value puts into question how the present came to be. If the commodity form and capitalist reproduction are processes of endless accumulation, how did they begin? What are the limits of this seemingly natural and infinite cycle? Obviously we don't know. All we know well is exchange value; everything else is bracketed off as "use value." In Spivak's words, the function of use value is to "keep randomness at bay."

Of course, if one is to think historically -- and this is not just a task for historians; that you are reading a text from the 1860s already forces you to think historically -- one has no choice but to engage with the mysterious pre-history of the present.


Adam said...

I want to feel out the limits to Marx's historicism here. In connection with this I'm intrigued by footnote 4. It seems to liken use-value to the Kantian noumena or the "thing-in-itself"

"In English writers of the 17th century we frequently find “worth” in the sense of value in use, and “value” in the sense of exchange value. This is quite in accordance with the spirit of a language that likes to use a Teutonic word for the actual thing, and a Romance word for its reflexion." (Emph added)

Of course, in Kant you can never encounter the "actual thing" except as an entity posited by transcendental reason as the ground for the intelligibility of the external world. We live in a world of appearances but we can rationally posit that those appearances are grounded in real things that we can never directly see without mediation (such as the senses, the understanding).

You ask, "How does he have access to this world of use value which precedes commoditization?" Could we say he has access in the same way that Kant has access to the "thing-in-itself" in contradistinction to the "thing-for-consciousness"? A theoretical fiction perhaps, but one that is necessary for the distinction between appearance and reality to be intelligible.

Why might this be important? I mean, the question here is whether to read Marx as a radical historicist or a kind of critical realist. How do we read Marx when he says that use-value is "discovered"? Is this idea of discovery (as opposed to invention) a "theoretical fiction" or does Marx really believe that there are use-values in the thing that are in some way indepednent of human history? I tend to side with the latter interpretation.

Alex said...

I was also struck down by the craziness of footnote 4 and the Wert/value distinction. We get this nice little pre-historical history about how once upon a time the earthly Anglo-Saxons had their Wert and linen was linen, and Rome came around and delivered unto them Value, labor in the abstract.

Now, in modern times, Marx seems to say, abstract labor and Value are just as actual as digging up potatos. "Don't forget this!" he intones. But it seems to me that for Neoclassical economists, use value (as "utility") is the actual thing after all. Things are as they appear. What happened?

I too am curious about what happens to use value, both stowed away in the margins in Marx, and also resurrected as the victor in mainstream Economics. Can somebody supply me with a spoiler?