Use Value (and Aesthetics)

Steve.Keen at Steve.Keen at
Mon Mar 27 16:50:14 MST 1995

Jon recently posted:

|i. Is there any good reason why the consumption or "appreciation" of a
|cultural work should not be considered as the use of its use value in the
|classical sense?... if I go to see _Shallow Grave_, I hand over my $4...
|and, bingo, that's the exchange value accounted for.  Then I go in, sit
|down and what happens next the consumption of the thing's use
|value, right?

Right... BUT the "commodity" you have consumed is one which Ricardo
explicitly (and Marx implicitly) excluded from classical analysis:

"There are some commodities, the value of which is determined by their
scarcity alone... rare statues ... wines of a peculiar quality ... are all
of this description. Their value is wholly independent of the quantity of
labor originally necessary to produce them, and varies with the varying
wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them." (Ricardo
1821, p. 12)

In other words, the use-value/exchange-value analysis applies strictly
only to use-values which are reproducible, and which play a part in the
reproduction of other use-values. Movies, cultural products in general,
are not reproducible, and hence forces other than their costs of
production can have an influence on their price (whereas for a strict
commodity, its exchange-value is the exchange-value of the commodities
used up in its production.

[Cultural products do, however, play a role in the reproduction of people

(unintended pun: some might think "labor-power" more appropriate,
but cultural enjoyment doesn't just reproduce those aspects of people
which make them good workers), and people have always had a "need" for

cultural works. On another net, Chris Burford gave the example of the
Ninja Turtles: while a one-off product, they are number 96 in a series
of such products.]

Jon continued:

|ii. More generally, can anyone point me in the direction of discussions
|of use value in Marx(ism) or elsewhere.  Specifically, I would be
|especially glad if someone could point me to a discussion of use value in
|relation to aesthetics.

Can't help you on the cultural stuff, Jon--as I've said before, that's
not my area. But for references on use-value in Marx:

* The Grundrisse (Marx 1857, Penguin, Middlesex, especially pp. 267-68, and
pp. 471 to 514, where he discusses pre-capitalist societies, [this section
has been separately published as Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations,
Hobsbawm E.J., (ed.), 1964]);

* The Marginal Notes on A. Wagner (Marx 1879, in Carver, T. , 1975, Karl
Marx: Texts on Method, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.);

* Bvhm-Bawerks Criticism of Marx (Hilferding 1904, in Sweezy, P. (ed.),
1949, Karl Marx and the Close of His System, Orion, New York, especially p.

* The Making of Marx's Capital (Rosdolsky 1977, Pluto Press, London,
especially Ch. 3, "Karl Marx and the Problem of Use Value in Political

* The active role of `use-value in Marxs economics (Groll 1980, History
Of Political Economy, 12, No. 3,  336-371);

* Use-value, Exchange-value, and the Demise of Marxs Labor Theory of
Value (Keen 1993, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 15 (1),
Spring, pp. 107-121); and

* "The Misinterpretation of Marxs Theory of Value" (Keen 1993, Journal of
the History of Economic Thought, 15 (2), Winter, pp. 282-300).

Jon concludes:

|iii. The contention?  That the above schema (and therefore *in some way*
|the distinction between use and exchange value) doesn't work...

Not "doesn't work", but rather, "is far more complex than" the
justaposition of use-value and exchange-value which, in my opinion,
forms the core of Chs 1-8 of Capital. That is the primary dialectic
in Marx's analysis, but far from the last. It is the base of
the iceberg, while the cultural question is one of the penguins
flitting about on its tip.

I have just completed a paper exploring some of the issues Jon has
raised, and it is available by anonymous ftp at, in the
econ/authors/Keen.Steve subdirectory, in a file called A_Marx_for_post_
keynesians.txt. Briefly, it argues that there are multiple dialectics
emanating from the foundation one developed in Capital Vol. 1:

the dialectic of commodities, which is the explanation for the source
of surplus;

a reversal of the foreground and background aspects of the dialectic
between use-value and exchange-value when it comes to the realisation
of surplus, which is the explanation (in part) for cycles and crises
of over-production;

a dialectic of labor, since it is both a commodity and a non-commodity,
which explains why Marx thought the value of labor-power was the
_minimum_ wage, not the average;

a dialectic of money, since it is both a commodity and a non-commodity,
with the outcome that the use-value of money is its exchange-value
(and this extends to expectations determining the price of assets, and
to some extent of capital machinery), leading to credit cycles and
crises; and finally,

a dialectic of non-commodities (which is where Jon's interests come
in), since many products under capitalism are not strictly commodities,
either for the cultural reasons Jon mentioned, or because they are
the products of innovation and are currently neither generally
reproducible, nor part of the system of reproduction of other

The end picture which emerges from the above, as I commented earlier,
does not logically contradict the use-value/exchange-value argument
(as Jon implies), but makes the full development of it far richer
than the simple arguments of Chs 1-8 (and, for that matter, of the
simple case I put in my two published papers).

Steve Keen

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