Use Value (and Aesthetics)

Steve.Keen at Steve.Keen at
Mon Mar 27 19:36:34 MST 1995

Jon replied to my observation that non-reproducible commodities were
(initially) exempted from the use-value/exchange-value analysis with:

|Now, like the good cultural studies student that I am, I clearly can't
|take this restriction of (what I'm still hesitantly calling) the
|"aesthetic" merely to statues and wines.  For a start, movies seem
eminently reproducible (and very different from rare statues)...

The restriction certainly doesn't stop at Ricardo's examples, agreed;
but the point about reproducibility is a bit different to the way
you have interpreted it. A 1982 Dodge Colt is reproducible in the
sense that Ricardo meant (and with which, I argue, Marx concurred),
in that, given the "formula" for producing it, and the requisite
"commodities", more than one can be made; and since we workers (in
the absence of decent public transport!) need cars to get to work,
the car turns up as part of the reproduction of other commodities.

More than one copy of a movie is made for distribution, granted; but
to "make" a movie, say _Forest Gump_, the formula goes: take one
novel, add one Tom Hanks... In other words, reproducing the movie is
(a) impossible and (b) pointless. Whereas with a true(r) commodity,
making more than one copy is both (a) possible and (b) the whole
point--to make lots and sell lots.

But that doesn't invalidate your next point:

|Anyhow, my real problem is that I don't see any products (or I see very
|few indeed) which don't have the characteristic I ascribed to _Shallow
|Grave_ (that is, initiating a logic of equivalence or quasi-equivalence
|separate from strict exchange value, and thus opening up the mechanisms
|of cultural "distinction").  We could translate this into saying that
|*every* commodity has this "aesthetic" dimension.

Well, there are some obvious exceptions--coal, steel, memory chips--but
few that we see in final consumption goods. However, the issues you
are exploring are a lot deeper than countervailing examples of
commodities which do and do not have a cultural dimension. In fact,
I expect Chris Sciabarra to chime in at any moment and tell us that
we are now flitting between the Austrian and Marxian perspectives on
capitalism, because ultimately, that's what comes of questioning whether
Marx's treatment of use-value is adequate.

Why? Because if we reject Marx's characterisation--that use-value plays
no role in determining exchange-value--on the basis of the quite valid
points you have made, the inevitable alternative is that the use-value
of a commodity determines its exchange-value (I know you didn't want
to bring in questions of exchange-value yet, but as the dialectical
sibling to use-value, it can't be avoided).

That is the Austrian perspective, and unlike the apparently similar
neoclassical argument, it deserves respect because it is dialectical
in nature, and focuses upon the diversity and heterogeneity of
use-values, as you yourself do in your examples (anyone who has studied
neoclassical economics should be familiar with the way it abstracts
from product and consumer diversity).

So which one is "correct"? Not exactly a shallow or simple question,
nor from my point of view, one which necessitates following one
interpretation and denying the other. My perspective on the
*initial* choice is similar to that effectively put forward by Marx:
it depends on what you see as the "purpose" of capitalism.
If the purpose is the production and distribution of use-values,
then the Austrian attitude is better. But if the purpose is the
production and accumulation of capital, then Marx's is a more
accurate *initial* rendition of capitalism.

Taking another look at your examples, these are quintessentially
"final consumption goods"--they are end-points in the Circuit of
Commodities, C--M--C. However, the key aspect of capitalism is
the Circuit of Capital, M--C--M, where the commodities are only
an intermediary to the accumulation of money. There also, granted,
qualitative differences between similar commodity inputs also
arise--"will we install Rolls-Royce or Pratt & Whitney engines in
our next jet?" But they are questions to which there are ultimately
quantitative answers--what are the initial and running costs, what
thrusts do they have, etc.

I believe that if we are to focus on the essence of capitalism,
then its essence is the production and accumulation of capital,
and for that reason, Marx's initial starting point, which is
quantitative and which focuses upon the Circuit of Capital, is
the better starting point. But that doesn't completely exclude
the Austrian perspective: as I argue in that paper, it is
possible to derive a tempered version of the Austrian perspective
from a marxian one when considering final consumption.

An untempered Austrian perspective (though I'm open to correction on
this) would argue that price is entirely subjective. The tempered
one that I argue is derivable from Marx, is that the cultural
and technological components of commodities allows for subjective
issues to affect price to some extent, but that the competitive
nature of capitalism means that cost of production remains a
"point of attraction", even then.

For example, I recently accompanied two teenage cousins on a shopping
trip where one enthused that she had managed to buy a pair of
Calvin Kline jeans for "only $75", whereas they normally sold for
over $200 in a leading department store here. A "normal" brand of
jeans sells for about $60; the $200 price tag obviously reflects a
lot of subjective elements, which the company spends a great deal
to maintain, but it is always vulnerable to undercutting by a
rival product--and the greater the gap between cost of production
and price, the greater the danger. Hence even for heavily "lifestyle"
oriented commodities, there is danger in trying to drive price
too far above cost.

In summary, while I argue that it is possible to derive the
proposition that some commodities will have their prices determined
to some degree by subjective perceptions of use-value from Marx's
use-value/exchange-value dialectic, I doubt that it is possible to
go in reverse, from an Austrian focus on subjective utility as the
determinant of price, to an explanation of why some prices will
be determined to some extent by objective cost (though I could be
wrong--comments please Chris S). I also feel that Marx's analysis
focuses on the key aspect of capitalism, the M--C--M circuit,
whereas the Austrian approach focuses on C--M--C. Marx also begins
his analysis with the commodity, whereas in effect, the Austrian
perspective begins with the non-commodity--the thing which can't
be reproduced. I believe that we can dialectically go from the
reproducible to the non-reproducible, but I doubt that we can
go in the other direction.

To carry on with my antipodean metaphor, it's easier to explain
the existence of the penguin from an understanding of the iceberg,
than to explain the iceberg from the existence of the penguin.


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