Use Value (and Aesthetics)

Howie Chodos howie at
Wed Mar 29 08:09:51 MST 1995

The current discussion of use value / exchange value reminded me of a
citation that illustrates how complex the issue can become. It comes from
Ken Kusterer's contribution to the volume _Persistent Inequalities_ (ed. by
Irene Tinker), entitled "The Imminent Demise of Patriarchy".

     "Take a chicken egg, always a favorite example when a
discourse threatens to get too abstract. It is apparently
a natural food, yet it takes the work of many to get it
from its hen to its consumer. Where does this productive
work end and consumption begin? When the last wage worker
checked it out of the supermarket into the hands of the
domestic worker? But what use value does it have there in
the supermarket? It must be transported home, an
activity no different from the productive work of others
who had transported it along the earlier stages of its
journey. It has more use value at home than it did in the
supermarket, so hauling it home is productive work. Once
home, someone unpacks the groceries and stores the egg
into the refrigerator. Work? It was when the egg was put
into cold storage two or three times before, so it must
be now. After all, if it adds use value to the egg to
transport it to where it is needed, it also adds value to
preserve it until when it is needed.
     "A few days later someone takes the egg out of the
refrigerator and makes herself an omelet. Is that
production or consumption? What if a wife who doesn't
even like omelets makes it for her husband? In both
cases, it's still processing, still adding use value,
still production. Sometimes, of course, people use the
egg as a raw ingredient for much more complex foods.
Sometimes these are consumed at once, sometimes frozen
for use much later. No matter--all of this activity is
still production, still work. Once finally readied to
eat, the food must be served, whether onto plates for a
meal "at home" or into bags for a meal "at work." Still
more use value added, more production, more work. Even
when food is set on the plate in front of their faces,
some members of the household--the infant and the infirm-
-need more use value added to it, more work from someone,
before they can consume it.
     "The division between production and consumption is a
matter of arbitrary convention. Different conventions
will serve different ideological purposes. Whoever's
ideological interest is served by drawing that line
between the capitalist and the domestic economy, it is
obviously not the household workers'. If we want to
understand the nature of production and the relations of
production within the household, it is obvious that the
line must be drawn much further along the chain of
production-consumption. Why not place it where logic
would seem to require? As long as an activity adds rather
than subtracts use value, I am going to call that
activity production and the social relations involved in
that activity, relations of production."
                                        (pp. 242-43)

Is Kusterer right? At any rate, considerations such as the ones raised by
Kusterer make me want to ask whether it can ever be possible to quantify the
socially necessary labour time required to reproduce the commodity labour power.

Howie Chodos

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