A friend sent me some writing on chapter 1 of v1 of Capital, which set some wheels turning in my head.

I’ve written about this before, I don’t think the use value vs exchange value distinction is a very good one, I think it tracks onto really important distinctions but is clumsy. It seems to me that by some of Marx’s standards, exchange value isn’t clearly distinguishable from use value and there’s a conceptual asymmetry between then. I think exchange value logically ought to be considered a subset of use value, a subset which is peculiarly important under capitalism and which regulates other actually existing use values and their production under capitalism.

What just struck me now is that I think this distinction is tied in to a larger/more general conceptual thing that Marx does, which is to blur descriptive and prescriptive categories. Descriptively, exchange values meet Marx’s minimalist criteria for use values — use values meet any need whatever — I like his phrase, something along the lines of “whether of the belly or the fancy” — which means “use” is the act of any need whatever. In that case, there’s nothing in the categories to rule out a need to abstract, a need to exploit, a need to mediate, etc. All the things exchange value does and all the acts implied in that social relation, all of those can be called needs and can fit into use value. Indeed, capitalists really do need those things, in so far as they want to remain capitalists.

On the other hand, prescriptively, use value serves a function in criticizing the dominance of exchange value. That’s an important function but I don’t know that there’s much of a gain by Marx making both terms be called “use value” and by not clearly distinguishing prescription and description. (I think there’s some tie here to the stuff on socially necessary labor time.)

As a parallel, there’s that Race Traitor journal slogan, something like “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” This is true in a prescriptive sense of humanity, but descriptively ‘treason to whiteness’ is about opposing a set of social relations in which one subset of humans predominate over the rest. So the meaning of ‘humanity’ is different in the opposition between whiteness and humanity than it is in, say, “humanity descended from homo erectus” or “humanity is peculiarly prone to choking, compared to other primates, because of the size of the larynx.” In this example I think the distinction is obvious, but I think in Marx with use value and exchange value it’s not so obvious.

I’m not sure there are any real stakes to this. One thing I think that does follow from this is a criticism of some of the autonomist marxist perspectives on “the commons” both historically and in the present. The criteria for being considered “commons” seem to mostly be about non-commodified access to use values. The thing is that that’s too broad a notion, we aren’t simply against capitalism, we’re for a good society. Non-commodified access to use values admits of a lot of oppressive variants as well as liberatory ones.

One other thought, not really related to the above, I think Marx exaggerates the extent of commodification in capitalism. In a way, this is I think a sort of literary quality. In a way, this is I think a sort of literary quality. As a parallel, I’m told that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle depicts a world in which there are very few small businesses and independent proprietors. He writes in a social realist perspective but in the time he depicts, his own day, there were actually a host of those kinds of economic actors. Their absence would have been glaring and startling to the readers in his day, and this is probably why he wrote that way. (This is in the book The Racketeer’s Progress, which then argues that many have missed this quality of Sinclair’s work and so have mistakenly assumed his realism was reality.) In this, Sinclair mixes description and a sort of prescription. I think Marx does similar, magnifying elements of capitalism and distilling them.

In actually existing capitalism there are a host of noncommodified circuits of production and distribution — we’re participating in one right now, in a way. They’re under the dominance of a system of commodification, and there’s a tendency to find activities and commodify them, but there remain important parts of life that are not directly posited as exchange values. Wallerstein argues in Historical Capitalism that this is actually better for capitalism as a whole and that individual capitalists are better off if ‘their’ employees keep a certain range of their needs noncommodified because there’s an upward threshold on commodification which starts to increase the likelihood of pressures on (conflicts over) wages (of course there’s also a bottom threshold which allows workers to avoid work, capitalists want people above that). At the same time, capitalists want the employees of other capitalists to have their access to use values be as commodified as possible, because then there’s more to sell them. Wallerstein argues that in capitalism today there’s probably an overextension of commodification and that creates problems for the system at present.