Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Capitalist use and communist use

Sometimes people take the distinction between use value and exchange value as a moral distinction: use value is natural and good, and then capitalism came along and ruined things by inventing exchange value. This is wrong – use value and exchange value are a dialectical pair, and they both only came into existence with the development of capitalism.

Obviously, people used things before capitalism, but the idea of use value, that is, of usefulness in general, rather than some specific usefulness, was, before capitalism, an entirely mental abstraction. It’s only when usefulness in general comes to underpin generalised exchangeability (i.e., exchange value) that it acquires a practical reality.

So attempts to prioritise use value over exchange value can go one of two ways. They can reject exchange value entirely, and with it use value in general, which leaves them with only concrete and immediate use by a specific person for a specific person (a reversion to subsistence). Alternatively, they can retain use value in its more expansive version, and so more-or-less surreptitiously also retain the subordination of use to the logic of exchange, i.e., scarcity. We can see this in the slogan “enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed” which emphasises a moralising conception of need, while also retaining the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, a “greed” which is by definition always expanding and never satisfiable.

Because of the dialectical inseparability of use value and exchange value, I’ve generally thought any emphasis on use will leave us trapped within the terms of capitalism while thinking we are critiquing it, leading to a powerless moralism rather than a useful political analysis. However, I now wonder if there might be a better development of the dialectic of use value and exchange value. Rather than rejecting exchange value, could we inject its properties into use value? This would be a use value which was in a way the opposite of specific, immediate concrete use, because it would embrace exchange value’s indefinite and expansive transmissability. What would use look like if it was use for absolutely anyone, for any purpose? Or, more importantly, what would kind of social organisation would give this expanded form of use value a material reality?