The Production of Use Values

This is again a re-posting of an old text in an attempt to consilidate my online texts in one place. This particular text is in fact nearly 20 years old. It is, like the vast majority of my written work, fragmentary and unfinished. Unlike the mass of fragmentary texts I keep around, however, this one I did publish, many years ago, back in the days of free geocities sites. I include it here unchanged for reference, although some of my views on these matters have since evolved. The "Four Levels of Use Value Production" post below represents more recent reflections on this topic, but it does not follow up all the ideas contained in this original.

NB This text (and hence page) is work in progress and not a finished item. It is included here for purposes of reference and is subject to change without notice. 

One of Marx's greatest contributions to a critical understanding of the logic of commodity capitalism was to start with a consideration of the dual aspect of the commodity.

The commodity is an economic category of object produced solely for the purpose of exchange. This category has two aspects, exchange value and use value. As exchange value, which is based on the labour time "socially necessary" for the production of this particular commodity, is the main measure that determines rates of exchange and thus the logic of commodity production, most attention is centred on this aspect of the commodity in Marx's critique of political economy. However, it is worth paying a little more attention to the commodity's use value aspect. As a commodity's use value is irretrievably linked to its distinct physical existence some people seem to have seen it as the "object" nature of the commodity itself. This is a mistake. Not all objects are use values. In order for an object to be a use value a human subject must "see" a use within it.

Imagine you are walking along a pebble beach and you are looking for pebbles to skip along the surface of the water. As you walk along the beach most of the pebbles or stones you see are of unsuitable size or shape. Then you spy one which is just the right size and has the smooth flat profile to skim the water's surface. You reach down, pick it up, weigh it, position it in your fingers, turn to face the water and whip it hard and fast along a low trajectory at what you hope is the correct angle to the water's surface. If you've got it right, the stone skips along the surface a number of times before finally appearing to float to a halt in a manner that seems momentarily to defy its mass, before sinking out of sight. You then start the search again for the next stone to try and improve on your first effort. "Small things amuse small minds" they say, and if your mind is as small as mine then this is a particularly pleasant way to spend a half hour or more at the seaside on one of the cold grey days so characteristic of our little island.

The above example of the production of use values is not only fairly trivial but it is also quite "untypical" as it is chosen deliberately as a special case to highlight some points. Firstly the pebbles themselves have not been in any way produced by human endeavour. If no one walked along the beach they would still be there. Hence the production of use values is not necessarily linked to "production" as normally thought of, and as defined by exchange value. What
distinguishes the stones you pick up from the ones you leave is not something defined in their physical production. The "good skimmers" and the useless "sinkers" have both been formed by the same natural processes of erosion by the elements. The distinction is something you have "seen" in them. What must be emphasised is that this is "seeing" in an active sense - you "see" something that corresponds to what you have imagined you are looking for. In other words you have actively produced the use value although you have in no way produced the object. Just in case there is still some doubt about whether "something" has really been produced, let me introduce another example.

You and your pal, being of unsound mind, have decided to go off to do a bit of climbing. Being fairly advanced climbers you decide to try a new route up a particular rock face. Your mate decides to go first and you stay at the bottom to safety rope them. Your mate gets halfway up thanks to a crack in the face and a few easily reached holds, but then runs into a tricky bit with some overhang and a lack of obvious hand-holds. After about ten minutes fucking around, your mate, despairing of finding a decent hold and rapidly reaching the limits of their endurance, commits themself to a move that was never going to work and ends up hanging off the safety rope (ouch!). Having swapped roles you make your way up to the problem overhang. The first two minutes searching for a hold are discouraging until you notice a minute pebble embedded within the aggregate of the face just within arms reach above the overhang - its fingernail stuff but, gambling, you go for it and succeed. Having returned to the ground you swap notes with your mate and they in turn decide to have a second go using "your" hold - and succeeds.

In this example the "hold" is the use value you have produced. Again, as with the previous example, the actual object that you have "seen" the use value in has been produced by "nature" rather than yourself. You have not in any way physically modified the object. However, the fact that you can (freely in this case) transfer [1] or communicate the use value of this hold to your climbing companion, shows that something has really been produced. Before you 'produced' the hold your companions desire to get to the top was frustrated for the want of a hold, now that desire can be fulfilled thanks to your "product". Whats more you gave{1} them your product not in exchange for money or some future claim on some reciprocal favour, but through a shared enthusiasm for climbing, and empathy for their frustration the first time, and through friendship and companionship in general.[2]

Let us leave the beaches and the cliffs for a moment and return to the world of commodities. Marx was very clear that in order for a produced object to be a commodity it had to be subjected to the test of real exchange. In order to be exchanged the purchaser has to see a use value in the commodity. In general this is the use value that the producer has created in his or her imagination and then concretely realised in the material process of production {2}. This process of exchange however is vastly different depending on the social conditions of production.

Free Provision

Firstly let us consider a hypothetical free transfer. That is to say a transfer free from the mediation of exchange value. The producer creates a use value not for him or herself but for some other person and then expends energy in acquiring and fashioning materials appropriately - let's use the example of a knitted jumper. The consumer receives the product (knitted jumper) from the producer freeof any mediation such as exchange of money. Let us assume for the time being that the consumer has received the object as a result of already having expressed a desire for such a use value. In this case the coincidence of created and anticipated (desired) use values between producer and consumer is an affirmation of a social link between them and a mutual valuation. The producer feels vindicated and socially valued by the consumer through their appreciation of the product. Conversely the consumer feels that the fulfilment of his or her desire and anticipated use value, confirms their status as socially valued. Note that this mutual social valuation can occur either as part of a pre-existing direct personal relationship such as that between family members (say auntie knits you a jumper for your birthday - note the above proviso for our example, she does so in response to you actually wanting a jumper rather than being simply her way of fulfilling a social obligation to produce a birthday present for her nephew or niece), friends, lovers, etc., or men indirectly, in the absence of a pre-existing personal relationship. However in the latter case there has to be some kind of social relationship and communication which brings the coincidental use values of producer and consumer together without the mediation of either money or some other social construct alien to both parties. But here we are anticipating ourselves as no such social relationship or corresponding society has yet been created.

Pre-Capitalist Commodity Circulation

Getting back to more familiar social conditions of production, let us imagine the same transaction under the conditions of pre-capitalist commodity production. Here the producer is producing the product (knitted jumpers) for exchange for money. This money he or she will in turn use to purchase whatever commodities they desire.

Thus the producer sells the jumper, in its new found role as a commodity, to whatever buyer has both a coinciding anticipated use value for it and the necessary spare cash to pay the asking price.

In this case the use value the producer has created is valued by the buyer - so the producer is still socially valued in this transaction. However, this social value is already tempered by the mediation of exchange value - would the buyer still appreciate the use value of the producer's jumper if it was more expensive? As the price is determined by the exchange value of the product - i.e. how much labour time the producer expends on its production - any social valuation the producer may potentially obtain from this transaction is undermined or subverted by its contingency upon his or her ability to produce the jumpers with a minimum use of labour time.

On the other side of the transaction any confirmation the buyer may receive of the social valuation of his or her desires/needs is subverted {voided} by the contingency of the transaction upon his or her possession of the necessary cash to exchange for the producer's labour time embodied in the commodity (jumper).

If the buyer does not have the necessary money then his or her desires are denied any validity within a society dominated by commodity production/exchange. Worse still, even with the necessary cash, the buyer's desire/need for the commodity (jumper) is still not valued for its own sake but is merely a means for the producer to realise his or her labour into the universal means of exchange (money) in order to satisfy his or her own desires/needs.

In other words the producer does not appreciate the value of the buyer's anticipated use value for its own sake but instrumentally as a means to making "a living".

Capitalist Production and Exchange

Moving on to the social conditions of capitalist production we see that the producer has been replaced by {a socialised production process engaging} workers and management.

Whereas in the conditions of pre-capitalist commodity production, the producer not only possession the means of production but also the knowledge or science of production (how to knit a jumper).

Now, in contrast, the worker is not only alienated from the means of production but is further alienated from the newly specialised "scientific" work of designing the {product, the } production process and the resulting use values embodied in the products.

For example the worker may know nothing of the development of the new synthetic fibres used in the jumpers or how the knitting machines he or she works on were put together.

The worker also plays no part in the actual process of exchange with the buyer. Hence from the side of the productive worker there is virtually no social valuation as a result of producing use values. This is because although the worker produces the commodity, he or she does not actually produce the use value embodied in the commodity. This latter function has been specialised into a separate "technical" job.

It is important to see that the management side of this capitalist production process also does not receive social valuation comparable to that received by the producer in earlier conditions of production. Under the conditions of capitalist production the management is concerned not with the specific use value being produced but the general process of capital accumulation, i.e. making a profit.

So here we can see that from the production side the production of use values has become alienated from those whose labour directly produces the commodities. However the production of use values on the side of the buyer needs closer attention.

During the initial introduction of capitalist production, the production of use values on the side of the buyer at first remains unchanged from the way it was under pre-capitalist commodity production, although gains in productivity bring the price of the commodity down to make it affordable to a wider section of society. In this initial phase the expansion inherent in the capitalist dynamic can be absorbed by this "opening up of virgin territory" in selling terms. Hence the process of producing use values on the side of the buyer is left pretty much unchanged. However, eventually expansion through sales to first time buyers must eventually reach its natural limit. At this stage the only way to overcome a crisis of overproduction, from a capitalist perspective, is to address the process of production of use values by the buyer.

Whereas before the process of production of use values by the buyer remained a fairly private {occulted} process, hidden from the sight of the "physical" production process, leaving the buyer as an anonymous, autonomous power hidden from the view of the capitalist producer. Now the capitalist must "get to know" the buyer, to tear aside the veil of anonymity and seek, through new techniques of surveillance, knowledge of all the hopes, fears and desires of the buyer in order to understand what determines the production of their use values. This all the better to sell them a new "improved" product that better suits (or manipulates) the individual buyer's desires. Now, also, the capitalist producer must seek an understanding of the buyer's process of production of use values so they can actively intervene in that process in order to shape it for their own purposes.

This interventionist process reduces the buyer to consumer - no longer anonymous but now the subject of study of a new specialist - the market-maker/advertiser who in turn feeds on the work of such diverse specialists as psychologists, statisticians, opinion pollsters, cultural critics {academics} and journalists and other media workers.

This process of colonisation of the subjectivity of the buyer reconstituted as consumer, attempts to colonise (and thus destroy) their autonomy. The anticipated use values produced by the consumer are subjected to the interventions of marketing through the media.

The market-makers continually colonise our desires and sell them back to us in the form of new improved commodities. As this process seeks out the inner workings of the individual - it naturally emphasises the particular differences against the general commonalities in terms of the consumer's desired use values. Hence consumer capitalism tends to actively produce the social and cultural fracturing into different lifestyles or fashions so trumpeted by the "postmodernist" cultural critics.

Whose Use Value?

So far we have only looked at the general or isomorphic case where the use value intended by the producer maps onto the use value anticipated by the consumer - even where the latter anticipation is a reaction to external stimuli such as marketing.

But we must not forget that intended use values of production may include or encode, explicitly or implicitly, political messages or values that valorise established power or social relations at the expense of autonomous values.

With that in mind, we need now to look at the case of non-coincidence between producer use value and consumer use value. The consumer can appropriate a commodity for a different use value to that intended in the original production process.

There are two ways of doing this, subversion of use value and obversion of use value. In the case of subversion the consumer is using the commodity in a new or unintended way with the intention to resist or oppose elements of the original intended use value. In the case of obversion the consumer super-poses an entirely new use value on the commodity in a way that completely ignores or is oblivious to the original intended use value.

There is a sharp distinction between the two forms of re-use. In the first case the new use-value still is still constrained by its reference to the original, despite any level of effective resistance attained - i.e. a part of the initiative is still held by the original production. In the second case the new use has entirely seized the initiative from the original intention.

During a riot in England in the 1980's the rioters broke through the window of an electronics shop and laid their hands on some expensive and weighty video cameras, however rather than being looted these cameras were pressed into action as ammunition against the cops. In another example, the UK prison system provides bibles to its inmates. The cons discovered that the ultra-thin paper the bibles were printed on made ideal substitute for cigarette rolling paper (expensive and in short supply on prison wages). In both cases these are not subversions of the use values, but rather obversions of them.

When we consider the three possible relations between producer and consumer use values - the isomorphic, subversive and obversive - we should not do so in a moralistic or normative way in preferring one over another from an antagonist framework. Rather we should be flexible and non-dogmatic in selecting whichever relation best suits the needs of the concrete struggle of the moment. Above all we should not get trapped in equating revolutionary politics as being the politics of subversion only, lest we lose the initiative. Revolutionary politics, in that they seek the overcoming of capitalist social relations, are at least as much the politics of obversion as of subversion. Also we should be mindful of Luigi Fabbri's warning (in "Bourgois influences on Anarchism") against "...this mania to accept as good everything that our enemies believe bad ...'My enemy believes that this is bad, but as my enemy is never right, that which he believes is bad is, on the contrary, an excellent thing.' ... We would do better to seek what pleases us independently of what our enemies do. What is best for us to do is to propagate our ideas without considering whether the bourgeoisie agree or disagree with us"

So along with subversive and obversive appropriations of produced use values we should also have no fear of isomorphic relations where they suit us or are rational - a fine wine or characterful cheese remains a means of pleasure and auto-valorisation when shared with friends and comrades, no less for being commodified within the relations of capitalist valorisation.

Consumers as Ideal Types

Before our automotive interlude, in the section on Capitalist Production and Exchange, I talked first of "the buyer", "the consumer", before switching to "our desires" and then back again to "the individual". These two different ways of looking - on the one hand the third person singular, an impersonal, potentially dehumanising view, on the other, first person plural, a subjective view, inviting complicity. These two views are conflicting and demonstrates one of the main problems of a text dealing with people. Because of the limits of my (or any theorist's) knowledge combined with the number and diversity of individuals, it is virtually impossible to speculate directly about the beliefs and behaviours of real people without resorting (whether openly or not) to substituting ideal types for collectivities of real people.

An ideal type is not a real person but an abstraction that is supposed to represent what a given collectivity of people have in common. We use ideal types all the time in our conversations and writings, for example the famous "man in the street".

Feminists have rightly pointed out that ideal types like this and many others, are male and contribute to the "invisibility" of women. True enough, but we should not concentrate on criticising our old ideal types in order to replace them with "new, improved" ideal types (now with added PC!) to the extent that we forget that ideal types are, by their very nature, fundamentally dangerous no matter how "reformed".

In the case of market research, the researcher attempts to create an ideal type for the consumers who buy their capitalist client's product. Of course, in order for it to be worth hiring market researchers, these products are sold to many many different people, all of them different individuals. But the market researcher cannot possibly get to know all of the consumers of a particular product on a direct personal level. This impossibility is even more pronounced when looking at potential consumers (there are currently well over 5 billion of us at the moment, and counting...).

As we have noted above, the progress of marketed production means that ideal types are always being revised, subdivided and expanded. So where are we? On the one hand the abstract creations of ideal types that continually divide and fragment, on the other the multitude of real individuals.

This seems simple enough, some might even believe that with bigger and better research the ever-expanding family of ideal types will tend more and more accurately to reflect the different real individuals through a recursive heuristic of subdivision similar to mathematical models used to calculate integrals.

However, as modern science teaches us, the separation between observer and observed is not absolute - the very act of observing the behaviour of the objects of study influences and modifies that behaviour. If this is now recognised in the world of sub-atomic particles how much more extreme are the "feedback" effects when dealing instead with human beings.

One problem is resistance - people appear to dislike being surveilled and often resist attempts to do so - and amusing example being political pollsters complaints that they can't find any people willing to admit voting Tory on the street - hardly surprising in the part of the country I live in.

But a deeper problem is the wider role of ideal types in social culture as a whole and their part in the process of personality formation.

Role of the Media - Evolution of Middle Class specialists n.b. "free press" as marketing tool rather than political freedom

Exclusion/Inclusion and the Class Struggle

From Ideal Type to Commodity

Alienation and Desire

We have already seen how the conditions of life in a capitalist society lead to alienation in the sphere of production. To summarise, the proletarian's alienation from the means of production leads to his/her alienation from the product of their labour. Clearly this, combined with their alienation from the "production of use value" side of their labour (as detailed above in the section on capitalist production), alienates the proletarian from productive activity as a means of self-valorisation. Also in the conditions of competition between proletarians which is basic to capitalism, proletarians are alienated from each other. Further, in a society in which the dominant form of value is exchange value, the individual proletarian's sense of self-value is continually undermined. Within the logic of capital's self-valorisation, our value as proletarian's is entirely instrumental - we have value to capital's logic only in so far as we can make a profit for someone or some combine. From this, the dominant perspective ruling society, our innate value, distinct from our instrumental value, is nil. Within consumer capitalism where media and cultural messages continually seek to colonise our desires, values and self-image, this effect is all-pervasive. If we do not have the right trainers, clothes, car, haircut, body-figure, etc. etc., then we are losers and utterly worthless. Under this constant, all-pervasive pressure our sense of self-worth can be undermined to the extent of leading to mental states characterised as "low self esteem" and depression. The countervailing force to this pressure is naturally our own inter-subjective processes of self-valorisation that we achieve through the human contact and social interaction with friends, family and acquaintances - and indeed the content of those labours or products of affect that resist complete recuperation by the dominant values of capital's valorisation, to transmit affirmations of innate human value, against the machine.

From Alienation to Depression and Suicide

For the sake of rigour and clarity, all social theory must make a clear distinction between social relations and personal relations. This is mainly to show the "involuntary" and socially imposed nature of social relations. To show, in other words, that personal relationships cannot "voluntarily" breach the constraints of the social relations in force. However, up until now, we have not looked specifically at how those social relations affect personal relations, beyond simply determining the constraints within which those personal relations must develop.
... (may be included in previous section?)

Art and the Ideology of Use Value Production



New point: The production of use values is the work of human subjectivity alone. The computerised-robot production system without human workers fantasy/nightmare is unattainable, not for some Keynesian fetishised lack of demand - but because machines cannot produce use values. You can't get a robot or a computer to take the Pepsi challenge or choose between a new car or a holiday in Spain. The production of use values by really existing human subjectivities is the ghost in the machine - the motive force of the capitalist machine.


Value is an externality - ANY exchange value (no matter how reformed and "libertarianised"). We are for the end of social governance by externalities. That's why Pueblo communism (Isaac Puente) doesn't work - it is a fudge. The communal assembly overdetermines the externality of "socially necessary labour time" based exchange. But a dispersed, decentered libertarian communism has no such political locus to overdetermine value exchange.

Pouvoir/valoir vs pouvoir/savoir (un savoir externelle, du temps contestee)

{1} This product being an immaterial product, the act of transferring the product is non-alienating, unlike giving a material product where once you have given the object to another, you no longer have it. Sharing may be a more appropriate word here.

{2} Actually this can also be an entirely different use value from the one the producer had in mind. The production of new and different use values for existing commodities is an increasingly important part of creativity whether capitalist or subversive.


"One of Marx's greatest

"One of Marx's greatest contributions to a critical understanding of the logic of commodity capitalism was to start with a consideration of the dual aspect of the commodity."

I think you will find that Smith, Ricardo, Proudhon and a host of others recognised this dual aspect of the commodity long before Marx considered himself a communist. The whole terminology (use and exchange value) comes from classical economics. Proudhon starts "System of Economic Contradictions" will a discussion of this dual aspect.

Ironically, Marx in Poverty of Philosophy quotes Proudhon as stating that the economists “have very well explained the double character of value; but what they have not set out with equal clearness is its contradictory nature” and then goes on to state that, for Proudhon, the economists “have neither seen nor known, either the opposition or the contradiction” between use-value and exchange-value. Marx then quotes three economists expounding on this contradiction. Except Proudhon had not suggested that economists had “neither seen nor known” this, but they had “not set out with equal clearness” this contradiction. Presumably Marx hoped that readers would be distracted by his witticism to notice that he had lambasted Proudhon for something he had not actually said…

So, please, Marx made many important contributions -- don't invent ones!

Castigating Marx for

Castigating Marx for attacking Proudhon for something he didn't actually say is fair enough. Now lets consider what I said. Did I say "One of Marx's greatest contributions to a critical understanding of the logic of commodity capitalism was to introduce a consideration of the dual aspect of the commodity.". Er, no, actually not.
"Physician heal thyself!" seems the appropriate rejoinder. :)


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