Chuck Marx opened his magnum opus, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by delving into commodities, by which he meant products produced in order to generate monetary profits for those spending the money to have them produced. In his painstaking dissection, Marx hoped to make it clear that, in order to make good democratic sense of capitalism, one has to be careful to maintain a distinction between the capitalist’s and the ordinary citizen’s way of looking, thinking, and talking.
As Marx explained, commodities come into existence in order to enrich capitalists, but, in the process, they must also retain some degree of “use-value,” or usefulness to the end purchaser. Despite capitalists’ ability to create and exploit irrational assessments of usefulness among prospective product purchasers, pure “exchange-value” was not enough to turn the trick. Capitalist products have to be at least somewhat useful to those who would buy them.
Why start with this seemingly arcane and even trite point? I’ve always thought it was Marx’s way of underscoring the importance of seeing just how partial and peculiar the capitalist’s perspective is. Just as capitalists must deliver some kind of use-value in order to get back the exchange-value they crave, so must every citizen trying to fathom the impact of capitalists and capitalism remain conscious of the peculiar motives and biases of those who proffer commodities.
Strange, then, I think, that, despite his discussion of “use-value” and its differing meaning to workers and capitalists, Marx never offered a critique of the word “consumer.”
Perhaps this was because, in Marx’s day, “consumer” was still a specialized term within the equally specialized and (at least before Marx) thoroughly pro-capitalist discipline of political economy. As The Oxford English Dictionary explains, at least among English speakers, the first known use of “consumer” outside economics came only in 1898, in a telling source — The Sears and Roebuck Catalog.
Nevertheless, to consent to calling those whose interest in commodities lies only in their qualities as use-values “consumers” is to replicate rank capitalist bias, to allow an unexamined concept to bury the all-important dual consciousness needed to realistically track the operations and effects of capitalism, to see and label the world through profit-seekers’ self-serving, humanity-shrinking eyes.
People are product users, seekers of use-values. Only a capitalist has any business calling product users “consumers.”
Nevertheless, exactly that practice rages on, with all kinds of compounding addenda, including such hopelessly discombobulating mash-ups as “consumer culture” and “consumer society,” not least among what passes for the political left…