Use-Value: A Critique of Capitalist Bias

marx 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…

“Confronting Consumption,” Indeed

homer brain What passes for a political and intellectual left is stone-cold stupid when it comes to matters of personal life and corporate capitalism.

The anchor of this stupidity is the continuing inability of would-be radical thinkers and activists to get past the discombobulating slave-words “consumer” and “consumption.”

Unable to see that calling product users and citizens “consumers” and lumping all their activities and intentions into the category of “consumption” does irreparable damage to any chance at coherent social criticism or democratic movement-building, the “consumer” haranguers plow blithely on, tilting at the windmill of “consumer culture” or “consumer society,” while saying next to nothing about the basic realities of corporate capitalism and its ever-growing big business marketing juggernaut.

This endless pursuit of a dead-end has recently been redoubled by the “scholars” associated with this smugly confused book. In it, the various assembled academic career-builders profess to be attacking “the consumption problem,” without ever stopping to ask whether part of that alleged problem might be the continuing reign of the massively biased concept of “consumption.”

Worse, in the name of an attack on waste they can never quite explain, they actually dare to say that “economistic thinking” is part of the problem, rather than a vital part of the solution. The fact that mainstream economics ignores capitalist waste and qualitative outcomes is no reason to toss out “economistic thinking” altogether. In fact, a true economics would be a devastating expose of the present system and the overclass it exists to enrich.

Our Oh-So-Patient Overclass

The mainstream excuse for letting capitalists keep economic surpluses is that they deserve it because of their patience in waiting for a return and foregoing consumption.

That’s always been a massive joke, of course, since surplus-takers have never foregone an ounce of personal luxury.

And, as Frances Wheen suggests, the abstinence theory of private capital was formulated after and against Marx’s emphasis on the taking of unpaid and alienated labor-time as the real core of business fortunes.

But now, we have the chance to see the true object of overclass patience, the one thing these self-congratulating world-wreckers are actually oh-so-willing to wait for.  The blatant reality before us is that our overclass is the ultimate pack of procrastinators.  In our age of dire planetary problems, the investing stratum is quite willing to wait until Hell freezes over before they admit they were wrong, that it is indeed quite possible for the rich to be too rich and powerful, and everybody else too poor and powerless.  A sick, sick system…

McDonaldization: A Mickey-Mouse Theory

Yesterday, I commented on how pathetic sociology is on the topic of big business marketing and its ongoing commercialization and commodification of modern life.

The most renowned sociologist trying to discuss matters in this vital area is George Ritzer of the University of Maryland.

Ritzer has started a mini-industry around his contention that “McDonaldization” is the proper concept for comprehending the course of events.  The basic idea is that McDonald’s restaurants are somehow (Ritzer has no empirical evidence of McDonald’s-copying; he merely asserts that it is happening) the driving essence of what’s happening to us.

Ritzer would have you believe that it’s all a question of runaway rationalization, a.k.a. generic bureaucracy, and that Max Weber, not Karl Marx, is the deepest theorist of our hyper-commercialized reality:

McDonaldization is an amplification and extension of Weber’s theory of rationalization, especially into the realm of consumption.  For Weber, the model of rationalization was the bureaucracy; for me, the fast food restaurant is the paradigm of McDonaldization.

And “McDonaldization,” a.k.a. bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy itself, is supposed to be “the paradigm” for “consumer culture,” a.k.a. the dominant trend in contemporary American life…

What a sophomoric mess! Ritzer seriously argues — and consequently draws along a substantial following of supposedly smart social critics — that everybody is running around inspired to be like McDonald’s, which he treats as a mere bureaucracy, rather than a profit-seeking business. All the while, not only does Ritzer uncritically adopt the rank capitalist bias-words “consumer” and “consumption,” but labors (and belabors) to extend them into even-worse conceptual morasses like “consumer culture” and “consumer society.”

The reality, of course, is that not only is the McDonald’s Corporation itself driven by marketing, but it is the 2-trillion-dollar-a-year (in the USA alone) discipline of big business marketing, not some random bureaucracy fetish, that is driving things forward across the whole society.

And corporate marketing is all about capitalism, not bureaucracy:

[M]arketing is both an art and a science, and like any other investment activity, it must be grounded in research, planned carefully, and measured and evaluated based on return on investment.

Ritzer not only understands none of this, but covers it all up with a deeply misleading shaggy dog story.  As a result, today’s sociology, supposedly the art and science of demystifying the institutional conditions of human life, could hardly be less helpful to those hoping to explain and redress our capitalist-dominated, market-totalitarian culture.

What is Marketing?

Few outside its inner sanctums understand what big business marketing really and truly is.

In my own “field” of academic sociology, nobody even asks, despite corporate marketing’s overwhelming importance in shaping behaviors and lives.

When sociologists try to touch the topic, they invariably do so by babbling in one direction or another about “consumption,” by which they really mean (or would mean, if they were aware of their own bumbling obtuseness) people’s “free time activities” and/or “product-related activities.”

Trying to comprehend and explain the social logic and effects of big business marketing in that manner is like trying to do surgery wearing catcher’s mitts. The resulting stuff is hopelessly confused and massively violent to reality.

So what is it that gets missed? As usual, the proper answer comes from the professional communications of marketers themselves. Here’s what marketing really is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

[M]arketing is both an art and a science, and like any other investment activity, it must be grounded in research, planned carefully, and measured and evaluated based on return on investment.

In other words, it’s this guy’s stuff, applied to off-the-job behavior:

To miss that fundamental fact is to miss the whole train of social analysis and criticism.

Inequality Among “Consumers”

“Consumer” is a rotten word, a naked, vision-stunting bias parading as a basic, natural term of modern democratic life.  Whenever you hear yourself being called a “consumer,” you should reach for your gun.

Contrary to both mainstream dogma and received cultural-leftist/neo-Marcusian canon, access to commodities has never been anything like equal in the United States.  In fact, in this epoch of escalating income and wealth polarity, the newest statistics show that inequality among U.S. “consumers” is now at an all-time high.

Bradley Johnson of Advertising Age magazine’s “American Demographics” column reports:

Spending patterns vary from rich to poor.  The government’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey shows spending by the top fifth of households (pretax income of $85,147-plus) rose 8.1% in 2005 vs. 2004.  That’s a bigger percentage boost than for any other income group.

The top fifth collected 50.4% of pretax income and accounted for a record 39% of consumer spending in 2005, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those affluent households outspent the bottom three quintiles combined. Spending disparities have grown: The bottom fifth (pretax income below $17,579) did just 8.2% of 2005’s consumer spending, a record low.  (Advertising Age, January 15, 2007, p. 29)

As Johnson also notes, “[t]he affluent account for massive shares of spending in key categories.”  In the service of publicizing this reality and helping MR folks rethink “consumption,” I decided to calculate some of the key ratios.  The numbers signify the average spending of the richest 20 percent of U.S. households as a percentage of the averages among the poorest 20 percent and the middle 20 percent, respectively, in various “consumer” areas, all for the year 2005.

Housing: the richest quintile spends 3.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.1 times as much as the middle

New Vehicles: the richest quintile spends 19.2 times [not a typo!] as much as the poorest; 3.4 times as much as the middle

Dining Out: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Life Insurance, Social Security and Pensions: the richest quintile spends 28.8 times [not a typo] as much as the poorest; 3.9 times as much as the middle

Education: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as poorest; 5.7 times [not a typo] as much as the middle

Reading Material: the richest spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

Apparel: the richest quintile spends 4.3 times as much as the poorest; 2.4 times as much as the middle

Alcohol: the richest quintile spends 4.6 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Overall “Consumer” Spending: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

As you might guess, there is only one exception to this pattern: tobacco.  In that area, the richest quintile spent only 107% of what the poorest quintile spent, and only 74% of what the middle quintile spent.