Grab that cash with both hands and make a stashPink Floyd
Aight – let’s start out with one of the objective parts of capitalist ideology – money!
What is money?
Money is time.
(and time is entropy).
Well that was easy! Ok ok, I’ll get a little more precise about this, but to do so I’m going to have to introduce a pretty complicated concept – the commodity form, also sometimes called the value form. It looks like this:
Anything that you can buy has (at least) these three elements – it does something useful, it has a price, and it took (or will take) a finite amount of time and energy to make. Having these elements makes a thing, for the purposes of the critique of political economy, a commodity. This is a completely different concept than the definition of a ‘commodity’ that you will find in financial markets or hegemonic economics.
You don’t see money on this little graph, it’s true. The relationship money has with this construct is complicated, but for now you can think of money as the overlap between exchange-value and abstract time.
The value form is a different kind of concept than you’re probably used to using on a daily basis. This is a concept where each individual element of the concept is interdependent with the others. With concepts like the commodity form, we think all the elements together, defined against and by one another. The relations between the concepts are just as real as the individual concepts, and the ensemble of relations and conceptual positions gives us multiple angles of inquiry. This is a rotatable concept, with more than one dimension.
It has a self-conscious structure – as opposed to concepts that still have a structure, but not consciously. There are many advantages to using concepts with structures like this – most of which can only become clear by actually using them.
You’re probably gonna be thinking about all the stuff you can buy in a store as your first examples of ‘things that exhibit the commodity form’, but turn it around for a sec: you yourself also have useful skills, a price, and a time that it take to (re)produce yourself as a useful human with a price tag attached.
That’s right, you’re a commodity too! Born and raised on the commodity farm to be a commodity in commodity society: that’s you!
You know all about the commodity form unconsciously already because you literally can’t be a part of capitalist society without both producing/exchanging commodities and being one yourself. If you have noticed it consciously, you’ve almost certainly just accepted it as normal and universal. Just the way things are, just the way things have always been.
But it isn’t. It’s an artificial construct with specific historical origins. For the greater part of our history, humans were not commodities at all – and those jerks had no idea how good they had it. Realizing that commodified existence isn’t natural or eternal is the first step to reducing the influence this socio-economic construct has over your mind.
Which, well, you may as well start now. What, did you think you were gonna get to retire?
Orienting Towards Use-Value
Exchange value, or the numerical price tag attached to a use-value, is a phantasm. It has no necessary relation to any kind of pragmatic utility or human need. All the feelings and narratives and anxieties you have built up around the accumulation of exchange-value – none of that shit is ‘you’. It’s all social programming. Exchange-value functions very much like a drug, and its structure is always one of perpetual accumulation. To be hooked on exchange-value is to be completely devoted to number-go-up.
If you’ve started to use disidentification and dereification to build some critical distance from your concepts, you’ve probably already noticed this number-go-up, exchange-value centered complex.
And you know what? You don’t need it. It’s just a dumb mechanism. And it’s not ‘you’.
Because of the link between exchange-value and use-value, detaching from EV is always going to be an orientation towards pragmatic ends, towards utility and need rather than exhibition and want. Your relationship with commodity society will begin to change because of this. You’re going to start wanting less, and noticing that you really don’t need all that much to reproduce your existence. You’re going to begin to become indifferent to the game of number-go-up. You’re going to stop caring about acquisition for acquisition’s sake.
This new internal differentiation is going to have external consequences. You might start noticing that our social order doesn’t actually produce things for use, at all. In fact, it’s really fucking bad at it. Instead of making a lot of a few high quality use-values that do a task efficiently, capitalism spews out hundreds of varieties of the same stuff, endlessly, all in the name of ‘innovation’ and ‘productivity’. Most of it is just immediate garbage that goes straight to the landfill. Not only is this hilariously inefficient and environmentally disastrous, it’s also completely unnecessary to you or to anybody else.
Any time you go shopping for anything at all, if you do so with use-value as your primary orientation, you will immediately realize that most of that product line is just worthless. At the bottom end, the cheap shit just doesn’t really work, nor does it last that long. At the top end, it works and is probably pretty, but doesn’t really do anything significantly different than its cheaper counterparts.
With any product line, there’s a ‘mid-tier’ sweet spot, right after the cheapest shit, and way way before the most expensive stuff, and that’s the stuff that’s gonna get the job done and last a while without costing a shitload. That’s the actual use-value of the product line, and the rest is just dreck. All that vaunted consumer ‘choice’, well, it’s mostly just pointless busy work sifting through a lot of stupid garbage, and the vast majority of the global population is locked out of being able to make most of these choices anyways.
Thinking with UV, you might also start to suspect that the narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘innovation’ are all mostly bullshit. We mastered producing most of our necessary use-values a long time ago, and there has actually been very, very little impactful innovation in most markets at all for decades. The tech world is the big exception to this, but even here the qualitatively new is scarce. Most of the computers we use are just iterations on chip designs that were invented in the 50s, but like, endlessly smaller and faster even after that shit has ceased to make any meaningful difference. Cramming computers into stuff that works fine without them just adds more complexity and thus more failure points, reducing product lifespans and making them remotely hackable as a bonus. Basic appliances made today are often far worse at actually doing the thing they’re supposed to do than the same shit from 30 years ago, cuz now they have a goddamn software layer instead of mechanical buttons.
Consumer use-values aren’t and haven’t actually been getting meaningfully better for a long time, and very few genuinely new products are actually being conceived and produced – this is because the basic structure of commodified existence remains completely static, while everything else revolves around it. This cryptlike stasis at the heart of capitalism’s constant flurry of (mostly pointless) activity is also why its cultural output has been more or less stagnant for decades. I loved the first Matrix movie when I was a kid, but I’m not going to bother going anywhere near its obviously garbage ‘reboot’. Capitalist culture has been largely incapable of generating new ideas for a very long time.
Orienting towards use-value is an excellent way to just outright delete a tremendous amount of bullshit from your mind, freeing up a ton of mental space. Most of what you actually need you can find in a thrift store or on online used markets. The hype cycle is a scam and new stuff is never necessarily better than old stuff. Advertising and marketing are propaganda, psycho-social brainwashing and manipulation. Your mind on use-value will start to become immune to this kind of attempted mind-control.
UV orientation will also help you stop evaluating your own personhood with exchange-value. You aren’t equivalent to the money you make, and past a certain point, more money just equals more dumb bullshit and more meaningless consumer ‘choice’. You are not a commodity, and you don’t have to define yourself with commodities. As you’re going to find out, when you do this unthinkingly and habitually you are actually blocking and repressing aspects of your own individuality and development.
The Kingdom of Ends
Implicit in the commodity form and in the minds of subjects who have disengaged from the fantasmic handjob of exchange-value is the ideal of a society also oriented towards use-value. This is the classical ideal of socialism – where we produce for use, and not for exchange. In this world, instead of an unending torrent of different (but p much the same) laptops every 6 months – we just make a couple different kinds of laptops that last a really long time, and only refresh the product line when we all vote that it’s necessary. Instead of a torrent of different kinds of junk food breakfast cereal, we just make a few kinds of cereal that are actually healthy. Instead of dozens of new phones every 6 months, we make – phone. With like, a replaceable battery so it lasts a while!
You get the idea. We would be completely different people than we are now, living in this world. We would have far more free time and far fewer meaningless commodity choices – freeing us up for real human choices! We also might be able to build a more long-term civilization that doesn’t destroy biospheres – that’d probably be pretty cool too.
It is very difficult to imagine such a society – it has been easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism for a very long time. However, if I can still do it, you can too!