use value
Source Julio Huato
Date 13/04/29/00:30

Jim wrote:

> GDP is basically a measure of what Marx
> called "exchange value" or value in exchange, while the GPI is an
> effort to measure use value. Strictly speaking, it's impossible to
> measure use value, but it's okay to try as long as you know the
> limitations. The neoclassicals interpret GDP as a measure of use-value
> because (at least as a first approximation in this view) the prices of
> products in it equal marginal utilities.

This treats "use value" and "exchange value" as if they were two
extraneous, disconnected categories. However, _exchange value_ is a
*form* of _value_, which in turn is the *form* of _use value_ in
certain contexts, namely societies where use values are produced by
independent private producers, who must therefore trade these goods as
commodities for their social arrangement to reproduce itself.

Consider an analogy, minding the "mutatis mutandis" clause. A
circumference (i.e. 2 \pi radius) is the form taken by *length* of the
perimeter of a circle. Similarly, side^2 is the form that *length*
takes for the perimeter of a square; side a \times side b for the
perimeter of a rectangle, etc., etc. In sum, that quality of things we
call *length* takes myriad forms depending on the nature of the
geometric object under consideration. Now, for a particular circle,
let radius = 1/(2 cm \pi). Hence, circumference = 1 cm. It would be
absurd for me to say that "1 cm is a measure of the circumference, but
it has nothing to do with length; 1 cm is not and cannot be a measure
of length!" Similarly absurd, although the algebraic sign of the
absurdity would change, would be for me to say: "You can only measure
length, but strictly speaking it is impossible to measure the
perimeter of any particular circle."

No. You can measure circumferences, the perimeters of rectangles,
triangles, etc., distances of lines and curves, etc. And thereby
you're measuring lengths under various guises. Analogously, you can
measure use value. Now, if for some strange reason we cannot measure
use value (say, we lose our minds, which makes it impossible for us to
measure anything), then we cannot measure exchange value either. How
will we ever be able to measure exchange value if we cannot measure
use value, given that exchange value is the form of use value in
certain social settings? How can we ever measure exchange value (and
value) without measuring use value?

But, how do we measure use value then? Well, use value is not a
physical measure of things in themselves. It's a measure of *wealth*,
i.e. of things for our selves. So how do we measure what something
is, represents, or "means" to us or for us? We are the measure of
things! Our lives, our powers, which is to say our ability to spend
our lives consciously (productive power of labor or, for short, labor
power, what other power is there?), are the measure of things. So, in
brief: Our wealth is our measure, the measure of our conscious lives.
And we, our conscious lives, are the measure of our wealth.

When we determine the value of any piece of wealth, we are measuring
our productive power, the productive force of our labor. As Marx
showed, the value of wealth (in a commodity-producing society) is the
reciprocal of the productive force of labor. The greater the force of
labor productive of a given amount of wealth (that amount is, of
course, bounded by the size of our needs, as wealth that exceeds needs
turns increasingly into illth), the lower its value, and vice versa.

Saying that value is a measure of the productive force of labor
(stock) is not different from saying that value is a measure of social
labor time (flow). The productive force of labor (or labor power, for
short) is the *stock* of the *flow* we call labor, the activity. It
is at each point in time, on the "edge of the present," that we
experience our lives, that we make our choices, that we direct our
lives consciously. But it is by looking back, reflectively or
retroactively into the historical past *and* looking forward or
projectively into our future that our present actions become
conscious, acquire a human meaning. Thus looking at things at a point
in time or over a period of time is just a different way of looking at
the same thing; in this case, our own conscious lives. We can only
act now, but we only make sense of our actions by reference to past
and future.

To be, perhaps, a bit clearer: How do we know something is a power now
if it is not to be exercised over time? And given that the exercise
of our powers lies in the future, how can we be certain of what these
powers truly amount to before we exercise them? The past, history,
may provide us with a hint, but we can never be sure.

It should be clear that we value and revalue our wealth all the time,
at each point in time in fact; all types of wealth, even if we do it
only in deed, without necessarily articulating this valuation in
thought or speech. Basically, any action we take entails an effective
valuation of wealth. This means that we are periodically, in fact
continuously, re-evaluating our wealth. All of it. This process is
individual and social, since it is through the clash of individual
valuations that value as a socially objective property (social form)
of wealth emerges. In this light, social life is a process of social
validation or social formation, of formation of social structures
(e.g. value).

It goes with the territory that the very definition of wealth (and,
hence, what is poverty or misery or illth) -- i.e. what is productive
force (and, hence, destructive force), what is freedom (and, hence,
what is necessity) -- is up for grabs. In a class society, the
definition of wealth is an outcome of the class struggle (inclusive of
competition and other forms of social conflict). Working people must
put forth our own definition of what enriches us, what makes our lives
worth living (and, therefore, what impoverishes us), not only in
thoughts or words, but in deeds, i.e. move to appropriate whatever
helpful may be found out there and turn it into a means for the
expansion of our wealth, our freedom, our own (and owned) productive
power, the content of our lives.

As to Nathan's reply to me about not taking into consideration the
"output of nature." I am not sure if I understand his point. Insofar
as I can see, there is *no* need to alter Marx's fundamental views on
this matter. All we need to do is adapt his analysis to the specs of
the case. If we are talking about the rest of nature (nature
abstracted from ourselves), then nature today is the output of nature
yesterday. Nature's production function is \dot{x}(t)=f(x(t)) or, if
you prefer, x_t = g(x_{t-1}, where f(.) and g(.) represent what we
call the "laws of nature." Now, isn't it true that, actually,
\dot{x}(t)=f[x(t), L(t)], or x_t = g(x_{t-1}, L_{t-1}) where L is
labor power? In words, we influence the "output of nature"? Indeed,
but we can only influence the output of nature as a force of nature,
i.e. our actions subject to the laws of nature.

Now, if the output of nature is the object of our valuation, if it is
what we call wealth, then its value to us is the reciprocal of the
productive force of our labor. How productive are we of, say,
hospitable planets? Well, as far as I know, we haven't yet been able
to produce even one of them. We know how to make a planet near
inhospitable. That's what human history is from a certain
perspective: the production of a planet that may become inhospitable
rather soon. Who knows in the future, but for all we know, it seems
impossible for us to produce a hospitable planet alternative to this
one. So, assuming we develop the need for a new planet, we can
estimate that it'd require an infinite amount of social labor to
produce it, our labor power productive of hospitable planets is zero
as far as we can estimate it on the basis of historical data;
therefore, the value of a hospitable planet to us (again, assuming we
need one badly enough) appears to be infinitely high. Now, if
(through the process of social formation or social validation
indicated above) we decide we don't need a planet, then its value
drops to zero even if we have the other power to replace this planet
with another (or gets undefined, 0/0, if we don't have such power).

In the past, we believed we didn't need to worry about reproducing a
clean atmosphere, fresh water, etc. We thought natural processes
would supply them by default, natural processes would digest all our
garbage quickly or, at least, the processes would take place out of
our sight and, hence, out of our mind. Of course, the capitalist
market value of a clean environment would be zero. Now larger and
larger groups of people are convinced that nature will not be able to
digest all of our garbage without biting us in the back. And we're
keenly aware that we need a clean environment. So we need to view a
clean environment as wealth that we, not nature by itself, need to
reproduce (in part at least, by limiting the production of other

Now, since we haven't yet gotten rid of markets, then there's the
issue of the market value of this commodity, a clean environment. We,
of course, note that capitalist markets are inherently disinclined to
treat a clean environment as a sorely needed reproducible good, i.e.
as wealth. So we push for other ways of providing for it, other ways
(extra economic or non-market ways) of reallocating the productive
force of our labor, i.e. with the help of political and legal
mechanisms, which tax, override, or restrict private or exclusive
ownership over existing wealth. We value a clean environment so
highly, and the market seems so inherently incapable of moving people
to reproduce it to the extent needed, that we are forced to override

Value, as in *market* value, stops being a form conducive for us to
produce true wealth. We then find other ways to produce our wealth.
Although, of course, a clean environment means a lot to us, we cannot
call the outcome of this valuation "value" any longer, or at least not
in the sense of Marx. Why not? Because the category of value refers
to social labor time required in a society with markets. In other
societies, social labor time required takes other forms. Instead, we
may call it free labor time. Labor time spent reproducing a clean
environment is labor time spent freely, i.e. directly in building
ourselves, our freedom, our powers, rather than the powers that
oppress us.

Back to GDP. What does it measure? It measures use value (positive
and negative, i.e. goods and bads, wealth and illth). And by so
doing, it measures value. More generally, it measures the social
labor time required to produce wealth anew, i.e. it measures the
productive force of our labor. How well does it do it? Well, we can
poke a lot of holes in it. It counts as goods some things that are
indeed goods and to the extent they are goods. That is, of course,
fine. But, on the other hand, it does omit some things that are
goods. It adds as goods things that are not goods. It counts as
goods things that are actually bads for most people and some that are
bad for all people. To compute the index number (or average or
expectation) that we call GDP, the goods included are weighted by
their market values (or imputed market values, in some cases), thus
presuming that society values these items in proportion to their
market values. But what if the market values distort the social
valuation, as it will happen if there are inequality and external
effects of cooperation that we move to offset via legal and political
ways? Then the GDP is going to paint a distorted picture of the
productive force of our labor.

Uncertainty, i.e. ignorance, is such that one will always wonder
whether what appears to us as a piece of more or less solid knowledge
is in fact something that deepens our ignorance. Given that we don't
know it all, it may actually makes us more ignorant, more insidiously
so because our ignorance will now appear as reliable knowledge when it
is not. As a result of our effort to know the world, a deceitful
world where things are not what they appear to be at first sweep, may
push us back to a deeper form of ignorance, perhaps making us arrogant
under the pretense of greater knowledge.

This is the "A little knowledge is worse than no knowledge" school.
Indeed, there's a chance that GDP measurements may have that very
quality, in part because we know (don't we?) that there are vested
interests that benefit from the distortions. However, a side of me
argues that no, the latter type of ignorance is better than the
former. We never move forward in a straight line, setbacks are a
necessary part of the process. But these necessary steps back may
wind up getting us closer to it. We are at least trying to understand
and change the world, and that is always a risky business.

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