A Marxist reflection on the Burke Library

When I’m checking in periodicals or sorting books in the stacks of Burke library, it’s not uncommon for me to think how utterly useless it all is, all these journals of theology and philosophy, all these books on God and sin and grace. What need do we have for them? For Origen and Aquinas and Luther, for Gustavo Gutierrez and Rosemary Radford Reuther. When I observe daily the volume of the work that is being done in theology, philosophy, and ethics, pouring in through the mail that I check everyday, I can’t help but think that so much of it, perhaps the vast majority, is entirely pointless. But that for me is part of the beauty of things, and part of the joy working here. In a world which so highly values use and function, wonderfully useless things like religion are taken for granted, and it becomes easy for us to forget that some of the best things in life, like art and music, are, or ought to be, totally useless. The intricate engravings of a gothic cathedral never saved one human being from a drop of rain. The melodies and harmonies and cadences of a Beethoven symphony never cured an illness. And even if they ever did, that would not have been the point. The frosting on cake might help someone to get their recommended daily dose of glucose, but it’s not meant to be nutritious. The point, if any, is that things like this have no point. They exist for no reason aside from themselves. As the literary critic Terry Eagleton has suggested, in properly theological terms, things like these exist “for the hell of it.”[1] And religion, theology, philosophy, ethics, and so on, are, like art and music, superfluous. They exist, as it were, for the hell of it.

But we live in a world in which superfluous things, like art and music and theology, are increasingly taken for granted, seen not only as useless, which is largely true, but also as worthless, because we live in a world in which the inherent worth of a things is increasingly equated with its practical function and utility, and the value of things is increasingly reduced to its economic value, what a Marxist might call its “exchange-value,” the value of a commodity implied in its exchange and expressed in its price. Oscar Wilde once quipped that a cynic is someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” From this point of view, the world today seems more cynical than ever. Wilde’s point is well taken. The reduction of the inherent value of a thing to its price is so pervasive that we seem increasingly unable to distinguish between the two. Translating Wilde’s observation into the somewhat more specific if rather less poetic language of classical political economy (the leading figures of which were thinkers like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx), we might say the world today seems to know the exchange-value of everything and the use-value of none.[2] Where exchange-value refers to the quantitative value of a commodity implied in an exchange relation expressed in price, use-value refers to its qualitative utility from the point of view of meeting human needs. While use-value is a reference of the utility of a given good, it should not however be misconstrued in a reductionistic sense to refer to its practical utility. Use-values in this sense may be entirely superfluous from the point of view of its practical function. For anyone other than a Philistine, the use-value of a Keatsian ode is not that that it teaches anything practical about the conditions of life in 19th century England (though it might), but rather that it moves and delights. It’s use-value is not, strictly speaking, practical. What is inherently valuable about a Beethoven symphony is not the price for which it sells on the market, but its power and beauty. No one (save perhaps a creature so uncultured and depraved as a mainstream economist), values a Beethoven symphony because of the income one could somehow make off it.

Modifying Wilde’s observation with these qualifications, then, we might say that the world today seems to know the exchange-value of everything and the use-value of none, keeping in mind that use-value must not be reductionistically construed to refer strictly to the practical utility of things, but to utility in the widest sense of the term, which very often (as in the case of a Beethoven symphony or a Keatsian ode) includes their uselessness and superfluity. But the reduction of use-value to exchange-value is only problematic on two conditions: (1) if the use-value and exchange-value of a given commodity diverge; and (2) if the commodification is in itself problematic. These conditions can be dealt with in turn.

The first condition under which the reduction of use-value to exchange-value is problematic is if the exchange-value of a given commodity diverges from its use-value. As matter of logical necessity, the reduction of use-value to exchange-value would not be problematic if, ceteris paribus, the exchange-value of a given good, expressed in price, were an accurate reflection of its use-value. The reduction, i.e., of the inherent value of a thing to its price would not be problematic if its price accurately reflected its inherent value. The problem is that it doesn’t, that the exchange-value of a commodity very often does not accurately reflect its use-value — a point well understood by Adam Smith, who suggested that “[t]he things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use.”[3] The problem with reducing the value of things to their exchange-value, then, is that exchange-value does not accurately reflect use-value, and the relevant question is why this is so.

According to the dogmas of mainstream neoclassical economics, the dominant approach taught in universities, in a market economy, the price of a commodity is an accurate reflection of its utility — necessarily, because the law of supply and demand equilibrates the quantity of goods bought and sold on the market at given prices. Supply of a given commodity at a given price is determined by its demand. On this basis, the consumer is said to be sovereign: because the supply of goods on the market simply reflects consumer demand, the market itself is simply a reflection of consumer preferences. According to this view, known as the theory of consumer sovereignty, the market simply reflects consumer preferences. And because the market simply reflects consumer preferences, the exchange-value of a given commodity in average circumstances cannot but reflect its use-value. Price, i.e., must be an accurate reflection of value. From this point of view, “consumer sovereignty” in the market is not unlike political sovereignty in electoral democracies. Summarizing this view, Paul Samuelson, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, writes: “What things will be produced is determined by the votes of the consumers — not every two years at the polls but every day in their decision to purchase this item and not that.”[4] Market transactions, from this point of view, can be thought of as economic elections. Where citizens vote in the political sphere with ballots, consumers vote in the economic sphere with dollars. Where elections reflect the political preferences of voters, markets reflect the economic preferences of consumers. The free market is the economic version of political democracy. The analogy has a certain validity, and it’s true that markets are in some ways like elections, where people “vote” with dollars instead of ballots. Only they are very special kinds of elections, where some people have far more votes than others, where, by virtue of the wealth at their command, some people possess an overwhelming majority of the “votes.”[5]

As Adam Smith recognized, demand is only made effectual by wealth: “effectual demand … is different from the absolute demand. A very poor man may be said in some sense to have a demand for a coach and six; he might like to have it; but his demand is not an effectual demand, as the commodity can never be brought to the market to satisfy it.” My desiring something is not enough to create effectual demand; I must have the wealth to effectuate that demand. In the allocation of resources, one votes with the dollar. Therefore, those who have more dollars, more wealth, have a greater say in determining the allocation of society’s resources, regardless of what the “absolute demand” of the vast majority of the population might be.[6]

The only problem with this analogy to electoral politics, then, is that in real markets, some people get far more “votes” than others. While in democratic politics, each person gets one vote, in the real world of actually-existing markets, economic “votes” are determined by wealth — one votes with the dollar, and some people own much more wealth than others. Wealth inequality in the United States is well known, and many are by now familiar with the fact that the richest 1% of the population owns roughly 40% of all wealth, while the bottom 80% owns about 7% of it.[7] From a global perspective, recent Oxfam reports have found that the 85 richest people in the world own as much wealth as half the total population of the world, and that one percent of the world’s population owns about half of all wealth in the world, i.e., as much as the bottom 99% combined.[8] On this basis, it is ridiculous to suggest that consumer sovereignty exists in any meaningful sense, and absurd to make the analogy between political elections and economic markets. If political elections resemble economic markets at all, that’s also because the rich have been able to buy elections too. I.e., if the analogy between elections and markets obtains at all, it is not because markets are fair and equal like elections, but rather because elections are, like markets, unfair and unequal.

Because consumer demand, as Smith recognized, is only made effectual by disposable wealth, and because wealth is so highly concentrated in so few hands, markets, contrary to the myths of economists who are paid to perpetuate them, do not reflect consumer preferences, and consumer sovereignty does not exist — at least not in any meaningful sense, or to any meaningful degree. Therefore, the prices of commodities on the market do not accurately reflect consumer preferences, and their exchange-values do not accurately reflect their use-values, which is the first condition under which the reduction of use-value to exchange-value is problematic. This, however, assumes that the commodification of a given thing is not in itself problematic.

The second condition under which the reduction of use-value to exchange-value is problematic is if the commodification of something is in itself morally problematic. The problem here is not that the exchange-value of a given commodity does not coincide with its use-value, but that it has an exchange-value at all. It can only have an exchange-value if it is a commodity. The issue at hand is not, i.e., the status of the particular exchange-value of a given commodity, but its status as a commodity. Many things in life are not meant to be bought and sold at all. This holds true for a number of things, many of which we are familiar with in their commodified form. The commodity form of scientific knowledge is known as intellectual property. The buying and selling of elections is known as Citizens United. And the commodification of human life itself is known as human trafficking. From a moral point of view, the problem with selling certain things (and beings) on the market is not that their prices are too low, but that they are sold at all. To the category of things which should not be sold on the market as a commodity, Marx would perhaps have added labour-power, the worker’s capacity to labour, the commodification of which is a prerequisite of capitalist production. Capital, he writes, “can spring into life, only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour-power.”[9] He understood that the commodification of labour-power is a prerequisite of capitalist production, and objected to it on account of the implied coercion, knowing well that people choose to work not because they are free to choose otherwise, but in order to survive. Under the social relations implied by the capitalist mode of production, “[l]abour power is, therefore, a commodity which its possessor, the wage-worker, sells to capital. Why does he sell it? In order to live.”[10]

With the foregoing considerations in mind, it’s possible to see what’s problematic about reducing the inherent value of a things, corresponding to their use-value, to their exchange-value. We can understand what’s problematic about Wilde’s observation that we know the price of everything and the value of none, the exchange-value of everything and the use-value of none. As we have noted, the problem of this reduction arises from the fact that the commodification of certain things is in itself morally problematic, and from the fact that, where the commodification of certain things is not in itself problematic, exchange-values do not accurately reflect use-values, that use-values and exchange-values diverge, that their points of reference are different. Use-value refers to the inherent value of a good or service from the point of view of human needs and desires, i.e., from a human point of view, and they include the superfluous joys one gets from listening to a Beethoven symphony or staring at a gothic cathedral. Exchange-value, on the other hand, refers to the value of a good or service from a strictly economic point of view, i.e., from the point of view of the market. And because of the manner in which markets allocate goods according to wealth, these two forms of value, as we have seen, diverge significantly. Because supply does not reflect absolute but rather effectual demand, and therefore does not genuinely reflect consumer preferences; because, i.e., exchange-value does not reflect use-value, the value of a thing implied in a market exchange does not correspond to the value of a thing from a human point of view. What the market values is different from what human beings value. What is valuable from one point of view is superfluous from another, and vice-versa. Many things are valuable from a human point of view but worthless from the point of view of the market. This includes not only things like the environment which are necessary for the survival of our species, but also most things which, while not strictly necessary from the standpoint of survival, make life worth living, including those entirely superfluous things like Beethoven symphonies or gothic cathedrals, the value of which, even if they happen to have any economic value, derives independently of it. Likewise, many things are valuable from an economic point of view but entirely useless, and often baleful, from a human point of view. This would include things like financial speculation, product differentiation (who really cares about the difference between Crest and Colgate?), most economists and bankers, and Donald Trump.

It is on account of the divergence between use-value and exchange-value, and the increasing reduction of the former to the latter through privatization, the increasing dominance of things which are useful and valuable over things which are useless and valueless from the point of view of the market, that one appreciates those things in the world, increasingly rare, often the most superfluous thing, the value of which derives not from their economic, but from their human value.[11] In a world increasingly privatized, increasingly under the sway of the market, increasingly reduced to strict economic value, one comes to appreciate the existence of superfluous things like art and music and philosophy, ever threatened by the continual advance of privatization and the extension of the market, in a new way. One comes to see that superfluous things have a value far beyond their strictly economic one, that even these journals of theology and philosophy, all these books on God and sin and grace, and the writings Origen and Aquinas and Luther, of Gustavo Gutierrez and Rosemary Radford Reuther, however useless, are not, for that matter, worthless. And one even derives a perverse sense of joy knowing that the superfluous work he does contributes in however small and however insignificant a manner to preserving and perpetuating some of the most useless things ever thought of.


[1] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[2] See Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New York: Modern Library, 1906, ch.1.

[3] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, New York, Prometheus Books, 1991, p.35.

[4] Paul Samuelson, Economics, 7th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970, p.42.

[5] For discussion and sources on these topics, see Kelly Maeshiro, “The Divine Origins of Capitalist Theology,” Essays, 31 December 2014, www.kellymaeshiro.wordpress.com, accessed 06 August 2015.

[6] These remarks on Smith and effectual demand are adapted from Kelly Maeshiro, “A Critique of Economic Theology,” Essays, 21 October 2014, www.kellymaeshiro.wordpress.com, accessed 06 August 2015.

[7] G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income, and Power,” Who Rules America?, http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html, accessed 06 August 2015.

[8] Graeme Wearden, “Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world,” The Guardian, 21 January 2014; Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington, “New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1%” The Guardian, 19 January 2015, www.theguardian.com, accessed 03 February 2015.

[9] Marx, Capital, vol.1, p.189.

[10] Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, New York: Norton, 1978, p.204.

[11] Privatization of goods and services implies their commodification, and therefore entails the reduction of their use-value to an exchange-value. Though we cannot go into the issue here, the capitalist mode of production is for various reasons constantly impelled to extend the reach of privatization.This implies the ever-expanding reduction of use-values to exchange-value, which refers not to the inherent value of things from a human point of view, but rather their value from a strictly economic point of view; their value not with respect to human needs and desires, but their value with respect to the needs of the market, and to the logic of capitalist accumulation. See David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, London: Verso, 1999.

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