opinion : Alwyn Lau

How exchange-value destroys use-value

Alwyn Lau

SEPTEMBER 11 — Use-value is appreciating the taste of the curry laksa and loving every spicy minute of it; exchange-value is being pissed because you feel the RM6 you paid for it could’ve been used to buy three plates of popiah.

Use-value is thanking whoever made you or raised you that your looks are generally above-par and no one will mistake your cheek for a diseased camel’s backside; exchange-value is being worried that you don’t look as good as the spouse of the other executive and, dammit, nowadays spouses of powerful people simply have to look like sex symbols.

Use-value is being glad you have a car at all; exchange-value is asking the sales lady about the expected resale value of the car even before you bloody buy it. 

Use-value is being happy to hear your loved one’s voice on the phone; exchange-value is laying your iPhone 10 in view of everybody while (secretly) being glad that no one else has a flashier phone and (not so secretly) telling your kids to WhatsApp (not call) all the while talking (loudly) about how technology “disrupts the status quo.” 

It is exchange-value that keeps the average citizen in thrall to the act of purchasing. Precisely because every object reminds me of another object I can never be satisfied with any one object i.e. I am forever hooked to what I can “exchange” this shirt or gadget or car for.

In terrible-case scenarios, of course, even lovers and spouses are assigned a “value.” All that BS about, “Oh, he’s a 7 and she’s an 8.” — there’s exchange-value right there. Every aspect of one’s uniqueness as a person is stripped away and force fed into the sausage-making machine of numerical homogenisation. 

Marx 101

Karl Marx wasn’t the first to theorise about exchange-value but his views on the subject are almost certainly the most popular. 

One of his chief concerns, believe it or not, was about how the formal equality of things (i.e. their exchange-value) obscured the very individuality inherent in them (i.e. their use-value). 

Regardless of what marketing people say: Capitalism is one huge system of standardisation; it ‘flattens’ everything to cost and profit. It’s all width (quanti) and no depth (quali).

The Marxist vision was, in fact, about abolishing abstract capitalist “equivalencing’ and producing a system which attended equally to everyone’s different needs. 

His (of course, controversial) thesis was that it is precisely those things capitalism holds dear or takes for granted — i.e. private property, unbridled profiteering, socio-economic classes and a government in service of the elite — which restricts the freedom of the masses (known as the proletariat or workers) in favour of the few (or the bourgeoisie or factory-owners).

The critical point, then and now, is how exchange-value as manifested today creates severe inequality, waste and injustice. 

We have a system in which millions of people live in paradise, with more gadgets, food and entertainment than they could ever fully utilise in a lifetime, and yet envy and depression soar at record levels. 

Why? Because all the “stuff” we have is reduced to a figure. Our psyches continuously “defer” (or even cancel out) our satisfaction with any product or service by comparing it with something else. 

Marx calls this kind of mind-set commodity fetishism i.e. the monetary value surrounding, say, a Toyota has a magical “aura” even more powerful than the car itself.

To be fixated over exchange-value, therefore, is almost like being obsessed over your girlfriend’s handkerchief and investing in it a greater worth than your girlfriend herself. 

Even worse if you look at that handkerchief and begin comparing that to other handkerchiefs, calculating how many pieces you would trade for that of your girlfriend’s!

If the above sounds crazy, it’s really no crazier than going through life looking at the money-value of things instead of the quality of the thing itself. 

Again, use-value is coming home and seeing your little place as the precious shelter and dwelling to raise your family; exchange-value is buying up property after property─ i.e. trading in homes ─ because, heck, that totally boosts your bank account. 

And what is a huge number in a bank account but the personification of exchange-value? When life is reduced to six, seven or eight digits in a statement, and when people draw security, strength and meaning from these numbers, is this not the raison d’être of a system built on exchange-value? 

Hence, that phrase: We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Learning from our ghost pals

Clearly, as this is the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, we can learn something from the ghosts. 

Every year these phantoms from the underworld see the same dances, listen to the same music and consume the same stuff people offer up to them — and yet they enjoy it and don’t demand for more and, in fact, encourage the living to participate and eat as well (although, out of politeness to the less fortunate i.e. the dead, we always let them eat first).

Of course, the ghosts don’t mind a bit of variety, which helps the producers because if they don’t have traditional Chinese opera, why, just invite some dancing girls and guys (although, well yeah, the ghosts seem to prefer female dancers).

Furthermore, no matter how sucky the quality, our netherworld friends never complain and never cause any trouble. 

You don’t see cups and food flying just because the singer sang out of tune or missed a line. I think I know why. It’s because the ghosts don’t compare i.e. they have finally learnt to reject exchange-value. 

Whatever cuisines are served and whatever performances are on, they pay attention and treat, say, the steamed fish like the singularity that it is. 

Every moment devouring the fish (or watching the show, or whatever) is a fulfilling one in the present. To begin comparing a produce with another one is to surrender our mindfulness.

And guess what, even if families like mine don’t do anything at all, the ghosts understand. 

It’s almost as if the ghosts are the most contented beings on earth (or under it) because they’ve learnt that even nothing is of value. How apt such an attitude is in an age of waste, unnecessary abundance and boredom (all caused by exchange-value).

Alternatively, perhaps it is only in death that we truly appreciate what we have, what we’re given. 

That last line sounded so tragic I think I’m gonna go eat a Ramly burger… which I still prefer over an Otai Burger… which I feel costs a tad bit more… or maybe for a slightly higher price I’ll go for McD’s… and…

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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