One of the things I’ve noticed preparing my lecture on consumer culture is the importance consumer culture theorists give to distinguishing their conception of value from Marx’s theory of value. This distinction is usually formulated as follows; whereas Marx’s labour theory of value is reductivist and productivist, consumer culture is complex and multi-faceted because it conceives of value as a cultural construct.
Such a theoretical distinction thus tries to equate the entirety of Marx’s theory of value with its own reductive conception of the labour theory of value. In such an interpretation Marx’s theory consists in asserting the labour is embodied in commodities in production. Everything else is some sort of reflective superstucture. Not only is this wrong, it misses the point that conceiving of value as culturally constructed can be adapted to Marx’s theory of value as a way to explain use-value. After all culture surely plays an integral part in determining whether or not something is an article of utility. (I’m sure this has been pointing out before any pointers as to where?) but this does not discount the insights of Marx’s theory.
Instead using some of the insights of consumer culture theory to supplement Marx’s theory of value, might make theories of consumer culture more relevant. This is because, divorced from a theory that explains the constitution of capitalist society, pointing out that objects have values and meanings to individuals and cultures runs the risk of becoming: (a) a circular argument in which things are valuable because people value them or (b) a point that can be trans-historically asserted and offers some rather trivial insights into capitalist consumption. (People might actually want the stuff the buy. They might actually find it meaningful. Take that Marcuse)