Productive Strawmen: Notes on Consumer Culture, Value and Use-Value.

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)








About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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4 Responses to Productive Strawmen: Notes on Consumer Culture, Value and Use-Value.

  1. Anjie Zheng says:

    Interesting. I think consumer culture theorists can gain a great deal in terms of advances in social theory if they try to apply Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. I’ve been thinking about how I can connect one with the other but I’ve yet to put in serious effort.

    • HR says:

      Cool! It definitely seems like a place for productive dialog. My knowledge of consumer culture theorists is limited to to snippets of Adam Arvidsson’s Brands, Meaning and Value, Roberta Sassatelli’s Consumer Culture: History, Theory and Politics (the above characterization be taken from lit review Sassatelli provides )and Celia Lury’s Consumer Culture and Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy. Who else would you recommend?

  2. Anjie Zheng says:

    Oh….. sorry to not check on this sooner! It’s a really more a thought that occurred to me more than anything else (I’m what you call an amateur/wanna-be value-form theorist…. that English translation of Michael Heinrich’s introduction to Capital is incredible. I still need to go through it more thoroughly while working on my own Capital studies….. to say nothing of I.I. Rubin, Felton Shortall, Patrick Murray, Christopher Arthur, Uno school, etc.)….. but I think one book that should be of interest is Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World (2008) by Miriam Greenberg, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz ( ). I’ve only skimmed and scanned through this book once or twice, but Greenberg gives a good critical take on the development of consumer culture in New York CIty since its fiscal crisis in the 1970s while at the same time analyzing the development of the neo-liberal variant of capitalism in that urban context. Should be a good, relevant book for understanding consumer culture, neo-liberal capitalism, urban policy and urban political economy, etc.

    Likewise, there’s also a book by Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, which should be of interest. Haven’t read it yet but I should

    Links here:

    I’ll check out the titles you mentioned too.

    • HR says:

      Thanks for the tips. You’ll be happy to know HM are putting out a translation of Heinrich major work, the science of value, in what I hope is the near future.
      My friend also work on stuff comparing the Uno school and the NML Unfortunately, most of it isn’t in english but i know she is working on getting an excellent paper on abstraction translated.

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