Consumption is the permanent task of distinguishing between personal needs and social promises
What about »use-value«? Doesn’t sound very sexy when you put it like that. Telling a story about the benefits of a warm blanket won’t make you look like a sophisticated consumer — but if you add that it’s made of natural material, produced under fair conditions and with a special technique, that it conveys a specific design idea or is very sustainable, it becomes significantly more attractive.
That is to say utility value alone does not satisfy communicative needs. Yet it is still the decisive rationale in the majority of purchasing decisions. What does a product do for me, what is the outcome of a service? No usefulness, no value, as Karl Marx succinctly summarizes: ”Finally, no thing can be a value without being an object of use.“ (Das Kapital, 1872, p. 55) The crucial reference for utility — just as in any contemporary discussion of business values or usability — is the human being. For a commodity is ”a thing which by its properties satisfies human needs of some kind.”
Use-value, then, is the fundamental condition for the emergence of any value. Only through the use for something, through its being a relational instrument, can a thing become a commodity. It never stands merely for itself, but is embedded in a usage that defines its value.
In a broader sense, any satisfaction of need a commodity provides may be subsumed under the rubric of use-value. As Marx continues, ”the nature of these needs, whether they spring, for example, from the stomach or from the imagination, does not change the matter.“ Accordingly, a drill and a work of art are alike — they satisfy a human need. There are only variations, different types of use value; purpose makes a commodity, one way or another.
However, by shortening the different types of value circulating like that, we would, of course, miss something. Classic scenery: someone strides across the schoolyard in a Balenciaga jacket to impress their classmates. The ”use value“ of the commodity is not in the warming quality of the jacket but in the bragging rights it provides. The need to which the garment responds is social validation — not a freezing body; the value of the jacket is not derived from tailoring techniques or the fabrics, but from its signage. The brand charges the garment with some form of meaning to achieve the desired effect. We witness a switch from use value to brand value, extracting the product from its material reality and placing it into the realm of social capital.
In his famous text on the ”fetish character of the commodity,“ Marx somewhat outlined the plot of that scene 150 years ago, although his focus is different. He pleasantly hesitates when stating that the value of a commodity cannot be explained solely by its practical value or the human labor contained in it. For a commodity is no longer merely an ”ordinary sensuous thing“ but a ”sensuously supersensuous thing.“ (p. 83)
”Supersensuous“ here simply means that perception on its own is not enough to grasp the extraordinary status of the commodity. Instead — to phrase it contemporarily — one has to study the communication that surrounds it. A commidity is a socialsed thing and as such triggers the question of its value in and for society. For
There is no writing on the value’s forehead saying what it is. Rather, value transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyph. Later, people seek to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyph, to uncover the secret of their own social product.
Use value and brand value thus follow two different forms of rationality. In this comparison, use value seems much less puzzling because it represents classical rationality: it is about pragmatic gains such as functionality, simplification, time savings, preservation or optimization of the body, reduction of effort. It can be observed, named and measured reasonably well.
As a result, it is possible to discuss and talk shop about it. How good, i.e. how valuable is an object or a service? The criteria for its evaluation arise in the discussion about it, as we can see at the foot of the products on an Amazon page. What’s entertaining is that while value “resides” in the product, its determination takes place in the communication about it — the criteria for evaluation are worked out together. Only then, in the final act, we go back into solitary mode, as each consumer must decide for themselves whether to buy the product. The final judgment is made alone — I can, may and must decide for myself whether I find something useful or not.
With brand value, who would have thought it, it’s not that simple — or, conversely, so frighteningly easy? We leave it at the Balenciaga example, not asking whether it really works; there are at least a few indications that it does. What matters here is that brand value operates in a different domain altogether. It cannot be filtered down to classic rational benefits, for its origin and aim come from the intangible, bottomless space of social agreement itself. Its value cannot be sustained from an intimate, personal point of view but resides purely in the eyes of other people, especially when it comes to the often-quoted promises of »trust« or »quality«.
In the everyday practice of consumption, the transitions between the motives of use and brand are, of course, fluid. Precisely because the exact place of origin of generalised value cannot be identified, we are constantly struggling to distinguish use value from brand value. The marketing departments of companies mix ‘hard’ product characteristics with melodious and good-looking brand promises into a communicative porridge that is difficult to understand. The consumer’s task is to separate the ‘actual’ performance — the utility value — from advertising promises, to get a better view of the product.
But what is missing in the face of the commodity are its political implications. Ethical and planetary values that do not follow personal need satisfaction must be sourced elsewhere — at least the distinction between use value and brand value helps to distinguish unnecessary nonsense from total nonsense.