Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

Use Value Cannot Be Measured

(4 May 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 18, 4 May 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What does this statement mean: “Use Value Cannot Be Measured?” It means there is no yardstick that can mark off the different degrees of usefulness different things have.

A smart engineer might tell you that usefulness can be measured. He puts steel beams in a certain part of a building he is working on, because they will outlast wooden ones. They will not only outlast wood. They will stand a much greater strain at any given time than wooden beams. Experience and mechanical theory enables him to compute exactly how much longer they will last, and how much more they will stand.

A glass of milk and a cup of coffee have about the same exchange value. But their usefulness to the human body is very different. This difference can be measured pretty closely by a good doctor. He could show you that the number of calories and other health-giving elements in milk are just exactly so many times greater than in coffee.

This can be repeated a thousand times with all kinds of items in all kinds of ways. But if you stop to reflect a moment you can see that it’s only one particular side of usefulness that can be so measured. You can measure calories, pounds, hardness and other qualities. But you cannot measure calories against pounds, color against hardness, or one usefulness against another.

The usefulness of things lies in their filling the needs of mankind, making people happy, contented or comfortable. In that sense they cannot be measured.

Even where certain aspects of usefulness can be measured, as for example, durability, strength, etc., these measurements do not at all enter into the determination of value. Thus tool steel is not merely several times as hard as mild steel. It is infinitely harder in its service to man. If mild steel were used for a cutting tool on a lathe it would just burn up without doing any work at all. But a steel that is just a little harder can cut a turning shaft on a lathe as though it were wood. Without hard steel we couldn’t have lathes or machine shops at all. But tool steel is not infinitely more expensive than mild steel.

If you’ve ever had to change a tire in the middle of nowhere and tried to get the wheel off a car without a lug wrench, you know what a wonderfully useful thing that wrench can be. You know how many hours of fruitless tapping of the lugs with a hammer you save by using a wrench.

Use-Value and Exchange-Value

And yet for all its usefulness the wrench costs very little. It costs perhaps 75 cents or so. It may be a blessing to the user, but it has little actual exchange value.

If you work in a shop you may have had trouble with the old time crescent wrenches, occasionally breaking a handle. But the new crestaloys and other alloy wrenches will stand five to ten times as much pulling. You can put a six-foot pipe over the handle and still they won’t break – yet the crestaloy costs only about a quarter more than an ordinary wrench.

Some people might say the crestaloy was ten times as valuable when they really mean that it is much superior to ordinary metal. Usefulness and value are two entirely different aspects of things (Marx sometimes used the phrase use-value and exchange-value, sometimes use-value and value).

Usefulness – use values – were constantly increased under capitalism. Factory production made things available to everyone that formerly even kings could not get. Automobiles, for example, and electric light bulbs. Since commodities have to be useful, the capitalist was forced to look for more and more useful things to produce – and encourage inventors to invent still more of them.

But that day is past. Now the monopoly capitalist discourages inventions and new use-values and he tries to keep up the exchange value (the price) of the old ones.

Next Week – Can Exchange Value Be Measured?

Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 December 2018