Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Struggle for Use-Value – Thoughts About the Ecosocialist Transition

I have recently been reading ‘The Emergence of Ecosocialism,’ a collection of essays written by the now sadly departed Joel Kovel. Edited by Quincy Saul, and published in 2018, the book is reviewed more fully herehere and here on this blog.

In Kovel’s essay which goes by almost the same title as this post, (I've added Ecosocialist for clarity) first published at Capitalism Nature Socialism in 2000, he argues that the expansion of the notion of ‘use-value’ is a prerequisite for establishing an ecosocialist economic and social system to replace capitalism. The task becomes more urgent every day, as the evidence mounts of the acceleration of devastating climate change, wrought by our current, unsustainable, political economy.

In the introduction to the essay Kovel writes:

The chief selling point of capitalism is its phenomenal success at creating wealth in the commodity form. But the same success creates poverty and gathering ecocatastrophe. An ecologically rational society, by contrast, will have to turn away from the entire complex by means of which we have become enslaved by commodities. To do this, ecosocialism, - the name for such a society – will have to redefine the nature of wealth, and the way people under capitalism have come to define self-worth by the accumulation of commodities.

Capitalism sees nature, and humanity, as a field for exploitation to create commodities, which through ‘exchange-value’ is converted into capital, which increases the capacity for further exploitation and further capital extraction, and so on, indefinitely. The capitalist system ensures the efficient regulation of this process, whilst the capitalist state regulates access to the conditions of production, nature (land), humanity (labour) and infrastructure (the built environment).

Within this process, exchange value, which has no value in itself, needs to conjugate, to use Kovel’s term, with use-value to give it value. No one will be interested in things with no use-value, of course, but exchange-value sits like a parasite upon use-value. 

For example, a field can be used to produce food when human labour plants the seeds, water and tend to the crops. The food produced has a clear use-value, we need to eat food to survive, and any farm animals also need to be fed, to produce further food and perhaps animal labour. At which point the produce of the farm attains an exchange-value. People will buy the food, which then produces capital for the land owner as profit, or to use the Marxist term, surplus value.

The use-value of food is obvious, and the capitalist system will seek to produce more of this surplus value, because it needs to grow to survive, which leads to what is referred to as 'efficiencies', the use of machinery for example, reducing labour costs to get even more surplus value from the same patch of land. Fertilisers and pesticides will need to be used also to increase the yield, which in turn degrades the land and the wider environment. Which means more will need to be used, and so on.

With some commodities, like the various gadgets that are continually produced have a less clear ‘use-value,’ but the capitalist system manipulates people’s wants through the fashion and marketing / advertising industries. We all too often have a desire for novelty as a species, and the system exploits this, when often these goods in themselves have very limited use-vale, but become the latest must have thing.

Kovel writes:

For capital, the ideal world would be one in which everything useful – the air, the water we drink, the songs we whistle to ourselves – would in fact be the occasion of a commodity. Air is still largely free, though there is a brisk trade in purification devices and elements of it like oxygen; while water, as we know, has become increasingly commodified and in certain locales costs more than the supermarket. The ecological crisis has created new ground for commodity formation, which is just fine so far as ruling interests are concerned.

What would a prefigurative ecosocialism look like then? To take our example of a field used to grow food. If the farming was of an organic nature, not dispensing fertilisers and pesticides, it would be moving towards ecosocialism. And what if it was run as a cooperative, with equal shares for all in the cooperative and therefore with no surplus value being appropriated? This again would move this type of ensemble towards ecosocialism.

This is far from supplanting exchange-value with use-value but is an example of how things could be run differently, and make the idea less utopian, that it might otherwise be seen, making it more attainable. Kovel says these ways of production can be seen as stepping stones to ecosocialism. These two examples also bridge the issues of land and labour, which can be seen as bringing them together, eco and socialism.

Kovel again:

The restoration of use-values is first of all, no simple atavism, that is, we do not seek to recapture some original goodness of use-value in things before capital subordinated them to exchange value. Use-value is a kind of relationship; it signifies appropriation between humanity and nature, and within humanity as part of nature, and cannot be reduced to any crude or absolute measure of worth.

Kovel adds that this type of working can address what Marx called the alienation of labour, resulting from capitalist productive processes and the extraction of surplus value from the workers. Thus the restoration of the use-value of human labor points toward the emancipation of the worker from capital.

Kovel then turns his attention to the concept of usufruct, quoting by Marx’s now well known amongst ecosocialists words on the matter from Capital Volume 3:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and, like bona patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.

Usufruct means the right to use and enjoy. Kovel informs us that the term appeared in the English language in the early seventeenth century but has applied in many historical cultures going back to the Code of Hammurabi. In England, it referred to rights to use common land in the transition toward enclosure of this land. It allowed the common right to use the ‘property’ of someone else for income as well as leisure, while not damaging it in anyway. Could this concept be employed in a reverse transition away from private propety and towards ecosocialism?

I will leave the last word to Kovel:

If ecosocialism can offer a usufructory of the earth, it will be one of employment, the aesthetic dimension and improvement.


  1. This is a good explanation of use-value. Thanks.

    But what about the land. Even when used for growing food in a cooperative, the land is expropriated from the natural world as habitat for other non-human species. What is the use-value of the land not turned into agricultural fields? Does the use value of habitat for non-human species have standing in an ecosocialist society?

    How do we work this out so that we are not colonizing the land and denying it to its non-human inhabitants?

    1. Wild land does have a use-value, in terms of human well being, but more importantly, these spaces are necessary for the flourishing of ecosystems. Ecosocialism, is an ecocentric philosophy, and so works with nature, not against it.

  2. this article is brilliantly clear and logical, especially in the first half. it could usefully be printed as a leaflet for discussion in schools. the later parts referring to Marxism, though no doubt accurate and relevant to the history of ideas, could be offputting to younger people and are not essential to the message that needs to be conveyed. Addition re value of wild land, emphasising interdependence and balance between humans and other living things, would be useful if the article were to be published for eg schools.

    1. I'm not sure they would allow that Jay, what with anti-capitalism being banned recently, but thanks for your comment.