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Production for use

Human beings have always had an insatiable desire to make objects that make life easier, more tolerable or more fulfilling. Today, such products are presented in the form of commodities and exchanged via capitalist markets. As we have become used to markets, we can easily delude ourselves into imagining that things have always been arranged as they are now.

Yet, in the past, things were different. The impulse to produce things stemmed mostly from the need to satisfy immediate wants. Objects were manufactured because they were necessary, useful or pleasant. They had a use value, goods being normally intended for family or tribe. And barter developed for goods you weren’t able to make yourself but wished to have. Though the chief reason for manufacture in early human society was to enhance prospects of survival by producing vital items such as clothing, tools, cooking utensils and weapons, a delight in crafting decorative items always coexisted.

Over millennia production for exchange emerged, grew, and gradually swept aside the overriding concern of production for use. Increasingly, goods assumed a different character, as commodities for sale and exchange on the market. But the rise of capitalism brought a marked change. Labour itself was made into a commodity, and the process of commodity exchange interwove itself as the exploitative link connecting the whole system of capitalism.

While workers invest their labour producing an object, it remains the employer’s personal property; the object has been turned into merchandise. The purpose of production for capitalists is never the use value of the objects made but their potential exchange value, in which surplus value and profit are created.

Though production of use values is a natural condition of human existence and constitutes the true substance of wealth creation, capitalism sabotages this and turns everything into a commodity – if we let it. Nowadays it is not only manufactured products that are commoditised but also essential infrastructure and services on which we depend: railways, transport, power generation, education and health (even the prospect of prisons and policing) are transformed into commodities, into desperate opportunities for the generation of exchange value and profit, rather than kept as use values vital for the smooth running of greater society.

Even worse, finance capitalism seems happy not to make or provide anything, content to commoditise money and debt and endlessly speculate, a foolhardy approach that ends in bubbles and crashes.

Despite its apparent supremacy, production for exchange will not last forever and will eventually be consigned to the museum of memory. Production for use, however, is unlikely to happen without a fight. Those in whose interest the current system operates can be expected to resist the introduction of a society of workers, combining together to produce an abundance of goods necessary to ensure all needs are fully met.