Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange-value.
It seems more likely that use-value as use-value, is only ‘realised’ at the point of exchange, i.e. where desire and the capacity to achieve exchange constitutes need/and the promise of use. Use-value is realised (that is invoked) in each instance of exchange as an abstract category, but not as a concrete example.
Use-value cannot be realised in the act of consumption because use-value is not there in that moment – the object is not a commodity in the event of consumption and the moment of consumption is not itself consumated. Use-value is tethered to the object as it appears as a commodity but the object only remains a commodity whilst it is indexed to monetary value, i.e. at the point of exchange.
In all other circumstances, the object might retain its commodity form characteristics, but it lapses from its status as a specific commodity the moment it is withdrawn from the market – either because it has been sold or because it has failed to be sold. Its use-value is only expressed in the object's economic circulation and is therefore bought and sold as a potential, which is structurally unrealisable as an object and as an act of consumption.
Use-value, as it expresses a demand, is the means by which an object gains its specific monetary value in the exchange relation but it is not in the object and cannot be consumed. Use-value retreats from consumption; it is an ideal instituted in the exchange relation, but this ideal remains severed from actual use – use-value functions as a prohibition on use in the exchange relation because it is the moment of this relation's perpetuation as a promise rather than its actual completion which is reproduced.
The completion of each instance of the exchange relation supplants use-value with a relation of involvement or entanglement between the would-be ‘consumer’ and the object. Use-value flees the object and only reappears attached to it, when the object’s commodity aspects are revitalised, where it re-enters the exchange relation.
On this definition, use-value is something like 'the promise to pay' found written on bank notes... it is an abstract category of quantified deferment (and thus displacement) in human relations which is mediated through the social constitution of the nature of demand, but which cannot ever be achieved or possessed.
It is in the nature of capitalised relations that consumption is perpetually offset – one cannot consume what one has possessed just as one cannot possess that which one consumes. The commodity relation does not allow 'consumption' any more than it allows 'being'... it functions only through the further stimulation of the libidinal promise of usage, as this appears in the market place. Use-value can never be unentangled from the exchange relation and as such is never realised.
Marx's concept of use-value suggests it is not specific to capitalism but persists ‘whatever’ the social form of wealth. A spoon transports porridge from the bowl to the mouth without reference to which king is sitting on the throne.
However, the category 'use-value' also does not appear independently of Marx’s diagnostic apparatus. Nobody says, the 'use-value' of this fish hook lies in my casting it out into the river. Use-value is not in the world in the same way that measles or caterpillars are in the world – i.e. involuntarily.
Where 'use-value' is looked for in the world, it may only be actively constructed as a categorical object, that is by interpreting the components of a particular interaction/relation through Marx’s theoretical framework. 'Use-values' really only function theoretically, that is as a means for describing the otherwise indescribable numbers of individual interactions related to otherwise unmappable numbers of objects within otherwise untraceable defined social relations.
And yet within the communist tradition use-value also carries forward an objective historical trait which may be seized upon as the material foundation of communism.
Every ‘post-scarcity’ communist implicitly endorses a productivist threshold for communism: X million tonnes of rice equals communism’s ‘material preconditions’. All that is required for the realisation of communist relations is that the machinery which brings forth the millions of tonnes of stuff falls into specified other hands. To realise their vision, these post-scarcity communists, would take the kidney dialysis machine, the microchip, the shipping container and scrape the capitalist relations of production from their surface, and transform their nature from greed to need by reinserting them back into a set of productive relations based entirely on use.
But use is not so obviously identifiable as the left argues. O, it is excellent/To have a giant's strength;/ but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant. The commodity form is not this ‘whatever’ which Marx talks about; it is not merely a contingent aspect or a fetter on the objective bringing forth of productive forces. The commodity form cannot be so easily stripped from productive activity.
What we call the ‘commodity form’, i.e. the baleful and traumatic relations of production, persists materially within the persistence of the ideal of use-value as a record of that malignancy and trauma, even where the exchange relation has been suppressed. Its form persists as a record of alienated acts of production, it persists in the logistics of distribution, it persists in the form’s feedback into the nature of need, it persists in the continued necessity of accumulation in its production, it persists above all, in the mass scale.
The category use-value is both an abstract object and a means of abstraction, which serves the purpose of revealing relations to the extent that it reveals those relations. Where the term begins to obscure those relations, i.e. where ‘use-value’ becomes an ideal, a proposed counterpoint to the dominance of the exchange relation, a sentimental invocation of production for need, a concrete and realist other way of organising relations, then the recourse to such abstraction must be opposed, and the specificity of relations, behaviours, and things must be reasserted.
Use value: It is a convention to reduce all that gaudiness, the crests, the dances, the rituals, the songs, the performances, the blooms, the fragrances of the animal and plant kingdoms as so much energy expended in securing the survival of the species. The convention subordinates display ito reproduction and thus beauty to usefulness – such is the ideology of social reform. However, it is equally feasible to argue that the species is inseparable from the complication of its rites; and reproduction is merely the means by which ever-elaborating differentiation is realised in the world.
An imaginary hunter-gatherer, for example, from within his own world, does not 'realise' the use-value in his digging stick, in his bow, in his gourd. The relation between him and these intimate objects which define him, his relations to others and his relation to the earth, cannot adequately be described by the term 'use-value'. Where this category is used to describe him and his objects, he is reduced, he is abstracted from the being that he is for himself and converted into an object within the perspective of the one deploying the category. In other words, the use of the category itself is reproductive of abstraction.
Within ideology, use is fixed to need; and need is manipulated by institutionalised provision; and the resultant apparatus always lapses into morality. The impossiblist’s communist opposition to what is useful is therefore an opposition to the ideological purchase on use, to the privileging of function over ‘display’, the gut over the crest, to the use of use as a means for patrolling the borders of need and asserting a reductive realism. Wherever workerism has directed production towards use it has only ever reconstituted the the forced labour camp.