Sunday, February 2, 2014

Marx and Used Cars

Marx’s scientific retelling of use-value and exchange-value was, at times, dragged down by helpful yet antiquated examples of commodities.  But the strengths of the concepts themselves elicited a powerful, hopefully accurate,  contemporary example of use-values and exchange values. Every teenager who inherited a broken, decrypt, or altogether questionable mode of transportation is already acquainted with the differences between the two types of values inherent within all commodities.
Officially and legally, a car, bus, motorcycle, or truck’s value is recorded by Kelly’s Blue Book.  Their formula for value appraisal reads something like an evasive teenager, as their website explains. “it is derived from actual new vehicle sales and extensive knowledge of the marketplace,”(  Despite being unwilling to make their exact calculations known, the general logic follows that every year after its production vehicles begin to lose value as represented by currency. The vehicle’s general condition further detracts from its already deflating price.
The Marxian explanation of de-valuing of a commodity would be an interesting and thoughtful enterprise, but it is not one that I concern myself with here. Instead, I turn to Rhonda. A recent claimant on Judge Judy’s television show. Rhonda was the unfortunate victim of a particular vicious car accident that rendered her older Ford totaled(totaled being an interesting economic term in itself as it refers to the value being completely extinguished from the car as a commodity).  Upon hearing her case, and  finding the defendant legally responsible for the damages Judge Judy awarded Rhonda a measly $400. Rhonda’s functional yet elderly car’s appraisal value meant that even after winning her case, she would still be unable to purchase a functional dependable car like the one that was ruined by the irresponsible defendant.

Rhonda’s case reflects the dialectical nature of commodities specifically as related to use-value and exchange value. The use-value of Rhonda’s car is potentially not measurable as easily in currency given that it is not mediated by labor. It is inherently extrinsic. However, one might imagine the vehicle’s use in transporting Rhonda to work, picking up children, delivering meals to elderly grandparents meant that the car had real use to Rhonda. In this case, the exchange-value of the car as elaborated by Kelly’s Blue Book meant that Rhonda’s car had an asymmetrical use to exchange-value. Under California law, even though the defendant effectively destroyed Rhonda’s working car. Rhonda is only entitled to the exchange-value of the car but not in fact to another working car. As the focus on currency by capitalists removes the true focus from labor as value, such a focus values as expressed exclusively monetarily potentially marginalizes use-value. Marx’s explanation of commodities gives us language to question where we might find a commodities worth. Such language also affords us the opportunity to question the legal privileging of a certain type of value over another.


  1. Nicole,

    I do find this to be an interesting example of exchange value having more power/weight/legitimacy than use value as recognized by the State. It’s a clear case of witnessing the difference between strict use value and exchange value, despite the artifact being one of beautifully popular culture.

    It is a worthwhile thought experiment to consider the inverse of Rhonda’s situation in an admittedly more bougie context. What if an individual, Sandra, purchased a vehicle & also had it totaled due to another driver’s fault. This car was Sandra’s second, though, and despite it being drove very rarely, it often fetched generous offers by individuals looking to purchase the vehicle. Should Sandra be awarded replacement for her commodity or for its use? Obviously, this is complicated due to the incongruity of applying Marx in our consumerist culture, but I find it sticky to see injustice in only one pole when both make up such an unjust system. This is my musing tonight, though I could be completely off base. I’m obviously open to dialog.

    On a related note, this is only an issue if a society doesn’t have accessible, public transportation, no? If private property is such a no-no, how do you personally think transportation would function in a Marxist society? Yes, this is wild speculation, but I found it helpful to let my mind to application while reading for this week!

  2. Also interesting, I think, is the way that one's economic choices are affected by lack of personal transportation. When I was working as a secretary in the Washington D.C. area, I was one breakdown away from having to use public transportation, which would have in turn affected how much time I spent getting to and from work (if it was even accessible via public transportation), whether I could get my daughter from after-school care by the 6 o'clock deadline, and where and how I bought groceries. So much depended on owning that car, and it was of immense value to me in that I did not have cash available with which to replace it if something happened. The result for me would be an exacerbation of poverty. Or taking on debt (if I had could get the credit) that would keep me beholden to a financial institution for years. There's the analysis of use-value and exchange value alongside the material reality for working-class, low income people. That woman's life may have been drastically altered by the loss of that car, with or without the accessibility of public transportation.


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