Seventeen Contradictions: Use Value and Exchange Value

Beginning his critique on the contradictions of capitalism, David Harvey explores the foundations of capital in his first chapter entitled “Use Value and Exchange Value.”  Positioning his overview of use value and exchange value in the housing market, Harvey walks through the dynamics of how public interests are subject to privatization by entrepreneurial proponents of neoliberalism. Use value and exchange value are in constant tension with one another, but for Harvey, capitalism denies the greater public use values and caters to the entrepreneurs with substantial exchange values.    

I found Harvey’s breakdown of the housing market and his ‘building block’ approach to explaining the 2008 housing crisis extremely helpful in my understanding of the delicate and often manipulated relationship between use and exchange value. His simplistic and relatable examples were much appreciated, while his writing carried weighted knowledge in an approachable manner that demystified the foundations of economic theory and the practice of capitalism. I also enjoyed his clarification of industry terms and other professional jargon that has the power to stifle the comprehension of those unfamiliar with economics. While I felt Harvey was explicit in his critique of neoliberalism, he does not mention outright the Republican platform as a key contributor to neoliberal policies (Reagan). To be fair, this response only addresses the first chapter of Seventeen Contradictions (2014) and his naming the Republican party may follow in later chapters. Or, this may extend to an overarching argument that neoliberalism is a tool wielded by all political parties with an interest in capital. One particular insight I appreciated was his connection to exchange value to gentrification, in which people invested in the housing market “act to protect the value of their savings” (15). This connection unearthed how gentrification is supported through self-policing for survival, and to a much broader extent securing maximum capital and exchange value.

While I appreciated his attention to the various ways use and exchange value are manipulated by private entrepreneurs seeking hefty profits, I found myself excited to explore the counter-movements against neoliberalism. Harvey delivers a poignant and enlightening piece that addresses how capitalism exploits and why it’s proponent continue to justify this system all while diligently supporting his critique with historical evidence. However, his research left me wondering about the portion of private citizens who support such politics, essentially perpetuating a system that exploits their efforts to improve their lives. If capitalism and neoliberalism maintain their grip on American society in part because of political corruption, then who ensures the continuation of the politically corrupt? We do. Through apathy, political sabotage and fragmentation the American public empowers those that either explicitly, or subtly mask their intentions to pillage public services for private profit. Harvey’s work continues to inspire my research into economic justice, encouraging me to seek out political pushback and local activist efforts to reclaim public services.

What are some of the ways the public can take secure public housing, and prioritize use value on a grassroots or, local level? And, how can we illuminate their work? How can we reach out to those who support such systems? How can we dismantle, politically and ideologically speaking, the monster and mindset that is neoliberalism?

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