»Value« is a fancy word for preference management that has gone social. As such, it is highly pervasive and can be found anywhere:
- a spoon is considered a valuable tool
- the value of commodities come as prices
- companies want to create value for customers
- people act according to their personal values
- citizens and politicians fight about societal values
As a cross-functional concept, I think the ubiquity and near-emptiness of value is especially productive in bridging the gap between economy and culture. Both domains govern our personal lives – but I don’t see many options to understand their effective connections. They appear to be separated. We are dealing with economic values in terms of prices, practicalities, and benefits, while the other side is about what is essential, how we want to live, and what is the right thing to do. But the concept of value provides an opportunity to create a common denominator.
Put differently, to the average person, money is mostly about restrictions. What you own limits what you can do – whereas we picture our beliefs as roaming freely in the space of our minds. Of course, this is nonsense. Any old Marxian would tell you that “being determines consciousness”. Still, it is of interest to look at how that works. And to do so, consumerism is a prime target – especially since the general awareness regarding its effects on the planet, workers, health, etc., is at an all-time high. So how might we check the politics of consumption by tracking value-based decisions?
Let’s start by looking at the mental model(s) of value. In the traditional economic sense, a commodity »has« value. This way of thinking is based on the notion – Marx again – that goods are encodings or memories of practical benefits and human labour. We are dealing with object-oriented values that are linked to or embedded in products.
From a consumer’s perspective, economic values work differently. First, a value never comes on its own. Every value is set against that of other objects. Second, the value of a commodity is accompanied by yet another value, which is connected to the first but different: its price.
Prices translate intrinsic object-oriented values into an easily readable format. So effectively, a value comes with two faces: the inherent object-oriented value and its translation to numbers. The combination of both allows for orientation, comparison and competition among products – the consumer’s view permanently oscillates between prices and object-oriented values, to figure out the product landscape. Therefore, economic values are instruments that allow navigating consumption.
In terms of orientation and competition, cultural values work the same. First example: I get into my car to drive anywhere I want – personal freedom and autonomy are the values that guide my decision. Alternatively, I may follow environmental values and choose public transport. Second example: As an affluent westerner, I might vote for solidarity and donate money to a good cause. Or I decide to invest in my mental health — to keep myself from going insane while watching all the global crises on the news.
So just as with commodities, you may leaf through a catalogue of cultural values. Just as with things, you may choose the value you prefer – there is no better or worse because a value has been socially established. Whatever I like, I may expect social acceptance. Each value has its story of legitimisation; I can act egotistically or altruistically; I may focus on my comfort or the planet’s well-being.
[The function of values] lies solely in guaranteeing an orientation of action in communicative situations which no one questions. Therefore, values are nothing but a highly mobile set of points of view.Niklas Luhmann. The Society of Society. 1998. Translated with DeepL.
So orientation and competition are common denominators of cultural and economic values. Obviously, the money in your pocket is the primary value controlling unit. It limits your cultural options when you want to buy stuff, which is tremendously sad because, of all things, non-egotistical commodities are the heaviest burden on your purse. It’s far more expensive to care for the planet or the people who grew your coffee than to focus on your individual benefits.
Accordingly, prices are more than just instruments to compare the value suggestions of products. They mirror your »personal monetary value« as well, setting up the 2 boundaries for the ethics of consumption. The first limit is the accessibility to a product group – can I afford a house, a car, a washing-machine, an electric kettle? And if so, limit no. 2 comes up – can I choose, may I buy any other product than the cheapest one?
Only if you can answer said questions with »yes«, are you able to claim your cultural vote. But if you are fighting to cover your basic needs, you cannot effectively inform the market about your cultural values. You might prefer an ethically correct commodity – but you can’t pay for it. (Inversely, wealthy people’s consumption needs keen interrogation. The decision to drive an expensive car but to buy the cheapest meat in the supermarket is not tolerable.)
Now the market is too stupid to understand that. Conveniently, it registers your purchase only in terms of economic value and disregards cultural implications. It enables itself to say,»oh well, people don’t care about the environment, only about their money.« The phrase »customer is king« is not about a company’s obedience to the consumers’ will but an exemption to do better.
From here, it’s evident why trash on standby (cheap and »fast« products) is flooding the markets. If too many people are too poor to make choices, the consumer persona may disappear entirely – a threat that needs to be deflected by any means. The possibility to choose is consumerism’s paramount cultural value.