People learn quickly. As Lenin recognized: they can learn in 20 days what they forgot in 20 years. Richard Gott - GuardianDavid Seaton's News Links
When Confucius was asked what the first thing he would do if he were named Emperor was, he replied, "I would clarify the language".
The longer I hang around on this planet, the more sense Confucian "clarification of language makes" to me.
Contemporary American English is especially treacherous in this regard. In the USA a lover may be known as a "significant other" or even as a "partner": as if all the rumpypumpy was happening in a law office or a hardware store. In this slippery dialect problems aren't called problems, they are called "issues" and child molestation is called "inappropriate behavior"... it goes on and on.
In the world of politics, the horror of plain speech, the effort to verbally cloud, obfuscate and confuse goes to truly Orwellian lengths. Thus, the world wide, historical and universal color of revolutionary socialism: red, is used in America to denominate reaction... as in "red state". So in contemporary American English a "red state" is not Cuba or Vietnam, it is Texas or Oklahoma. In Texas the song isn't "The East is Red", it's "The East is Blue".
So naturally, in the USA, this Alice-less wonderland, Marx, instead of being associated with the struggles of the working class, is much more likely to be associated with white wine and Camembert cheese: "elitism" is of course the word used to describe political agitation in favor the less fortunate. Thus certain otherwise extremely useful terms associated with Marx may sound a trifle exotic, indeed dangerous to most American ears.
Two terms that I'd like to fling carelessly around today are "use-value" and "exchange-value." Technically accurate definitions of these terms can be found here and here.
To bring home some of the intrinsic meaning contained in these concepts and to make them more "real", I would give the following example. Imagine you are a graduate engineer, who speaks four languages with an MBA from Harvard. You are a hard worker with many skills and much knowledge, all of which may be very useful to yourself or to friends and family or to anyone who comes up and asks you, solving problems and devising strategies to improve the quality of life. This might be a loose definition of your use-value, just as the walls and the roof of your house keep out the wind and the rain and give you shelter and home, which is its basic use-value.
However, until you take your skills or your house to the market and try to sell them, they have no "exchange-value". They will acquire that value and become a commodity when they are exchanged for a "universal medium of exchange" (read money). In the well oiled, smoothly functioning capitalist system that the United States embodies as no other, the conversion of "use" to "exchange" is normally so fluid, so automatic, that many may have spent their whole lives confusing the two and thinking that something that isn't a commodity, which cannot be exchanged for money, has no value, is of no use... useless.
This automatic identification of usefulness and exchange-value tends to fray in a depression. You as a graduate engineer with an MBA may find yourself out of work with few immediate prospects of finding any. You know you are still a useful person, but now you have no exchange value because the system finds you useless. The collapse of the financial system and with it much of the the power to exchange means that many people are going to find themselves in the place of our imaginary engineer or are already there. When the system of exchange breaks down the useful - people and things - become useless. Useless houses rot and so do useless people: for people this is painful. When you begin to feel useless the system is destroying you.
In 2002, when the following text by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek was written, many who stumbled upon it would have dismissed it as so much elitist mumbo jumbo. Read in the light of the present deepening crisis, its relevance jumps out at the reader. Just in case some readers find it a little heavy going, I have taken the liberty of highlighting some of Zizek's words in boldface. Adjusting for the jargon and the technocisms, try this on for size:
"Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism between use- and exchange value: in capitalism, the potentials of this opposition are fully realized, the domain of exchange value acquires autonomy, is transformed into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its dispensable temporal embodiment. Marx derived the very notion of economic crisis from this gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money- this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely; it has to explode in ever stronger crises. The ultimate root of the crisis for Marx, is the gap between use-value and exchange value: the logic of exchange value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people." Salvoj Zizek - Revolution at the GatesSo that is the situation we are presently facing. People who know how to work hard and love to work hard will have no work. Powerful machines will sit idle and rust and so will powerful minds and hearts.
There is a bright side to all of this: lucidity has its price, but once acquired it is priceless. Perhaps Americans will finally learn again to call things by their real names. DS