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Ebay and the myth of use value

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Wednesday, Oct 26, 2005

When I was in graduate school, I used to spend a lot of time going to thrift stores and library sales looking for used books. Not books I wanted personally, mind you, just books I could imagine someone else wanting. I certainly didn’t need any more books; I had the university library at my disposal, with that graduate-student dispensation that essentially allowed me to check out books indefinitely. In fact, I still might have Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison checked out, even though I left school five years ago. I did acquire a bunch of books as a proxy for actually reading them, employing that well worn collector’s strategy of substituting possession for mastery. But the vast majority of books I bought from thrift stores were for the strict purpose of reselling them to Bookman’s, an Arizona bookstore chain. Of course, this was before widespread Internet usage and eBay and Amazon marketplace destroyed the used-book market for sellers. Most of the books I resold could now be had for a penny plus shipping from some bookseller on Amazon. But back then, I could buy a few boxes of books for maybe $10 (greatly aided by the “$3 off anything” coupon for Southwest thrift-store chain Savers that was in the University of Arizona schedule of classes) and sell them for $50. Not a bad rate of return, if the absurd amount of time is ignored—anfd perhaps it should be, since I wasn’t really doing it for the money but to pass time and partcipate in our culture’s favorite competitive activity, profit-making, for the sheer sake of it. Rather than read books, I found it more diverting to trade them, which is essentially entrepreneurial capitalism in a nutshell—when exchange value trumps and ultimately nullifies the myth of use value.


At a certain point in capitalism’s development, when staple goods have all been branded and most experiences reified into marketable commodities, use value becomes nothing more than a ruse to trick suckers who haven’t caught on to the real significance of objects—the fact that the only way to “use” objects is to trade them to make more money. All the other uses are, from a certain reductio-ad-absurdem point of view, mystifications, beside the point. The point of that copy of Love in the Time of Cholera is not that it can be enjoyed when read but that it can be sold. And if it’s sold for more than you paid for it, then you’ve earned real, legitimate enjoyment by the values our society trumpets and reinforces at just about every level and through just about every institution.


In some ways eBay put an end to my playing at small-time personal-scale capitalism, but only because it democratized the experience beyond just those people with way too much time on their hands. Now everyone can look at their belongings as exchangable objects first, and (perhaps) useful objects second.


It used to be that in most cases, when one combed thrift stores for stuff (assuming one wasn’t consigned there by financial straits), it was because one sought to indulge some personal peculiarity, to escape the mainstream pursuit of novelty and discover some potential lost self in the detritus of the past. It was to identify with the rejected, the refuse, the stuff deemed no longer fit for social consumption. It was to move to the margins of society, to pursue the polar opposite of the dominant mainstream values. Now the thrift store is no such refuge. Its idiosyncracies are disappearing, as the prices they charge are driven up by fears of eBay profiteers invading, buying anything of value and reselling it for more. Now the thrift store is just another arena for profit making, another place to play the sport of capitalism.

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