George Walford: Rubbish

In 1979 Michael Thompson issued a book entitled Rubbish Theory; the Creation and Destruction of Value (OUP). He is a brave man to use that title, but the response that immediately springs to mind is not justified; rubbish theory is far from being rubbish. It is almost routine for the mystics to stress the need to take account of the suppressed and disregarded, the dark side, and Thompson carries this principle into economics, holding that in order to understand value we need to understand the valueless, we need to study rubbish.

He opens his argument by recounting the history of Stevengraphs, the Victorian machine-woven silk bookmarks that are now sought by collectors. This history falls into three parts: First, the price at which they were originally sold new by the maker. Second, a period when they were virtually valueless. Third, a sudden increase in value; this still persists and seems likely to go on doing so. In 1902 there were 66 subjects available and the maker’s price for the set, new, would have been £2.55. In 1973 this same set would have cost over £3,000. (These figures have not been corrected for inflation, but to do so would hardly affect the argument). Until the early 60s the value of the set, secondhand, would have been in effect nil; since there was no demand the dealers would not buy them, so there was no market. Almost the whole of this breathtaking increase in value took place in the ten years between 1962 and 1973.

This is contrasted with the changes in the value of an Austin Countryman Estate Car from new in 1962 until 1972. With one or two hiccups when it was handled by dealers who managed to sell it for more than they paid, this shows a steady decline from about £650 to zero, and no resurrection is in prospect.

When the car’s value reaches zero it disappears from the market. This happened to the Stevengraphs up to the early 1960s; they were valueless, which is to say rubbish, and Thompson points out that it would not have been possible to study their history during that period because they had none. Rubbish is suppressed, disregarded, its existence is, in Thompson’s word, “covert.”

The commonsense expectation is that consumer-durables will follow the path of the Austin Countryman. Stevengraphs show that this is not always so, and the history of “antiques” generally goes to confirm this. They show a descent from new to secondhand followed by a rise whose crest has still to appear. Fine art and literature tend to behave in the same way; the work that, survives at all passes through a decline after its creator’s death, sometimes going so far as to become rubbish in the sense that there is no market for it, and then rises, sometimes to a value, aesthetic as well as commercial, far above any it held when new. Antiques, art and literature may be thought to be out of the main stream of social life, but Thompson brings forward an example of the same movement that is undeniably of economic importance, both theoretical and practical: much housing has behaved in this way. Large areas of inner London, especially those built in or around the Regency, declined from fashionable to slum and have over the last two decades or so been “gentrified”; these also have risen to an estimation, aesthetic as well as commercial, sometimes higher than they possessed when new.

The importance of all this, for our purposes here, is that it shows the durability of social products to be not always governed entirely, and sometimes not mainly, by their physical constitution; it is the social element that predominates.

Thompson quotes an economist saying that although houses may last for generations their path is one of decline which may he slowed by “reasonable maintenance.” This is the commonsense view, but we have seen that it does not cover all the facts. And in any case, what is “reasonable maintenance?” Some of the temples, cathedrals, palaces and castles have been preserved for many centuries and it seems they can he kept going indefinitely, but this involves levels of expenditure that would not be considered reasonable for the general stock of housing; that is allowed to wear out and then renewed. It is not only the physical constitution of an object, or the amount of labour put into its production, that determines its value and its life-span, but also the social attitude towards it. And that is an ideological factor.

from Ideological Commentary 22, January 1986.