This Christmas holiday I plan to make a soufflé. Not just any old soufflé, but what is probably the best pudding I have ever eaten, which was made by my dear friend Cya at the last dinner party I had a week before the first lockdown in March. (Recipe at the end of this post)
Because I rarely bake these light, airy, egg white propelled dishes it was no surprise that, when I rummaged through my kitchen cupboards, I couldn’t find a dish suited to its creation. I did however seem to be in the possession of a whole array of other bakeware I had completely forgotten about – muffin tins, chocolate moulds, cookie cutters, an ice cream maker, a flan mould and various baking tins – but no soufflé dish among them. I concluded that I must make soufflés even less frequently than I make muffins, chocolate and ice cream and I clearly hardly ever make those. As I reflected on the amount of space these rarely used items were taking up in my cupboard (which at the rate that house prices are inflating in my area was becoming quite valuable) and considered whether I should add a soufflé dish to this sad cast of minor characters in my personal kitchen drama, my mind turned to the subject of utility.
late 14c., “fact of being useful,” from Old French utilite “usefulness” (13c., Modern French + utilité), earlier utilitet (12c.), from Latin utilitatem “usefulness, serviceableness, profit,” from utilis “usable,” from uti “make use of, profit by, take advantage of”. Meaning “a useful thing” is from late 15c.
From the definition above and from economic text books you would be right to conclude that utility is about an item’s usefulness, its use value.
According to economic theory we are Homo Economicus, the rational utility maximiser. Economists spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of utility, deliberating on its different forms and on the best way to measure it. As someone with an interest in the economics of the everyday, I thought I would spend a moment reflecting on this notion (and buy myself some time to work out how to obtain a soufflé dish.)
In an ideal, utility maximising scenario our soufflé dishes would be working hard every day, moving in and out of our ovens, producing soufflés or puddings or pies, as would the muffin tins and chocolate moulds. Every moment they sat idle would be a waste of potential utility and should raise the alarm of any rational economist. Of course there are only so many soufflés, puddings, pies or chocolates a household can consume, so the rational solution would be to encourage people to share these items so they can be put to maximum use.
As you might suspect, the soufflé dish and my other excess bakeware are merely a stand in for all the other items that sit idly in cupboards, sheds and storage units across the western world. Many people will be familiar with the statistic that a power drill is on average used for only 12-15 min in its life time.
Sharing consumer goods vs buying separately for each individual household would lead to a dramatic fall in energy use and carbon emissions, a drop in pollution from transport and mining and is likely to increase social cohesion as we spend our time getting to know the members of our community whose stuff we need to use and who need our stuff in return. In other words: economic policies that encourage the sharing of consumer goods would maximise the value we get out of the energy used to produce these goods, thus giving us a better return on investment or UROEI (Utility Return On Energy Invested)
Even without the prospect of a dangerously heating planet, alarming loss of biodiversity and epidemics of loneliness sweeping across developed nations, such a rational utility maximising approach would surely sit well with our economists and policy makers.
In capitalism, it doesn’t matter whether the soufflé dish is ever used at all. What matters is that the dish is exchanged for money. Once the dish has been purchased you could go home and throw it straight into the bin, effectively destroying its utility and still capitalists would call that success. If you bought 100 soufflé dishes and smashed them all to pieces in a frenzied take on a traditional Greek wedding no true capitalist would shed a tear. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. The more soufflé dishes are destroyed, the more have to be bought to replace them and the more profit the soufflé dish maker makes. In fact, in capitalism it is standard practice to destroy goods in order to maintain price levels. Tons of perfectly good consumer items such as flowers, clothing and food are smashed, cut up and ‘protected’ from unpaid consumption every day. According to Deutsche Welle an estimated €7 billion worth of goods are destroyed each year in Germany alone.
Despite the rhetoric about utility, our capitalist economy cares not a jot about use value.
Its primary concern is market value. Rather than a system of economics (from oikonomia, the management of the household) it is a system of chrematistics (from khrema the Greek word for money). The goal of capitalism is not, and never has been, the effective use of resources for the wellbeing of all. It has always been the exploitation of people and the natural world to increase private wealth. Even when addressing the problem of underused capacity and making attempts at a ‘sharing economy’ all it could come up with was the likes of Uber and Airbnb. They got the money, we got rent inflation and zero hours contracts.
That is why there is no room for love in capitalism. You cannot love a thing and at the same time be indifferent to its demise. A good capitalist must prioritise profit over utility, excess over enough, financial gain over contentment and money over meaning.
A real focus on the use value of a product would consider values beyond those of the market, rather than conflating the two. It would mean building systems where the things we use are made to last and when broken are easily repairable, where living arrangements enable us to share household items from soufflé dishes to washing machines to cars, to pay respect to the energy and material extraction required to produce and maintain them. To truly care about our physical existence on the earth requires shifting our values from ownership to stewardship and from competition to co-operation. It means developing cultures which encourage us to learn about our minds, our bodies, our health and our relationships, so we rely less on material goods to satisfy social and emotional needs.
A society in which our needs can be adequately met while regenerating the earth’s life supporting capacity is already being built piece by piece by communities around the world, but it is not a world of profit seeking. It is the slow but steady construction of the kind of solidarity economy we need to address climate change, resource depletion, inequality, pandemics and the multitude of social ills centuries of capitalism have wrought upon us. It is an economy that encourages us to care about each other, the natural world and the future of our children, rather than sacrificing them at the altar of profit.
In capitalism love gets in the way. In order to survive and thrive beyond the next century love must become the way.
Now for the recipe (You can find the original recipe in Nigel Slater’s book Appetite)
Enough for 6
Butter – 100 g
Sugar – 175g (Cya says 125g is enough)
Lemon – 1
Oranges – 2 medium sized
Eggs – 4
Plain flour – 40 g
Milk – 400 ml
Cream the butter and sugar together until they are light and fluffy and the colour of finest double cream. Set the oven at 180 degrees – gas mark 4.
Grate the zest from the lemon, making sure not to grate the pith, then cut the fruit in half and squeeze the juice. Do the same with the oranges.
Separate the eggs and add the yolks to the creamed butter and sugar. The mixture will curdle but don’t let that worry you. Add the flour and milk alternately, the mixer on slow to medium, so you end up with a soft cake like batter. (I found the batter alarmingly runny, but it turned out okay!) Stir in the orange and lemon zest and then the juice.
Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks then fold them carefully into the batter. Scrape into a heatproof mixing bowl or soufflé dish so that the mixture comes about halfway up the sides. Stand the basin in a roasting tin half filled with water, then carefully transfer it to the oven. Bake for an hour or so, until the top is puffed and golden – press it with your fingers to test; it should feel spongy – cool for five minutes before serving. And dying of pleasure!
Cya: “Inez, just so you know, this isn’t strictly speaking a soufflé.”
Inez: “Surely, anything with this many eggs and this much whipping and this much rising is a soufflé!”
Cya: “Not technically speaking. Nigel calls it a pudding.”
Inez: “Okay, well let’s just keep quiet about that. The argument about capitalism still stands.”
Finally, some people who know about love.
Welcome to the Share Shed!