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The Commodification of Everything

The anti-capitalist slogans, ‘The World Is Not A Commodity’ and ‘Our World Is Not For Sale’, are tremendously powerful statements about how capitalism insidiously tries to turn human beings into passive consumers for its products.

But where does the real power lie? Daniel Margrain explains.

Consumption is the fuel in the engine that helps keep the capitalist system running. We live in a world dominated by commodities. This leads people to the false idea that the ethical choices we make as consumers can lead to a fundamental change in society. The reality is, that in the battle against commodities, capitalism will always win.

The fundamental point that Karl Marx made in Capital, is that the labour power of human beings is the one unique commodity that capitalism cannot control. Human beings can resist and protest in various ways. Labour power is therefore a peculiarly contradictory form of commodity. This is summed up very well by Henry Ford who is reported to have said, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” 

If society cannot be changed as a result of the choices we make as consumers, why do we invariably focus on tinkering with the consumption side of the equation rather than addressing the production side as the root cause of the socioeconomic injustices that pervade our world?

Capitalism: A distinct mode of production

Much of the confusion appears to stem from both a widespread misunderstanding of what the process of production under capitalism entails. As a system, it is distinct from other modes of production that preceded it. Under feudalism, for example, the purpose of the production process was to meet specific social needs. The social role and connections relating to any transaction were clear and obvious from the start.

By contrast, under capitalism, each producer cannot satisfy his direct needs out of his own production. A worker in a tin factory, for example, cannot eat tin openers. In order to live, they must sell them to others. The producers are thus interdependent in the sense that they need each other’s products. But they also need each other as purchasers of their own products so that they can obtain the money with which to buy what they need. In other words, producers are bound together only by the exchange of their products among one another.

Where production is for exchange, there is no necessary connection between the labour carried out by a particular producer and the needs of society. Private labour under capitalism, therefore, is not necessarily conducive to meeting the social needs of people. It is an economic system in which individual producers do not know in advance whether their products meet a social need. They can only find out by trying to sell their products as commodities on the market.

There is a second aspect to this. Makers of the same product will compete for the same market. The pressure of competition forces producers to adopt similar methods of production to their rivals or find themselves being undercut and potentially going out of business.

It is useful, in other words, to understand capitalism as both the separation of the owners of the means of production into separate and rival competing units of capital and the separation of the direct producers from their control over the means of production.

So capitalism is about two clashes. On the one hand, there is the constant clash between capitalist and worker that explains exploitation. On the other hand, though, this exploitation is achieved under conditions where capitalists compete against each other to get more surplus value over and above that achieved by their rivals.

What are the consequences of a system that is driven in this way?

The process of turning things from that which are a right into a commodity, is bound up with how capitalism works rooted in the systems drive to accumulate capital. Commodities and markets have existed long before the emergence of capitalism. It is not that capitalism creates commodities, markets or indeed money. Rather the point Marx made in Capital is not that capitalism brings these things into being, rather that it combines them together in a way that expands and extends the capital accumulation process.

The surplus value created by workers that gives rise to profit is embodied in ‘things’ that workers actually produce. Marx calls this the ‘sphere of production’. In order for capitalists to make anything from the sphere of production, these commodities have to be sold in the market place, what Marx calls the ‘sphere of circulation’. The drive in capitalism arises because of the competitive struggle between rival units of capital to extend the sphere of commodities within the system which is seen to have no bearing on the people that produced them.

It appears that the entire nature of society is really about the buying and selling of ‘things’ within the sphere of circulation rather than on the process of production. The impacts on Western capitalist societies from this process are evident in two ways – the sense of the ‘feel-good factor’ associated with shopping and the notion of ‘retail therapy’ that this activity implies. It is impossible in Western capitalist societies to escape this process. All the features of capitalism that Naomi Klein describes in her book, No Logo, such as advertising and branding, are indicative of the power of commodities to take on a mystical character.

Uniformity of plenty

What is also evident is how commodification is creating uniformity within urban spaces by redefining them in the corporate image. The academic, Elizabeth Wilson argues that the ‘consumerization’ of space such as airports and art galleries appear to have led:

“Not to a diversification but rather to a uniformity of the kind that was always feared in the traditional anti-socialist critiques. This is not the uniformity of scarcity but plenty where the high street, airport, shopping mall, museum and art gallery are increasingly speaking corporate culture rather than aesthetic pleasure.”

Another airport…more of the same advertising as we take on more ‘consumerization’ of our public spaces.

It is clear that culture and the aesthetics of urban spaces reflect a set of economic conditions that determine the configuration of these spaces. Culture, by turns, has had to become increasingly ‘flexible’ in order to be accommodated within the aesthetically coded urban framework for the purpose of maximizing urban consumption. Thus the term ‘culture’ has been stretched to include nearly all the service industries and has become enmeshed with capital and identity in the production systems of cities.

Under capitalism, the creative process has been reduced to an industry governed by the same logic of rationalization as any other. This has taken the form of a ‘culture industry’ – a term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer who intended it as an ironical and critical concept, not as a way of converting culture into money.

Commodity fetishism & alienation

But under a system of capitalist commodity production, humans are encouraged to see everything through the prism of profit and loss in which our abilities and needs are translated into money-making opportunities. We consider other human beings as competitors, as inferiors or superiors who make and buy ‘things’ as if somehow they have nothing to do with us. In effect, therefore, humans under capitalism tend to fetishize ‘things’ that we consider being separate and outside of ourselves.

One of the most recent attempts at making sense of twentieth-century capitalism through the conceptual lens of commodity fetishism, was the analysis developed by Guy Debord and the other members of the Situationist movement in the 1960s. Parodying the opening sentence of Capital, Debord announced: “The entire life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” The spectacle “in all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as an advertisement or direct consumption of entertainments”, must be seen as “a social relation among people mediated by images.” As such, “the society of the spectacle is the absolute fulfillment of the principle of commodity fetishism.”

Exit through the gift shop?

Following this principle, the commodities of each individual producer appear in depersonalized form, regardless of who produced them, where, or in what specific conditions. For Marx, the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities that became a universal category of society as a whole. Commodity production means that everyone appropriates the produce of others, by alienating that of their own labour. Alienation, in other words, is symptomatic of how commodities have come to separate humans from what Marx called “our species being”.

Marx noted:

“The fact that labour does not belong to his essential being he does not develop free mental and physical energy. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced. It is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.”

Another application of Marx’s theory of alienation is in the formulation of an analysis of other activities outside the sphere of work, which we undertake through choice rather than necessity. Harry Braverman notes that the more the world of work confronts us as hostile, exhausting and miserable, the more people pour their energies into their lives outside their work. As the system develops new markets are constantly being carved out of our needs and wishes. For example, consider the multi-million pound industries which have developed around commodities which are said to have made us look thin or young, our desire to play games, to experience nature or enjoy art.

The very fact that we have the ‘leisure industry’ and the ‘entertainment industry’ points to the fact that the separation of work from leisure has left a void in our free hours. Thus filling time away from the job also becomes dependent on the market, which develops to an enormous degree those passive amusements, entertainments and spectacles that suit the restricted circumstances of the city and are offered as substitutes for life itself.

Alienation also explains the miseries of modern life and the ‘lonely crowd’ – those aggregations of atomized dwellers within densely populated cities who feel crushed and benumbed by the weight of a social system in which they have neither significant purpose nor decision-making power. The more densely our cities become, the more our lives are characterized by feelings of isolation and loneliness.

For Marx, these symptoms of alienation are not rooted in the mind or in religion but relate to the lack of control humans have over the labour process.

What Marx is saying is that it is not only products that become commodities under capitalism but also the individual human being. In going to work, the worker is in effect selling his or her ability to work.

In such a situation labour-power is being sold and therefore becomes in itself a commodity. In referring to the process of alienation, Marx says that “the worker sinks to the level of the commodity” and is alienated in two senses – from the product of his labour and also from the labour process itself.

This all-pervasive process is symptomatic of a system whose entire logic is predicated on the notion that everybody is a customer whose sole purpose is to help generate profit irrespective of whether they happen to be a passenger on a train or a patient in a hospital. All utilities and services, whether ostensibly in the public or private sectors, are driven by financial targets and efficiency savings.

Over the last four decades, under neoliberalism, we have witnessed the complete freeing up of the market. It is hard to think of anything that has not been commodified – whether it’s the trade in children and human organs, or the privatization of torture. Under capitalism, everything becomes a commodity.

Apologizing for multinationals

The thing about capitalism since its inception has been its ability to be able to be creative and flexible about incorporating and co-opting new dilemmas and anxieties. For example, it can turn punk rock into something chic and expensive and has been able to persuade millions of consumers, through advertising campaigns, that corporations like Adidas and Starbucks are ethically sound. The latter, who pay virtually zero tax on their profits, is arguably the biggest buyer of fair trade coffee in the world. Nevertheless, they have managed to persuade hundreds of millions of their customers of their alleged ethical credentials because they understand that they can attract a new, younger customer if they say their products are fair trade. The reality is that fair trade and environmentally sustainable production continues to remain a tiny drop in the ocean compared to ordinary production.

In short, capitalism will tear down the things it has constructed in order to remake and re-appropriate them as long as we, the consumers, continue to pay the price.

In terms of the decisions that people can make, the critical transaction is not whether somebody buys something specific but rather it relates to our ability to sell something that is unique and characteristic of us as humans – our ability to labour. Whether human beings decide to sell their labour or not, or whether they decide collectively to withdraw their ability to labour by going on strike are the critical transactions.

The real power we have is not as consumers but as producers.

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