Saturday, May 29, 2010

Considering crises of consumerism

C.L.R. James, You Don't Play with Revolution:

Everything is a commodity.  My glasses are a commodity, cigarettes are commodities, tea is a commodity, the gramophone is a commodity, the tape recorder is a commodity -- everything is a commodity.  The important thing that I want you to remember in your study of Capital is Marx's insistence that the particular commodity that is important in the study of capital is the labor-power of the individual.  In all societies that are in any way developed, there is commodity production.   But that the man sells his labor, his labor-power -- a commodity -- to the capitalist, Marx says, once you begin there, the whole of capitalist society grows from that; that the labor-power of the human individual is sold as a commodity.

Like every culture, consumerism has its own language, and every time it speaks, it speaks of capital.

The language of consumerism is the language of commodities. Everything is a commodity.

For example, education is a commodity. "An education" is something you need! -- not because it opens up your understanding of the world, but because without it, it is much harder to access other commodities. "A good job" is a commodity -- one of the most important commodities -- because it increases our power in the marketplace. Everything that is real is realized in the market! And that is because the market is the realm of commodities; if we are a consumer society, then this is the first language that we speak.

Why is everything is a commodity? Why does everything aspire to become commodities?

This answer comes back to capital -- that process in which money is converted into more money through an exchange of commodities: the more commodities there are to exchange, the wider the reach of capital; the more opportunities present themselves for capital to be realized.

What you get out of any system in which an ever-increasing accumulation of wealth is premised on the exchange of commodities is a society that produces a lot of shit. Or, if you like, an abundance of crap. And you can see that very clearly, for example, if you ever walk along a harbor at sunset and observe the ducks swimming in people's trash. It brings the point home quite nicely.

Consumerism is the idea that, if you can produce something at one value, and you've got the marketing budget to convince people to buy it at some greater value, then you produce the living shit out of that thing, whatever it is -- it could be poison, or just a pointless waste of resources -- because that's how you're going to get rich. And being rich means being successful, because now you have power in the market; finally, you can buy whatever you want.

Consumerism is ironic in its own way, because the consumer is basically an afterthought. What the consumer wants isn't important; what is important is what you can convince the consumer they need. And that's something you figure out after you've got some process to produce things cheaply; you just throw money at the problem, by hiring a marketing firm.

More to come...


M said...

It never ceases to surprise me how much we've internalized the logic of capital that reduces everything to a commodity. Specifically with regard to education - I was involved last year with the student movement that occupied several faculties in Croatia, demanding free higher education for all students, and consequently I was involved in A LOT of discussions on the nature of education, whether it is a right, a public good or a commodity or what. And it is amazing how young people, who've never experienced socialism, and older people, who grew up in socialism and benefited themselves from free education, have adopted the idea that education should be viewed as a commodity because it gives a person greater access to more commodities. That is the main reason people have presented to me over and over again. It is presumed that more educated people will have better jobs (although a number of higher educated people go to do measly paid jobs, like being teachers etc) and therefore should pay for that privilege, because it will reward them with more commodities. Social benefits or social importance of education never even enters the discussion until I bring it up, and then it is swiftly discarded as inconsequential. It's always about money, the purchase power. We've come to measure everything through it.

Anyway, excellent post. :) Looking forward to more.

Ethan said...

ASP, it's a funny logic that says that education will help you buy things, so you should only get it if you can already buy things, isn't it?

JR, great post. The line about shit and crap cracked me up and then you threw in the ducks in the trash and made me feel bad for laughing. It's a rollercoaster!