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Discuss the uses, meanings and social effects of commodities in contemporary culture?

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Introduction

When Karl Marx spoke of commodities in the late Nineteenth century he imbued them with a central role in the life and purpose of modern society. They were not trivial things or easily understood by any means, but were instead the very stuff which gave society its meaning. I wish to argue that his theory of commodities, (and commodity fetishism in particular), have striking resonance for our contemporary culture.

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I aim to demonstrate below that these ideas still have relevance for our lives today and that commodities have not altered so much between his time and our own in terms of their uses, meanings and social effects.

Marx described how if someone produces an object, such as a textile, a piece of furniture and so on, that object, despite the investment of their personal labour, remains the property of their boss. This humble yet essential fact turns the item into a commodity, or merchandise. Throughout the Twentieth Century commodities such as home appliances, off the shelf clothing and semi disposable electronic gadgets have played an increasingly prominent role in all our lives, whether we want them to or not, and we are all ‘consumers’ now. But what exactly is a commodity Marx defined them as objects, usually but not exclusively inert, which have been imbued with many different kinds of social characteristics in the marketplace, the properties of which satisfy some human want or desire. At first sight there could be nothing more ordinary, but Marx wrote of them as being, “… very queer thing[s], abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. (Marx cited in Guins p 89)

Marx described the process whereby manufactured goods were presented to us in such a way as to hide the true story of how, and by whom, they were made. He described how societies involved in commodity production and exchange; experience their social relations as relations between the products of their labour – relations between things rather than relations between people, (ibid) in other words; commodity fetishism. He uses the term ‘fetish’ deliberately to invoke a religious sensibility, with which he believed modern society endowed the commodities which it produced. Can we transfer these notions of commodity fetishism to contemporary lifeIs it possible that his ideas, based as they were on the nineteenth century world of factory life and working class oppression, have any relevance for our contemporary ‘consumer’ culture of high-tech gadgets and high street shopping?

Raymond Williams (1976, p 78) reminds us that in “…almost all early English uses, consume had an unfavourable sense: it meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust.” In contemporary culture our consumption of commodities is almost continual and unconscious, and the separation between what a commodity physically is and what its background, or history of production, is often remains invisible, or at best ambiguous. Advertising in print, on screen and online seeks to persuade the population that the road to personal fulfilment is paved with commodity consumption. This is an entreaty made directly to each person’s material self-interest. The relentless message is that collective considerations, outside the domain of commodity consumption, are unimportant. If you don’t aspire to own the latest phone, car or handbag you are somehow deemed to be failing as a human being. A notable exception to this is the rise of ‘Fair Trade’ commodities such as coffee and chocolate, for which the circumstances of production have become a major selling point. Given the choice between two commodities of equal monetary value, one of which has been produced in an ethical environment and the other of which conceals the circumstances of its production, it is reasonable to assume that most people would choose to buy the former. Such examples of ‘ethical’ commodity production and consumption are a relatively recent attempt to apply Marx’s thinking on commodity fetishism to the modern world, (though few would describe it as such), and they must surely be pointing the way forwards to a more just and fair society and culture, if not a “wholesale rejection” (Gilbert p 76) of the capitalist systems of production.

It is a truism to say that there is a coarsening effect on any culture which builds itself upon the labour of the exploited poor; indeed, the slightest whiff of third world child labour, (the kinds of working conditions with which Marx would have been extremely familiar in nineteenth century Europe), sends companies such as Apple, Umbro and GAP into paroxysms of denial and refutation. We have become adept at noticing this hidden aspect of the commodities we consume in the modern West, or at least adept at ignoring it: how many of us really want to know in detail about the conditions in which our mobile phone was produced, or the conditions in which our Sunday roast chicken was reared An increasing number to be sure, but not enough, perhaps, to make any significant impact on our contemporary culture.

However, it can be argued that such nicety of feeling is yet another example of the snobbery which exists at all levels of our contemporary culture about the commodities we use and enjoy. To be sure, there was no ‘golden age’ before the industrial revolution which made our modern consumerist world possible, and few if any of us would wish to return to a world lacking in the commodities which we take for granted today, but are we really so sensitive to the origins and potential consequences of our contemporary addiction to commodities Writing at about the halfway point between the nineteenth century world that Karl Marx knew and our own, Raymond Williams (1958 cited in Gray p 11) spoke of the power that such material inventions put in the hands of ordinary working people, particularly the benefits of steam and petrol engines for the people of the agricultural Wales of his childhood. He wrote of his disdain for those who would look down their noses at modern commodities such as contraceptives and canned food, knowing as he did of the world that such items replaced; the, “…four-mile walk each way to work, headaches, broken women, hunger and monotony of diet.” (ibid) All this is perfectly straightforward, but Marx’s ideas about commodities extend beyond the realm of the physical object; they pertain just as strongly to cultural activities and events which are also subject to our discrimination and taste.

Williams’ world was one in which ‘culture was ordinary’ in his famous phrase; a world in which it could be taken for granted that people would be interested in cultural activities and education, and that such pursuits were entirely natural to people of quite limited means. He was repelled by what F. R. Leavis seemed to be saying in 1930; that it was a, “…commonplace that culture was at a crisis” (Leavis cited in Storey p 14), and that the proliferation of mass art forms such as cinema would have a disastrous effect upon the culture of modern society. Leavis wrote that such broadcast media provide merely “passive diversion” (ibid p 15) and that the future held rapid developments in this direction. His notion of culture was an elitist one, in which a gilded few could expect to attain the necessary education and sensitivity to fully appreciate the higher arts, a notion threatened by the expansion of cultural activity into broadcast media for the ‘masses’. But who were the masses of which Leavis wrote so disparagingly but you and I, our family and friends(Williams p 99) It is amusing to contemplate what he would have made of the internet and Web 2.0.

Are we to follow Leavis (who took his cue from Marx) and condemn an entire culture on the basis of the kinds of cultural commodity it chooses to consume Williams would disagree with this analysis: he believed that one cannot prescribe or direct ways of thinking, writing or learning, and that any such attempts would be incompatible with an honest society. “A culture is common meanings, he wrote, “…the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings, the product of a man’s whole committed personal and social experience”. (Williams cited in Gray p 6)

Conclusion

Our contemporary world and culture seems now very distant from Marx, Leavis and even Williams, and yet our relationship with the commodities we produce and the effects that their meanings have for us continues to give food for thought. Are we filling our homes and our lives with commodities produced by global companies, or are we choosing to live in a commodified world that these companies have created?

Bibliography

Gilbert, J. (2008) Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Oxford: Berg

Gray, A. McGuigan, J. (2003) Studying culture an introductory reader 2nd edition. London: Hodder

Marx, K. (orig. 1867) ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Guins, R. and O. Z. Cruz, eds. (2005) Popular Culture: A Reader, London: Sage

Marx, K. (1867) Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx1.htm

Simon, R. (1990) Gramsci’s political thought: an introduction. Rev ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart

Storey, J. ed. (1998) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. 2nd edition. Harlow: Prentice Hall

Storey, J. (2003) Inventing Popular Culture. Oxford: Blackwell

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press

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