Commodification means the transformation of relationships, formerly untainted by commerce, into commercial relationships, relationships of exchange, of buying and selling.
“Commodification” is a term that only come into currency in 1977, but expresses a concept fundamental to Marx’s understanding of the way capitalism develops.
Marx and Engels described the process in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto:
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.” [Communist Manifesto]
The process described in this 150-year-old document have been proceeding at a gigantic pace over the past few decades. Examples of commodification include:
- the socialisation of women’s labour, with work such as preparing meals, caring for children, repairing and cleaning clothes and so on, now being purchased on the market, very often from women who are selling their labour power for a wage rather than offering the same service within a relationship of domestic servitude called marriage;
- the privatisation of government services, with work such as education, public transport and health care, water supply, road works being provided on a “user-pays” system, instead of as public services, which in many cases were provided out of tax revenue and delivered to the public free of charge;
- the commercialisation of scientific and cultural activities through the increasing pressure conveyed through “funding mechanisms” to orient activity towards serving commercial rather than human interests;
- the professionalisation of amateur sports and services, to a point when playing a “game” involves working out at 5 a.m., and your teenage neighbour needs a degree in early childhood development and a salary before she will be allowed to baby-sit;
- the corporatisation of organisations, with internal relations of accountability and command being replaced by one-line budgetary mechanisms of planning and control;
- fee-paying services supplanting voluntary collaboration and association, as when the volunteer fire brigades and school tuck shop people gradually fade away, to be replaced by wage-labour;
- the feeding of coins into slot-machines, the purchase of packaged games, images, magazines and so on, replacing participation in games, sing-alongs, conversation and altogether normal human interaction, etc.;
- intellectual property, copyright, patent and price tags being placed on information and knowledge in all branches science, industry and art.
The question as to why commodification is taking place, and has been continuously gnawing away at all pre-bourgeois and bureaucratic relations for several centuries, with a little ebb and flow (such as the Post World War II “retreat”), but with unstoppable force and relentless persistence, is surely the most profound question facing humanity, and goes to the very essence of the human condition.
The extension of commodification is a contradictory process: demeaning and dehumanising, but at the same time liberating and progressive. The most graphic expression of this contradictory nature of commodification is Marx’s descriptions of the process in the Communist manifesto, for example:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
“The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff.
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
“We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.
“Into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted in it, and the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class.” [Communist Manifesto]
The power of commodification lies in the benefits of division of labour; the contradictory nature of commodification arises from the fact that commodification is essentially socialisation, but, because of the dominant position of capital, socialisation, at the moment, means commodification. The commodity relation is the “cell” of bourgeois society; but the commodity relation contains within it an internal contradiction: the commodity relation is founded on private property (which can only be brought into being in the first place by outright robbery) but it abolishes private property:
“… the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. … Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” [Capital, Chapter 32]
Take for example the socialisation of women’s labour. Can anyone doubt that women escaping domestic servitude and joining the workforce is a progressive thing? Is anyone going to advise women to stay at home to look after their aged parents rather than build retirement homes? When the school asks for the mums to come in and help out as volunteers, aren’t the women right to demand that the schools receive funding for professional assistants?
A leap out of the frying pan of domestic slavery and into the fire of wage-slavery is a step forward. The result of commodification is the break-up of the nuclear family, the demise of the welfare state, the fall of academia from its ivory tower, the break-up of bureaucratism in both public and private enterprises, the professionalisation of caring and the mechanisation of fantasy and play.
There is no road out of domestic servitude, religious obscurantism and bureaucratic conservatism that does not pass through bourgeois society. But continued socialisation brings to a head the contradictions inherent in private ownership of the means of production.
The social revolution is itself a further leap forward in the process of socialisation — just as unstoppable and progressive as commodification had been.
– from the Encyclopedia of Marxism
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