“Consumptionism is the name given to the new doctrine; and it is admitted today to be the greatest idea that America has to give to the world; the idea that workmen and masses be looked upon not simply as workers and producers, but as consumers. . . . Pay them more, sell them more, prosper more is the equation.” – Christine Frederick
Greater Efficiency Lead to Commodification
When Henry Ford implemented the production line in 1910 to achieve greater efficiency, bringing production costs down for automobile manufacture in the process, everything changed. Ford’s common sense approach to large scale production revolutionised the auto industry as well as how most corporations operated. The ability to produce a car in 93 minutes, compared to twelve hours, helped Ford and his team produce significantly more vehicles each day. As production increased there was a need to expand the consumer base. The ability to persuade and appeal to citizen’s desires and wants became just as important as the ability to produce the goods and services. Mass production was only sustainable as long as there was a continued and ever growing demand for products. Traditional markets of high net worth individuals would not be sufficient to support this newfound productive capacity. Advertising and consumption were critical in facilitating this growth culture and commoditization of production.
Commodification Leads to Alienation
Karl Marx extensively criticized the social impact of commodification under the name “commodity fetishism and alienation.” According to Marx, “commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production, not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. As such, commodity fetishism transforms the subjective, abstract aspects of economic value into objective, real things that people believe have intrinsic value.”(1) With a commodity driven process, alienation may occur at various levels, as workers become detached from the overall vision of an organisation. In the commodification of products and services, segregation, separation, and compartmentalisation of the workforce are required to enhance productive capacity. This commodification of workers can diminish job satisfaction, intrinsic human psychological well-being, social engagement, emotional connections, and overall wellbeing.
Cultural Identity and Meaning Sort Through Commodification
In today’s market almost everything has become commodity driven. With this tendency to over-consume we have inadvertently corrupted society. As a whole, Western culture desires short-term gratification over more sustainable and worthwhile pursuits. Our consumption of goods and services has become a badge to which we attach our cultural identity and meaning. With the commoditisation of culture and the means of production there has been a shift towards homogenising cultures. Commodification has made it easier for large scale mass marketing to occur and is the perfect mechanism by which ideas, products, and corporate propaganda are disseminated. This has resulted in a decline in diversity, creativity, and local resilience. Edward Bernays suggests in his book, Propaganda, the “commodification of production has led to the rubber stamping and duplication of information that is communicated on mass, resulting in the decline in original thought.”(2)
Commodification is Used to Reduce Choice and Increase Profits
Naomi Klein also outlines how this commodification of corporations and production has developed into brand management with particular attention given to company logos. Klein examines how corporations expanded beyond selling products, encompassing brand awareness — effectively a more powerful driver of the human psyche — as part of their overall strategy. Klein’s research suggests that, “logos served the same social function as keeping the clothing’s price tag on: everyone knew precisely what premium the wearer was willing to pay for style. By the mid-eighties, Lacoste and Ralph Lauren were joined by Calvin Klein, Esprit, and, in Canada, Roots; gradually, the logo was transformed from an ostentatious affectation to an active fashion accessory.”(3)
By building powerful imagery and associations, corporations could reduce the variety and choice, instead opting for brand dominance and penetration into mass markets, where the economies of scale benefited production, costs, and profits. Klein argues corporations aim to position themselves to become dominant players in their respective fields so as to eliminate and prevent competition from arising. With sheer size and scale key players can penetrate markets by simply opening their own stores in strategic locations, preventing others from competing. (4)
Commodification Seeks Out Low Cost Labour Markets
The problem with many of the major corporations which have become household names is they seek out the lowest cost labour markets. These have limited or poor labour laws, cheaper costs of production, and less environmental controls. This offshoring has led to a rise in the services sector in most Western countries, significantly undermining local production and manufacturing. With dwindling skilled manufacturing opportunities, the West has seen an increase in minimum wage jobs which offer little job security and future career prospects for young people. All in all this commodification has resulted in a globalised world of big brands and economies of scale seeking out low cost producers.
Commodification Helping Destroy the Planet
The increasing inequality between the haves and the have nots and the continued exploitation of the planet are fundamentally a result of this ever increasing shift to turn things into commodities. Our natural world, our values, and our lives have been commodified in an attempt to monetize every aspect of our lives and the natural world. Self-indulgence and consumption have distracted us from the true meaning of self as we have become oblivious to this doctorine. Much of Western society has placed the attainment of assets and physical possessions at the centre of our world. This ultimately leads to misery and a false reality that we can never fully attain. While the industrial and technological revolutions brought about significant changes in economy, they also changed the culture and way we look at the world. This commodity driven paradigm has changed the focus toward swapping quality, communal, and higher social and ideological values for convenience and cheap consumer goods. It is time to Rethink…
excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
(1) Isaak Illich Rubin said that “The theory of fetishism is, per se, the basis of Marx’s entire economic system, and, in particular, of his theory of value.” — Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990, p. 5.
(2) Edward Bernays, Propaganda 1928.
(3/4) Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Picador, 1999. P19.