Commodity Fetishism is not Branding

February 16, 2013

It’s an unfortunate truism in cultural studies and other disciplines that Marx’s term “commodity fetishism” has something to do with branding. Here is a recent example, though by no means the worst one.

Such an understanding of commodity fetishism has the advantage of making a somewhat complicated concept easy and intuitive, while also flattering the analyst/teacher, who is “too smart” to be tricked by flashy ads. It has the disadvantage of misrepresenting what Marx actually meant.

Fortunately Michael Heinrich’s recently translated An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital takes this up.

The term ‘commodity fetish’ has enjoyed a certain amount of propagation since Marx’s time, but is not always used and understood in a way referring to the phenomena dealt with by Marx. Marx did not use the term ‘commodity fetish’ to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. The term also does not refer to making a fetish of brand names. There is no ‘secret’ behind possessing expensive commodities as status symbols that needs to be deciphered.

It is often the case that the commodity fetish is characterized solely as a state of affairs in which the social relationships between people appear as social relationshops between things (the relationships of those engaged in exchange appear as a value relationship between the products being exchanged), so that social relationships become the property of things. But if we leave it at that, then fetishism appears to be merely a mistake: people ascribe false properties to the products of their labor and fail to see that ‘in reality’ as social relationship between people lies behind the relationship between things. Fetishism would therefore be a form of ‘false consciousness’ that merely conceals the ‘real conditions.’ If that were the case, then this false consciousness must disappear once the real conditions have been explained. In this reductionist conception of the commodity fetish, important points of Marx’s analysis are lost. 

In every social form of production characterized by a division of labor, people stand in a particular social relationship to one another. In commodity production, this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities [as exchange values]. People’s social relationships therefore appear to them as ‘socio-natural properties’ of the products of labor: what Marx means can be demonstrated using the example of value: on the one hand it is clear that ‘value’ is not a natural property of things like weight or color, but on the other, for the people in a commodity-producing society, it seems as if things in a social context automatically possess ‘value’ and therefore automatically follow their own objective laws to which humans must submit.

…under conditions of commodity production, producers do not relate to one another in a direct, social way; they first enter into a relationship with one another during the act of exchange — through the products of their labor. That their social relationship to one another appears as a social relationship between things is therefore not at all an illusion.


In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.

Heinrich continues:

That things have social characteristics under the conditions of commodity production is no way wrong. What is wrong is the assumption that they possess these social characteristics automatically, in every social context. Fetishism does not consist of products of labor being regarded as objects of value — in bourgeois society, products of labor that are exchanged are in fact objects of value — but this objectivity of value is considered a “self-evident and nature-imposed necessity” (Capital, 1:175).

Commodity producers produce their social connection precisely not as a result of a particular awareness concerning the connection between value and labor, but independent of such awareness. It would therefore be completely wrong to understand Marx’s theory of value as claiming that people exchange their commodities according to their values because they know how much labor is contained within the individual products. It is Marx’s intent to show that humans act without being aware of the conditions of their action.

Whether my individually expended labor is recognized as a component of the total labor of society is not information provided to me directly by society, but by the value of my commodity in exchange. And my prosperity or misfortune depends upon this information. But the magnitudes of value of commodities “vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers. Their own movement within society had for them the form of a movement made by things, which far from being under their control, in fact control them” (Capital I: 169-70).

The value of commodities is an expression of an overwhelming social interaction that cannot be controlled by individuals. In a commodity-producing society, people (all of them!) are under the control of things, and the decisive relations of domination are not personal but ‘objective.’ This impersonal objective domination submission to inherent necessities,’ does no exist because things themselves possess characteristics that generate such domination, or because social activity necessitates this mediation through things, but only because people relate to things in a particular way — as commodities.

Heinrich then points out that, additionally, it is bourgeois political economy itself (Capital is a critique of political economy) which treats this objective domination as natural.

Commodity fetishism is not really about how brands trick people into thinking commodities are better than they “really” are. Such an analysis still leaves untouched what Marx means by fetishism, which refers to the way in which the exchange of commodities acquire an objective domination — a real, very real domination — over social production. The “Commodity Fetishism=Branding” argument is locked within the point of purchase, ignoring the total social production (“social relations between people”), and instead buying into the idea that commodities have a natural value, albeit in a “negative” way: commodities’ natural value has been obscured by the Nike Swoosh and the price tag that goes with it. The implication is that we must “see through” the fetishized branded commodity so we can see the true value underneath — maybe we would recognize those Nikes are worth a lot less. Sadly, this leaves intact commodity fetishism, because it assumes commodities have a natural value that has merely been altered by branding. This is what began to trouble me about this interpretation: could Marx have really intended for us to merely be better shoppers?

The same problem plagues almost all analyses that start from the point of sale, even putatively Marxist ones: they assume the terms of bourgeois ideology from the outset, and leave the social character of production to the side. As Heinrich states, “If the intentions of social actors (that which they ‘know’) are made the point of departure of analysis (as is the case in neoclassical economics and various sociological theories), then that which individuals ‘don’t know,’ the framework that preconditions their thought and activity, is blanked out of the analysis from the very start” (78). 

Fetishism means that relationships between people — the social relationships of commodity producers, owners, etc. — become naturalized (this is distinct from “objectified” — Marx wouldn’t deny that commodity exchange is an objective fact of capitalism) as commodity exchange, exchange of goods which seem to possess real values independent of social relationships. That you own the factory, and I must work there to earn a wage to purchase the goods I produce seems to be an objective natural fact because commodity production reigns supreme; in reality, this is a relationship that is political and historical, and therefore changeable. 

Stefan Goldmann on the political economy of digital music

April 22, 2011

DJ Stefan Goldmann tempers (to put it lightly!) the effusion of techno-optimism over digital music and the internet from the past decade. Really, we’re all coming down from that high, aren’t we? One of the most notable parts of this essay is its focus on the restructuring of the labor market for music and sound professionals. Actually, “restructuring” doesn’t quite capture it as much as a verb like “imploding.” These are artisans and craft professionals, not just “suits” who are losing their jobs.

Absurdly, the complete disappearance of economic barriers to distribution (offering a free download doesn’t cost more than the time to upload the file) hit the wallets of the “indies” first, stripping a substantial part of their income. This mostly affected the artists and the personnel around them: designers, engineers, studio musicians, promotion and label professionals, music journalists, et al. The mass of competition they encountered meant anyone with a limited marketing budget had a difficult time surviving in the market. With the same promotional tools available to almost anyone, they lost their efficiency. The professionals listed above basically lost their income. In 2000, an average vinyl single generated a return of a couple of thousand Euros, while in 2011 the same single generates a loss of a couple of hundred Euros, even without what were formerly known as “production costs.” Anything on top, like a bigger production, a decent mastering, or proper sleeve design became factors of deepening material loss. That area of the craft gets subsequently cut off and replaced by an undiscriminating routine of two-step-distribution: “save as” and “upload to.”

At the same time, a vast reserve army of DJs has been created. What does a DJ do besides share music, something that information technology does for us anyway? The advantage, ironically enough, goes to older artists whose reputations were created by the music industry bubble of the decade previous. Technological innovation in the absence of strong social movements benefits those who were already winning (telecoms and venture capitalists in this case).

What have we learned here? The so called “democratization” didn’t work. Everyone did believe they gained access. This access by itself is stripped of value, though, because no one cares that DJ XY from Z has that new record out. Through any available channel I get dozens of requests per day to listen to somebody’s track. That’s after a spam filter and a disclaimer that I don’t want to receive files. The result is that I don’t listen to files at all — I do buy vinyl regularly. DJ XY doesn’t get the gig. If he does by accident, that’s for the cab fare. In Berlin, with its conspicuous population of 50,000 DJs, promoters and club owners don’t have to try hard. There’s always someone who will play for free if asked. Hey, that’s free promotion for the new DJ XY record. Meanwhile in the provincial town of Z, the locals “practice” for free, so they develop the skills they’ll need to “make it” in Berlin one day. That’s where things come full circle. No proper gigs, no record sales, no income. Anyone who is not already “there” doesn’t seem to arrive anymore.

But actually the DJ does do something besides share music, and this is where I disagree with Stefan’s conclusions. He believes the solution to this contradiction is ever more unique and niche works that will “stand out.” In a sense, he folds all of his critiques back into the same old tired solution — create your way out of it through pure hard work and artistic genius! The pure work of art can now stand out! The solution to overproduction of commodities is specialized lovingly produced commodities! This simply won’t work — all sonic innovations are quickly assimilated by sampling technology and metastasize into genres, get sucked into commercial forms, and exhausted of their novelty. Just like all commodities. My very vague groping towards a solution is the creation not of commodities, but of social experiences, of face-to-face interaction and collaboration, solidarities, movements. An mp3 can never do this. A brand can never do this. Music alone can never do this. Only human beings working out their shared future — which is to say, politics — can do this.

Stefan Goldmann – Everything Popular is Wrong

extraction of surplus value has become the ultimate ethical horizon

February 25, 2011

From that same term paper:

If these moral arguments for authenticity, leveled against the profit motive, held sway during a time when art and commerce had a more fraught relationship (roughly the same period during which Adorno was publishing his screeds against the cultural commodity system), under neoliberalism any ethical appeal must carry an economic logic with it as well. Those fighting against the culture industry definitions of property do so in the name of increased profits, not necessarily increased freedom. Lawrence Lessig defends certain types of copyright infringement as creative use, positing that an ebbing of certain copyright provisions could increase income. “Less control here could mean more profit” (283). Matt Mason argues that “Pirates are taking over the good ship capitalism” in order to “plug the holes, keep it afloat, and propel it forward” (239). Profit, the extraction of surplus value, has become the ultimate ethical horizon. These writers, postmodern combinations of activist and business guru, propose that the authenticity of commodities, the horizon of significance, follow potential profits, not established law. Their only difference from the culture industry discourse occurs when they speculate about where the largest profits might lay, and their books are devoted to convincing the culture industry that surplus value will be best realized through actions currently considered piratical, inauthentic. They feel the pressure of a new constellation of economic and technological forces, and they hope to shape the general will, the social contract, and thus the contract that establishes the authenticity of the commodity. In the work of Lessig and Mason, the commodity stands in for values such as transparency, free speech, creativity. It is a fetish.

I think that this actually might be a tactical move by Lessig, since he’s constantly trying new initiatives and approaches to change IP law. Unfortunately, he seems cursed to continually, perhaps compulsively, repeat his failure before the Supreme Court: an enlightened courtesan vainly appealing elites for reforms. Here he’s trying to convince CEOs that piracy will help their companies, but I’m not sure he actually cares about such things. His latest project, Change Congress, drastically widens his scope as it deepens the hole in which he finds himself — choosing institutional channels that undercut his goals. Of all his organizations, this one is at once the most ambitious and the least likely to meet with any kind of success. I kind of feel bad for the guy.

On the Fetish Character of Smushing

October 5, 2010

…one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to The Situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words.

–Theodore Adorno

You can’t get away with anything while looking punk

June 29, 2010

Identity is like going to the shop. You go to the bins and pick from the merchandise. Being vegan or ‘punk’ or dressing strange is just a reason to be inactive and not actually do anything. These vegans and punks can just sit back and say, ‘Oh, I’m OK,’ and feel gratified with themselves. It’s a way to compartmentalize people into who’s worth talking to, all these surface connections. Punk, with its spikes and Mohawks, is a way to get noticed and caught by the cops. You can’t get away with anything while looking punk.

–Marion of the Tarnac 9

Read more about the ongoing “French tradition of brainy sabotage” here.

Graffiti, Value, Freedom

March 12, 2010

Graffiti may be a petty crime but its threat to value is an inventive one, for it forms a critique of the status of all artistic artifacts, indeed a critique of all privatized consumption, and it carries out that threat in full view, in repetition, so that the public has nowhere to look, no place to locate an averted glance.

And that critique is paradoxically mounted from a relentless individualism, an individualism which, with its perfected monogram, arose out of the paradox of all commodity relations in their attempt to create a mass individual; an ideal consumer, a necessarily fading star.

The independence of the graffiti writer has been shaped by a freedom both promised and denied by those relations — a freedom of choice which is a freedom among delimited and clearly unattainable goods.

While that paradise of consumption promised the transference of uniqueness from the artifact to the subject, graffiti underlines again and again an imaginary uniqueness of the subject and a dissolution of artifactual status per se.

–Susan Stewart, “Ceci Tuera Cela: Graffiti as Crime and Art” (1987)

The Value of Free?

March 9, 2010

This was the title of my last slide at my presentation at the 2010 Columbia Music Conference, one that I didn’t get to because of time, but was probably more important than discussing various filesharing architectures. What is the value of free? When price recedes as a determiner of value, what takes it place?

Because computers function as data-copiers and file-sharers, it’s getting harder and harder to put in place walls that force people to pay for content, whether it’s music, movies, or news. Restrict access too much and you’ll lose your audience. Culture wants to be free. But we live under an economic system where we are required to support ourselves by selling our labor for wages. To spend time making something — a song, video, mashup, blog post — and give it away for free runs counter to the instrumental logic of capitalism. And when more and more people have to work harder for less, such “free labor” can strike some as particularly galling.

Take, for instance, a recent Tweet by Paul Gilroy, a noted left academic who has written several books canonical to cultural studies. A major component of There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic are meditations on the transnational links formed by the fashioning and refashioning of black music forms, arguing that these seemingly distinct genres are in fact a common conversation among the black diaspora. With his focus on reggae and hip hop, forms that have traditionally taken a loose approach to intellectual property, Gilroy might be sympathetic to the ethos of free culture and digital piracy. Or not.

Gilroy is apparently perturbed because someone has scanned and distributed his work. I must say that this sort of activity, if not exactly rampant, certainly has its place in university settings. I myself have shared content in contravention of the established IP rules of my institution; currently, I have professors who use a variety of methods to get articles longer than the allowable page limit to their students. Once it was an entire book. The logic is clear: students tend to be poor, and spend enough on books as it is. Library books are never there when you need them. A better way to make sure everyone’s reading the assignments is to simply scan and upload. But this cuts into several other bottom lines, including Gilroy’s.

It’s the last sentence that strikes me: “Consumer mentality fuels supposed radicalism.” Gilroy posits that the “free culture” move is rooted in the type of late capitalist acquisitiveness that wants as much as it can get for the lowest price possible. Filesharers have found the best sale price — $0.00 — so stock up! I must admit that there’s a kernel of truth there, that plenty of people amass great archives of content in a kind of conspicuous consumption. To troll the web downloading willy-nilly for free has a lot in common with a shopping spree.

But is this really what most people do? Sure, plenty of unapologetic filesharers will dogmatically demand free content while offering nothing in return. But this isn’t everybody. Many filesharers argue that as they become better illegal consumers they become better legal ones as well. “Support the artists you like” is the rallying cry at many a torrent community, and users boast about purchasing albums when they come out, seeing artists on tour, and buying merchandise. They are giving back voluntarily to the artists that give something to them. The value of free is that when content loses its value as a commodity, when exchange value — that value that for Marx quashes all other values — drops to zero,  new values can emerge. Social values. When money can no longer mediate between buyer and seller, smoothing transactions and insulating both sides from each other, we return to an older form of market relations. A deal must be struck.

Gilroy’s follow-up Tweet:

Instead of an etiquette, which is an established code of rules of politeness, I’m rather more excited about the potential of an ethic of digipiracy. An etiquette can only take place within a concrete social group; the dispersed, anonymous nature of the internet makes this types of codes difficult to enforce (not that there aren’t TONS of rules and codes among filesharers). An ethic is a decision one makes regarding the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct. It is the recognition of responsibility to something beyond oneself. Some ethnographic field work I’ve been doing on flea markets has been instructive. Market situations with a strong social component — old world markets, flea markets, Web 2.0 — lack reassuring price tags and contracts that force social interaction into highly prescribed and regulated behaviors. Instead, both parties must negotiate, and come to an accord that satisfies buyer and seller. If one side bargains to hard, attempts to “get over” on the other side, the risk is not merely a breach of etiquette, but an ethical lapse, a tarnish that potentially jeopardizes future negotiations. Screw someone over, and they’ll remember it, and probably tell their friends.

A negotiation of this sort is happening right now between news publications and their readers over ad-blocking add-ons to web browsers. Digital publications make their money from ad views (not ad clicks, as was the old model). Ad blockers remove the ads, and also the income from the views. Readers with ad-blockers read for free. As Ars Technica and The Guardian point out, this is an ethical problem, a problem in what readers decide they owe the publishers/writers of what they read. (Contrast this to the stark moral and legal language used by the MPAA and RIAA in which free downloading becomes equated with terrorism and evil.) Ken Fisher’s appeal:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin. As ad revenues go down, many sites are lured into running advertising of a truly questionable nature.

Ken lays out the repercussions of ad-blocking, and by doing so, makes the economics of web publishing more transparent to readers. He has to demystify the commodity he produces — writing and reporting — by shedding light on the labor processes and social relations undergirdding the text that seemingly magically appears on our computers. Commodity fetishism masks these relationships of production, but when the price tag goes away, the commodity’s status is destabilized. We might have to recognize that there are people working here!

I think in some ways the Internet and its vast anonymity feeds into a culture where many people do not think about the people, the families, the careers that go into producing a website. People talk about how annoying advertisments are, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a lot more annoying and frustrating to have to cut staff and cut benefits because a huge portion of readers block ads. Yet I’ve seen that happen at dozens of great sites over the last few years, Ars included.

Initially, Ars Technica blocked content from anyone with an ad blocker, but this was “bargaining too hard,” and they alienated readers. So they backtracked and did something different. They asked. They appealed to each reader’s sense of obligation to the site, but they didn’t force anything. And in return, if the comments indicate anything, many people complied. The crucial part of an ethical choice is that one must be free to choose.

At the Guardian, a similar discussion emerged. Many readers said they were forced into the use of ad blockers by intrusive and obnoxious ads. A negotiation will have to take place. Perhaps the Guardian can strike a deal with their readers to limit the use of flash ads in exchange for being put on the ad blocker “whitelist.” This deal will be unenforceable and impermanent. The paper will have to make its case to each reader that they have a stake in the continuation of the Guardian. Not just a stake, but a responsibility and a key role.

Ars Technica and The Guardian can make these ethical appeals because of their reputation as publications. Companies with poor reputations will have trouble convincing users to view ads or help them out. I’m thinking of Facebook here, a site that has revealed itself to be callous and insensitive to users’ privacy claims even as it begins to turn a profit. Will the mealy-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, who seems to lack much in the way of ethics, be able to convince users to unblock ads? This is a two-way street. Users only have obligations to producers who have obligations to them. I might ask Gilroy what he thinks his obligation is to poor graduate students who want to grapple with his work, but have trouble affording to buy books at the bookstore. I bought There Ain’t No Black used off of Amazon — what’s his take on that? To settle this, he’ll have to enter into some kind of relationship with his readers.

I think I was beginning to gesture at this in a previous post on ethical consumption. Western fans, DJs, labels, and producers of dance music from the global south (we’ll avoid the dreaded GG term) were struggling to come to some kind of fair relationship with the creators and originators of these genres. I think the reason this came up was that most of us in the imperial core were getting our reggaeton, funk carioca, kuduro, etc. free from filesharing. For a lot of this stuff, I couldn’t buy it if I wanted to — free was the only way to do it. And though I was suspicious of the motives behind this — I think I was worried lines would start being drawn over who was “doing enough” for the funk back in Rio, for instance — maybe these motives were similar to those readers who unblocked ads on Ars Technica. People felt they owed something to the people making this music they liked and wanted to play with, but they weren’t sure how to do it. So what happened? Some of the more adventurous actually went to these places to meet artists, set up labels, put on shows in Europe and the U.S. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, but people connected and experimented, never unproblematically, across borders that in a previous era were all but insurmountable.

This is the value of free. Instrumental relationships are supplanted by social ones. Questions are asked. Positions are negotiated. Thought is created. There are no guarantees.