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 Day 19

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Turning One’s Self Into a Commodity

Personal Branding

by DAVID ROSEN

Are you a brand?  Do you have a blog?, a Facebook page?, a Twitter account?  Are you a 21st century individual, a postmodern digital self? Do you know how to sell yourself?  Are you fully integrated into the market economy?

Personal branding represents the full transformation of the self into a thing, a commodity.  It is the new ideology of success, one perfectly suited for the 21st century global capitalist marketplace.  Mark Suster, writing at Inc. insists: “If you don’t control your messaging — someone else will.  That goes for both your business, and your personal brand.”

Writing in Forbes, Lisa Quast celebrates the new capitalist order: “Developing a personal brand is similar to product branding. The overall goal with branding is to differentiate yourself (the product) in the market so you can attain your objectives, be those landing your dream job or becoming a famous singer. The process includes defining your brand and brand attributes, positioning your brand in a different way than your competitors and then managing all aspects of your personal brand.”

Entrepreneur’s Dan Schawbel extols the virtues of branding:  “Entrepreneurs have always been focused on building the brand names of their companies, and for good reason. … It’s not just about what your company does, but why you started it, its purpose and your vision. … As an entrepreneur, you need to become the brand.”

Hubert Rampersad, a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, champions what he calls “Authentic Personal Branding”: “Branding isn’t just for companies anymore. There is a new trend called Personal Branding. Successful Personal Branding entails managing the perceptions effectively and controlling and influencing how others perceive you and think of you. … It is the positioning strategy behind the world’s most successful people, like Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Donald Trump, Richard Branson and Bill Gates. It’s therefore important to be your own brand and to become the CEO of your life.”

These quotes are but a tiny sampling of the advice spewed forth by innumerable hucksters proclaiming the glory of personal branding.  Ever entrepreneurial, their individual programs – offered at a high price! — can transform you into a social commodity.  (Google identifies 36 million related sites under “personal branding.”)

These sideshow barkers follow in the well-trod path first laid down by Horatio Alger a century-and-a-half ago.  In 100 or so dime novels for teen boys, he fashioned the post-Civil War “American dream,” the rags-to-riches myth that anyone can make it.  (Alger’s first novel, Ragged Dick, was published in 1867 – the same year Marx released Das Kapital.)  

In 1936, amidst the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie followed with How to Win Friends and Influence People.  This preacher of success fashioned the self-improvement movement that’s culminates in today’s personal branding.  The book has sold an estimated 90 million copies, only proving a sucker is born everyday.  (Ironically, 1936 was the same year that John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, establishing modern corporate-state capitalism.)

To be successful today, let alone a celebrity or merely a popular, ordinary person, postmodern capitalism demands that each one transform her/him “self” from an old-fashioned “thing” into a 21st century “brand.”  Once upon a time, people preserved a separate, private, non-commodity space in which they were existentially “free,” themselves.  That space is shrinking.  Like the natural world, the capitalist market is increasingly colonizing private life.  What aspects of daily life are outside the grip of the marketplace?

This transformation of marketplace exchange and political consciousness might, ironically, turn everyone into Marxists.  From the Goldman-Sachs power player to the Wal-Mart greeter, everyone shares a common, intuitive understanding about the modern capitalist world: the game is rigged!  Everyone is but an exchangeable commodity.

* * *

To survive in a capitalist world, as Marx showed, people must sell their labor power – whether manual or intellectual, grunt or supervisor — for a wage.  Today, we sell not only our labor power but our very self, our “brand” — a “sale” mediated through a techno-social digital identity.  The postmodern digital self is a 21st century brand.

This transformation raises one of the deepest moral questions of the age: Are people becoming un-mediated beings?  One amazing advantage of today’s nearly-instantaneous digital connectivity is that the world is literally placed at one’s fingertips.  In this process, it reconfigures, shrinks, the privacy that long accompanied self-existence.

Yes, the whole world is watching, whether Google or the NSA.  However, ever-faster eye-hand coordination is replacing the self-reflection of the written word, giving way to increasingly automatic, programmed responses.  Selfhood – who the person is — is becoming evermore indistinguishable from its digital representation.  Has living, human experience – the very self — been finally and fully reduced to a marketplace commodity?

Invisible digital glue increasingly binds postmodern life and people together.  It ties together everyday personal and work-related voice calls and emails, social networking participation, the shows we watch on TV as well as our most personal medical and financial records that reveal our buying habits, whether for toilet paper or sex toys.  It also includes the tracking conducted by the security state and private data aggregators.  People are increasingly experiencing social and private life as digital engagements, exchanges.

Once upon a time, people lived “wild” in nature; in time, they located into villages, towns, cities and now – ever-larger – metropolises.  Yet, as people came to live in global cities, the scope of personal life seems to have both expanded (i.e., one is part of a global civilization) and shrunk (i.e., privacy is shrinking).  Three factors drive this change: the rapid growth of the global population; air travel that shrinks global immediacy; and an expanding web of mediating technologies, especially digital media and telecom connectivity, that glues postmodern life together.

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity.”  These are the opening word of Marx’s great analytic treatise, Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy.  Its principle insight is simple: capitalism turns human labor into an exchangeable thing.

A century later, Guy Debord, in The Society of the Spectacle, noted:  “Economic growth liberates societies from the natural pressures occasioned by their struggle for survival, but they must still be liberated from their liberator. The independence of the commodity has spread to the entire economy over which the commodity now reigns. The economy transforms the world, but it transforms it solely into a world of the economy.” (Thesis 40)  The world, the market and the self are becoming one.

Since Marx’s day, daily life has been technologically transformed by, first, the analog revolution followed by, second, today’s overlapping digital revolution.  He lived during the earliest days of analog media, of the telegraph; it was followed by increasingly more powerful technologies that included the telephone, radio, record, movie and TV (broadcast, cable) and the VCR.  It was based on the capture, storage and distribution of imprecise signals, electromagnetic waves.  These media technologies didn’t so much envelop a user but functioned as distinct spheres of experience.   Analog represented a unique moment in the evolution of civilization — the triumph of the city, of modern capitalism, over rural and small-town life.

The analog revolution is being superseded by the current digital revolution.  The older analog signal was wavelike, thus far less precise.  Today’s digital signal involves ever-more precise fragmentation of the electronic signal into a series of 0s and 1s that makeup the digital palette. It signifies the triumph of the global market, of postmodern capitalism, over the nation state.

People are being increasingly required to present themselves as digital beings, not simply as labor power or things, but as brands.  The self as personal brand is the self-representation equivalent of the job status of independent contractor.  Both categories serve to privatize and commercialize social experience, whether self at work or in the world.  Corporate interests, led by the high-tech Internet companies and the banks that facilitate every transaction, are promoting this as the next new thing, what’s “hip” or “cool” in 20th century marketing lingo.

Like the lessons of the grand hucksters of old, Alger and Carnegie, today’s personal branding is a social fiction reflecting an historically-specific social crisis.  Branding is a survival strategy, a new set of “inner” cloths to represent one’s self in the marketplace.  We live in tough times.

Today’s modest economic recovery, accompanied by lots of entertainment, sports and other diversions, is being reinforced by militarized local law enforcement, a national security state and the ever-present threat of terrorism whether in one’s local hometown or some far off nowhere.  One can only wonder how long the digital glue will hold this moral fiction together?

David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and Huffington Post.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net