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Do you sometimes feel like a fractured being? That you live as a person, but function as a thing? That your body and your brain are at war with each other? And that the self-as-commodity part is ever-encroaching on more humane aspects of your existence? The sad truth is that it’s getting harder and harder to do – or be — anything outside the marketplace.
This inherent tendency is getting worse under Donald Trump’s presidency. Guy Debord opens his 1967 manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, with these memorable line: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” He follows, warning, “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” America’s 45th president is a living commodity, a terrifyingly-powerful humanized representation.
Trump relaunched the culture war, one that involves ever-intensifying moralistic repression and reducing all social relations to relations between things. His warped vision is being enforced by a reactionary Vice President, Cabinet and Republican-controlled Congress. However, he controls state power during a period of profound geo-political instability and social transformation, one involving the nation as well as the world order. Trump’s self-promotion identity, the living embodiment of self-as-a-commodity, is in crisis. Faced with deepening social stagnation, the old cons of post-WW-II American “greatness” simply don’t work as well as they once did.
This period of U.S. destabilization is characterized by three distinct, but complementary, developments. First, financialized “globalization” is reorganizing – and truly integrating — the world economy; U.S. hegemony is coming to an end. Second, the marketplace is defined by the twin complementary processes of “conglomeratization” and “nichification”; global octopus-trusts and an ever-minutely-fragmented consumer base (but who appear more-and-more the same across the globe) fashion postmodern capitalism. Third, efforts to repress – economically, socially and personally — people as 21stcentury commodities are intensifying and failing; people are resisting.
Capitalism is becoming an increasingly integrated global system of plunder with intensifying exploitation turning each person into a multi-faceted commodity. But it’s a system fraught with crisis, be it economic, geo-political, environmental or – most telling – personal. In the U.S., no aspect of a person’s life, whether private or public, is not being colonized by the marketplace. Americans are succumbing to its pressures and temptations as well as contesting, resisting, it’s tyranny.
The inherent, inhuman tendencies of capitalism have become manifest. Financially driven – and mean-spirited, if not outright evil — efforts are being employed to turn the earth, living creatures and people into commodities, things of commercial exchange. This campaign is proudly acknowledged by Trump, the ruling 1 percent and their minions. They no longer hide their shameful deeds, but extol them as the virtues of the new Robber Barons.
Nevertheless, humans are different than other commodities in that they are not merely labor power (of brawn or brain, buyer or seller), but beings with social power, be it personal or political. This counter-force has the power to contest not only capitalism, but the ruling class and the state that run it. And there are signs that they are increasingly doing so.
Once upon a time, in Marx’s day 150 years ago, workers sold their labor power as both use value and exchange value, its utility and quantitative measure. Today, everyone sells their labor power … and a lot more. People now sell their personal surplus value to supplement their shrinking exchange value whether as a room in their apartment, their car as a driver or their blood by the liter, all to make ends meet. More telling, people sell their self-identity as a social fiction, a market-mediated representation, their self-as-a-commodity. Today, nothing is not for sale, especially one’s self.
The transformation of the commodity defines the first phase of post-WW-II recovery (1945-1973). It was an era of prosperity, of the consumer revolution, suburbanization and the emergence of the self-as-a-commodity. The era plateaued in the early-70s when Pres. Nixon ended the U.S. dollar’s alignment with the gold standard and the Vietnam quagmire, but witnessed a major oi crisis, stock-market crash and a deep economic recession.
Much of the unhappiness people experienced during this period was dismissed as “alienation.” Issues of personal misery and disappointment, let alone political dissatisfaction, were identified as maladies of the spirit, whether involving the mind or brain. Psychiatry and endless treatment modalities, from drugs and electro-shock to talking-cures, were promoted. Never addressed was the underlying truth: unhappiness was a warning about the inherent crisis of capitalism, the turning of people into things – and a consumer’s complicity in the process.
During the second postwar recovery phase, from the end of the Vietnam War to the collapse of Soviet Union (1975-1989), the U.S. was marked by deepening social malaise. Foreshadowed by Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, it was a period of continued economic stagnation, especially in terms of wages. Policies promoted by both Pres. Reagan and Clinton — along with Republican and Democratic Congresses — led to the tyranny of neoliberals. But a new digital era was taking shape with the introduction, in 1977, of the Commodore PET, the first mass-marketed personal computer. Over the following quarter-century, corporate profits rose, the rich got richer and ordinary Americas stagnated.
During this period, Marx’s warnings about alienation, Kafka’s revelations as to just how flimsy reality is and Marcuse’ insights into repression forged a grim picture of life under postmodern capitalism. While filled with endless distraction, it was a rather bleak portrait. You got only what you could pay for and the consumer always felt they were being ripped off. The use of drugs, both “legal” and other, and prison expanded as means to contain deepening disillusionment.
More than three-quarter of a century ago, America’s first self-help guru, Dale Carnegie, published How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Since then, some zillion hucksters have pushed the opium of consciousness to a desperate populace seeking a way to better their lives.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, liberal theorists like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch mapped out the process by which more traditional or institutional norms or mores where superseded by a new ethos of capitalism, one based on endless consumerism. Notions of “authenticity” and “self-actualization” — of individual choice, personal desire and immediate experience — replaced long-standing values like family, virtue and modesty as the corporate consumer-selling strategy.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, this strategy was transformed by corporations into the promotional ideology of “branding,” whereby the quality of a company’s product was replaced by an aggressively-marketed image. In 1973, Blue Ribbon Sports was rebranded Nike after the Greek goddess of victory and Carolyn Davidson, a design student, created the famous ‘swoosh’ logo. By the ‘90s, the ideology of branding had shifted from the corporations to adoption of self-branding.
This new ideological focus is best exemplified by Tom Peters’ influential 1997 article, “The Brand Called You.” He wrote, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is head marketer for the brand called You.” A current self-promoter, Reyna Matthes, claims the personal branding offers “self-packaging as much as self-improvement. … personal branding is about building your identity capital.” Trump-as-president is the quintessential fulfillment of the twin-faced Carnegie message, that of Andrew and Dale.
The recent firing of Uber’s founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, may signal a turning-point in the current phase of capitalist development (1989-present). In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter advanced the notion of “creative destruction” to distinguish a new phase of economic development. In his study, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he identified a radical – if paradoxical – feature of modern capitalism: the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” The economic system of capitalism became a system of perpetual global, social crisis and, as with Kalanick, could not violate the postmodern social values of “equality,” whether involving the potential consumers different gender, race or class position.
In 1893, Sears, Roebuck & Company — known as Sears -– reorganized retail sales with the introduction of the department store. More than a century later, finance capital is backing disintermediation as the model to reorganize distinct market sectors and maximizing financial return, profit. Amazon is leading the reorganization, transforming retail sales and now upending online movie and even specialty food sales (i.e., acquisition of Whole Foods).
Exploiting the Internet and other new technologies, old market formations are being recast. Other disintermediation campaigns include: Uber and Lyft in ground transportation; Airbnb dominance in apartment rentals; TaskRabbit for odd jobs; and RentTheRunway for designer-clothes showcases. And don’t forget the adjunct faculty, the classic form of disintermediation between the scholar, the haves, and the student, the have-nots; they are the exploited intellectual labor force that keeps the multi-billion-dollar collage-education racket functioning.
Resistance to the ideology of self-as-a-commodity is growing and finding new forms of expression. Trump’s standing among Americans may be the leading indicator of this phenomenon. According to a June ’17 NPR survey, only 37 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, while 51 percent disapprove. It reports, 40 percent of those polled strongly disapprove of Trump’s performance, “twice the 20 percent who strongly approved.” His commodity existence is being exposed as paper thin.
A 2016 Harris Poll adds to the picture. It found that political alienation shot-up significantly since 2010. A half-dozen years ago, 50 percent of respondents to the statement that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.” In 2016, the percentage had jumped to 82 percent; this is slightly down from 2014 when 85 percent of respondents had “a weak attachment to the central political institutions in society: Congress, elected officials, the institution of voting, and so on.”
Some resistance is inchoate. While much attention has focused on the aging white heartland voter, especially among Trump’s “working class” supporters, a more suggestive indicator of deepening dissatisfaction is represented by the great squeeze oppressing millennials. In the wake of the Great Recession, young people are suffering — hey are burdened high amounts of student-debt, high unemployment rates and large less-than-I-expected prospects, wage stagnation and the futurelessness of the “gig” economy. Hipster hype about the “sharing economy” doesn’t pay the bills nor give one real happiness. According to some observers, millennials are confronting the worst financial hardships than any demographic group since the Great Depression.
Looking at consumer spending, a 2015 Gallup Poll warns: “Even more discouraging, millennial customers are also much more likely to be actively disengaged than any other generation of consumers.” It quantifies this disengagement from consumerism for the following examples: “In the insurance industry, 31% of millennial customers are fully engaged, and 27% are actively disengaged. In the airline industry, just 12% of millennials are fully engaged, while almost four times as many (46%) are actively disengaged.” “Disengaged” consumers have given up on commodity identity.
Over the last century-and-a-half, capitalism has evolved from an industrial to a financial system – and during each phased everyday life profoundly changed. It has evolved from a nation-state operation to a global enterprise, from the steam engine to digital processing. It now imposes ever-greater discipline of working people at both the workplace — through every-tighter management regulation and automation — and on personal life, by forcing people to become self-promoting commodities.
To survive, people must not simply sell their labor power, but – euphemistically speaking – sell their souls. Trump embodies the twin forces of commodity culture, exploitation and domination. He is the corporatist phallus, a commodity self with real political power. The more he parades on the historical stage, the more he reveals himself as the oligarchs’ maître de, but one without clothes, naked but to himself, a false self with little human value.