The “commodity” critique of consumption, and often, by extension capitalism originates from the Marxist tradition and has been elaborated on by thinkers such as Lucacks and members of the Frankfurt School. Though their theories were published before the onset of the most recent form of capitalism and mode of consumption, some of their ideas are still applicable today. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate, using recent research articles, the relevance of Marxian, Luckacks’, and the Frankfurt School’s ideas of commodity fetishism, reification and mass culture as social control to contemporary consumer culture.
Karl Marx explains the phenomenon of “commodity fetishism”: the disconnection of the act of production form consumption and the subsequent alienation of people (who play the role of both producers and consumers) from the objects produced, the process of production, other people and the true human self. Social relations then are projected onto objects: individuals identify with commodities, define their selves through them and use them as a means of communicating those selves to others, resulting in a kind of object worship. In his article Matthew Killmeier cites Bauman’s “subjectivity fetishization” – the masking of work put into creating the idea of human subjectivity – as a ploy companies and media use to perpetuate the notion that a consumer makes independent choices that have power and meaning in the grand scheme of things, while alienating the individual from reality in pursuit of capitalist ends. Here the commodity is subjectivity. Killmeier uses alienation from nature as an example: he references a documentary on ecological damage that stresses the impact of the individual on environmental deterioration; Honda, one of the sponsors, features ads for fuel-efficient cars in attempt to align itself with eco-friendly practices, and places the ethical responsibility onto the consumer, and none on companies or capitalism. This reinforces the notion of subjective power as the only power while alienating the individual from the fact that large corporations exploit large amounts of resources and contribute to pollution through mass production and their yearning for capitalist success.
It looks as though in contemporary society ideas and abstractions, rather than physical objects, are the main target of commodification. In her article, Murtola argues that increasingly capitalist institutions accumulate profit by selling not just an object with implied meaning, but the “experience” of said object or activity: “dining experiences” at restaurants, attractive “shopping experiences” in malls or boutiques, etc. This phenomenon echoes Lukacs’ notion of reification. In this case commodification is not limited to the process of production of goods, but can be found in any and all social interactions. Murtola writes that because in contemporary society the lines between work-life and free time are blurred – for example office workers have access to wifi/apps on the job, or can go out to local restaurants for lunch/happy hour – the capitalist effort needs to become more creative in gaining attention of the consumer in all aspects of their life. In such ways “commodities come to occupy a place in a whole system of consumer goods, constituting a widespread objectification of life experience”.
Such invasive commodification would be seen as a form of social control by the Frankfurt School. Frankfurt School thinkers criticize the efforts of the powers that be to control individuals’ behaviour by creating and disseminating a standardized mass culture through various forms of entertainment in mass media. Even attempts of retaliation can be pacified by being transformed into objects of mass consumption. Monica Heller writes that performance art-forms, such as hip-hop, that have been based on ideas of resisting an oppressive system, while still provide much social commentary, can be seen as parts of the commodity chain that perpetuate modern consumerism. This is true of modern hip-hop culture, which often sheds light on the realities of marginalized groups but also commodifies every day life by aligning artists and their current successful lifestyles with various brands and excessive consumption of objects and activities. In the eyes of the Frankfurt School scholars the popularization of such entertainment is a deliberate scheme to entice the desire for a particular kind of consumption.
The commodity critique does not fully explain modern modes of consumption and leaves out the issue of individual motivation, making it easy to dismiss the consumer as being a dupe or inevitably manipulated by the system, however these theories should be used as only part of the explanation. Certainly there are many other meaningful reasons to why individuals consume the way they do, but it is important to identify and analyze how structural consumption trends influence consumers and question whose needs/wants they are really serving especially if distributors have institutional power over consumers. These theories should not be used to paint a dystopian picture of consumer culture, but rather to create awareness and empower the consumer.