Commodification: What does it actually mean?

Pictured: Picture of Karl Marx with the quote: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

So, this is a word we are all familiar with, but that might seem a bit vague. A lot of people think commodification is simply when something is sold for money, or is exchanged in the market somehow. But this is not entirely true.

In fact, sometimes you can actually trade items in exchange for money without commodifying them. A good example would be if, for instance, you sell a used appliance to a neighbor that you’re friends with. Assuming that you did not actually in any meaningful sense enter into the market, that you did not put an ad out in the paper, or set up a yard sale or something, assuming this was entirely produced by social interactions, then you haven’t actually commodified the item beyond its original state.

Obviously if you bought it at a store or something similar, then yes, this would be a commodity. But when you sell or buy something in a purely organic and social manner with people you directly know and trust, then you don’t need to commodify an item in order to sell it. Commodification in many ways refers to a mode of exchange which is inherently alienating and in some ways, antisocial.

When you enter into the market, then you are beholden to market forces. You must compete, and you must also abide by market demand. Especially growth. Markets are always shrinking, and they must always grow. You either grow, or you lose, this is the competitive element of the market.

When you sell an item to a friend or a neighbor, it’s not as if you compete with other friends and other neighbors, and it’s not as if you are trying to get the best optimal deal to stay in business with your weird neighborhood used appliance racket. You just have an item you don’t need, and someone else is willing to give you a fair price for it. Neither of you are in conflict of interest with one another, it is an entirely social behavior.

You wouldn’t want to cheat or screw over your friend, and you wouldn’t want to figure out weird ways to get as much money out of them as humanly possible. You don’t advertise it or do any sales pitches, it’s just a friendly exchange and a handshake.

Everyone, absolutely everyone, from Fidel Castro all the way to John Birch, will acknowledge how value will be exchanged between people in some form of trade. Question is what this trade looks like.

The market is a model of trade, it is not trade in and of itself.

For as long as one person is a doctor, and another person is a mechanic, we will need to exchange value and labour. But the question is, does it have to be done through commodities?

The idea of commodification is, simply put, that every single item in the world has infinite value. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true, and it’s very disturbing what this premise is based on. How can, for instance, a single box of matches be worth a million dollars? How do I sell a box of matches to John D. Rockefeller for a million dollars? The answer is simple: I wait for him to start freezing to death.

Even the most mundane of everyday items have infinite value if it is what is going to carry a person from today, to tomorrow. Commodification is not about the inherent value of an object, but about the inherent value of an object in relationship to someone’s life.

Suddenly commodification becomes a bit sinister. No one in their right mind would regard the services of a landlord to be valuable. They are lazy, opportunistic, greedy and usurious, what we do value is living indoors. Even if that means paying another man’s mortgage, and getting absolutely nothing in return besides permission to exist, then we’ll do it. This is commodification.

Sure, they will say they take risks, but what are they risking? Answer is simple: Money most of us will never even dream of having. The thing they risk is that if they fail, they might have to live like a normal person, and pay rent and work for a wage like anyone else. Their biggest nightmare is having to one day live at the mercy of a landlord. If only you could imagine such hardship dear reader. Save a prayer for the landed gentry.

The most famous decommodification efforts in history was the abolition of the slave trade. When the state in many countries proclaimed that labour and people do not have infinite value, that there must be a limit to just how you may bleed value from humanity. And thank God we introduced such measures prior to the invention of organ transplants.

Imagine living in a world of not just slave plantations, but also human ranches, where people were grown to be harvested like cattle. Slaves were frequently mutilated and turned into various morbid novelties, their hair, teeth, bones and skin was often used in a perverse scrimshaw. Imagine if the forces of industry and markets turned this into a highly profitable thing.

Pictured: A decorated human bone.

A famous case is what Tibetan nobility would do prior to Chinese liberation of the country, wherein they would frequently mutilate and dismember slaves and turn their remains into various ceremonial and decorative items. This is an example of corporeal commodification, in which the human body has infinite value, and may be stripped of such value in the most criminal of ways.

Pictured: A Tibetan slave in shackles in a field, balancing himself on a hoe whilst struggling to work. He is elderly and he looks emaciated. His physical stature is deformed by decades of toil, as he is stuck a crooked stance, as though his entire existence has been shaped by the field work he is doing. His legs are bare, and he is covered in rags.

This is the height of commodification. It is something that attempts to bleed into every molecule of our existence, it begins with our food, our clothes, our homes and our products, but it can quickly occupy our bodies, minds and even the very air we breathe.

The first world is not a product of capitalism and market forces, rather, it is a product of decommodification. The living standards in the first world are set up by how some things do not have infinite value. From health and safety, to labour rights. Europe has not known full commodification since the days of feudalism. With a brief exception of Nazi Germany, wherein even the gold fillings in the teeth of dead concentration camp slaves were melted down for its many aristocratic benefactors.

So in a weird way, commodification can even go so far as to eliminate the market as we know it. The end goal of market forces is to destroy the market, and create a flow of value where once there was an exchange. So that labour gives everything, and capital takes everything. This is the encroachment of bills, fees, services, interest payments, financing plans, loans, holdings, deeds, futures, bonds, indexes, collateral, equity, wages and debt. It is a process of dispossession, wherein one class of people bleed another class of people of all their potential to produce value.

As such, commodification is a highly relative thing. There is in fact a margin between paying for your Netflix subscription, and working in a penal colony in St. Kitts. However these do serve the same purpose, even if it is to varied efficacy.

You are a consumer, and you are at odds by corporations. The corporations have unimaginable resources, organisational power, influence and capacity to govern beyond any individual’s agency. Even at the best of times, this is a threat to your freedom and capacity to exist.

The only way we can beat them is by finding our own power, by organising ourselves, and understanding that when the working class live as individuals, the ruling class live as kings and masters.

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Vince

Vince

Scholar, minister, musician, engineer, technician, reformed criminal