Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Commodification

Commodification refers to those processes through which social relations are reduced to an exchange relation, or as Karl Marx (1978) refers to it in the Communist Manifesto, as "callous 'cash payment.'" Marx focused on the commodification of the labor process, in which the real, material activity of labor by individual workers was transformed into abstract labor, just another cost the process of production. As abstract labor, labor could be measured in terms of hours, an abstracted unit of time.
However, any discussion of commodification today must extend to the cultural economy. It turns out that people are most sensitive to the effects of commodification in the cultural arena. Paradoxically, advertising promotes commodification while simultaneously denying it. Advertising blankets the cash nexus with narratives and signifiers that position the meaning of the commodity within non-commodified relations. For example, ads often place commodities at the center of idyllic familial relations. Just think of the many McDonald's commercials in which dad shares a moment of quality time with his son over a Happy Meal that includes a plastic promo from the latest Disney movie. Imagery of exchange is replaced by a representation of a caring moment between father and child.

Or an advertising campaign might engage in 'falsified metacommunication' to take the side of those offended by excessive commodification. The Sprite "Image is Nothing" campaign mocks commodified social relations, thus distancing its own product and sign from such practices, while encouraging viewers to associate the aura of authenticity thus cultivated with the product itself. The sign of Sprite is thus an irreverent and flip attitude towards the sterility of overcommodification.

While advertising discourse spectacularizes the power of the commodity to enhance social relations to the point that the commodity itself mediates the successful playing of a social role, it disguises the production process by either absence, abstraction, or aestheticization. Furthermore, advertising absents the amount of labor necessary to produce the cash equivalent to participate in the exchange. As advertising seeps into every nook and cranny of our social lives, it becomes increasingly difficult to take a critical position toward the process of commodification. Nevertheless, the many forms of advertising address that deny this process in some form suggest a nostalgic desire to live in a non-commodified world.

In this genre of advertising, however, Capital does not apologize for the commodification of place, social relations, and knowledge. Capital positions commodification as an inevitable process driven by technology advances. This fundamentally reverses the relationship between commodification and technology. In corporate advertising, commodification produces a clean, neat, civil society. This is much different than commodity advertising, which often uses the strategy of falsified metacommunication or makes claims to authenticity in an attempt to deny their participation in the commodification of social relations. Here the market dominates and all social relations are subjected to the process of commodification without apology. The process of globalization is contingent upon the free movement of capital and its products and services into all social relations in all cultural settings.

New Economic Formations
Social Relations of Production
Informational Economy

The disappearing state < Previous

Next > Global currency

© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey