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Marxism and Consumer Culture

Last winter, I dashed off an opinion piece about the straitened political muse of The Daily Show, suggesting that it had descended from its Bushbaiting heyday into cheap and easy segments assailing the backward thinking of the Middle American booboisie. The occasion for the piece was the surprise announcement from the show’s revered host, Jon Stewart, that he was planning to step down, so emotions among The Daily Show fan base were running high. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the impassioned responses sparked by my critique of the show’s insular, self-congratulatory satirical tropes. Like most journalists, I am anything but thin skinned when it comes to commentary about my published work; I have been attacked as everything from a wild eyed commie to an out-of-touch elitist D.C. insider, and I have greeted nearly all such salvos with quiet bemusement.

But the pushback on the Stewart essay was different; people took it personally—and, of course, replied in kind. I was scolded in no uncertain terms about my rank right-wing apologetics or my ingratitude to the most robust tradition of critical liberal thought now going in our mediasphere. The more solicitous (if still outraged) correspondents on the subject soberly informed me that my ruminations “reflected poorly on me.”

It gradually dawned on me that I had done more than merely tweaked a worldview or criticized a style of televisual satire; I had belittled a sacred rite of consumption. My correspondents relied on nightly rube-baiting Daily Show segments as something more than a ready stream of laughs arising from the news cycle—and they prized Stewart himself, it seemed, as something more than the image of new millennial Walter Cronkite. For a certain kind of devotee, relying on The Daily Show brand was a badge of identity; it shaped not only their response to the world but also their own sense of being in the world. And precisely because this brand of consumer-identification is fairly sophisticated, deeply media-savvy, and (above all) self-aware, it stands, in turn, as a useful indication of how far the “culture of consumption” has evolved.

For much of the history in which social critics and political thinkers have pondered the emergence of a culture of consumption, they have been absorbed in the tricky calculations involved in eliciting its signature state of mind. On this line of inquiry, consumers tend to congregate along one of two fairly rigid binary poles: They are either sheep like and docile or subversive and heroic. Accordingly, the range of intellectual responses to consumer culture also moves along fairly dreary and predictable coordinates: Those in thrall to consumer culture and its blandishments either suffer from a variation of false consciousness—the condescending dupedom that vulgar Marxists have perennially assigned to unenlightened (i.e., non-Marxist) workers—or have become sub rosa revolutionaries from within the citadels of getting and spending, transplanting the signature struggles of class and caste into the familiar-yet-profound rites of savvy consumption: Today Jon Stewart, tomorrow the world.

Our obsession with the question of what sort of consciousness attaches itself most readily to the culture of consumption has paradoxically blinded us to the ways in which the ideal type of the American consumer has achieved a new level of uncontested sovereignty in the political rhetoric of our market culture. The notion of consumer empowerment is the alibi of first resort for any measure that tends, in reality, to continue rolling back the hard-won gains of working Americans in our businessman’s republic. Walmart’s business model, for example, is explicitly founded on casualizing wages and benefits for its retail workforce so as to secure the lowest possible prices for its customer base which means the managers of our nation’s largest employer are ideologically locked into the project of beggaring its workers for the sake of preserving profit margins in a price-lowering race-to-the-bottom. Amazon—the Walmart of the online retail world—likewise degrades the basic working conditions for its laborers via sweated speed-up regimens and piecework rates in its mammoth distribution centers, all in the name of optimizing consumer choice for the lordly online shopper. Rational-choice economists routinely evoke consumer sovereignty as the self-evident, and inevitable, telos of economic life; the notion of labor sovereignty, meanwhile, is laughed off the historical stage as an antiquated relic of the industrial age.

The notion of consumption itself has morphed into dramatic new forms, and expanded into new reaches of economic, political, and social thought.

As we have sought to diagnose the inward temperament of individual consumers, the notion of consumption itself has morphed into dramatic new forms and expanded into new reaches of economic, political, and social thought. To better grasp this shift, we need to train our focus away from the question of consciousness and its recursive body of attitudinal constructs, and fix our sights more clearly on how the idea of the commodity has been culturalized. We need, in other words, to lay aside the red herring debate over consumer culture and false consciousness, and to take up in its stead the far more relevant question of how the fetish- ism of the commodity and the culture of consumption are now blurring into the same blandly hegemonic historical force.

Opiate or Provocatuer?

To understand how this unsatisfactory state of affairs has taken root in the house of left intel- lect, we need to take stock of some history ourselves. For most historians and critics of a leftist bent, the culture of consumption is a Borg-like invading force, all the more sinister for its ability to set up shop in the hearts and minds of the working masses. It launched in earnest with the first burst of mass communi- cations in the 1920s: a conglomeratized news- paper scene merged with the fledgling mass media of radio and motion pictures to both create and serve a brave new national market of mass consumption. In Middletown, their famous study of the folkways of the industrial Midwestern city of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd saw the advent of the new “inventions re-making leisure” steadily leaching away at the fabric of the city’s distinctive communal life. Sizing up the impact of regular radio listening on Muncie’s suggestible populace, the Lynds delivered this glum verdict:

It seems not unlikely that, while furnishing a new means of diversified enjoyment, [the radio] will operate at the same time, with national advertising, syndicated newspapers, and other means of large scale diffusion, as yet another means of standardizing Middletown’s habits. Indeed, at no point is one brought up more sharply against the impossibility of studying Middletown as a self contained, self-starting community than when one watches these space-binding leisure-time inventions imported from without—automobile, motion picture, and radio reshaping the city.1

Later decades of the twentieth century all brought their own characteristic twists on the basic terms of this formulaic critique the conformist fifties, the liberationist sixties, the malaise addled seventies, and so on but a formula it remained. You knew the culture of consumption by its all-too-evident fruits: a commercial republic nourished by a vast corps of suggestible consumers, mobilized under the banner of a moment’s marketing campaign, pop culture fad, or political craze. If the critique of consumer culture seemed terminally inert and flattened out, regardless of the mild variations of time and region that it might register, well, that was largely the point: the herd like affinities that the masses showed for the consuming life called forth, in equal measure, a peremptory dismissal of consumer culture as just another bourgeois recrudescence that the revolution would one day dispel in short order. Not only, per The German Ideology, would humanity be freed to hunt and fish in the earlier parts of the day, and philosophize and criticize in its balance, but the grubby and degrading exchanges of consumption that governed the misbegotten work cycles of capitalism would also wither away, alongside the old industrial age division of labor.

As the Anglo-American polity lurched sharply to the right in the 1980s, though, left intellectuals took fresh stock of the quasi- Marxist critique of consumer culture. Especially as working-class constituencies fled their traditional affiliations with the Democratic and Labour parties and embraced a neoliberal politics of cultural ressentiment, champions of a new left cultural politics rehabilitated the dreary tundra of masscult conformity into an all purpose template of radical resistance increasingly, it seemed, the only one on offer. Overnight, it seemed, a thousand fraught and suggestive gestures of subversion bloomed in the suddenly fertile and expressive agoras of consumer culture. The new apostles of cultural studies were able to descry revolutionary promise in the smallest efflorescence of consumer choice, from the TV clicker alighting on the polymorphous perversity of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” to bold young feminists voguing out devastating new blows against patriarchal capitalism cleverly encoded in the Madonna corpus.

With the benefit of considerable market- chastened hindsight, we can readily concede that all of these close readings and subversive interventions aimed at identifying and perpetuating a left consumer politics were a rather sad species of overcompensating. In reality, as left intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s enthused about the revolutionary semiotics of our mass culture, the threadbare legacies of traditional liberal and left politics sustained blow after punishing blow in the workplace, the polling booths, and what remained of the public sphere (and yes, also in consumer culture, had any leaders of the cultural studies left paused to note the steady corporate consolidation of the culture industries). In doing righteous battle with the played-out models of mass cult critique, the cultural-studies left erred chiefly in vanquishing a straw-man version of the enemy. Without taking up the particulars of either the original Marxian notion of false consciousness or the cult stud counteroffensive against it, what is important to note here is that almost no culturally influential modern American leftist actually subscribed to the offending thought crime. Even in the most ideological and programmatic years of the Red Decade, you would be hard-pressed to find the most committed Marxist critics plying anything remotely approaching a false-consciousness critique. Indeed, one could argue that one of that decade’s most influential and severe Marxist critics of culture, Edmund Wilson, was also our country’s most vocal and indispensable champion of an anti-programmatic literary modernism; while he mounted a sustained attack, in his reportage and his historical work, on bourgeois economic and political assumptions, his critical corpus celebrated the very sort of individualistic moral and spiritual crises that more vulgar materialist souls would dismiss as the very essence of false consciousness. The most die hard foe of mass culture in the postwar years, meanwhile, was Dwight MacDonald an ardently anti-Stalinist leftist, and a curmudgeonly anarchist, to the extent his irascible politics admitted to any ideological descriptor at all. To indict the critics of mass culture, as the leftist insurgents of the cult-stud age uniformly did, as a means of freeing the American consumer republic from the oppressive thrall of an imputed “false consciousness,” was roughly akin to promoting an arms buildup aimed at securing our borders from the imminent threat of an invasion from Iceland.

Fetishism Is Best?

In lieu of the complacent post Marxist ritual of vanquishing the dread specter of false consciousness, critics who continue to wrestle with the more stubborn contradictions and derangement of our consumer culture would be far better advised to revisit and recover an oddly neglected strand of Marxist tradition: the fetishism of the commodity. While other elements of the Marxist critique of capitalist production have not necessarily aged well, the notion of commodity fetishism is, if anything, a more salient organizing principle for our age of incorporeal financial capital, when all that is solid melts instantaneously into the air, accompanied by the background hum of a laptop or a smartphone.

As Marx theorized the stages of capitalist production, he recurred repeatedly to one of its foundational mysteries: the imbuement of the commodity—that is, the product of the worker’s labor with tremendous powers of social concealment. The commodity became fetishized (i.e., worshipped) in Marx’s account, when bourgeois students of political economy elevated it into a free-standing, taken-for- granted, property of nature itself and therefore anything but a socially engineered subterfuge designed to render the worker’s labor unrecognizable to himself.

For all of the anxious interpretive energies we have expended on the inner workings of our consumer culture, we have not attended to this most conspicuous feature: its propensity to package itself so as to conceal the cultural and economic tensions that have conspired in its own creation. This is all by way of noting that, at this baroque digital stage of capitalism’s material evolution, consumer culture enacts a brand of alienation that transcends traditional Marxist schemes of class conflict, while also deftly nudging labor still further off the historical stage.

Marx’s speculations on the commodity’s centrality to the capitalist labor regime were prophetic—just not in the way that Marx himself intended them to be.

Here, Marx’s speculations on the commodity’s centrality to the capitalist labor regime were indeed prophetic just not in the way that Marx himself intended them to be. As Marx laid it out, the fetishism of the commodity was, and remains, a fungible conception of what does and does not count as legitimate social authority over our common productive lives: the moment that labor ossified into commodity form, it was no longer a fit subject for political inquiry. In Marx’s telling, the economic discipline’s ritualized worship of the commodity was central to the much larger, and devastating, triumph of bourgeois politics: the quarantining of economic life from sustained political criticism. At the heart of this shift was the battery of market mystifications that the commodity serenely presides over: The magical and deeply impersonal aura of the fetishized commodity arises from the rituals of exchange that send the financial superstructure of capitalist economies spiraling into the ether. The commodity, “a born leveler and cynic,” Marx writes, is ready not only to exchange soul, but body, with every other . . . . All commodities are non-use values for their owners, and use values for their non-owners. Consequently, they must all change hands. But this changing of hands constitutes their exchange, and this exchange puts them in relation with each other as values and realizes them as values.2 

It is via the jury-rigged system of exchange value that the commodity is shorn of any significance as the product of the worker’s labor until, that is, the collective pressures of systemic exploitation send the whole system crashing down:

In the midst of the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relationships between the products, the labour time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulatory law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative value of commodities. Its discovery destroys the semblance of the merely accidental determination of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour, but by no means abolishes that determination’s natural form.3

If the fetishized commodity results in what the later Marxists of the Frankfurt School would call a kind of “second nature” yoked to the prerogatives of capital, then, Marx contended, it could be readily dispelled by the reclamation of labor’s true social character and the equitable redistribution of labor’s fruits. This economic epiphany would effectively dissolve the commodity’s false, attenuated, and self interested career as an immutable property of nature with the brute force of a house falling on the heads of its inhabitants.

As we know, this Marxist prophecy, like so many others, has run afoul of capitalism’s actually existing history. As capitalist production has taken on many subsequent guises, from Taylorite to post Fordist models of work discipline to its rampant financialization in the Information Age, one unmistakable constant has been the failure of labor’s incremental self realization to precipitate any crisis of higher capitalist purpose. Indeed, extending Marx’s own pioneering reflections on the idolatry of commodities and their exchange, one could go so far as to argue that the impersonal traffic in monetized exchange values has achieved still higher, and more bizarre, forms of mystifica- tion. The digital cult of the Bitcoin a stateless, universal, and decentralized currency bears perhaps the most powerful testimony to how a fetishized exchange commodity is venerated not merely as a revolutionary system of digital commerce but indeed an augur of the coming apotheosis of a new global libertarian power elite. Likewise, what is the “sharing economy,” which has undermined the pooled labor of taxi drivers and hospitality workers in major cities, but a digitized update of the fetishized commodity as Marx apprehended it in the mid nineteenth century? What, for that matter, is Amazon’s Dickensian Mechanical Turk app— the networked command system that outsources piecemeal tasks to the online retail giant’s just in time workforce—but a means of disbursing, and mystifying, the control of a laborer’s output, into casualized networks of piecemeal work?

When Marx asserted that “commodities, in short, appear as the purchasers of persons” in the guise of their labor,4 he actually managed to understate the case: he had posited, after all, that the persons purchased by the commodities presiding over industrial labor relations would awaken soon enough to their true interests and rise up against the conditions of their servitude. But as any cursory tour of the labor side of the digital economy makes plain, the fetishized commodity is, increasingly, absorbing not merely the value ascribed to the end product of work but the very organization of work itself. By virtue of the tech-revolutionary élan that the Bezos, Uber, and our other tech moguls have adopted as their premier market stratagem, we have seen the mission of the fetishized commodity brought to full fruition: We increasingly talk about our economy as if it has magically solved the problem of labor as a happy byproduct of the digital revolution. We fondly imagine that our newly commodified network of post industrial relations can seamlessly dictate just how, when, and in what branding format workers will materialize before the sovereign consumer. The glorious capitalist fever dream of perpetual labor flexibility has been conjured before us by the imperial Internet and this neat trick has neatly covered up a multitude of capitalist sins. If the nineteenth-century commodity’s main achievement was to conceal the true nature of labor relations by effacing the power struggles involved in its manufacture, the twenty-first century variant of the fetishized commodity is desperately trying to make it seem as if no one is compelling anyone to work at all. Workers are free agents in the same manner we imagine consumers to be all parties to a transaction in the sharing economy are flattened out into equivalent market players in a faux radical set of market relations. Why would, say, Uber drivers strike, when they can just as easily take their labor power over to Lyft? (This economically prostrate model of a free-agent workforce has been even more crippling for a constituency conspicuously omitted from most of our prior arguments about the political valences of consumer culture—the culture workers who create and interpret that culture themselves. Compared to the lot of the average musician, writer, or editor today, harried Uber drivers are members of a labor aristocracy—workers who enjoy levels of compensation and security that our corps of culture workers can only dream of. And of course the savage irony of the cult studies boom in the academy is that it coincided with the descent of the humanities professoriate into sweated, poverty level adjunct work—a labor debacle that most of our superstar cult stud professors were conspicuously silent on, with the honorable exception of NYU sociologist Andrew Ross.)

The twenty-first century variant of the fetishized commodity is desperately trying to make it seem as if no one is compelling anyone to work at all.

What is more, as labor has lost any sure footing in the face of the commodity’s steadily expanding sovereignty, so have the demarcations of individual identity through the taste preferences and micro allegiances of consumer culture asserted themselves with redoubled force, and with no regard for economic or ideological allegiances of any kind. Consumer sovereignty is now the watchword of everything—perhaps most especially of our own leftist political

culture, which displays a disconcerting fondness for the same uncritical tech boosterism that garlands the rise of the low price, labor soaking sharing economy.

To pick up further on my Daily Show misadventure: after my piece appeared, I was invited to sit in on an hour long public-radio panel to discuss recent media news, including Jon Stewart’s recently announced abdication. The talk soon turned to the well flogged subject of the New Media–Old Media divide—one in which I was assigned the most unsatisfactory default position of defending the “old” (or, as the voguish term now has it, “legacy”) print media as one of the last remaining (if decidedly teetering) bastions of America’s carelessly ransacked public sphere. Over against my arguments, a chorus of younger apostles of Twitter, Instagram, and other exotically individualized outlets of digital self expression assailed my fusty nostalgia as a telltale, even pathological, tic of an unreconstructed cultural conservative. One even serenely pronounced that “anxious” old white guys like me were “on the wrong side of history.”

Consumer sovereignty is now the watchword of everything—perhaps most especially of our own leftist political culture.

What was most telling, from my interviewee’s perch, was that the firebreathing rhetoric of liberation issuing from the New Media partisans on the panel was, in truth, indistinguishable from the marketing mantras that garland any new- media VC confab in Silicon Valley. A music producer on the show, for instance, cited the proliferation of political commentary on Twitter as nothing less than the “future of journalism.” Throughout the hour, the talk centered around the same buzzwords and glib neologisms you would find on any episode of the HBO satire Silicon Valley. The old “gatekeepers” of American media culture were being joyously upended, together with the “hierarchies” of news value that they had wanly presided over. The era of “one-to-many” media transmission had been rescinded, once and for all; in place of the “white men in suits” who had grimly dictated the daily news diet for an earlier patriarchal and terminally deferential America, we were seeing the spontaneous efflorescence of fearless, truth-telling sub communities on Twitter. There was, for example, the “passionate” and “engaged” community of African-American voices assembled under the hashtag of “black Twitter,” and the robust corps of feminist commentators who have powerfully shouted down emerging sexist memes on the service.

One sure sign of commodity fetishism is the careful process by which it is quarantined from sustained public scrutiny. My co-panelists did not make much mention of the countervailing reactionary subcultures that also have found accommodating homes on new social media platforms, apart from a rushed reference to ISIS beheading videos. Here, as in any Silicon Valley boardroom, the uglier, more abusive modes of self-expression enabled by our many-to-many networks of user generated content were confidently batted away as bugs, not features. When I meekly observed that we perhaps went overboard in ascribing inherently democratic features to technology—and that the same New Media transmission networks that my fellow panelists were hailing as the battering rams for a new digital age uprising of communards were also the platforms that the NSA was using to keep more and more of us under unaccountable surveillance—my status as a spoilsport Old Media white guy was officially sealed.

What was genuinely unnerving about this contretemps was that, beneath the enthusiastic refrains about New Media’s inherent liberating genius, it did not seem to advance much of a political outlook at all, at least not insofar as politics concerns the delineation of a public sphere, and argument over the goods contained within it. All that seemed to be involved in creating radical change, it appeared, was to commandeer a Twitter account and to recirculate a liberating meme or three. (This is also, by the way, the model of democratic resistance advanced by the U.S. Department of State, which is not exactly on the vanguard of global redistributive politics, as Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion, has noted.)

Just as the organization of labor has become both more casualized and radically privatized under the aegis of the fetishized commodities of the digital age, so has the consumption of digital goods bulked up into a strange new brand of anti-politics. It is of course dangerous to generalize from a tiny panel of duly vetted media mavens. Yet, at the same time, these were self-styled guardians of a tradition of cultural radicalism that has now become indistinguishable, in terms of its broader structural analysis, from the breathless, buzzword-laden applause lines of your average TED Talk. Clearly, where the cultures of dissent and Silicon Valley conformity blur indistinguishably into each other, the disembodied commodity has survived an unanticipated turn of the late capitalist screw. Fetishism of the commodity, it seems, is a body of superstition that, like evangelical Protestantism itself, has proved far more dura- ble than the bold prophecies of Marx foretold. The mystic aura originally ascribed to the commodity may have hardened and crystallized into money alongside the rise of the bourgeois order, but in today’s information economy, the digital-libertarian vanguard seeks to engineer the rise of the Bitcoin and a new utopian age of stateless “seasteading” experiments in market based deliberate communal life, thereby rendering both money and the network of nation states that thrive on its exchange a dead letter. And this, in turn, suggests just how thoroughly the commodity has been unloosed from the bonds of the industrial age; no longer content with purchasing persons, the digitized commodity is casually annexing our political imagination—and along with it, our ability to envision a different, more just social order. It is no doubt premature to speculate any further on the strange new modes of pseudo revolutionary expression and recursive brands of technology worship that lay in wait for the next prophetic phases of our wired political order. At the same time, however, it would be a still greater mistake to confuse the low rumbling of a fresh stampede of Twitter hashtags for the sound of the foundation giving way beneath the house of capital’s floorboards.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Notes

  1. Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929), 271.
  2. 2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990), 179.
  1. Ibid., 168. 4. Ibid., 1003.