• Fred Guerin

Commodification and COVID Capitalism

To commodify something, say a work of art or the environment, is to turn it into that which can be bought or sold. The end goal of capitalism is literally to ‘commodify’ the entire planet: trees, water, mountains, non-human and human animals, music, arts, goods, services, information, innovations, trade, human organs, prisons.

Slavery and human trafficking are perhaps the most obvious and egregious example of how human beings can be commodified. Extractive industries commodify what is beneath the ground. Corporate money managers, banks, junk-bond dealers and lenders ‘financialize’ entire economies (another form of commodification). A financialized economy is where profits are not made from producing goods or services of material value, but rather from usury and the manipulation of debt.

But, it is not just material objects, services, public spaces and debt that can be commodified. Social relations, politics, consent and dissent can also be commodified. Facebook takes the notions of friendship, human sociality and solidarity—things that are necessary and intrinsically good—and turns them into things that can be bought and sold by firms like Cambridge Analytica, who then use this information to predict and influence the buying and selling choices of ‘consumers’.

Politicians and indeed democracy itself are bought and sold by a powerful and moneyed elite who make certain that the right people and the appropriate policies are put in place—in other words, those persons and policies that securely establish and safeguard elite interests. If you are Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi or Justin Trudeau you will profit greatly, both financially and politically, just so long as you willingly allow bankers and corporate CEO’s to run the show.

In their ground-breaking work, Manufacturing Consent, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky lay bare how mass communication systems and mainstream news is filtered through a system of propaganda designed to cater to the financial and political interests and preferences of corporations and their advertisers. In this propaganda system journalists who appropriately self-censor, promote and routinize the status quo capitalist system and imperialist order are granted privileged access to those in power. They treat politicians as celebrities and become celebrities themselves. In this way news is pre-packaged into entertaining bytes. Real investigative journalists—the muckrakers—do not survive long in a mainstream news forum.

Thus, instead of critical analysis of the powerful and a focus on public interests and real issues of the day, news gradually becomes commodified as ‘infotainment’. The movie ‘Network’ brilliantly and presciently captured this phenomenon way back in 1973. News commodification, is really the commodification of consent and it plays a central ideological role: it employs ‘soft news’ stories to disguise and divert attention from the harsh realities of neo-liberal capitalism and imperialism, while encouraging consumers to endlessly consume.

But if consent can be co-opted and commodified, so too can dissent. Many so-called left thinkers and critics practice dissent—but only to a point. Perhaps the most perfect illustration of how commodified dissent operates is described by Vaclav Havel in ‘The Power of the Powerless’:

“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean? I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society,".

A more contemporary example is the commodification of Greta Thunberg by the environmental movement—who are mostly very careful not to call for an end to the real causes of climate warming: i.e. neoliberal extractive capitalism, extreme wealth and war.

The left liberal consensus is anti-Trump, but not anti-capitalism; it is pro-Biden but not pro-democratic socialism; it is the trivial cancel-culture but not cancel debt and poverty. The monopolized and homogenous dissent that is ubiquitous across news media and social media news feeds simply does not allow for anything truly radical to break with an already manufactured consent. This is truly dangerous: it lulls us into a sense of self-satisfaction and disables us from critically engaging the powerful systems of cruel economics and malevolent corporate practices that threaten to burn the planet down. The commodification of consent and dissent—in essence the commodification of human language and thinking is the final offensive of a neo-liberal capitalist system.

There are Alternatives

I have said over and over that neoliberal policies and the capitalist logic regarding intellectual property rights means more people will get sick and die of COVID. There is, however, another way...and it was outlined 44 years ago in 1978 during an International Conference on Primary Health Care. It was called the Alma Ata Declaration. Its optimistic goal was 'health for all' by the year 2000. It never even came close to getting there. Why?

About two years later, beginning in 1980, the forces of neoliberal austerity, privatization and deregulation took over and ensured that health for all would never happen. The focus of the Alma Ata Declaration was on what it called 'primary health care'. Under the principle of primary health care, health is not merely about the body's physical and mental condition. Good health is inextricably related to social, economic and political priorities and understood as a fundamental human right. From this perspective, inequality, poverty, exploitation, violence and injustice are at the root of ill‐health and the deaths of poor and marginalised people.

The 1978 declaration called for all governments to formulate national policies, strategies and plans of action "to launch and sustain primary health care as part of a comprehensive national health system and in coordination with other sectors. To this end, it will be necessary to exercise political will, to mobilize the country's resources and to use available external resources rationally." This would require a coordinated and cooperative approach since the health of people in any one country directly concerns and benefits every other country.

The Alma Ata world-health approach stressed promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative services, education regarding prevailing health issues, methods of preventing and controlling disease, the promotion of food supply and proper nutrition; an adequate supply of safe water and basic sanitation; maternal and child health care, including family planning; immunization against the major infectious diseases; prevention and control of locally endemic diseases; appropriate treatment of common diseases and injuries; and provision of essential drugs.

All of the above priorities have been possible since 1978. Despite unprecedented levels of wealth in the world, it did not happen because powerful moneyed interests did not want it to happen. It did not happen because transnational corporations and international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation did everything possible to prevent it. It did not happen because the neoliberal political and economic priorities of rich nations refused to even consider a more equitable distribution of resources and opted instead to allow wealth to be concentrated in a very few greedy hands.

If there is one significant lesson we should take away from the present pandemic it is that universal people‐centered initiatives regarding the environment and human health and well-being must now take first priority. That means that we must understand global illness and death from COVID-19 was not merely a consequence of a virulent pathogen, but the result of failed economic, social and health policies imposed on the major populations of the world; the result of a grievous lack of global coordination and cooperation and instead hoarding and vaccine nationalism; the result of intellectual property rights that prevent poor countries from developing cheap vaccines.

Need an example of a clueless neoliberal who thinks capitalism and commodification is the answer to the experience of death and suffering during a pandemic? Here’s a perfect one:

“The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends---by giant corporations that wanted to give good returns to shareholders.” Boris Johnson

No, Boris. The reality is that governments the world over invested millions in public funds so that pharmaceutical companies could accelerate vaccine research and development. The scientists at Oxford University who developed a vaccine wanted to make it patent-free, before AstraZeneca swept in and privatized and patented the whole works.

So, what 'greed' did—as it always does in a neoliberal economy—is commodify, privatize and monopolize vaccines made possible by public resources. What greed did was ensure that more people from the global south would die because they were prevented by pharmaceutical companies from making their own vaccines. What greed is doing is prolonging the pandemic.

While Boris Johnson celebrates the greed of his 'friends', Pfizer and Moderna rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the world is held hostage by the greed of corporations who profit from extreme wealth inequality, ecological destruction and human misery.

You can access the Alma Ata Declaration here: https://www.paho.org/English/DD/PIN/alma-ata_declaration.htm An updated document called the People’s Charter for Health was formulated by participants of the First People’s Health Assembly held at Dhaka, Bangladesh in December 2000. It can be accessed here: https://phmovement.org/the-peoples-charter-for-health/

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