The Commodification of the Lifeworld
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.
If that project were ever to be fulfilled we would find ourselves in a new, and much more virulent pandemic: corporate capitalist totalitarianism through the commodification of all that lives, thinks and breathes.