Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 1% think you're a marionette.

We Liberals get called Marxists a lot, particularly by Tea Baggers. It's a stupid thing to say; most of them know exactly the same amount about Marx as Glenn Beck. Because, that's where they learned it.

(all photos from Wikimedia Commons)

But the truth is, Marx is extraordinarily useful if you can ignore his pretensions. His claims that he discovered a "science of history", his predictions regarding the future course of civilization, even his analysis of the history of economic relations can all be safely dismissed. But as a critic of Capitalism...

well, he's Freud. His insights more than make up for his goofiness.

Of particular interest is his concept of commodity fetishism. This idea has been worked over and modified by a number of different thinkers since Marx, but the most simple explanation of it is this: commodity fetishization is the attribution of characteristics to a commodity which it does not objectively possess.

And, with one stroke, we can explain the phenomenon of advertising in its entirety.

Classical economists, (and apologists for the American practice of Capitalism) will insist that the primary purpose of advertising is informational. It conveys price and quality information to potential buyers, and so "lubricates" market mechanisms.

In fact, the primary purpose of advertising is the fetishization of the commodity. Motorcycles become symbols of virility. Realtors become selfless guides to a family's happiness. And you can lose your "man-card" if you don't drink a really shitty, cheap, rice-based beer fermented with enzymes. (Sorry, that one is especially laughable)

I get several different responses to this idea.

"I don't buy that stuff because of the ads, I buy it because I like it!" OK. Why do you like it? And the end point of such discussions (just before the part where they call me an asshole) is inevitably "I just do!"

"Who are you to tell me what I should like?" I don't care what you like, specifically. I am fascinated with the reasons why you like it, and what the implications are for neoclassical market theory. If demand for a commodity is more than a function of its quality and price... if demand can be stimulated by associating a product with qualities it doesn't objectively possess...

then the incentive to maximize quality and minimize price is reduced for producers. Or eliminated completely.

"If people are dumb enough to fall for that shit, they deserve it." Well, maybe. That's an opinion though, not an objective fact. And it's completely unrelated to the justifications apologists for Capitalism make for Capitalist practice.

(Capitalism apologist and welfare recipient Ayn Rand)

(Milton Friedman, who thought Democracy couldn't exist without Capitalism)

The fact of the matter is this; "capitalism", and "free market" are concepts which themselves have become fetishized. The meaning attached to the words has gone beyond mere description. They have become legitimizing symbols of the current system; when Americans hear the words something inside them stands up and puts its hand over it's heart.

But "capitalism", as practiced in the United States has nothing to do with free markets. Capitalism is rather the "privileging" of accumulated capital in the market, at the expense of actors with less capital. It is the institutionalization of power asymmetries in order to maximize the profits of capitalists, irrespective of supply, demand or quality.

And one key element in this power imbalance is commodity fetishization. They're not selling you masculinity, you dumb shit....

They're selling you a truck, when what you probably need is a car.