Are We Turning into Commodities?

Slavoj Žižek, in a recent London Review of Books article, alleges that the capitalist mode of generating wealth has changed. Money can still be made through the production of material goods – but the big bucks are now being made by privatizing everyday life and leasing it back to consumers.  So, for example,

“…Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field [of computational technology], as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms”

This example evinces what we can usefully think of as the capitalization in part of Wittgensteinian ‘forms of life’.  A ‘form of life’ is a useful heuristic for capturing a community’s shared biological and cultural background, in terms of traditional and entrenched patterns of behaviour, in a single phrase.  Žižek’s point is that these patterns of behaviour, which form the ‘general intellect’, are being exapted: parts are being adopted, built upon, and changed to create a new pattern of behaviour, which are then rented out or sold to consumers.

According to Žižek, this privitization of the general intellect is facilitated vis-à-vis a switchover in the mechanism of generating goods: from the 19th and early 20th century mode of predominantly industrial production of material goods, to now one centred on immaterial production.  Immaterial production runs the professional gamut from computer programmers to palliative caregivers, and comes in two main flavours: production that creates (or cumulates, after a prolonged process) a kind of material good, like a computer program, a set of pictures, a book, etc.; or a kind of production that is exhausted in – that is, not separable from – the very act of production, such a play, a street performance, the administration of medical care, dispensing advice, etc.. This kind of immaterial production, Žižek states, is now ‘hegemonic’ – the driving means of wealth generation of our economy.

You might well question, ‘what exactly is being produced?’ Immaterial production clearly has something to do with our general way of going about and doing things – but what does it do? –improve our situation? –lead us toward some ideal state? Well, dispensing with any ideas of teleology (except the generation of wealth, of course) Žižek states: “The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life”.  In other words, what’s being produced are new ways of interacting with the world, and with one another.

So with this in mind, while Microsoft is certainly a fine example of the way in which a pattern of behaviour (our way of doing business, managing paper-work, writing, etc.) has been taken-over, and sold back to us – a more pertinent example today is Facebook.  Facebook has taken over and now regulates a great deal of intersubjective communication.  It has effectively co-opted MySpace and online Bulletin Boards (which in turn co-opted real-life equivalents) to create a new space where people interact and share and discuss.  Facebook has essentially privatized a way of engaging with other people.  Correlatively, it’s not surprising that, with such a large chunk of our ‘general intellect’ caught up in engaging with other people, that Facebook’s initial public offering is estimated between 80 and 120 billion dollars.

But wait, you might think, I’m not paying to use Facebook. And that’s true.  But it doesn’t mean that Facebook isn’t renting out and capitalizing on the space it has opened up.  It utilizes the vast amount of traffic on its site to generate advertising and interfacing revenue.  What it’s renting out is space and attention – our space and attention.  Facebook leases out our sustained and repeated absorption in its website.  This is why the quote opening the BBC article linked to above is so appropriate: “If you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

Facebook has turned our focus and attention – has turned us – into products.

4 thoughts on “Are We Turning into Commodities?”

  1. But you could make the same kind of point at any time in history.

    “Nightclubs privatized flirting” “Phone companies privatized conversation”

    Or even further back, “Farmers took the act of eating and sold it back to us – before farming, anyone could just go out and hunt or gather their own food!”

    The argument assumes a former state of nature in which we weren’t commodities. A Garden of Eden if you will – and Just as real.

    1. Hello Neuroskeptic, and thank you for your comment.
      I’m sorry to say it, but I pretty much disagree with you, and I don’t really think your criticism really touches in any significant way what I – or the article I was drawing from – was getting at.

      First of all yes, to a certain extent – and this is something I didn’t have room for in the article – purchasing material goods certainly does impact on the way one lives one’s life. If this was all you were getting at, I’d agree – but it seems like you want more? Please correct me if this is wrong. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that a monopoly or a privatization of the production of a material good implies a similar monopoly of what people do with those goods. Buying an axe means that one can handle all sorts of chopping- and hewing- related tasks. Fine. But I don’t think this means that General Axe and Co. has privatized gathering round the fire singing songs – yet this is what it seems you’re asserting.

      The farmer example is the exact opposite, in fact, of what I was getting at. The production of material goods (i.e. produce, grain, what have you) is, according to Zizek, the old method of generating wealth, and is more or less schematized and understood in terms of conservative Marxist and economic thought. So to say that ‘farming privatized ‘eating’ and is leasing it back to us’ is simply a facile statement, and to really misread what the article was about: a switch of the mode of generating wealth from material to immaterial production, which allows for a privatization of the general intellect.

      The night-club example is closer, but still doesn’t right true as a real counter-example. Yes, night-clubs attract customers by being a place where people congregate – but they don’t make money simply through congregation, by being a space where people flirt and cavort. They make money when people purchase a material good, i.e. booze. What kind of booze, and the price of booze will certainly change the demographic of people coming in (loud, ear drum-thumping rave-clubs with alcopops won’t exactly attract the single flirty types – maybe the younger seeking-new-experience kids, maybe), and these might be tweaked so as to attract the maximum amount of desperately single people. But even with this a slick marketing campaign (‘The place where singles meet!’, et.c), or perhaps, the sponsoring of a rapid-fire date night – night clubs are still only making money through drink/food sales. So to say that night-clubs have ‘privatized flirting’ also isn’t true.

      I suppose I should have been more picky with my examples, my language, and indeed the title – it is a little sensational, I admit – because you’re right, it might have seemed like I was implying that we were never commodities. This is a mistake. Even in Marxist thought, people, labour, is a huge, is THE, commodity. But ‘people’ were understood in terms of the material goods they produced – the farmers producing grain, the workers on the assembly line, etc.. What the switch to the immaterial mode of production meant, however, was a different way of capitalizing on people: wealth is generated by the experience one is given, the way one is interacted with, the way one’s ‘perception’ (in an existential sense) is altered. What is ‘privatized’ in these cases is, as I quoted in the article, a matter of “new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.”. So perhaps, out of your three examples, “phone companies privatized conversation” is the closest you come to a real example of what I was getting at. But this really doesn’t push the date back very far in history. Maybe to the 1930’s? Certainly within the 20th Century, and probably closer to the middle of the century, when phones became generally affordable. But this certainly doesn’t license the statement that this same point could be made ‘at any time in history’.

      1. Thanks for the reply.

        OK, I admit the farming analogy is a little off the point. But farming didn’t just change the kind of food people ate. It made possible a huge increase in the population, compared to hunter-gathering, which meant that once a given society became agricultural, a (very large until mechanization) proportion of the population *had* to live as farmers or they’d starve. And that of course forced them into certain forms of life and certain mental structures and social relationships.

        It’s true that this wasn’t the original point of agriculture and that no-one made a profit from it, but I wonder whether that’s relevant? I can’t see how that makes a difference to the farmers concerned.

        Again with nightclubs, you’re right that technically they make a profit from selling booze. But actually I think that just proves my point, because clubs sell drinks at incredibly high prices that no-one would pay for if that were the only thing they offered.

        If you just wanted to get drunk and listen to loud music you could do it for 10% of the price at home with a bottle of Tesco Value vodka. Or for 50% of the price at a pub or whatever. So the fact that clubs are a viable business model shows that they’re not really selling alcohol, they’re selling a social product…

        I do accept that “the switch to the immaterial mode of production meant, however, was a different way of capitalizing on people: wealth is generated by the experience one is given, the way one is interacted with, the way one’s ‘perception’ (in an existential sense) is altered.” But I think my objection to this is that I don’t think it’s really new except that it’s more explicit nowadays. I think that this has always been going on, just behind the scenes, as it were.

    2. Hello again neuroskeptic, and thank you for your reply,
      I’m sorry, but I think I’m still not getting my points across to you.

      Initially, you’re arguing for something I admitted in my first reply, something that I didn’t have room for in the original article. I agree that changes and improvements in the production of material goods will have correlated effects in the social structures of society. Bam. Agreed.

      However, immaterial production is fundamentally distinct from this. It makes money off of the very changes in social structures of society – not from producing some material thing that in turn changes social structures. We value a well-being, and a long life (presumably so we can make fat stacks of cash) so we visit doctor’s, masseuses, personal trainers, etc. What do these folks do? They support and propagate this structure of well-being and long-living. Any material goods produced are secondary (in a structural sense) to this immaterial good (the doctor’s prescription that leads to medication, etc.).

      Alternatively, think of an iPhone. Why do we buy them? It’s not that they’re really any better than Nokia or Sony phones. All phones have (more or less) the same suite of features now. We purchase them because of the suite of proprietary software they come with, that exploits programs and apps and gyroscopes &c. This is the opposite temporal relationship than the one above (material -> immaterial, rather than immaterial -> material), but the idea is the same: the structures being propagated, and where the cashola is actually being made, are fundamentally immaterial. Or perhaps, to be more fair, a mix of material (technological innovation) and immaterial (iphone proprietary software, apps, etc.).

      Now, with this iphone example, I’m starting to warm to your idea of nightclubs, but not for the reasons you’re saying – which I think is pretty easy to disprove. There are many reasons that people pay more for drinks than they have to: they don’t want to buy an entire bottle of something; they want to try a variety of prepared cocktails they might not have all the ingredients for at home; they want to try a couple products back-to-back; for whatever reason they can’t have booze at home; etc. There are plenty of reasons that people go to bars that have _nothing_ to do with the relative price of alcohol.

      That being said, it does make sense that certain clubs, and certain situations, can be properly characterized as immaterial goods. Mea culpa, you’re right. You purchase admission to access a fun, bumpin place (and if your teenage years were anything like mine, you pre-drank or smuggled in booze to avoid the high alcohol prices) to dance and generally have fun. And yes, these sorts of clubs have been around for a while.

      However, this still doesn’t disprove the point of the article – that immaterial production has become the _dominant_ mode or mechanism of generating wealth. That it has done so by _displacing_ material production. No one wants to deny that immaterial production has existed for a long long time. What is novel about capitalism today is, according to Zizek, the fact that this immaterial production makes the most money now, and it does so predominantly through the privitization of the general intellect.

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