21 March 2011

Commodification ain't all bad

There's one good thing about, as Uncle Charlie said, money under capitalism making everything equal to everything else; and, as Walter Benjamin put it, mass reproduction removing the "aura" from previously meaningful individual objects, like works of art. Mass production means that nothing gets lost forever. Everything can be replaced - and, in the era of the Internet, if it can be digitised, these days nothing need be lost at all.

That's a good thing, in some ways. I'm a music nerd, myself, and I remember 15 years ago having to desperately hunt through the used bins of record stores, trying to fine rare and beautiful music from past decades which hadn't made it to CD yet, and hoping the vinyl wouldn't be too scratched up. Sometimes I'd hunt years for a particular album. Now, I can generally find anything I want with a thirty-second Google; and, perversely, the greater the rarity and obscurity of something, the more likely that someone will have slapped it up on some dodgy blog somewhere. (Less obscure stuff will have been commercially re-released and I'll have to pay for it.)

But it's a bad thing in that, as Walter B. put it, it has put an end to the category of the sacred. The individual as created by late capitalist society no longer has a "homeland", in the way we would have understood it when your average human never ventured more than thirty miles from their place of birth. They no longer have sacred traditions handed down from generation to generation - they have professional gurus who earn an honest capitalist living from their work, who will teach you any practice from any culture you can name, and a few they made up on the spot. And they certainly no longer have sacred objects.

Even thirty years ago, in my childhood, even mass consumer objects were sacred, because mass consumption hadn't gotten to the point where everything was replaceable, or at least, easily replaceable. People would still take their toasters to be fixed or sew buttons on their jeans, when these days it's much more convenient and easy to buy new ones. In a previous era, before deliberate obsolescence, even consumer items could have some whiff of "the sacred", if they were looked after and cared for and had the precious labour of their owners poured into them. A basic principle of Chaos Marxism might be expressed: labour is not only the source of value, it is the source of meaning. If I rip a $50 jacket I got at K Mart, no biggie, any $50 bill will get me one that's identical. If I rip a really cool jacket I got for 10 euros at a second-hand store in some obscure country, I might never be able to replace it. If something bad happens to my computer system with all my finely coded information on it, that's a disaster coupled with a nightmare.

So that's what's behind "vintage culture", steampunk, Goth, SCA, whatever - the attempt to create a culture of objects which are totally individual and therefore meaningful, even sacred. To some extent, my musical project - which is dependent on low-budget equipment linked together in idiosyncratic, customised ways - epitomises this connection. What is commodified or "weightless" can never be lost (as long as the means of information reproduction are intact - someone's brain, a piece of paper, a computer, whatever). But physical things which are individually customised and individualised cannot be gotten off a shelf for mere money. It may be lost forever, and is therefore precious, even sacred. So is my music essentially reactionary, attempting to return to an era of "artisanship" rather than glorifying in what is truly weightless, truly disposable? Or is it just an attempt to turn the essence of "me" into something that can't be imitated, that isn't a commodity?

In the current era, nothing is permanent except information artefacts and the Culture. In some weird way, the current era (of relative abundance of mass-produced STUFF) is less materialistic than it ever has been. As communists have said for hundreds of year, morality will come naturally to human beings when the struggle to accumulate "stuff" comes to its end. Of course, this current "false liberation" (for the well-off in "the West", including places like Bangalore and the Green Zone in Baghdad) will all come crashing to a halt when the current economic system reaches its end point, 20-40 years from now. (The information artefacts are only permanent as long as there are freely available storage devices on which they can be copied, and power to run those storage devices on.)

So, we'll have to find a way to make abundance not only generalised, but long-term sustainable. The answer will surely have something to do with "expanding the public" - i.e. minimising how much "stuff" any human needs to own to be a fully participating member of the Culture. Other socialists have pointed out that community daycare and socialised housework would lead to the liberation of women - surely, for example, high-quality public transport and free car share on demand would liberate us from the twin demons of Oil and Suburbia.

But it might explain the big boom in "magick" of the late 90's and why that seems to have petered out now. "Magick" is to the current era of hacktivism, culture-from-below, the Pirate Bay, Anonymous etc. what alchemy is to chemistry - the former being people who know in theory something should be possible (which the rise of mass media and the dawn of infotech made obvious from the late 60's onwards), but going at it with ridiculous "cargo-cult" style tools that don't work. Now, we have something that works.


  1. I 'm not sure if this comment is posting, but I'm making copies of it to further illustrate my point ;)



    Commodification is illusory in the sense that all equivalencies fall apart when examined closely enough. Well, lets take your example of digital commodities. Surely reproductions of digital artifacts can be judged equivalent? I have to say no. The problem is that you are constructing the digital commodity outside of the larger historical context. You must be judged simultaneously with the artifact in question. Sure you can construct an MP3 ex nihilo, but does it makes sense? Thus, digital artifacts can and will be lost, as the larger political and historical processes push them to the periphery of cultural awareness.

  2. Thanks for your efforts, comrade. I should point out that we premoderate our comments here, so it sometimes takes a while for them to show up. :)