In our neoliberal times, the figure of the commodity has come to dominate all aspects of social life, giving rise to a form of turbo-consumerism. This is a result of the economic logic of late-stage monopoly capitalism, which is afflicted with the problem of under-consumption – an abundance of production always runs up against saturated consumption and investment markets. In order to absorb potential economic surplus and preempt excess capacity, “business interests,” writes Mary V. Wrenn, “must continuously search for new markets to exploit or entice existing customers who stand ready to buy the latest product, iteration, or service, and to induce new investment.” This expansion of market shares and reach is done through “marketing efforts: research and development of new, marginally improved, or slightly more specialized products; packaging and re-packaging design and materials; and general promotional efforts such as advertising campaigns, public relations events, and consumer relationship management”.
The structurally entrenched presence of commodity culture relies on aesthetic promises of use-value that autonomize the image of the commodity, detaching its “surface, sensuality and meaning in a way that its aesthetic ‘second skin’ becomes completely disembodied and ‘drifts unencumbered like a multi-colored spirit of the commodity into every household, preparing the way for the real distribution of the commodity’.” Corporate honchos flood our phenomenological experience with these aesthetic abstractions, preventing us from seeing the commodity as it is steadily made omnipresent throughout all areas of society. With the help of its economic power, the bourgeoisie mechanically produces and reproduces the commodity at multiple levels of reality and representation, manufacturing what Guy Debord calls a “spectacle”: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”.
By emphasizing that the bourgeoisie’s basic operations consist of the mediation of society through commodity-images, Debord points towards the ontologically distorted nature of capitalist accumulation. In the words of Clayton Rosati, capitalist society is “trapped in the particular mediation of social intercourse by images of its own production…we are not trapped by just any images or distractions; the enslavement of society by images describes the absolute compulsion to work, to acquire symbols, in order to return them to our masters for survival.” Thus, the spectacle is rooted in the undemocratic nature of capitalist production, in which the producers have no substantive control over what is being produced, how it is being produced, or how the surplus is being distributed. This lack of human regulation means that the products of proletarian labour get appropriated by those who exercise authoritarian power over the labor process – they become the wealth of the capitalist owners. Commodities become an alien power, one that is used by the bourgeoisie to increase the misery and poverty of the working class.
The spectacle, insofar as it is embedded in the alienating effects of capitalism, presents the power of human capacities in a perverse and disempowering fashion. Debord notes: “The worker does not produce himself; he produces an independent power. The success of this production, its abundance, returns to the producer as an abundance of dispossession. All the time and space of his world become foreign to him with the accumulation of his alienated products. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map which exactly covers its territory. The very powers which escaped us show themselves to us in all their force…The Spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.” In other words, the spectacle has important effects on the political ontology of subalterns, disallowing them from seeing the commodity in a totalizing perspective, one that enables them to explore its socio-historical basis. In the absence of this denaturalizing viewpoint, the phenomenal experience of everyday life comes in conflict with the universal structuring principle of that life.
“We encounter a commodity,” comments Anna Kornbluh, “like a pair of sneakers or an iced latte, and the bounded contours of the object incline us to think that the object exists for its own sake, possessing intrinsic properties.” In this way, self-perception comes to be based on objectified and individuated reality, a reality wherein the structural-genetic preconditions and processual character of social facts are forgotten. “The shoes are cool; the latte is delicious. It is hard to hold in our head the thought that the coolness is the product of the labor of marketers, designers, seamstresses, and rubber harvesters, that the latte is the product of early rising baristas, ice-maker mechanics, and foreign farmers. This difficulty means that our experience is akin to constant, instantaneous encounter with free-floating chimeras: we see, use, and enjoy commodities without the ability to integrate them into the relational system that produces them.” This dissolution of the constitutive processes of social life into separated fragments greatly weakens the political capacities of proletarian subjectivity.
In opposition to the atomizing tendency of the commodity-form, we need to retrieve the viewpoint of totality. However, totality has to be regarded not as an affirmative category but a critical-experimental tool. This methodological approach has crucial political implications. Johan F. Hartle remarks that the integrative standpoint of totality “cannot simply be read as a matter of pure reflection – mirroring pre-given structures in consciousness, in scientific analysis”. The kind of structural interconnections implied by a totalizing viewpoint are “not pre-given by any kind of directly accessible empirical reality”. Given this fact, totality has to be aspired to and actively created, “in the concrete sense that it has to break with the already known reality of the habitualized knowledge of facts.” And such a break with the mundane oppressiveness of reality can only come through communist mutinies that boldly refuse to comply with the dazzling dictates of the commodity.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.