The crisis of commodities for the concept of capitalism

Capital today pursues the goal of its own accumulation through a bizarre inversion of its materials. On the one had, what Karl Polanyi dubbed “fictitious commodities” – namely money, land, and labour1 – are increasingly commodified by modern law and fiscal policy (a topic beyond the scope of this essay). Yet on the other, those objects that another Karl would have readily recognised in his day as commodities (Waren)2, have been subjected over the past century to a process of rapid decommodification.

The capitalism of old relied on the notion of Homo economicus, a rational individual who sought out largely homogenous commodities at the best available price, as and when they needed them. But the all-pervading advertising industry developed by capital (through the vehicle of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays) in the early twentieth century to accelerate accumulation now does all it can to encourage individuals to behave irrationally. Advertising plus prosperity shifted the economies of advanced Western nations from economies of need to economies of want. No longer did the interests of capital lie in the utilitarian consumer: instead, the consumer had to be reprogrammed to behave irrationally, buying things they didn’t need at uncompetitive prices. In short, they had to be trained to stop buying commodities, and start buying post-commodities.

Consumers today increasingly buy not use values (Gebrauchswert)3, but stories (what Guy Debord calls “star commodities”, vedettes-marchandise)4: this car will take you on adventures, this deodorant will make you irresistible to women, this handbag will make people like you more. The transition from industrial capitalism to consumerism has produced a peculiar fusion of commodity fetishism with pre-capitalist mythical society.

During the earlier stages of capitalism, as Debord points out in The Society of the Spectacle, exchange value – though distorted by market forces – maintained an essential link with use value, because the consumption of goods in society was still largely determined by utility. In the age of advertising and designer brands however, that link has been all but severed5. Two products with exactly the same propensity to fulfill exactly the same function can sell at radically different price points to radically different consumers, simply because of a logo. This not only lulls us into a manifold of artifice (le spectacle)6, but undermines the very effectiveness of the capitalist system, because market saturation no longer induces price competition which forces capitalists to switch to the production of things that society actually needs in order to make a profit.

In their paper, The Economic Life of Things7, Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre divide “things” into three categories: commodities, as conventionally understood, and two categories of post-commodity, collectibles – broadly analogous to Debord’s vedettes-marchandise – and assets. Like advertising before it, finance has fundamentally revolutionised the mechanics of capitalism and brought about a modern economy in which speculative investment – investment in assets – competes with productive investment for the affections of capital, thus supplanting the production of genuine commodities.

The failure of the tax system to discriminate effectively against returns on productive and speculative investments – erroneously lumped together under the misnomer “capital gains” – only exacerbates this. Attempts to stimulate productive investment by cutting capital gains tax only serve to increase the relative attractiveness of speculative investments.8 Fixing this is not straightforward: a simple new-issue shares/bonds equals productive investment, “assets” equals speculative investment formula is vulnerable to exploitation via new companies being set up who issue new shares, but derive all or most of their profits from speculative activities. But if we are to find a solution to this crisis of value9 – whereby the production of actual use values (in the form of genuine commodities) is supplanted by a virtual economy of speculative gambling – then CGT must be replaced with a smarter framework for the taxation of profit.

Having just emerged from a seemingly fundamental crisis, the vague notion of “capitalism” is still the only game in town. Though flawed, I will not venture here to suggest there is an obviously better alternative. But everyone, those who critique and those who proselytise for capitalism alike, must accept that the economic system that is dominant today is unrecognisable from that of the late nineteenth century, and thus the term “capitalism” – originally predicated on the formula M‑C‑M’ 10– is fundamentally meaningless.

[1] Polanyi, Karl; The Great Transformation, 1944
[2] Marx, Karl; Das Kapital, Buch I: Der Produktionsprocess des Kapitals, 1867
[3] Marx, ibid.
[4] Debord, Guy; La Société du spectacle, 1967
[5] Debord, ibid.: “Exchange value could arise only as a representative of use value, but the victory it eventually won with its own weapons created the conditions for its own autonomous power. By mobilizing all human use value and monopolizing its fulfillment, exchange value ultimately succeeded in controlling use. Use has come to be seen purely in terms of exchange value, and is now completely at its mercy. Starting out like a condottiere in the service of use value, exchange value has ended up waging the war for its own sake.” (translated by Ken Knabb)
[6] Debord, ibid.
[7] Boltanski, Luc; Esquerre, Arnaud; The Economic Life of Things, New Left Review vol. 98 (March-April 2016) pp. 31-56
[8] If Y is the yield on a particular investment, and T is the rate of capital gains tax, the ratio between the return on two investments – and thus the relative attractiveness of the juicier over the drier – is:   {{1 + Y_1 (1-T)}\over{1 + Y_2 (1-T)}},Y_1 >= Y_2 , which increases as T decreases.
[9] Westra, Richard; Unleashing Usury: How Finance Opened the Door for Capitalism then Swallowed it Whole, 2016
[10] Marx, ibid.


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