Thursday, February 5, 2009

Objectification: a subtle but central process in capitalism

Che, Marx and Angels have been objectified!

Occasionally, I am involved in discussions with my colleagues and friends and these discussions can focus on anything under the sun. Often, wherever I can, I don’t forget to look at the things from critical political economic perspective which has the root in Marxism and Neo-Marxism. Even in the feminist and media discourses, I clearly see the impact that the capitalism has. This divides me between Marxism and Neo-Marxism; which is more important - base structure i.e. means of material production like capital, labor and technology or the superstructure i.e. ideology and culture?

Marxists are very adamant in their stance that base structure is the most important while neo-Marxists like Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser postulate that superstructure helps the base structure to rule over the proletariats without using violent and recursive measures. These ideologies don’t but differ only in the ways to achieve the ultimate goal i.e. the rule of the proletariats. Marxists advocate for violent proletariats’ movement while Gramsci advocated for the ‘war of position’ (culture and ideology) to sustain the achievements of the ‘war of movement’ (violent proletariat struggle). The Neo-Marxist perspective even influences the philosophers as late as Michael Foucault who said nothing exists beyond discourse and Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno who focused on critical cultural studies.

However, both of these ideologies agree that the ultimate weapon of capitalism is commodification/objectification. And the process is so subtle and smooth; it passes without our knowledge and many times transcends beyond the purview of our observation. The higher level of commodification is, in Barthes’ term, ‘Myths’. Gradually, the commodification results into construction of myths which carries the process beyond questioning. There are myths like beauty which I dealt in my earlier write-up – fair, tall and thin; blond hair or like that. There are myths about social status – rich and studied (though we may well disagree but of course, the former will be given more importance in this capitalist world which has resulted into the notion – how much you earn counts before how you earn). We live by the democracy myth – the system of government which well protects the rights of the majority and mighty and damn cares about the minorities and oppositions. The discipline myth never goes against the establishments or in the favor of the muted groups existing in the society. The arts i.e. painting, music, theatre, pictures, movies and everything are myths. So, there are myths everywhere around us. We live with myths. Myths help us in formation of ideologies which ultimately help us place ourselves in the ongoing discourses and make meaning of the world.

So, we see that commidification provides essence to many of the subsequent philosophies in a manifest or latent ways. Now, it is important to see how the commodification works in our society. As Marx and Angels have put through in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

Yeah. The bourgeoisie has capitalized everything under the sun and even beyond the sun. Let’s take an example of extreme capitalism- the bourgeoisie has even capitalized the Marx and Angels themselves and one of the most revolutionaries Che Guevara. They have commodified the pictures of Marx and Che and sold to the market to boost their profit. Che is the icon of many of the modern youths. And yes, the capitalists are very quick to cash this opportunity and they are selling Che in t-shirts, key rings and even under wears. This is the height of capitalism. In doing so, the tradespeople are never promoting Che, instead commercializing or objectifying him and his image which is central to Capitalism. What I am trying to establish is that however, the objectification is not so easy and straight forward process.

For say, let’s take Che’s example. Here, the capitalists are themselves establishing the revolutionary image of Che so that many youths will assume him as their star icon. And they objectify this emotion and cash it- they produce millions of t-shirts, handkerchiefs and under wears with the image of revolutionary hero and sell them. Here, not only the image of Che has been objectified, but also the revolutionary feeling of the youths. They are never spreading Che’s ideology which will subsequently harm their profit-making. However, this process is so subtly done that we are victim to it before we know the capitalist motive. So, we find legends and myths about Che. The revolutionary has himself become the myth and holds significant position around the world. At the end, all of this is yielding profit and cause to the capitalists.

This is how the capitalism lives. As discussed in my earlier article, they will objectify the black’s willingness to be white and whites’ desire to look black, short people’s wish to be taller and the children’s wish to grow taller and stronger. They will objectify everything and most of them, of course, appeal to our emotions so that we don’t feel like shying away from it. The media messages and mostly the advertisements are the best platform among other social institutions like community, family, school, religion and others to show the objectified images and appeal for the consumption.

It is for sure that most of the things that are objectified are not necessarily necessary for us. But, it has been packaged or objectified in such a way that we can’t afford not to buy that thing. Once, they will appeal you to buy some product i.e. buy Bajaj Platina 100 cc bike just for Nrs. 99,999 just because it is very cheap and as a laborer you can pay for it. After riding six months, they will offer you higher cc bike which will appeal you to really sell that previous bike in half the price and opt for the newer one Bajaj Discover 125cc. After a year, the product is wiped out because new model Discover 135cc has come in the market. You will be again made to pay far higher and opt for a new one. After one year or so, you will see that there is Discover 135 cc ALL BLACK. Hence, you will keep working and paying your hard earned money to these things which are not different at all- at many cases only advertisements and the appeals differ. Hence, the capitalists keep people working and working so that they can’t think about their emancipation. By now, how to cheat people has become the integral part of the academic courses in advertising.

That’s why, I think Neo-Marxists are closer in their analysis about how the capitalism sustains in this world without using recursive measures. And the Cultural Revolution is the foremost important thing for the emancipation of the working class people.


  1. I was really impressed by your insinuation of the capitalist motives in this lucid text. The capitalism is dead set against the truly constructive capabilities of the young minds and the ways of diverting their attention have been many. Whatever promotes the produce-more-consume-more-profit-more cycle today is euphemised by all means even if it is bound to produce a disaster tomorrow.
    I read about this term ‘commodification’ for the first time but I was instantly fascinated by the arguments you attached to this process. The example of commercializing Che’s image was impressive though not the isolated one. The crowd cheering the glory of the capitalism is barely aware of where this rotten system; where profit matters more than the human lives in an inhumane hierarchy of the human populace, is leading this world. The ferocity with which the current financial slump is knocking the doors, is however, bound to wake them up; though I never know how complete it will be.
    Though the very term ‘cultural revolution’ has been deeply stigmatized by its perverse use in the orthodox communist states it can have an entirely different and constructive meaning with particular adaptation to our time. After all what the capitalism is now promoting is something comparable to what the authoritarian communist states did in the past. What Arundhati Roy predicts is the USSR like collapse of the current skewed world order by virtue of its very extremes of disregard for humanity vis-à-vis profit. I can’t much differ from this argument.

  2. Earlier two articles of mine proved to be the groundwork for this article. Though in the first article, I touched upon the facebook issue, it was a representative one. I was just trying to give how the this capitalist system demands the concentration of capital in a few hands.

    In my next article (which appeared in series of two), I deciphered the meaning of how the beauty myth has been created to benefit the capitalist, androcentric and Eurocentric World order. I am just trying to see the things from simple to complexity which is what lacked by the pundits of Communism. The greatest setback for this ideology is the complex way the pundits use to convince the people which just turns to be the reverse.

    I am trying best to simplify things and analyzing Marxism in relation to the other ideologies that have effectively impacted upon this world.