Thursday, April 5, 2012

C-M-C vs. M-C-M'

Consumer culture is all about the buying and selling of commodities - those goods and services produced by human labor and sold on the market that satisfy some sort of want or need. A commodity can be something straightforwardly useful, like a hammer. Or it can be something more indulgent, like that inflatable reindeer costume I bought for a holiday party a few months ago. Trust me, it was worth it.

Karl Marx is probably history's foremost analyst of the commodity as an economic, cultural, and even metaphysical phenomenon. He's the guy who came up with the idea of "commodity fetishism" - if you've never come across it before, the concept is just as strange and mystificatory as the phrase implies. You can read what Marx had to say about "the fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof" in Chapter One, Section 4 of Capital if you're so inclined (if you've never read him before, it can be a fairly tough read). For our purposes here, suffice to say that commodity fetishism is what happens when relationships between real human beings are transformed into relationships between things, a distinguishing feature of capitalism as a social and economic system. Those iPhones don't come packaged with the pictures and life stories of the Chinese factory workers who made them, do they?

So it might seem odd at first glance that James Livingston draws heavily from Marx's critique of commodity fetishism to mount the defense of consumer culture at the heart of Against Thrift. His use of Marx's categories can be a bit tricky, and since you won't fully understand the book's argument without understanding this point, I'll try to walk you through it as clearly as I can.

Marx argued that all commodities carry within them two basic properties: a use value and an exchange value. As Livingston notes, use value implies "a particular, subjective, mostly material meaning" while exchange value implies "a placeless, objective, monetary meaning. Every commodity raises, or just is, a question that divides our attention: what is this thing good for, and what is its price?" (xiv) If you're having trouble following this point, just think of a home. A home might well be worthless in market terms, but that price can't capture what a home might mean to you in an emotional sense, as a site of memory.

This point about the two-fold nature of commodities is related to a larger point concerning the basic nature of economic activity in human societies. Following Marx, Livingston observes that in all of human history before capitalism, "the consumption of goods was both the goal and the limit of production." (xiv) That process of simple commodity circulation can be represented in the formula C-M-C, where C stands for "commodity" and M stands for "money." In such an economy, "the point of producing and selling goods was not to accumulate ever more exchange value, more money in the bank, but to acquire just enough use values, just enough material goods, to validate your accustomed way of life." (xiv) The motto of such a society might be "enough is enough."

But capitalism operates according to a different sort of logic. In a capitalist system, the point is not to produce goods and services simply for the sake of consumption, but to use money to make money. The commodity is more or less incidental to the process (though in order to make money, you need to produce something that people might actually want to buy - it has to have some sort of potential use value). With the advent of capitalism, people in greater numbers began to produce not for their own direct consumption, but rather sold their labor power in return for wages that would be used to buy the things they needed to live. It's the difference between growing your own food and taking your paycheck down to the grocery store. Instead of simple commodity circulation and its attendant formula of C-M-C, we now have the "formula for capital," or M-C-M'. The first M still stands for "money" and the C still stands for "commodity," but the M' stands for something like "profit." In such a system, as Livingston observes, money in the abstract becomes the end of goods production "while use values - particular, material things, even human bodies - became the means to more exchange value, more money in the bank, rather than ends in themselves...consumption gave way to accumulation as the proper goal of the good life." (xiv) The motto of such a society might be "there's no such thing as enough," as the accumulation of money is, at least in theory, limitless.

So what does all of this have to do with Livingston's defense of consumer culture? How can Marx's critique of commodity fetishism under capitalism possibly be used to defend what appears to be capitalism in its purest form?

For Livingston, the value of consumer culture is that it has the potential to place limits on the accumulation of abstract wealth by asserting the logic of simple commodity circulation - by putting use value in the way of exchange value. To make this point, he offers the example of a car. When you buy a new car, it loses market value the second you drive it off the lot but its use value increases. You can now use it to get to work, impress the opposite sex, or whatever else you want or need to do with it. As Livingston argues,

"your purchase has removed the object of your desire from the domain of commodities: its significance no longer includes its price, even when others recognize how much it cost you, because everybody knows that if you put it back on the market, you'll get less than what you paid for it...the thing you've bought now has only a use value: it's been 'defetishized' by your purpose."

As we observed in the first post in this discussion, Livingston's argument is both economic and moral. He wants to defend consumer culture not just because expanded consumption can drive economic growth. He also wants to encourage the formation of new character types that are not beholden to the Protestant ethic of thrift and self-denial because he thinks it will be good for our souls. For him, enjoying the present doesn't entail sacrificing the future. Rather, it "teaches us how to produce and preserve the things our children might want or need - the things they might use." (xv)

What do you make of Livingston's basic argument about the value of consumer culture? Is he defending the indefensible, or is he on to something potentially important? In a recent and basically positive review of the book, the academic Michael Fisher claims that if we follow Livingston's logic "we end up mired in a wasteland of goods aplenty," beset with insecurities that can only be temporarily calmed by an unending stream of ever new sensory experiences. What do you make of that criticism?

1 comment:

Sophia said...

I think it is a criticism that doesn't really make sense.

Firstly, its not really good for our souls, it doesn't make us happier and it doesn't make us nicer, kinder, more compassionate, or anything that could be described as virtuous even from a non-protestant framework.

Secondly, as an idea you cannot divorce consumer culture, you cannot divorce the C-M-C of the consumer, from the M-C-M of the capitalist. What this system amounts to as a whole is our dis-empowerment, regardless of all the nice shiny use values we have to play with. Its kind of "fiddling while Rome burns" when you put the economic, social and environmental consequences of capitalism into the picture.

It justifies one side of the circuit in order to distract from the fact that that side of the circuit is intimately entwined with the other side of the circuit.

Now I am as much of a degenerate consumerist as the next person ;) (I have a *gasp* iPhone! I was depressed for days when I lost my favourite Faber Castell fountain pen and excstatic when I found it again), but overall I think I would much rather my energy went to trying to sort out the world than fill my room with cool new shiny things that I just have to have omigawd!

I want my labour-power to go to things I care about, the crux of this system is that it doesn't. As that very chapter says, exchange-value is promiscuous, it doesn't care if it is in a new hospital or in inter-continental missiles. The logic of capitalism takes human beings out of control of their own efforts, their own work - that is the problem with it. Wallowing in a toybox while eating cake won't make my soul any happier with that fact.