Bringing Back Commodity Fetishism!
I know, I know….Marx is terrifying! Thanks in part to Fox News. But seriously, it seems that any literature with the slightest reference to the old philosopher with the tweed suit and shaggy beard still makes goose bumps crawl on to the skin of the mainstream. Nevertheless, I say we should venture into the haunted house of Marxist cultural theory and search for some mental tools for development practitioners to keep in mind, particularly the idea of commodity fetishism. Its defining characteristic, for our purposes, is that the world’s current practice of labor, trade, and market relations creates a false reality and this has damaging sociological impacts. It might seem broad to extrapolate these ideas to development, but it is important to challenge our assumptions and perspectives.
So what is commodity fetishism?
Celia Lury tells us that: ‘Marx used the term fetishism of commodities to describe the disguising or masking of commodities whereby the appearance of goods hides the story of those who made them and how they made them.’
Applied to contemporary culture, some seriously weird things are commodifed (even Marx’s corpse) due to a variety of factors that determine value from labor to transaction costs to preferences. If we stick with an anthropological interpretation, Marx provides the challenge that, in the absence of natural and direct producer-consumer relations, we buy into another level of commodity fetishism that heavily impacts our psyche through our distant versions of monetary exchange for physical products in particular. All of this causes a distorted and falsified reality. Support for this can be seen in contemporary advertising in particular. According to Axe body spray, scent takes on sexuality, power and voice, pretending to have additional objective use value by exhibiting the human traits of attraction that the product apparently heightens
So how does this relate to international development?
Unfortunately, these concepts of commodity fetishism in contemporary culture link consumption with international aid. Here’s just one type of example to illustrate the point:
The institution of development aid is supposedly responding to challenges that threaten human welfare, particularly for the world’s poor. Aid has truly globalized, with multinational institutions, massive NGOs, and government agencies working worldwide with presence felt virtually everywhere on the planet. Consumers (reminder: you and I) fund these development actors through institutions they either directly or indirectly support and even through conscious personal donations of capital. Aid itself, is commodified. A great example that illustrates this line of thought can be see here in the Product RED campaign.
The way international aid discourse is portrayed through media, television advertisements, and other visual stimuli such as logos is damaging public perceptions about the realities of poverty, oversimplifying vastly multidimensional human development problems, and doing so through the medium of consumption culture to an overwhelming degree. This approach in part decontextualises livelihoods and reciprocates ineffective policy approaches to development both at the production and consumption ends of the commodity spectrum.
Most importantly perhaps, it is essential for development practitioners to think about the psychological impact that Western goods (from the Coca-Cola in a rural village to the NGO land cruisers) and services (from the physical presence of your typical expat in the field to imagined impact as policy makers for ex.) have on communities in developing countries. An additional problem is that the international aid industry is exporting its ideals surrounding consumption en masse with a particular relevance to cities in the global south.
What do we do now?
The point here is to challenge our normal way of thinking with another paradigm. If we understand the ever-changing manner of our global systems, it can hopefully result in more conscious and informed choices.
For example, promoting local sourcing of necessary resources in your community by directly buying your groceries at farmers markets is a start. For the development practitioners…begin deconstructing the context of the work you do in the developing world and examine the various impacts you have. Talk to others and spread the importance of critical thinking. Advocate for specific changes in the treatment of commodities through speaking to your politicians. If there is to be systemic change addressing these issues of consumption, equality of opportunity instead of equality of outcome must be both promoted and lived. Marx’s lens of commodity fetishism is a useful, and often misunderstood, lens that allows for materialism to show its true colors as the opposite of idealism and we must act on that which it reveals.