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Essay: Understanding Consumptions in Capitalism through Marx's Theory of Commodity and Adorno's Argument on Culture Industry

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  • Tags: Marxism essays

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From the works of Marx, a person’s natural relation to the commodity as use-value is understood to be misrepresented by capitalism. Workers see commodities as objects which are not related to the productions because they are separated from the results of their labor. In that context, Marx defined commodity as “an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind (125). Marx’s innovation in understanding consumption was that he believed commodity was not just purely production of goods but also it was the production of “people” and the relationships among them which mattered. In order for capitalism to operate smoothly as it is, people’s “needs” must align with the production process. On the other hand, capital needs these needs to be expanding so as to grow itself. Similar to the neoclassical thinkers, Marx believes exchange is an equal activity. However, the basis for these exchanges are not marginal utilities but the labor time invested in the production of these commodities. To Marx, the common factor that gives way for exchange is the input of labor time. In Volume One, Marx talks about how humans are separated from the production, and hence do not recognize that commodities are produced with its own lives, rather than just because of the social relationships among humans. The characteristic of capitalist production leads to this illusion. When relative prices get to the “certain customary stability,” prices occur as an obvious relationship between the productions, rather than as expressions for the social relationships involving. Marx also points out that the separation of class is distinct in the consumption of goods, which reinforces the social relations under capitalism. If one wears luxury items or uses expensive products, he or she may be treated differently and favorably.

Indeed, there have been many scholars struggling, debating, and contemplating on Marxism ideas on consumption as well as the existence of consumption under capitalism. One of which is the argument raised by Adorno and Horkheimer on the “culture industry,” rejecting the term “mass culture”. In this essay, the authors argues that popular culture is about producing things that are used to trick mass society into passivity (7). The authors also see capitalism as exploitative and believe that in order for the human beings to improve and achieve more, capitalism must be overthrown. But given the rise of fascism, the failure of socialism and the growing dominance of capitalism, Adorno and Horkheimer claim that critical theory must go past the traditional Marxism focus on production alone, because the authors felts it was inefficient to satisfactorily account for these movements. Drawing on Marxism theory of alienation, Adorno and Horkheimer look at culture as being motivated by imperatives, results of the production. They also claim that the purpose of producing profits lead to problematic productions: banal, systematic, and formulaic. They draw on art as an example for their argument, saying that art loses its creativity and artful potential, instead behaving like a soothing method for the workers’ lives outside of the workplace, makes it feasible for him to go back to work mode the next day. These workers are capitalist creatures of a capitalism culture, in which consumption is used to reproduce a corrupt system.

Another school of thought that is interesting to look at is Slater and his argument against the primacy of the sovereign consumer and his critique on why consumption under capitalism is often mixed with freedom or democracy. The critique, similar to many scholars’ in the field, would argue that the distinction between use value and exchange value is a product of modernity itself and that real consumer liberation is possible only through the withdrawal of distinction. The main focus of Slater’s essay is on the idea of choice, which makes the difference among consumers, the distinction between “hero” and “fool” consumers. With a growing number of choices, individuals have more room for expressing their identities. Yet, separated from production, consumers have no power to transform the core of their mundane existence, leading a life as it is, and even at the highest points in lives, regardless of their individual intentions, depending significantly on a corrupt form of production. As a result, consumers’ practice of freedom from the traditional constraints, their sense of enjoyment for consumption, is so fragile that it can be easily penetrated and impacted by fear, guilt, and uncertainty – weaknesses that are so prevalent in today’s consumer behaviors. Slater argues against the “neoclassical economists;” he believes that actors are not nearly as autonomous or rational under capitalism as these economists would theorize.

Neil McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb (1982) also believe that capitalism does influence the material lives and there’s a connection between consumption and capitalism. These authors traced consumption back to its original root, around 18th century, and looks at consumers’ culture, but slightly different than the previous authors, these scholars attribute consumer’s emergence to pure marketing and production reorganization as a results of capitalist influencers, such as Josiah Wedgwood. The authors also point out that while the want to consume was nothing new, it was the “ability to do so, which was new” (2). They go on about how the lower class had always been denied the wealth of the rich and we can still see that happening in the today’s world, where the same denial to the poor still exist, seen as the Third World.  

It is undeniable that consumer capitalism is something so geographically and historically varied, and the ever-changing characteristic of the world makes it equally an ever-changing study. To end the discussion,  maybe it’s interesting to sum up with Slater’s words on why it is important to think about this topic: “The specific arrangements arrived at, the way in which relations of production and relations of consumption mediate each other, place consumption at the heart of questions about what kind of society we are: how is access to objects of consumption regulated: what is the logic that determines the nature of the goods provided to the everyday world; how are our notions of needs, identity, ways of life defined or identified or mediated? (4)

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