As students of humanities or experts of media, at some point in our lives, we feel the urge to take sides when it comes to thorny issues such as consumption, consumerism, consumerist culture, and class conflict. Which side are we on after all you people concerning the critique of political economy on the cultural, social, and economic capital?!
Her voice still echoes in our time when Emma Goldman warns us: “If I were to give a summary of our times, I would say quantity. The multitude, the mass spirit, dominates everywhere, destroying quality. Our entire life – production, politics, and education – rests on quantity, on numbers. The worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of [their] work has been replaced by brainless, incompetent automatons.” (Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays). In this section, we will consider more carefully some examples of consumerist culture in its various manifestations in the media. In the final analysis, we will see how consumerism in the media leads to the commodification of culture, namely treating culture as a commodity.
In this way, in this section, we will eventually look into the role that culture plays in contemporary capitalist society to investigate how culture forms and is formed by economic infrastructures. We will also observe how consumerist culture predetermines our purportedly individualistic decisions in our daily lives and how our tastes are affected and redirected by this overwhelming culture with its potent apparatus.
In their critique of consumerism in the media, most scholars of media studies are influenced by Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. According to Marx, capitalism suffers from three main defects or failings, i.e. inefficiency, exploitation, and alienation (Elster, An introduction to Marx, 41). Among them, alienation is, most probably, the most important in his early writings, especially in “Economic and political Manuscripts.”
In this article, Marx explains alienation through an analysis of the relationship between labour (worker) and production. Accordingly, he believes that estrangement is manifested in three dimensions: in the result, in the act of production, and in self-alienation. In this regard, he investigates considerably the relation of the worker to the product of labor and the relation of labor to the act of production.
Model citizen (dystopian animation)
By now, you may have asked yourself: “What the heck is going on? What on earth do cultural perspectives have to do with this nonsense?!” But hold your horses! All of us who work in the media industry as teachers, filmmakers, sound editors, audio specialists, or game developers are workers according to Marx. To put it simply, according to Marx, wealth results from the ownership of the means of production. And a worker is the one who owns no means of production except for their bodies. Now, I am asking you. As practitioners of creative industries in the media, what kind of means of production do you own?! What the hell do you have to lose? Do you own a house? Any property? A garden?
Besides, it is not possible to deal with the media industry, which is deeply rooted in capitalist terms and relations, without delving into the critique of cultural consumerism. In other words, any analysis of our situation as creative practitioners of the media industry without taking cultural, symbolic, and economic capital into consideration would be one-sided and flat if not downright misleading.
David Chidester: “Marx envisioned a material history of labor, the working of mind and body, brains and hands, in the production of value. Under capitalism, however, the value was being alienated from productive minds and bodies by systems of exchange that he called commodity fetishism. Just like the ‘misty realm of religion’ that anthropologists found in ‘savage’ fetishism, the economic relations inherent in the commodity invested life in inanimate objects.” (Chidester, 109).
What does Marx mean by commodity fetishism? You have a point if you feel uncomfortable when seeing the terms like fetish, ‘misty realm of religion’ or the anthropological approach, but do not sweat it even a single bit.
According to the definition, we can find in Oxford Reference, commodity fetishism “The mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the investment of labour that went into its production. Karl Marx created this term, borrowing the notion of the fetish from anthropology, where it refers to a sacred or symbolic object that according to its worshippers has supernatural power. For example, in certain indigenous cultures in Australia, it is believed that a ‘witch doctor’ can point a bone at a person and thereby bring about their death—such a bone is a fetish. Commodities are fetishes in this same sense because by the power of our belief in them we create an obscure hierarchy of value that rates a diamond over freshwater (to use Adam Smith’s famous example from The Wealth of Nations (1776), in spite of the fact that the diamond serves little or no purpose.
By the same token, as with the witch doctor’s bone, it isn’t clear to the people who believe in commodities why they should believe in them, nor how they came to occupy the position they presently enjoy.” (Oxford Reference: https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110810104638104)
Having this illuminating definition of fetishism in mind, now we can understand what Marx conveys about the objectification of human beings for themselves and their alienation from themself. Marx observes that “private property is only the perceptible, sensuous expression of the fact that man becomes objective for himself and at the same time becomes to himself a strange inhuman object.” Do you find it hard to digest?! Don’t panic. It was not easy for me either when I read his idea of alienation for the first time! He wants to say as workers, human beings objectify themselves in nature and create an external, “alien” world: “Private property, therefore, is … the product, the result, the necessary consequence of alienated labor, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself … though private property appears to be the source, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence … private property … has arisen as a result of estranged labor.”
In his very well-received, music video, ‘Wings,’ the American rapper, Macklemore, addresses commodity fetishism and the unquenchable thirst for consumption in our era:
To know more about the critique of the political economy behind this work of art, read this blog from the Sociological Cinema Website by Patricia Louis:
Marx’s Commodity Fetishism and Theory of Value:
The other way exploitation, alienation, and inequality become manifest in our society is through the concept of class. The class operates in a society very similar to the way a business works. As the political economist Richard Wolff once said: “in most businesses people who do work come to work five days a week use their muscles and do what their employers set them as tasks … at the end of the day, they go home and the employer keeps their fruit of the work, which the employer sells. And the goal of the employer is to get more money when he sells the output and they cost him to buy the tool equipment, raw material and hire those workers. Class is this difference between those who do the work, the overwhelming majority, and those who gather the profit into their hands. The way our society splits up the output leaves those who get the profit in the position of deciding and figuring out what to do with them. We all live with the result of what a really tiny minority in our society with the profit everybody produces in our society is huge.”
Watch his lecture in full here.
The ideology of capitalism, in which multiple pretexts are used to sugarcoat inequality and injustice, works with several vehicles. The mass media can be considered a most formidable:
In this animation, narrated by the leftist American anchor Amy Goodman) Noam Chomsky’s theory about the filters of the mass media machine is described:
It gives a panoramic picture and an eagle eye about how the mass media machine manipulates the public to impose ideas about class, consumption, advertising, and so on. It benefits from Chomski’s Manufacturing the consent, which examines class and consumption in relation to the role that media plays in selling the capitalist ideas under the cover of democracy and freedom of speech.
The mass media also slurs over economic inequality between the global North and South by appealing to some purportedly benevolent projects. The following sketch from Saturday Night Live derides this pretentiousness.
Through the mass media, capitalism manipulates the ideation of not only daily affairs like weekdays and weekends but some existential aspects of human life, the ideation of death and dying, happiness, and leisure. They are all redirected towards excessive consumption and consumerist culture.
Look at the following instances:
The gap between the north and the south, or the gap between the higher class and lower class has echoed a warning against an impending flood that would ruin everything. This warning has found an ample sound in cinema during the last few years. The Joker and the Parasite are two examples:
In the Parasite, the class struggle is embodied in the clash between two apparently decent, ordinary families from two different socio-economic classes. In the Joker, however, the protagonist (or the antagonist if you will) is a sociopath, which is already the outcome of a society that chronically suffers from the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities. The endings in the two movies share the same theme: disaster.
Watch the following two videos and compare the authors’ approaches towards happiness their relation to class and consumption. Ideally, compare the two movies after watching them completely if you have not already!
The Great Gatsby: Party Scene
The Pursuit of Happiness: Job Interview