Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Extreme Commodification

When philosophers talk about the extensions of markets into new domains like surrogacy and sex work, one of the concepts they use is "commodification." The idea is that by subjecting things like reproduction and sexuality to market norms, we are "commodifying" them: valuing them in the wrong sort of way.

I don't know if that's the right way to think about these issues, but this post isn't about that. This post is about commodities themselves, and about whether it's possible to commodify them. More broadly: can you apply market norms inappropriately even to things to that are normally subject to market forces?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, the last time I was reading about commodification as a concept, I got to thinking that in some ways it's because of the way we've gotten so extreme about commodification itself that to "commodify" something feels like such an utter disaster. 

When we talk about "market norms" in the context of commodification, it's something like the following: you think about how to get the best thing for yourself at the least cost to yourself; you think about what exact qualities you want instead of taking an open-ended and unconditional approach; you think "instrumentally" in terms of using the commodity just for purposes of your own.

But with respect to these norms, there's commodifying and there's commodifying. Because it depends on how far you take it -- that is, it depends on whether you also value in other ways or whether you see commodities purely in the conditional and instrumental way. Increasingly, with commodities, I think we're taking it all the way -- and everything else goes out the window.

Take labor as an example. Sure, from one point of view, any capitalist system will inappropriately "commodify" labor -- but setting that to one side, you can see the different ways that the labor-wage situations appeal to market norms.

Paying someone to do something doesn't require you to take up a purely commodified view of them. You could pay them to do something, but also regard them as a fellow citizen with needs and interests of their own. You could think about an appropriate wage in terms of fairness and not just cost-benefit-analysis. You could think of making exchanges of mutual benefit.

But it feels like our rhetoric and practice around labor has gotten so far away from this, to a place where labor isn't just commodified, it's completely and utterly commodified. For example, the increasingly common "just-in-time" scheduling in service jobs means you never know from week to week when you're working, or how many hours. You can't arrange child care, you can't go to school, and you can't keep a second job. It destroys your life.

And it's not just poor people. This article reports on doctors who were trying to negotiate for quality of  life issues, to avoid burn-out, and couldn't even communicate with their managers, who thought that the only question on the table was "How much are you asking for?" The doctors could not even communicate that there was something else at stake other than dollar amounts.

Similarly, employers don't want to hire normal people with general good attributes then train them -- they want workers who already have the exact specific skills they are looking for. As this Washington Post piece says, this means no one can get the relevant experience: it's not a "skills gap" as much as a refusal to do any of the giving in the give-and take.

Maybe it's not all that surprising that labor is increasingly commodified, but I think there's actually something weirdly similar happening at the level of literal commodities -- the objects we buy as part of the consumer culture saturation society we're all part of.

Because of the way everything has become temporary and disposable, it's no longer necessary to relate to an object by getting attached to it, caring for it, or taking the bad with the good. The commodification of commodities means that any object is just seen for its potential to suit just the specific ends we have -- until it doesn't. I remember last time I went to get eyeglasses, and there was something about the frames that didn't seem perfect, and my friend said, "Don't worry about it. Just get these, and then next year you can get some new ones." And that's what I did.

It's really very speculative, but I got to wondering: is it possible that the fear of "commodification" in debates over surrogacy and sex work has something to do with the specific way that commodification has become such a crazy all or nothing thing in our society?

Because if a "commodity" is a thing or person you'll squeeze everything out of and then throw away at the first sign of dissatisfaction --- well, yeah, for heaven's sake, don't commodify.

But doesn't it seem possible that it doesn't have to be that way? That you could have a market that co-exists with normal human emotions like care and respect? That you could pay someone to do something and also, at the same time, care about them as a person? 

I don't know when it happened -- and I don't think blaming individuals makes any sense -- but somehow we seem to have systematically made this less extreme state of affairs an impossibility for ourselves.


David Dick said...

This is a really interesting point. I do think there have to be multiple ways of commodifying things, and that we might be making things worse by assuming and acting like there's only the one extreme way. Kant is happy to allow that we can simultaneously respect something while still treating it instrumentally, so there's some precedent there. Let me also recommend Viviana Zelizer's excellent book _The Social Meaning of Money_, which catalogues the various ways culture shapes commodification, instead of the other way around.

Janet Vickers said...

We have commodified ourselves out of a future. What a clever device this is. It's deep Orwellian.

Dr Purva Pius said...
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