One of the keys to understanding Marx is understanding commodity. It’s no coincidence that Marx opens Das Kapital dissecting the idea of commodity. It’s also no coincidence that anti-Marxists don’t often talk about Marx’s commodity analysis, and subsequently have a terrible understanding of Marxism.
In this post, I’ll first analyze the idea of late capitalism, as a foundation for the post. Then, I’ll explore the nature of commodity in a basic, Marxist sense. I’ll spend the rest of the post on a phenomenon I’ve observed that I’m calling ‘the commodification of Commodity’, which is especially applicable regarding consumer goods.
People meme about late capitalism online, to highlight the contradictions of rampant capitalism. Late capitalism is a vague idea, because it could suggest that, whatever it is, is a different type of capitalism, when it isn’t. The ‘late’ in late capitalism is more of a technological and cultural qualifier, rather than a material, Marxist one, in the sense that late capitalism isn’t a new phase of history, but rather a new form of the same phase. Considering that, and the fact that ‘late capitalism’ has described contemporary capitalism since at least 1945, it’s safe to say we have progressed to a different type of “late capitalism” than my grandparent’s late capitalism.
My conception of “old” capitalism is basically 1950s capitalism. And that’s when my grandparents worked, not even my parents. My version of capitalism is a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile and so on, of Marx’s capitalism. They both are capitalism, but the social relations within the capitalist system are different.
Late capitalism is still capitalist, but a specific type. Similarly, fascism is a capitalist project, because the State nationalizes industry (maybe – many fascist fovernments still embrace the ‘free market’), while retaining capitalist function, so a fascist state is an organ that directs capital back into itself, ie state capitalism. Similarly, imperialism is a capitalist project, because it makes other countries into macro-factories, to generate more capital for first world property owners. Of course, the “texture” and effect of both fascism and Imperialism are different than capitalism broadly understood, but they’re modes of capitalist projects.
Late capitalism shouldn’t be understood as a material description, but a technological and cultural description. And since technology and culture have changed drastically since ‘late capitalism’ was used, then it’s safe to say that, in the way that late capitalism is a type of capitalism, there are other ‘types’, and I believe it may be more specific to describe contemporary capitalism as a different ‘type’.
I highly recommend Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism, which explains the Platform (as in, a new capitalist development where the bourg own platforms for others to interact on). Srnicek looks at the development of apps like uber, Lyft, Taskrabbit etc., as well as things like Spotify, social media, netflix, and a growing number of similar platforms. This platform capitalism is insidious because it’s a commodification of everyday life. When I’m browsing Instagram, I’m generating a lot of money for distant rich people, even though my process of browsing photos really doesn’t need to involve a capitalist third party.
I want to point to a similar development in contemporary capitalism. Although my idea, the commodification of commodities, is less ubiquitous or impactful, or even particularly new, it still impacts our engagement with the economy.
When capitalists talk about commodity, they’re typically suggesting any raw material from the Earth that is traded but not manufactured or processed. Think wheat, oil, coal, lumber. The primary characteristic of a commodity for capitalists is fungibility, which is expressed by Marx in this oft-quoted passage: “From the taste of wheat, it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.”
For a Marxist, fungibility – when goods are, or are nearly, interchangeable with goods of the same kind – is not the only characteristic of a commodity, although it’s still a primary characteristic. When a Marxist discusses commodity, it usually always implies 3 criteria:
The thing is fungible.
The thing can be exchanged or traded.
The thing is generated by labor.
When people discuss commodification, they usually mean giving something a standardized economic value, when it previously didn’t have one. That would be meeting the second criteria. Also, even though raw material is considered a commodity, objects just existing in nature aren’t really commodities. For example, a tree isn’t a commodity, but a log is, and it requires work to turn a tree into a log. This shows that the third criteria of commodity, that it’s generated by labor, is virtually always true.
There are some unusual cases regarding what makes a commodity though. For example, if an old person made folk art that they sold at a flea market, I would not consider this a commodity, because the objects are generated by labor and are exchanged, but they are unique and therefore not fungible. However, if a company mass produced the same folk art, which they often do, then it would clearly be a commodity, yet the only thing changing is fungibility.
Alright, we made it! So what do I mean by the commodification of commodities?
Basically, it’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed where an iterative, improved, or supplemental commodity adds commodified elements to things within the commodity that weren’t previously there.
Think about 80s and 90s style merchandising, with things like Transformers and Pokemon respectively. Then, the model for franchise merchandising was making a tv show which functions as a commercial for the toys, which functions as an advertisement for t-shirts etc. They would create a brand and branch it into as many forms of commodification they can. This, of course, is still quite common.
The commodification of a commodity is not just merchandising more commodities, but rather, it’s adding further commodified elements within that commodity.
I will give examples.
One of my favorite games is Hearthstone. Hearthstone is a game developed by Blizzard, who makes World of Warcraft. Hearthstone was originally marketed as a card game within the game of World of Warcraft, and it included a microtransaction system, where you pay for cards to play with. World of Warcraft costs $15/month, but that is the price for complete access to the platform. The addition of microtransactions is commodifying an element of a game that is canonically within another game.
I will admit, this is a surface level example, because Hearthstone is only iterative on Warcraft in a promotional way.
But, we can see this same dynamic in other ways. For example, The Witcher 3 contained within it a card game called Gwent, which later split off into its own game, and added microtransactions. This is a clearer example, since Hearthstone was always separate from WoW, except in marketing.
One of the clearest examples I can think of is the phone game Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. In the mainstream Animal Crossing games, you live in a unique town with a cast of random townsfolk. The goal of the game is to live in the town and perform duties and chores. In fact, even though Animal Crossing has markets and landlords, the core gameplay mechanics resemble a Marxist interpretation of labor under socialism. As Che Guevara wrote, (paraphrase) humans become human when they labor without being coerced into becoming a commodity. Animal Crossing is a game where you are free to do anything within the game, whether it be decorating your house, growing gardens, designing clothes, fishing etc. It’s a game about performing labor because you want your town to thrive.
But the shifts that Pocket Camp make to Animal Crossing are profound. The most fundamental change is from a supply and labor economic focus, to a consumerist and wage-commodity exchange economic focus. Some could say this is the same shift that happened with late capitalism, and even more so in the post-Reagan neoliberal era.
In Animal Crossing, you are perform labor because you are compelled to do something, so you assess what is needed (do I need to plant more trees? flowers? should I catch and sell fish? should I look for fossils?), and then do it. Pocket Camp instead systematizes all of this into something rigid, systematic, and remarkably more capitalist.
In Pocket Camp, the world is subdivided into areas: your camp, the fishing areas, the fruit area, the bug area, the shop area etc. Even before diving into the mechanics, this is already a capitalist transformation. Capitalism commodifies its workers, and to do this, it reduces the scope, and compartmentalizes the duties of jobs. A regular Animal Crossing town would have a unique layout, a Pocket Camp town is divided into the same interchangeable dioramas as everyone else.
On top of that, in Pocket Camp, you unlock new characters by working for them. They will request X number of Y, and you go get it for them. This is not only the way to get campers to like you more, but it’s also the only way to really interact with the characters. In Pocket Camp, you know exactly how much campers like you because it’s expressed by meters and levels. This systemization of friendship is another capitalistic element, because friendship in regular Animal Crossing is more nebulous (like real life).
In Animal Crossing, you don’t gain anything from giving people gifts, except they will give you a gift in exchange. It’s not compulsory, it’s simply one of many ways to get villagers to like you more, and potentially get an item you like more.
Another example would be Funko Pops. They’re action figures reduced to their commodity form, so much so that the commodity taking the form of the commodity, and then embodying that primarily, and secondarily the form of the character they’re representing.
To break that down, an action figure used to (attempt) to be a representation of a character. The nicer the action figure, the better the representation of a character. A $100 Godzilla toy will be much higher quality, and much more authentically replicate Godzilla than a $10 toy.
With Funko Pops, it’s more important that the Godzilla commodity takes the form of the commodity form, rather than taking the form of Godzilla. The signifier of being a Funko Pop is the primary value of the object, and the character represented is secondary—you can either buy a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that looks like a ninja turtle, or you can get one that looks like a Funko Pop, because it’s a Funko Pop.
This process of commodification I’m describing is common in the consumer good, mass media entertainment commodities, but you can find it in other places too. For example, I thought about elaborating on Amiibos, the action figures that can interact with Nintendo games. However, this isn’t the same thing as the Funko Pop and Pocket Camp examples, because it’s simply a way of territorializing different consumer goods together with compatibility. Nintendo did a similar thing with the original Animal Crossing in the early 2000s, but those took the form of playing cards that could be scanned into the game.
The way I’d distill this process is by thinking of it as the content of one form of media becoming reformatted for another form of media. This itself is not new at all. For every tv show that had a movie, every movie with a tv show, every action figure that became a t-shirt etc.
But what has changed is the technology, which then allows the commodity to morph in a way technology didn’t used to allow.
The commodification of commodities is not just a process of furthering commodifying something, but reformatting a commodity to have more elements of a commodity.
Hearthstone is not just another game, it’s a game within a game, that commodifies the game elements. Similarly, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is not just another game, it’s a game that creates commodification within a framework that didn’t used to have that commodification. And finally, funko pops are not just another figurine, it’s a figurine where the commodity form it takes is the primary form of the object, rather than what that commodity is representational of.