Tag Archives: Karl Marx

Money, money, money, money: How much is the global commodification of culture costing us?

The chorus of the “The Money Song” from the Broadway musical Cabaret sums up the “cents” of this week’s readings:

Money makes the world go round
The world go round, the world go round
Money makes the world go round
It makes the world go round

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound
A buck or a pound, a buck or a pound
Is all that makes the world go round
That clinking, clanking sound
Can make the world go round

Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money, money (Kander, 1966)

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

In contemporary American civilization, everything is a commodity. The only value is economic: What is it worth in dollars and cents? Can it be produced, circulated, and consumed? And it’s not enough to enjoy our commodified culture here in the United States; we produce it for export worldwide so that everyone on Earth can consume it, whether they want to or not. And it’s the advent of new media – the Internet, smart cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – that has enabled us to do this.

Graham (2000) argues that these new media have created a world where “the spheres of production, circulation, and consumption” overlap (p. 133).

[S]ince the ascendancy of digital ICTs [information and communication technologies], the monetary system of exchange appears to have taken on an autonomous trajectory and existence; it appears to have become an end in itself. … It derives its conception as a system of “wealth creation” purely by the authority of the experts who concoct the abstractions upon which this global financial system thrives. … This massive and parasitic system of speculation includes trade in the most abstract of commodities, such as “credit derivatives, call warrants, roubles, and baht.” … But financial “commodities” have no intrinsic use-value whatsoever. They generate value only as long as they are continuously exchanged. (p. 134).

Graham could be describing the financial meltdown of 2008, which began when trading in similar ephemeral financial commodities ground to a halt because they lost their “use-value” in the minds of investors around the world. He continues:

Today, the “globalized” financial system of exchange values quite overtly mediates social perceptions of the relationships between space, time, power, and persons. … [P]eople’s perceptions, rather than concrete “things,” appear to be the primary objects of production in developed countries today. This is made possible by the advanced technological facility for people to commodify increasingly intimate aspects of social life, combined with the intrinsically human nature and functions of language and thought. (p. 134-135)

Thought has become a commodity, with language the way it is promoted.

Systemic capital has steadily increased its pervasiveness, and “free time” has become more and more a “shadowy continuation of labour [sic],” a complex space of economically productive “pseudo-activities.” In hypercapitalism, economically “productive” activities can now consume the entire waking life of people. (p. 136).

‘Exchange value’ vs. ‘use value’

So, they’ve got us right about where they want us. Everything we do is “economically productive,” though probably not for us. We’re consuming things, whether concrete or abstract, and things are commodities, meaning we have to exchange something of economic value for them: money or its equivalent. Or as Pink Floyd bassist Roger Water (1973) puts it in “Money“:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay
And you’re O.K.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands
And make a stash

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack (Waters, 1973)

Graham (2000) discusses Karl Marx’s views of production and consumption, especially Marx’s concept that a commodity has an “exchange value” – what the commodity is worth in the marketplace – that is separate from its “use value” – what the commodity can be used for. If everything is a commodity, its usefulness is mediated by its marketplace value. “And that is what has happened: hypercapitalist production processes have commodified and industrialized almost every conceivable aspect of human social life, including life, birth, death, sex and thought” (p. 138).

Poster for the 1975 film, "Jaws."

It’s apt that I’m writing this on Halloween, because I find this scarier than all the fear generated by “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Jaws,” “Poltergeist,” and “Alien.” I’m much more afraid of the consequences of the commodification of everything than I am of a demonically possessed great white shark invading a haunted suburban development along with its sidekick, an unearthly reptilian with rows of razor-sharp teeth embedded in an extendable jaw.

Access to privileged knowledge

While new media have shaken up the existing order of things throughout history, today’s new media allow knowledge commodities to be produced, consumed, distributed, and exchanged almost instantaneously on a global scale, according to Graham (2000). And, just as in times past, this doesn’t herald the advent of an egalitarian Utopia, where knowledge and information is available to all. “The logic of a system historically based on more and less valuable and valid knowledges presupposes an intrinsic assumption of inequality between social contexts of knowledge production, and so between individual persons: it presupposes an economy of access to privileged knowledge” (p. 149).

According to Graham (2000), the illusion of value trumps utility: what is important is what something is worth in the marketplace, not whether it has any usefulness. “The role of value has become inverted, and social utility now appears to be mediated by a mute, brutal and illusory value system which is increasingly alienated from its source” (p. 152). This explains much about our society, from the obsession with Paris Hilton and other vapid celebrities who are famous for being famous, to the popularity of Fox News, with its hyperventilating commentators who market fear to build ratings.

In Crick’s (2009) poorly copy-edited article – it was obvious that it was spell-checked but there were too many typos for someone to have read it carefully for errors – he argues that we have to move beyond “corporate liberalism” in our discussion of how news will be produced and delivered in a way that will support democracy in this new media age. He cites Thomas Streeter’s definition of corporate liberalism as “the belief that democracy thrives in an unregulated sphere of ‘business entrepreneurialism’ guided by ‘a safely liberal vision of private profit-oriented individuals in an open, competitive marketplace’” (p. 482).

Lippman vs. Dewey

Crick (2009) frames his argument by analyzing a philosophical debate between journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann and philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey that occurred in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. Lippmann thought the war showed the limits of a democracy based upon the idea that citizens should be knowledgeable and informed about issues and leaders so that they can make rational decisions about public policy. Lippmann thought modern capitalist society was too complicated for that to work. Dewey thought it still was possible, with the aid of some publicly funded agencies of “social inquiry” (p. 494).

Crick applies the perspectives of the two men to today’s Internet, especially the blogosphere, concluding that – surprise! – freedom to communicate may be a “core democratic principle” but you need more to ensure democracy in today’s complex world. “[T]he blogosphere itself cannot provide answers to our problems. It is a tool only” (p. 495). Crick concludes that neither Dewey nor Lippmann gives us a blueprint for action, but they help us think outside the box, so to speak.

The financial theme also runs through the three other articles by Fisher (2009), Gahran (2010), and Moore (2010). Fisher outlines how converged newsrooms are likely to be more successful if they are organized in a way that supports convergence, and if managers receive training in how to run a converged newsroom. Good advice, but not likely to happen on a large scale. In my experience, even back in the good old days when newspapers’ profit margins topped 20 percent, newspaper management didn’t put much money into training. Now that newspapers are losing money and staffs are smaller, I just can’t see media companies hiring and training more managers. Gahran discusses how to structure stories by adding dates and links so that they have more value.

Moore talks about how pay walls – offering specific news or information for a price – aren’t productive in the long run. Instead, he describes how some news organizations are embedding information in their articles that allows them to track the articles as they spin around the Internet. Intriguing, but I don’t really see how it translates into money for publishers.

So, does money make the world go around? Or is it just a nice thing to have, as The Barenaked Ladies contend?

References

Crick, N. (2009). The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippmann Debate in an Internet Age. [Article]. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26(5), 480-497. doi: 10.1080/15295030903325321

Fisher, H. (2009). Developing media managers for convergence: A study of management theory and practice for managers of converged newsrooms. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 135-150. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gahran, A. (2010, August 19). Structure news: Make useful connections to build your news business [Web blog post].Retrieved from: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20100819_structured_news_make_useful_connections_to_build_your_news_busines/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+KnightDigitalMediaCenter+Knight+Digital+Media+Center&utm_content=Google+Reader#When:22:32:34Z

Graham, P. (2000). Hypercapitalism: A political economy of informational idealism. New Media & Society, 2(2), 131.

Kander, J. [Composer] & Ebb, F. [Lyricist]. (1966). The money song. [Recorded by J. Grey & L. Minelli]. On Cabaret. New York: ABC Records.

Moore, M. (2010, August 18). Media shift: How metadata can eliminate the need for pay walls [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/how-metadata-can-eliminate-the-need-for-pay-walls230.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+pbs/mediashift-blog+(mediashift-blog)&utm_content=Google+Reader

Page, S. & Robertson, E. (1993). If I had a million dollars. [Recorded by The Barenaked Ladies]. On Gordon [Record]. New York: Reprise Records.

Waters, R. (1973). Money. [Recorded by Pink Floyd]. On The Dark Side of the Moon [Record]. London: Abbey Road Studios.