Marx’s conception of the commodity in part is concentrated on the idea that the surplus value extracted from the labour of workers is obscured through processes of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism occurs when consumers believe that commodities are objects in their own right, and the value of a commodity is calculated relative to the rest of the ‘market’. For example, when you purchase something relatively expensive, like an electronics item or whitegoods, you do some market research and figure out what different models offer in the way of features compared to their price. You don’t calculate the value according to the character of the labour used to produce the item, the environmental impact of the item’s manufacture or constituent components. In my Consumer Culture classes for this week I challenged students to ‘think like marxists’ and figure out ways to combat commodity fetishism. Obvious examples include Fair Trade coffee and No Sweat shoes.
As a thought expereiment I asked the class what they would do if they had a barcode scanner that could scan bar codes and instead of telling you the price, it would provide you with all the relevant information regarding the manufacturing and labour practices of the company that produced the barcoded item. This was only a thought experiment until a student pointed out to me that her phone can read bar codes (here is a blog post on it that I found via a google). The phone can link a barcode to a url. What if concerned consumers made a wiki to report on the labour (and perhaps environmental) practices of companies that could be accessed by other consumers in shopping centres and the like simply by scanning a barcode (or UPC)? Would be people do it?
My students suggested that some would but others would find the process too time consuming, and because time is money, they don’t want to waste their time. I suggested to them that considering that they are all ‘workers’ to some extent, that they would benefit from only purchasing products that guaranteed sufficient workplace-based labour rights and relations.