Thursday, May 3, 2012

Commodity Schmodity

I've been thinking about 'commodity' lately. Commodity Schmodity is the working title I've given to the next as-yet-unwritten part of my Owning and Owing essay.

The idea of commodity is, of course, one of the key themes your friend and mine Mr Karl Marx uses explore economic relations. I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that I am going to have to knuckle down and finally read the original text of 'Capital' rather than just read about it. There is an excellent series of lectures available online to accompany such a venture at http://davidharvey.org/ . I did pick up 'Capital'  about 15 years ago, but gave up less than a third of the way into volume one.

I think my reticent to read it stems in part from the fact that I already have a set of ideas about commodity myself. Basically, it goes like this. Commodity is inherently subjective. It does not describe any real feature or property of an object, but instead describes our relation to that object. It's a descriptive rather than an explanatory term which essentially refers to a psychological state rather than a material one. Which is odd, because when we say commodity in everyday life we are usually referring to something material. And, as far as I can tell at the moment, my view is also pretty much the opposite of how Marx thinks about commodities.

Simmel has some useful stuff to say about all this too. But like Marx - and as I'm finding out writing this little piece - its hard to write clearly about commodity.

Nevertheless, you might think like many others that commodity is a powerful term that is useful in explaining economic life. Indeed, Marx uses commodity to explain the origin of money. It also forms an integral part of the Austrians' story of origin. The shorthand version of the argument underlying these opposing traditions is that alienating an object and turning it into a commodity allows for more efficient exchange, and ultimately this gives us iPhones.

So how does money fit into this picture? In one sense it would seem to be the ultimate commodity. It's the thing we're most alienated from, and that is most easily exchanged. But people can't seem to agree on it. Some say money is commodity, some say it isn't, and some say its a *special* commodity. At this point a klaxon sounds in my head.

In the book I'm reading at the moment (Seaford's Money & the Early Greek Mind) the pre-conditions of coinage are explored. A seal mark - something used since very ancient times to mark possessions, and later with writing to use as receipts, contracts & treaties - is the embodiment of the identity of its owner. A coin mark - signifying the purity of metal & value of a coin - is impersonal. When the coin is in your hands, it's your possession. The Queen can't take notes from your wallet just because they have her face on it.

So how do we get from a symbol that is the embodiment of the personal to a symbol that is the embodiment of the impersonal? Seaford and Marx suggest a process. Commoditisation, or alienation perhaps? Certainly a transition from one state to another.

And this is my problem and why my klaxon sounds.

We don't need a story of transition to explain money - because that presumes its development rather than its existence. There is no evidence that it developed - was invented - that is an assumption that we have made since the earliest times (as I have pointed out in a previous post). So it's better to work with what we know as a fact. Money exists. Is then there something that can help explain our relationship to its existence? Dr Freud? Ambivalence, perhaps? A coin has two sides, after all. We relate to money in contrary ways. In fact, as Dr Freud suggests, we can relate to anything in contrary ways.

With the concept of commodity we've tried to create something that is absolutely not about us. That has no part of us in it at all. The embodiment of alien.

And yet, there we are. In it, up to our necks. By describing something as a commodity we are declaring a particular type of relation we have to that object. The relation of 'no relation'. Which is about as meaningless and helpful as the term commodity itself. Commodity schmodity.

I'll revisit this post after I've read Marx. See what I think then. But now for me commodity is a signpost on the way to ambivalence. My suspicion is that when I do knuckle down to reading Marx will he will tell me stuff about hierarchy that will blow my mind.

Sorry for the rather rambling nature of this post. These things are tricky to fit into words.




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