Fly on the Wall: Nevermind Netflix and Chill

Here's the Fetishism of Commodities

Whether it’s child labour in Dickensian London—that time of Tiny Tim and coal dust smog—or modern sweatshops seething with repressed bodies and stultified minds, the outcome of the goods and services that propel our consumerist times is far removed from those who actually toil to bring us our pleasure.  This we know.  Few of our peers would find much new in what we shared from our learning if all we did at AU was recapitulate commonly held truths.  Yet, a deeper look at the alchemy whereby products appear to obtain value in a market of relations, rather than by the actual labour of their manufacture, reveals an almost fairy tale ideology akin to Cinderella’s pumpkin becoming a chariot.

Not only the drudgery of work takes on a mystical character.  When public policy disavows the value of an item or affixes a tax to its sale, it’s akin to how the stroke of a clock at midnight reverts said chariot to a pumpkin.  At root, though, it’s actual labour that makes the goods that are bought and sold based on the arbitrary whims of culture and belief.  Grass getting long in your suburb?  Rev up your lawnmower.  Grass growing in rural life?  Bring around your heifer!  The consumerist answer to every question comes to appear natural when in fact it’s made by the people within a given cultural climate.  Above all, the product of labour comes to appear as a thing separate from those who produce it.  Needs, rather than labour, appear as means to fulfillment in modern life.

Marx notes the process whereby consumer goods appear to have a life of their own: “The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it.  Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common everyday thing, wood.  But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.  It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table turning” ever was.” (1, online).  A private craft fulfills only ourselves, whereas a public product gains value primarily through exchange for money.  Why do we economically value what can be exchanged rather than pay people to truly fulfill themselves?  After all, the roll call of university graduates, decade after decade, find many students who enrolled in a discipline only because they could make money from it based upon the societal norms of their time (only to later come to grief and regret in old age).  One might note that in times of war, for instance, opportunities for big money and career advancement arise literally as labour as violence becomes highly valued and attrition through combat death leads to a constant demand for replacement workers.  You’re fired takes on a sinister ring to it.  At AU, happily, we potentially can enjoy learning while also bettering our future life chances.

All this happens because our specific system, capitalism, defines value in a specific way.  Value is tied to exchange rather than production; anyone who’s worked hard on something only to have no market for it knows this fact well.  Much that is beloved or priceless is essentially worth zero!

Value as a Fetish Disguising Essential Reality

Take Karl Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities, a term that encompasses the process whereby actual work transforms objects into items for sale only for work itself to vanish from site as the item hits a store shelf.  Labour dissipates from view when wares are set out for sale and the fact that real people buy and sell items disguises the fact that the most essential relations of production are between work and resource, not buyer and seller.  Sellers could vanish but actual producers would remain and still be the ones producing valuable goods.  Here in the Okanagan, fruit stands and fruit packing houses sell directly to customers, for instance.  Whereas value appears to abide in cash, the value of goods is really contained in the item itself, as bartering shows in countless informal instances.  Marx notes that “this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers” (4, online).

Capitalist culture encourages us to detach fulfillment through shopping—retail therapy if you will—from those who work so hard to give us what we thin we want.  We think we are buying what we desire, to our hearts content, but the other side of the coin is that we are engaging in a social relation with an invisible Other.  As we learn to dig deeper into the thicket of social reality around us, we see ourselves and our place in the world with new eyes.  The first step to a more fulfilling future is not, after all, a diploma-sized sheet of paper.  It’s in the provision of new meanings for ourselves and new missions for making reality a better place to abide.

The Gig Economy as Case Study in the Fetishism of Commodities

Shannon Walsh’s UBC-Vancouver documentary ‘The Gig is Up’, examines the Gig Economy and provides examples of this fetishism.  Amidst film shots of “people frantically pedalling, driving, or drilling with customers idly scrolling through phone apps” viewers are quickly cued into the fragile and precarious nature of working in the fake-boom marketplace of Uber, Skip, and other techno-gig empires.  In fact, literal algorithms can “cut pay rates at any time” and “workers can find their accounts deleted in an instant, for any number of system-determined reasons” (Downing, online).  Reviewer Jared Downing notes that Walsh has provided us with her fair and balanced view of “an almost sci-fi dystopia most of us only encounter when a guy in a bike helmet arrives with a sack of food”(Online).  A burger and fries arriving while a person is tethered to their gaming console and/or domestic chores might seem like a dream come true.  Yet, for every easy meal or cheap thrill there are humans toiling somewhere behind the curtain.  And often they compose a ghettoized and marginalized labour force.

Karl Marx termed this process commodity fetishism: when we detach the significance that every product or service was crafted and provided by real human hands we fall prey to one of capitalism’s core conceptions: that the market functions like an organic entity with hands that reach and prod and generally improve humanity.  While this may be true the market is an abstraction that often overrides the needs of its participants and the planet.  A second and related fact of capitalism is that, over time, the rate of profit tends to decline (, online).  Even the best invention since sliced bread becomes common and no longer commands lucrative pricing.  From here an essential contradiction emerges: as life improves thanks to better production methods, profits decline and the market appears to be suffering.  Whole workforces can become redundant or face declines in their wages.  This conflict between the needs of workers and the demands of the market tends to be masked by the fetishism of commodities where items don’t typically bring to mind the workers who produced them (unless it’s a celebrity endorsement).   Vegans often note that if we saw slaughterhouse photos in the meat aisle we’d see less T-bones sold, and the same is likely true if we saw selfies of exhausted sweat shop workers in the Dollar Store toy aisle.

Downing concludes with disturbing accuracy that “labour has always been a space of contestation” with historical successes and failures.  (Online).  But isn’t life generally improving?  After all, a couple of decades ago the idea of having any fast food delivered to one’s door would have seemed something only a character in a cartoon could envision.  Friends, real people we knew personally, had to be available to be our informal delivery service.  Otherwise we had to do the work of driving ourselves to the drive-thru.

Tragically, with ease comes paralysis of the mind if we forget about the workforce that brings us dinner with the tap of an App.  Downing’s informants remind us of the difficulties faced by the new and precarious industries such as Uber and Skip: “You’re constantly hustling.  You don’t have time to look side to side at what could be on the horizon, because you’re just trying to get the next job.  In that mode, you kind of get swallowed.” (Online).  Swallowed like that easily acquired late night snack, we might say.

At AU the Labouring Buck Starts With Us

All of these facts point to something we distance students must remember if we expect our coursework to either get done without our hearty participation or to give us an easy shortcut to good grades or even a diploma.  In the end, someone has to do the hard work of studying and writing and, like the tastiest burger or pizza or pad Thai, the most rewarding part of an AU education is that from tail to tip we know that we are the key labourers who produce for ourselves a positive academic outcome.

In fact, we’re not so removed from the aptly named “putting out system” that prevailed just prior to the industrial textile factories of Europe (Juhasz, online).  Each week, prior to a longer weekend of revelry than we moderns enjoy, a family of home weavers would set their wares out for the masters to come and collect, pay packets in hand.  In other words, the bosses came to the workers and were grateful for whatever had been produced.  Maybe next time we use an App to have a worker bring us our dinner we can ponder whether our studies are not a revolutionary breakthrough in student-based education.  After all, we control almost every step of our productive process!  And, in sharp contrast to brick and mortar schooling we don’t have to pay to study away from our comfort zone!  We might even say that AU learning is the ultimate App: one that delivers a truly fulfilling learning experience!

Downing, J.  (2022).  ‘Humans in the Loop’.  Trek: The Future of Work.  Vancouver: AlumniUBC.  Retrieved from
Juhasz.  Et al.  (2021).  ‘Technology Adoption and Productivity Growth’.  Los Angeles: UCLA.  Retrieved from
Marx, K.  (1867/2005).  ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’.  Capital: Volume 1.
‘Rate of Profit’.  (2019).  Retrieved from