The Process of Valueless Commodification

The commodification process is inherent in valueless transactions. By valueless, I mean that which corresponds to no inherent human need or want and is instead that of a particular class or vested interest. Polanyi identified three such valueless commodities: land, labour and money. All of these things have become the play thing of those in power i.e. government and its corresponding regulatory and corporate power. With land it has become that of a negotiation between developers, corporate interests and the government. Thus we see roads to nowhere, heaven-bound skyscrapers and new apartment blocks that further a ghettoisation process and don’t follow the needs of local populations, particularly the poor and marginalised. Money has followed a similar path. Money has lost all social function and has become a tool of banks through bond programs and the fractional reserve system. It has no inherent social value based around ideas of worth or representativeness. This can be seen with the development of currency markets where numbers on a screen determine what are effectively rigged bets by traders and investors. Finally there is labour, the ultimate example of valueless commodification. The labour markets are, as they are currently constituted, are a set of power relations that favour corporate employers and the regulatory regimes that allow such injustice to exist. These structures of valueless, alienated labour have become in effect wage slavery, where the working of meaningless, long, monotonous jobs can only guarantee survival.

However, where Marx saw this as a result of a market system and its functions, it appears as a function of disjointed power relations created by government control and corporate vested interests. This can be seen in Hodgskin’s identification of the employers’ appropriation of rent and interest to constitute their profits, thus diminishing the employee’s wages and creating a form of extraction. If we connect this with Tucker’s four monopolies: money, land, tariffs and patents, as well as Carson’s recognition of a fifth monopoly, that of transport structures, we see a system that is reliant on rent extraction and an elimination of choice for the labourer. This feeds into the concept of valueless commodification, as it allows for the expropriation of resources from their social origin and the dis-embedding of markets from their socio-cultural structures. By removing workers’ surplus value they limit the ability of workers to become independent of their employer and instead make them a cog of a larger machine, enforcing alienation from their labour. For those who say that this idea, best represented in the labour theory of value, is redundant due to the marginalist critique that established subjective value, I say they have a limited understanding of price formation and the equilibrium of prices to demand in a market. This is where Marshall’s analysis comes in. I will only give a brief overview. The main idea is that in the short run the subjective theory of value is correct, in that demand determines price. However, in the longer run, the accumulation of labour input into a product informs its price in a similar way so as to continue to pay workers and maintain profitability. Further, the price-demand equilibrium is itself not fixed, varying based on competition and the decline of profits.

Within this process of surplus value extraction, the four monopolies serve to force the labourer into wage labour. Without these enforced monopolies, the individual would have choice in his/her labour. This can be seen in many Third World countries, where corporations rely on these monopolies to have a continuous source of cheap labour to exploit (Sweatshop labour). By nationalising and corporatising land, developing monetary arrangements that create debtors and patenting local knowledge and technology, we see a process of enclosure and expropriation that forces the process of wage slavery upon the weakest and most vulnerable. This is not to say that wage labour would end, but rather individuals could work collectively on the land or develop their own businesses that could sell un-patented technology and products, developing domestic markets. This could be done through systems of interest-free money such as mutual credit. This would also end the peripheral commodification of other products, such as food, local knowledge and even DNA. As Vivero Pol has pointed out, the commodification of food has led to a denaturalisation of food, becoming a product of pure consumerism which has potential negative effects on health. Further, within farming the monopolisation of land use by large agri-business has actually reduced crop output per acre, and limited the ability of communities and villages to farm self-sufficiently as well as sell their excess product at a fair price. The commodification of knowledge by large technology firms such as Google or Apple has an air of neo-feudalism, as individuals and communities have to pay to access knowledge and ideas. The same process is seen with DNA, as with the Human Genome Diversity Project. This is part of the wider tenets of intellectual property, a system dominated by the US government and the corporations reliant upon it. However, there is a backlash to this. With food, a redevelopment of a commons means fairer distribution and more local production, ending the process of valueless commodification and making it the choice of producers to sell their product on the market. In the realm of knowledge a similar process is occurring, with the internet making patents practically unenforceable and developing a commons in knowledge. This also re-localises knowledge to its cultural origin. Thus by providing choice, redeveloping common/collective action and ending the government monopolies which allow for surplus value extraction, we can end this vile system.

Markets set around real values of social regulation and embeddedness with elements of competition, collaboration and innovation could end such injustice. In fact we are already seeing this in the valueless commodities previously mentioned. With land, we are seeing a desire to return to collective ownership of resources and farming and the redevelopment of the commons. Groups like the Landless Workers movement and the Zapatistas have attempted to implement such reforms with some success. In terms of housing, we are seeing the rise of cooperative housing groups and ideas of community planning so as to allow for meaningful development based around social need. With money, many movements have developed to counter bank-controlled, fiat money such as cryptocurrencies, local currencies and the concept of democratic money based around Modern Monetary Theory. And with labour, we see movements for more organised labour that want to create collaborative markets based around genuine representation of workers and the ability for them to create their own terms. We also see the idea of a basic income which would allow for independence from wage labour and the development of work rather than labour. These movements show that markets can function when value is put back into transactions and wealth is more equitably distributed. Commodification is not the inherent problem, it is valueless commodification.

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