Commodity fetishism

by Sunita

I was having dinner with a friend this past weekend in a trendy Palo Alto restaurant, and we were talking about Adam Smith and Karl Marx, as you do (well, you do if you’re political scientists). I looked around the room at one point and when he asked me why, I told him I was looking for somewhere wearing an Apple Watch. I figured I was in was a highly likely place to see one. Sadly, I didn’t, but I couldn’t see every diner’s wrist, so I retain hope that the Watch was there, lurking, out of my view.

"White AppleWatch with Screen" by Justin14 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

I wonder if we’ve reached Peak Commodity Fetishism with the Apple Watch. I hope so, because it would be depressing to think we could go further. Commodity fetishism is a term coined by Marx to describe the condition in which objects are valued for something other than what they are used for and the labor that inheres in their production. The first paragraph of this overview is a good, succinct summary of the concept.

Many people are aware that Apple makes most of its vast profits on its hardware (although I would argue that its software is increasingly important, even if indirectly, because of the way it ties people into its ecosystem and the way each software/app purchase fuels other purchases). But unlike many other makers of things, Apple’s things are esteemed not just for the usefulness of the products and their ease of use, but also for the way they look. Design is enormously important to Apple because its customers value it so highly. One might argue that Steve Jobs valued design for its own sake, but at this point it can’t be disentangled from Apple’s marketing strategy.

I’m not interesting in arguing about whether Apple products are easier to use than their competitors. I’ve used a wide variety of platforms for years and found that each has its advantages and drawbacks. If you prefer Mac OS over Windows, or iOS over Android (or vice versa), good for you. This post isn’t about that.

This is about the way in which the use value of a product becomes decoupled, or becomes only a part of, the overall value of a product. And it’s also about the way in which the labor required to make the product, and the conditions under which that labor is provided, are decoupled from the product in the mind of the consumer. When you turn on a Windows machine you probably don’t think about Bill Gates or Paul Allen, and when you power up an Android phone or a Nexus tablet you probably don’t think about Sergei Brin or even Eric Schmidt. But conversations about Apple products, especially new products, almost invariably used to include references to Steve Jobs, and his design heir, who is namechecked even more since Jobs’ death, is Jony Ive.

What most people don’t think about when they identify Apple design with Ive is that the actual products (and many parts of the overall design) are created and manufactured by an army of Apple employees, not to mention their contractors. Other designers, engineers, testers, assembly-line workers, marketers, retail salespeople: all of these individuals are integral parts of the Apple corporation. But by attributing the product to a single designer, Apple and those who celebrate their products unconsciously work to close the gap capitalism creates between the laborer and the consumer: Jony = the Watch. Not Apple the extremely profitable company (and its contractors), but a single, highly gifted artist.

I’m not arguing that there is no use value to the Apple Watch. There are clearly people for whom having a wrist-based notification system is handy. But I doubt very much that most people buying the Watch right now have a pre-existing, unfulfilled need for what it provides. They’re buying it because it’s beautiful and because it’s a new Apple product. They’re buying it in its capacity as a totem of technology.

People have a right to spend their money on whatever they want. But I wish they would acknowledge a concomitant responsibility, as consumers and as citizens, to understand the ramifications of those choices. Treating products as totems makes the labor conditions of their production more difficult to see and makes it harder to evaluate the true use value of the product. When you’re gazing at an elegant display of Apple Watches in a pristine showroom, you’re not thinking about whether you need it, let alone how its rare earth metals were mined or the conditions of its contractors’ shop floors. You’re just thinking about how gorgeous it would look on your wrist.

"AppleWatchAppleStore3" by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Apple is only one of many tech companies (and “sharing economy” service firms) that has made buying or using the next new thing feel more like a necessity than a luxury, or made people believe that the new product or service will improve their life in critical ways. Apple is also by far the best at it. We have moved so throughly from a repair-the-tech to a replace-the tech world that it’s almost impossible to find people to repair any kind of mechanical product anymore. There’s no money in it.

Capitalism is really good at getting us to buy things not just because they will be useful, but because we want them. And it does that by making the total cost invisible. Fetishizing products is an integral part of this process.

I leave you with Lupe Fiasco’s apropos take on marketing and consumption from the Friend of the People mixtape:


Photos from this Wikipedia post.