Commodify My Dissent
A handy rule of thumb: when the troglodytic right and the apoplectic left find a point upon which to agree, you can rest assured that the doubly blessed idea is a deeply stupid one. I don’t mean merely that it’s very stupid, but rather that it’s likely to be an example of a sublime stupidity, asinine in some truly profound way. A prime example is the bipartisan horror at “commodification,” the sense that in our relentlessly bourgeois/secular culture (the epithet depends upon whether you’re reading Adbusters or National Review) all that is sacred becomes profaned by the affixation of a price tag. All that is solid melts into air.
Think–if you weren’t already doing so–about prostitution. It’s a truism in America that sex sells, but propose to a random American that literally selling sex ought not to be the sort of thing that gets one thrown in prison (where it’s taken rather than traded) and you’ll be hard pressed to tell, at least at first, whether the knee-jerk response you get comes from a radical feminist or a hardcore traditionalist. Doesn’t prostitution (either might say) make people into objects, make sex into one more cheap (or expensive) product to be consumed, like a Toyota or a Twinkie?
There is, of course, something to this: that’s part of what distinguishes a deeply stupid idea from one that’s merely stupid in the conventional sense. Above and beyond the discomfort of tacitly admitting that you can’t get any for free, paying for sex seems sordid and distasteful, because it is so patently sex without love or deeper meaning. It is difficult, though, to see why this should make people so eager to ban the oldest profession. We don’t need hookers to make sex meaningless, after all. Dance clubs and HBO specials do a fine job of that as it is, thank you very much. No, the prostitute’s unpardonable sin is to shine a spotlight on the element of barter already looming behind the romantic cover stories we tell ourselves about our own sexual motives. The critics of commodification, in this realm and elsewhere, are like the revolutionaries who Foucault charged with harboring a “fascist inside.” They cherish their self-images as Deeply Spiritual People, and can’t abide being reminded of the turgid consumerist desires straining against their psychic shorts.
The professionally angry hepcats at The Baffler, for example, were foaming at the mouth about the fusion of bourgeois and bohemian aesthetics for years before David Brooks made “BoBo” a familiar bit of cocktail party jargon. But the bestselling book of “salvos” from that plucky little magazine, Commodify Your Dissent, is a rather skillfully manufactured commodity itself. The cover is defiantly anti-glossy–a rough textured paper affair with line-art that makes it look vaguely like a Farmer’s Almanac–and the text is peppered with more casual references to fashionably unfashionable authors and bands than a coffeehouse conversation in the East Village. Not to mention an endorsement blurb from Time Out New York. Reading it leaves one with the distinct impression that, ultimately, what bothers its assorted scribes is not so much that culture is being packaged and sold, but that folks they don’t care for are doing so much of the selling.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the likes of our Warlord in Chief and his bioethics commissar Leon Kass denouncing genetic tinkering on the grounds that it seems to them to make life a “commodity” and children into “products.” This, without a hint of irony, from the key figures of a movement whose signature issue seems to be the engineering of culture to ensure that the next generation is composed exclusively of clones, in mind if not body, of themselves.Â
The list of things which ought not to be “commodified” seems almost endless: our organs, personal information, “public” education .Â .Â . all of them are supposed to float above the grubby agora, unsullied by anything so petty as the profit motive. But what, exactly, is the argument here supposed to be? How is such sullying supposed to take place? After all, someone who’s willing to exchange his personal data for a ten percent discount on Travelocity couldn’t have regarded it as sacrosanct in the first instance. Someone who buys the pseudo-alternative corporate rock band’s T-shirt because it looks cool wouldn’t necessarily be acting on different motives if she’d silk-screened it herself before they got signed. And surely even the saintly folks who work for public schools might not show up in the absence of an occasional paycheck. What does “commodification” do but make explicit what’s already there?
Ah, but again, maybe that’s the problem. Hayek made his name with the observation that markets convey information, and sometimes it’s information we’d rather not have. It reminds us that our values are, ultimately, also market preferences, between which there are trade-offs to be made. It shows us all too clearly that others, given a chance, will make different trade-offs. It asks us to make some of those difficult choices ourselves. Those who would just as soon not face that freedom, and that responsibility, will try to evade it by trying to convince themselves, and the rest of us, that the market within which they arise is somehow tainted and base. Me, I’m not buying it.