Apple, consumer fetishism and the wonderful world of purchase power

Tax on cigarettes treats my cancer – these things elevate me above animals – ‘Being a Girl’, Mansun

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Not in 2012, five years after the iPhone was originally launched into the world. Yet last night when I read a story about people queuing up for the iPhone 5, days in advance of its launch, I felt the familiar if irregular mixture of astonishment, disbelief and despair. It’s a feeling that only really comes to me when Apple release one of their incremental hardware updates and it seems that everyone, from the broadsheets and the BBC through to every second person on Twitter and Facebook, goes batshit crazy. It’s a phenomenon which does not translate to other phones, operating systems, tablets, which is especially curious given Apple is dominant in neither mobile operating systems nor hardware (clearly it is dominant in tablets, yet also clear is that a tiny minority of people own one). Sure, we see stories of hardcore Microsoft nuts rushing out to buy the latest incarnation of Windows but this has not remotely become part of our national consciousness in the same way.

In short, Apple are a modern textbook example of commodity fetishism and its products embody this theory perfectly. Marx wrote of “the whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities”. As this suggests, he argued that commodities had a power and worth which did “not arise from the fact that people produce them.” Instead, the labour and relationships which lay behind them were obscured – “the social relationship that creates (the commodities’) equal value [the amount of labour which they embody] disappears from our consciousness”, replaced instead by a market exchange value which transforms life into “a material relationship between things”. The commodities themselves were seen to have an “objective value” entirely independent from “their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.” So what matters with the commodity is not how it came to be made or even necessarily what it does – instead what matters is how it is perceived culturally, how desired it is by our peers. It should come as no surprise that this concept had its origins in critiques of religion, with Marx writing of fetishism as “the religion of sensuous appetites”.

It’s somewhat ironic that in a world where an increasing number of people feel great pride and superiority in their atheism, this ‘religion’ of commodity fetishism has so permeated our culture that it is rarely seriously commented on. Certainly some have their distaste for ostentatious materialism – the sports cars, designer labels and ‘bling’ – yet other forms of identity which are mediated through purchases are viewed far more benignly. Consider, for example, the ‘geek’ who loves gadgets, merchandise, consoles. They are often figures of fun (see ‘The Big Bang Theory’) but undoubtedly ones viewed with affection. It could be argued that to live in capitalist society is to partake in this to some degree or other, as we imbue objects with the power to shape (and display) our concept of who we wish to be.

Apple are perhaps the most obvious and widespread example of this. The infamous ‘Mac vs PC’ adverts were a neat précis of Apple’s appeal to consumerism-as-identity. You are an ‘Apple person’ and this carries certain connotations. It’s a hugely successful tactic which leads to many (millions?) having a quite astonishing sense of loyalty to a rapacious multi-national corporation. To have a conversation with one of these people is to wonder if you have entered some alternate universe, such is their defence of activities which would seem anathema to ‘consumer choice’. Built-in obsolescence, proprietary software and hardware, exploitation of its closed systems to extract profit at every possible stage – no matter how contrary to long-unquestioned notions of the ‘good product’ Apple goes, you will find many who eagerly and ferociously defend it. Their sense of identity is tied up in these products and the company which make them just as a Christian’s sense of self is tied up in God and the Church.

So we have the spectacle of people sleeping on the streets for days, in some grim caricature of homelessness, in order to get their hands on Apple’s latest product. Far from being angry that Apple seek to render their previous products obsolete, undesirable and/or ‘uncool’ each year, many seem grateful for another opportunity to part with their cash. They are Apple people. In an example of Marx’s commodity fetishism so explicit and textbook that it’s almost laughable, they are Apple people even when the social and economic realities behind the rectangles in their hands are illuminated. The issue becomes not one of the labour practices but one of image; in an act of supreme disingenuousness, Apple becomes just another multinational behaving as multinationals behave. Our attention is drawn to the labour practices of other technological companies. It’s certainly the case that capitalism encourages base labour practices and that we cannot help but be complicit. It is not the case, however, that we should rush to the defence of the companies who partake in these practices; certainly not when their entire ethos and success is predicated on being ‘different’.

Labour practices become just another issue of ‘consumer choice’, subservient to the commodity itself. In a striking example of how dominant the commodity is, even the queues for them generate their own little economiesTruly, the idea that people’s worship of the iPhone can be turned into a profit put towards treatment for cancer is a sign of how advanced, and how degraded, our society has become. Unfortunately it’s not something which will be unfamiliar to most charities. Indeed, to raise funds charities will almost certainly find themselves dealing with the ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ programmes of companies which may have poor labour practices, which may pollute, which may be heavily involved in the arms trade, which may eagerly deal with brutal regimes and so on. Buying a giant Pepsi to raise money for diabetes research is a perfect example of the contortions organisations find themselves forced into. Here again, the commodity (Pepsi) is dominant – the social and economic realities are not only obscured, they are irrelevant.

Another area where the dominance of commodity fetishism is clear is in environmentalism, where we are encouraged to make a difference with the products we buy. The commodity holds the key to preventing global warming – not tackling the fundamental structures of society which lead to pollution and waste. Our insatiable appetite (largely in the West) for new phones, new laptops, new cameras, new televisions, new clothes is driving us towards destruction – yet instead of questioning the way we live our lives, we are encouraged to ‘consider’ the environmental practices of different companies when making our purchases. So we have the absurdity of paying a couple of pounds extra on products or flights to ‘offset’ our individual carbon footprint as if all of us just spending a little more will solve the problem.

As I wrote earlier, we are all certainly complicit in this to some degree. The urge when facing this fact is to ignore it – after all, it’s an enormous issue and if everyone else is doing it, why can’t we? Yet beginning to acknowledge it is the only way to begin to change it and to change it we must act together. I know as much as anyone else how desperately you can feel the ‘need’ for that commodity – indeed, only last week I bought a new camera rather than pay £90 to have one repaired. Yet as dramatic as it sounds, it increasingly seems that if humanity is to have any future at all we need to step off this treadmill and take a look around. We’re not going to improve the world by buying more things, however well-intentioned those charity fundraisers in the Apple queue are.

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