first major contribution is that he clarifies the concept of commodification.
While often used and referred to in academic literature, to date there has been
no systematic analysis and outline of it. Importantly, rather than adopting a
moral or pragmatic critique of commodification, he firmly adopts a Marxist,
historical materialist position acknowledging the problems resulting from all
forms of commodification. ‘While the exchange of labor for money may be morally
questionable, for materialists it is the capitalist application of labor power
to increase surplus value that makes it most objectionable’ (P.12).
drawing directly on the work of Karl Marx, he distinguishes between use value,
the satisfaction of needs on one hand, and exchange value or market value on
the other, which is geared towards the maximization of profit. ‘Usually it is
competition and the profit motive that makes sure that market value comes to
dominate use value’ (P.28). Sub-categories of commodification include formal,
real and fictitious commodification, further clarifying our understanding about
processes of commodification as a whole.
for maximising profits, i.e. the production of commodities, comes however with
a heavy price. ‘The main threat,’ Hermann argues, ‘is the transformation of our
livelihoods, including the destruction of the ecological base of human life and
flourishing’ (P.XI). By relegating human needs to a secondary role, ‘commodity
production has become an obstacle to urgently needed social and ecological
transformation – including, for example, a more sustainable transportation
system’ (P.38). In other words, commodification is deeply harmful to human
beings and nature alike.
Hermann’s second major contribution is that he unravels in detail the various political-economic processes, through which commodification takes place, including privatization, liberalization, marketization, New Public Management and austerity. New Public Management is an interesting example of fictitious commodification. Rather than relying on markets and the profit motive, here ‘commodification is based on the introduction of quasi-markets, forcing different parts of the same organization to compete with each other’ (P.38). Constant performance measurement and turning citizens into consumers are key strategies in this respect (P.54). Working in Higher Education in the UK, I can confirm that this has become part of our daily working practices due to restructuring over recent years.
consequences of commodification are dire. Needs which are not backed by
purchasing power are being neglected. In many countries, if you cannot pay,
your water will be turned off for example. There is a focus on producing those
commodities, which secure the highest profits and short-term profits are
generally prioritised over long-term sustainability. The quality of services is
sacrificed for profitability and products become standardised and homogenised.
Essential goods have been turned into items of speculation with at times
disastrous consequences for people. As a result of the financialisation of
agricultural production, for example, ‘world food prices rose by 83 per cent
between 2005 and 2008, with corn prices nearly tripling. Rice prices increased
by 70 percent, and wheat prices by 127 percent. Growing food prices, in turn
drove at least 40 million more people in the developing world into hunger’
(P.87). As commodification reaches its social, political, systemic and
ecological limits, human beings’ very survival is endangered.
however, does not stop at defining processes of commodification and
highlighting their disastrous consequences. By turning to ‘use value’, he also points
to potential, collective ways out of existential crises. The role of
nature is key, when illustrating the move from market value to use value.
‘While nature has little if any (marginal) utility, it has an enormous use
value. At the same time, nature’s use value is inherently collective: it provides
the collective basis of life and human flourishing’ (P.119). Hence, a use-value
society can provide the basis of moving from production for profit to
production focused on the satisfaction of human needs. ‘A use-value society is
a collective project, driven by the development of collective capacities and
open to innovation and technological progress with technology serving human
needs rather than profit maximization’ (P.152).
identifies three elements that ‘are crucial for the promotion of use value:
democratization, sustainability, and solidarity’ (P.135). In order to ensure a
shift towards production for the satisfaction of needs, the economy must be democratised
including two key elements. ‘On the one hand, the shift toward self-managed
enterprises, and on the other hand, the introduction of democratic planning’
(P.141). When it comes to sustainability, Hermann mirrors to some extent
arguments from the degrowth literature, when he suggests that ‘what is needed
is an economic contraction in the Global North, making space for some material
improvement in the South (P.147). Solidarity, in turn, is crucial as the
opposite of (capitalist) competition. Solidarity prioritises the collective
good over individual gains. Ultimately, ‘putting common goals before individual
interests is not only important for winning concessions from capital; it is
also crucial for tackling the ecological crisis’ (P.151).
this use-value society is not something, which could only be established after
a full-scale transformation of our current capitalist political economy
sometime in the distant future. The transformation can start here and now
building up incrementally over time. As Hermann concludes his book, ‘positive
experience with growing islands of use-value orientation in the sea of profit
maximization can, hopefully, pave the way for systemic change, ending
capitalism and commodification – and tackling the ecological crisis. In this
sense, a use-value society can also be seen as a first step, or transitory
phase, in the long journey to an ecologically sustainable socialism’ (P.157).
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net
28 April 2022