15 Oct

Commodification and its Discontents

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Nicholas Abercrombie

Human beings evaluate each other and the events and contents of their social world in different ways.  They make judgments using moral or aesthetic criteria or they can use the yardstick of money.  At the same time, people worry that monetary valuations are replacing those that are based on more human considerations.  These worries are the commonplaces of everyday conversation.  Mary Trump, in her recent book about her family, especially her uncle Donald, remarks on the tendency of her family members to value everything in terms of money.  Her father, for example, is judged to be worthless because he left no money when he died.  But they are also the staple of public presentations and arguments.  Michael Sandel, in a book on the moral limits of markets, worries that we have created a society in which almost everything is up for sale, even things that are fundamental to the human condition such as kidneys or love.

These worries are at root to do with markets and a society organised around them and the way in which price, which is determined in markets, becomes the yardstick of value.  The worries that I have described are, therefore, about commodification – the long-term replacement by markets of other systems of exchange.  The question that then informs my book (Commodification and its Discontents) is: can commodification be resisted?  I argue that it can and it has.  The period between the middle of the nineteenth century and the 1970s in the United Kingdom is marked by a growing intervention, largely but not wholly, by the state in markets.  This is chiefly an ideological achievement.  A large group of well-connected intellectuals commanding a wide audience formulated a critique of market society which underpinned governmental action.  This is a relatively familiar notion in respect of the formation of a welfare state.  However, it was also influential in other areas, the treatment of the human body, knowledge and publishing, for example.  The ideology concerned was actually an alliance of themes drawn from apparently antithetical regimes, notions of social justice from socialism and ideas of order and harmony from conservative thinking.  Its outcome was an emphasis on the collective interest in long-term stability of society. 

By the 1970s, however, this ideological alliance was losing influence and was gradually replaced by one that stressed the individual and sectoral interest and promoted innovations that were relatively short-term.  In many respects, this ideological alliance resembles an earlier formation – often referred to as laissez-faire – that was dominant in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  That prompts the question: is there a cyclical process of alternation of collective ideals and policies with those more like those of laissez-faire.  Is Mark Twain right in saying: ‘History does not repeat itself but it does often rhyme’?

Nick Abercrombie is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. His latest book, Commodification and Its Discontents, is now available from Polity.