Monday, April 23, 2007

The Fetishism of Digital Commodities and the Secret Thereof

Our friend at Limited, Inc. has been writing about Marx recently and it has inspired me to scribble a few thoughts on the subject of the fetishism of digital commodities. Once the stupefaction induced by end of the semester grading passes, I plan to return this topic again since it will be the focus of my research in the coming months.

The particular aspect of digital commodities I want to explore is the way use-value comes unhinged from exchange-value. In the digital age, you really can have your cake and eat it too. A digital commodity, like your favorite Metallica mp3, can be sold or given away as many times as you like and still be there for you to play again and again. It's like the miracle of the loaves and fishes – consuming without end and always having more to share, sell, or give away. Below are some preliminary thoughts on one aspect of this topic. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

LI writes in a recent post on the fetishism of the commodity:

The bond between the system and the ideology is not accidental – as we said above, every human system has to explain itself. It won’t work, otherwise. Ideology, then, is a surface phenomena only the way skin is a surface phenomena – try living without it.
I like this imagery of ideology as the living skin of the commodity form. This means it can be peeled away – but not without a lot of blood and screaming. The ideology of capitalist private property is emblazoned on every commodity and reinforced by the uniqueness of every commodity. Even a mass produced item is one of a finite set of identical commodities. In digital commodities, though, there is never a limit to the number of copies. The imagined scarcity that helps enforce the ideology of private property disappears in the case of digital commodities. Stealing becomes an oddly abstract crime if the one you're stealing from still has the property in question. The loss of this one explanation for capitalist private property has occassioned a great deal of screaming about digital "piracy." Pirates are always scary, bloody and lawless. Perhaps it's the commodity form itself and its enclosing ideology of private property that's being tortured and skinned alive by these new-fangled digital pirates.

I'm looking forward to continuing these speculations. But, sadly, there are papers to grade first...


  1. LP, I loved this continuation of the image: "I like this imagery of ideology as the living skin of the commodity form. This means it can be peeled away – but not without a lot of blood and screaming."

    Interesting that, in the period of the classic economists, the idea of intellectual property was - properly - viewed from the standpoint of the old system of government sanctioned trading monopolies. The Smiths and Jeffersons were firmly against it. And in fact, that geneological tie with the merchant companies that created the second wave of imperialism - after the Spanish empire - is still in operation. The enforcement of IP rights on the less developed countries is one of the great drivers of all the GATT treaties. Far from liberalizing, the point is the old colonial one of enforcing trading monopolies to the advantage of the metropoles.

  2. There is also a rather non-abstract side to digital commodities. Those of us who work at non-private institutions and actually publish are paid by the tax payer. However, when a paper is accepted for publication, more often than not, we are forced to sign away the copyright to the paper. Should a member of the public that paid for this research wish to access the paper, then they have to pay again (as in a library subscription to the journal). Thus, our intellectual property, often distributed as a digital commodity, in .pdf format, is something that is paid for twice. Neither payment goes to the 'academic wage slaves' who do the work, nor to their public patrons. This is just one compelling reason to support outfits like

    The Combat Philosopher

  3. I'm just glad that Marx is still alive and well and, apparently, making the rounds of the blogosphere.

    Thanks for the link, O Prole, can't imagine what merited it. Cheers.