Commodification and Me

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 22 Apr 1994 22:53:08 JST

In a private note, Paul Anderson asks how do I feel about
the commodification of our intellectual and spiritual life.
It's a good question, especially to someone who works in
an advertising agency. The following is a stab at an

To me "commodification" raises two pressing issues. First
is the notion that we live in a world where, increasingly
(1) everything is for sale, (2) the universal standard of
value is money, and (3) prices fluctuate, depending on
market conditions. The result is a feeling that work no
longer has intrinsic value and the chances of making a
lasting contribution to public culture are nil. To those who
equate work and self this world is very scary indeed. I'm
talking, of course, about what Marx called the alienation
of labor.

The second is the problem of distributive justice. How is
it that I and a few tens of millions of others can enjoy
freedom from want, freedom to work and, relatively
speaking, freedom from fear (day after day the news is
appalling, and the market imposes its own anxieties),
while hundreds of millions of others live in horrible want
and fear and seem to have no hope of working their way to
better things? (Regular readers of the list will note my
debt to Carrier's list of what should be universal human

Confronted with alienation from labor, I respond with a
Zen-like mixture of commitment to craft and detachment
from particular projects. I am fortunate to work in an
industry where what we produce are, however derivative
in fact, intended to be unique things and craftsmanlike
virtues are a source of prestige. I enjoy the game and
since, to date, I am fairly successful, the material
rewards are substantial too. Is it totally satisfactory? No.
I pursue academic interests in hopes of making a mark on
the world more durable than yesterday's ads. For the good
of my soul. I invest time in volunteer community-service
activities. I am deeply in love with my family, with a
marriage that's going on twenty-five years and a daughter
about to go to college of whom I'm exceedingly proud. In
short, I try to make life an art, believing with John
Gardner (_On Moral Fiction_) that "true art is moral: it
seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off,
at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us."

How, then, do I deal with the world's injustice? Not well
enough to be sure. I do not deny the flaws in the market
system in which I earn my living. I do believe that with all
its flaws, it is, like representative democracy, better than
any current alternative. I am intrigued by the notion that
we might all lead happier, more ecological lives as
hunters-and-gatherers; but I don't see any happy way to
reduce the world's population to a level that would make
this way of life an option for everyone. With places like
Bosnia and Rwanda to think about, I am not optimistic
about the chances of live-and-let-live tribalism. The
great socialist experiments? We have all seen the results,
and the record of traditional states is at least as bad and
mainly worse than what the market delivers now. I see
hope in technology, and when I turn back to the simple
ideas I had when I was fifteen, I recall what I used to read
in the pages of _Astounding_ (later _Analog_) science
fiction magazine; I'm a starry-eyed dreamer about our
chances of getting into space and finding enough room and
resources for more of us to have a better chance.

Behind all this is a deep conviction that I realize I think in
terms I learned from Victor Turner. Competition, conflict,
and, yes, contradiction, are inherent in human life. We
muddle through and sometimes, only sometimes, ever so
briefly transcend them. Sometimes this feels like selling
out. Sometimes it feels like Heaven.

"Making Symbols is My Business"--John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)