The Birth of Consumption

As philosophers who inherited the goals of the Enlightenment, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed the main theme was freedom, freedom to become a full human being, creating oneself through free choices. They attributed a high value to the human personality and believed that making a life was distinct from making a thing. However, they also understood, in a very profound way, that “life” was defined in economic terms, that human beings were valued in terms of their wealth, and that human relations were defined in terms of exchange. Over the centuries, the economic system had changed in the West and was imported via trade and commerce to other parts of the globe, replacing the exchange of goods and services for the exchange of “money” or capital. As was pointed out in earlier posts, capital was abstract and subject to negotiation and was also infinitely expandable. Over time the people who were subsumed under this system would inevitably become alienated from each other and from their own labor and from themselves. A child was understood as a financial burden that had to be sent to the nearest factory to earn his or her place in what used to be a family; the worker was seen solely in terms of profit and loss, utility instead of being part of a community; a creator became a maker who contributed a small part of a larger whole in a factory, never seeing the final product; a human being was taught to value him or herself in terms of monetary values, rather than moral or ethical values. The concern for the alienated human under capitalism can be found in a number of remarks made by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1885):

“..devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things..”

“Labor does not only create goods; it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity…”

”…the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object…”

“…the appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the worker…”

By the nineteenth century, the economic and social conditions that created what Walter Benjamin would call “high capitalism” were the result of numerous factors that converged over several centuries. World markets emerged and production and consumption became international and cosmopolitan. Local industries collapsed under the stress of factory goods and imports. The result was that capitalism or capital was concentrated in a few hands due to centralized production. Early signs of this shift away from human obligation and community towards the optimization of production can be enshrined in the double portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews (1750). The couple is pictured presiding over their estate, once two estates, joined by marriage. We see their fertile fields but not their home, only signs of mastery over nature: sheep fenced in, wheat harvested and neatly bundled. But what resonates about the portrait is not just the presence of the prosperous couple but the absence of those who make their wealth possible. The working class, the peasants have been banished not just from the canvas of Gainsborough but from the estate itself, as the result of the Enclosure Movement that allowed landowners to exclude those who lived around the estate to use common lands. The common lands were simply enclosed, fenced in and the people who once worked these fields were replaced by livestock, sheep, which were much more profitable. Unwittingly perhaps, Gainsborough had painted a portrait of capitalism, of its early symptoms–profit over the obligation of the landowner to care for the people in his or her territory.

Thomas Gainsborough. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews (1750)

The rule of capitalism in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, had been preceded by global trade and the English dominance of the oceans that expanded during the eighteenth century. Global trade required investment and private investors gradually took the place of the state itself, building ships, hiring crews and captains, purchasing cargo to trade to other ports. The risks were huge but the profits were large, with one of the most profitable cargos being that of human beings, slaves. In his seminal book of 1776, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723-1790) displaced the slave trade to the far off colonies, despite the fact that his home city, Glasgow was benefiting from the traffic in human beings. Considered the father of capitalism, in that he explained the impact of capital upon society, Smith was often considered a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, that in unregulated markets. More recently, his concerns about the accumulation of capital have been highlighted. For Smith, the “wealth of nations” was labor or the laboring classes without whom the increase in capital would not be possible. He was aware of the dangers of economic inequality, concerned about the exploitation of workers, advocating “they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” That said, Smith also believed in what we might call a “trickle down” theory of economic prosperity in which the rich consumers create jobs for workers who in turn are given wages for their labor. In his Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Reader’s GuideJerry Evensky noted that beginning with Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), his agenda “was to offer a moral philosophical (a holistic) analysis of the human condition.”Smith himself explained what happened to people and their products under capitalism: The greater part of people, too, understand better what is meant by a quantity of a particular commodity than by a quantity of labour. The one is a plain palpable object; the other an abstract notion, which, though it can be made sufficiently intelligible, is not altogether so natural and obvious. But when barter ceases, and money has become the common instrument of commerce, every particular commodity is more frequently ex- changed for money than  for any other commodity.”

Commodities were not only circulated as the result of trade, they could also be manufactured at home. Thanks to the rise of machines and the development of technology that replaced the individual and his or her labor, factories could make, in large amounts, objects of desire or objects of necessity. Instead of people making commodities, machines made them and the people were relegated to being minders of the machines. Certain areas such as Manchester or the midlands of England became areas were manufacturing expanded and began to compete with shipping and agriculture and contributing to the nation’s wealth. These centers of production attracted workers and the uprooted poor poured into cities and cities, such as London, grew astronomically overnight. During the nineteenth century, national states arose and accumulated great power over the people, but state power was undermined by capital’s international scope. The fortunes of the nation state, as Adam Smith predicted, became entangled with capitalism, which was in the position of making or breaking the stability of the state through finances. The globalization of the nineteenth century was halted by the incessant wars of the twentieth century, and it is only in the past decade that we have returned to the levels of globalization that Marx witnessed. The significant aspects of the writings of Marx is that he was “present at the creation,” as was Adam Smith. Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 in Brussels, after which Marx moved to England, the capital of the Industrial Revolution, in 1849.Relocating to London was a logical move, given what he wrote in 1848 about the British: “The country, however, which transforms whole nations into proletarians; which with its gigantic arms encompasses the whole globe; which has already once defrayed the cost of the European counter-revolution; and in which class antagonism has reached a high degree of development – England appears to be the rock on which the revolutionary waves split and disperse and which starves the coming society even in the womb. England dominates the world markets. A revolution of the economic conditions of any country of the European Continent or even of the whole Continent, is but a storm in a glass of water, unless England actively participates in it. The condition of trade and commerce of any nation depends upon its intercourse with other nations, depends upon its relations with the world markets. England controls the world markets, and the bourgeoisie controls England.” 

From this position, the philosopher could observe for almost four decades, the continued rise of wealth in that nation and witness the increasingly worsening conditions of the workers. Supported by Engels, he wrote the multivolume Das Kapital during these years. Marx was determinist and a materialist who made inquiries about society–how did it function and why? Marx explained the connection between production and commodities in this book: “The transformation of a sum of money into means of production and labor-power is the first phase of the movement undergone by the quantum of value which is going to function as capital. It takes place in the market, within the sphere of circulation. The second phase of the movement, the process of production, is complete as soon as the means of production have been converted into commodities whose value exceeds that of their component parts, and therefore contains the capital originally advanced plus a surplus value. The commodities must then be thrown back into the sphere of circulation. They must be sold, their value must be realized in money, this money must be transformed once again into capital, and so on, again and again. This cycle, in which the same phases are continually gone through in succession, forms the circulation of capital.”

As a determinist, Marx rejected the Hegelian concept of the dialectic as one of ideas: thesis, antithesis and replaced it with a materialistic hypothesis of the economy. Economic forces shaped society through the “mode of production,” which combined labor and capital. If the mode of production changed, society would change. If capitalism, the current mode of production impacted human nature and political mechanics, is the dominant force then this “engine” must kept running. Production must be ceaseless; it must improve; technology must continue to evolve–this is the nature of competition in a consumer economy. Ironically the competition would lead to competition to monopolize capital and markets and the forces of production which need to be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.  Power shifted from a small privileged class that presided over land, but did not produce products to the middle class, which based its power upon the kind of wealth that could grow exponentially. The bourgeoisie was first ruling class based, not upon ancestors, but on what they actually did which was to produce, but production had the tendency to outstrip demand or need. In order to make sure that adequate demand for commodities continued, the bourgeoisie economy had to be based on competition for the new or novel product. The producers were forced to innovate, and, in order to compete, the means of production must constantly be revolutionized and the objects produced must constantly change.

When Marx wrote, he did so with great detail engrained in actual economic practices, which are used as examples to help his reader under stand concepts such as “use-value” but he also notes the mysterious ability of commodities to rise above their material origins to acquire some form of fetishistic value. He wrote, “A commodity seems at first glance to be a self-evident, trivial thing. The analysis of it yields the insight that it is a very vexatious thing, full of metaphysical subtlety and theological perversities. As mere use-value, it is a sensual thing in which there is nothing portentous, whether I happen to consider it from the viewpoint that its attributes satisfy human needs or that it obtains these attributes only as product of human labour. There is absolutely nothing of a riddle in the fact that man changes by his activity the forms of natural matter in a way which is useful to him. The form of wood, for example, is changed if one makes a table out of it. Nevertheless, the table remains wood, an ordinary, sensual thing. But as soon as it steps out as commodity, it metamorphoses itself into a sensually supersensual thing. It does not only stand with its feet on the ground, but it confronts all other commodities on its head, and develops out of its wooden head caprices which are much more wondrous than if it all of a sudden began to dance. The mystical character of the commodity thus does not arise in its use-value.”

This process of producing commodities was controlled by the middle class which was the group that controlled the means of production. Compared to the landed gentry and the inherited powers of aristocracy, their wealth and power have no natural limitations, such as owning land or collecting rents. Factory production is limited only by supply and demand: the bourgeoisie makes what the consumers demand. As long as the consumers purchase, the supply of products will continue to expand and with it the power of the middle class which owns the means of production. As Marx commented,

“The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together…”

“The bourgeois society has resolved all personal honor and dignity into exchange-value; and in place of all the freedoms that men have fought for, it has put one unprincipled freedom—free trade…”

Therefore the lives of ordinary people are controlled by the ruling class, which has vested interests invested in the capitalist system.  This class is in change and uses economic chaos and social crisis to its own advantage, seeing and seeking lucrative opportunities for further profits.  Capitalism is thus characterized as needing a permanent revolution, or a yearning for change. The “revolution” is not, of course, a political, social, or economic one, for real change threatens the status quo of the dominant class.  Instead, the impulse for “revolution” and “change” is transferred or displaced towards commodities.  Capitalism forces individual self-development but only in restrictive and distorted ways, because everything bourgeois society builds will only to be torn down.  In perhaps his most famous and often quoted remark, Marx perceptively described the conditions of capitalism:

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face…the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men…”

According to Marx, the middle class is most violently destructive ruling class in history.  The   bourgeois class does not efface old structures but absorbs them and incorporates them into the market and new life becomes the new commodity to be consumed.  Capitalism manages to co-opt and absorb all challenges to its authority.  Marx pondered the impact of this new social condition upon human beings and commented,

“The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life.. Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness…”

Human consciousness alters with every change in conditions of material existence in social relations or social life. Even society’s moral and ethical standards determined by monetary considerations.  Is it moral to appropriate the labor of others?  Is it ethical to exploit the desperation of human beings?  Why does labor allow such exploitation?  Under capitalism, dissimulation will silence these questions and will not allow the answers to be heard, thus, solidifying the “false consciousness” of ideology. The social mind is malleable to the forces of social persuasion, responding to the needs of the dominant class to further their position. To reify the power relations already in place, the forces of legitimation work ceaselessly.  The elements of the superstructure are called into play to legitimate the status quo or the “natural,” whether the functions of the superstructure are education or the law or art.  Art and Law are commodities and the cultural workers produce in the name of the power relations with which they are complicit.  The artist, along with other intellectuals and poets, has lost his/her halo and has become a wage-laborer.  The artist is but a producer of ideas into material works of art, which are a form of perception or consciousness formed by capitalism.

Marx said,

“…the product is an objectification of labor…”

“…new fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want…”

The “want” that Marx spoke of was a function of capitalism, which needed the mechanism of projection of desire upon the object. Thus desire became “reified” or solidified. Marx was writing just on the edge of the establishment of the department store and its vast array of tempting goods, but his insights were prophetic. He could not have known how the process of reification would work in the future, but he was aware of the connection between desire and the object, which was a “symptom” of the desire. Reification is a mental process and is part of the exchange value of an object. For example, people are convinced to act out their desired identities through the acquisition of an object. The more desirable the fantasy identity, the more expensive the object, and the more money a person is willing to pay for a Porsche, for example. However, reification on the commodity level is trivial in comparison to how reification acts on the level of the total society.

Reification is used to further the interests of the ruling class. The desire to acquire certain commodities was based upon an ideology of “success,” expressed through objects.  The property purchased reinforced the capitalist system, which is dependent upon constant buying which, in turn, supports the power position of those who control the mode of production.   The desire to own property is legitimated through ideology, encouraging consumption.  To counter arguments that capitalism exploits the working class,  the real consequence of  desire is falsified, hidden, or denied in a process called “dissimulation.” Dissimulation, which is a form of misdirection or lying, is an important function of ideology. Reification, then, is the denial of the power relations by placing these relations outside of time.  The rich are not rich because of the capitalist system, the worker is not exploited because of the capitalist system, the unequal power relations are “natural.” The rich are rich because they “naturally” deserve to be in power and the poor are poor because they are “naturally” inferior. Property, while part of the ideology of capitalism, is an old and alien practice that has been absorbed into and transformed by the moneyed economy.

Echoing Hegel, Marx said, “…everything seems pregnant with its contrary…” Capitalism has a strange internal contradiction. The means of production, that is the entire labor-manufacture system, is socialized. Property, in contrast, refuses socialization in order to remain private, and yet the entire socialized capitalist system strives to accumulate private property.  In other words, private property or ownership or profits remains individual or private, while workers and the practices and customs that allow their labor to be appropriated so that private property can be accumulated are socialized through laws. The rules and laws of the superstructure produce circumstances favorable to private ownership and property and lead to and result in the exploitation of laborers—all of which is made to seem both logical and natural, through the workings of ideology. In order for the spell of ideology to be broken, the consciousnesses of the workers had to be raised though a revelation of the true state of affairs, leading to a revolution and an overthrow of the social system.  To counteract this situation of appropriation and exploitation, Marx and Engels believed that property must be socialized and come under communal ownership.  Contrary to today’s beliefs about socialism, Nineteenth Century socialists did not believe in “big government,” but looked forward to the day when the “will of the people” would supersede the state, which would, in Marx’s words, “Wither away.”

Also read:  “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels and Property” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”  

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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