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Notes from an iron cage: humanism and the commodity fetish.

I won't be burned at the stake for writing this. The inquisition is long over and, despite its best is efforts, a great religion fell to questioning and lost its absolute power. But are we really free now, we heretics who seem to walk free in this secular age? I think not; I think our souls are claimed by a new religion, one that is both too strong and too subtle to drag us off to the dungeons. This religion keeps itself invisible and keeps its victims out of our sight, too. Karl Marx, who had an eye for the invisible, wrote in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 about how this new religion was killing people outright or filling their lives with pain, and he denounced it as the fetishism of the commodity.

Nearly 150 years later, religion continues to lose its primacy. Fewer people confess to a priest in church these days; now they confess their troubles to the camera on "Oprah:" their monologues interrupted every ten minutes by upbeat messages revealing to us the solution to every modern problem. In 30-second minidramas, we are shown how we can conquer our social problems if equipped with the right deodorant, or how we can achieve marital bliss if faithful to the right diet or detergent. Even our kids will forgive us if we buy them a certain breakfast cereal. Penance is a trip to the grocery store.

Sure, you may need soap to wash the dishes. But that's not the need to which the commercial appeals. Instead, the product is given powers beyond the obvious, powers equal to and often exceeding our own: salad dressing flies through the air, a beer can turns the dessert into a beach replete with scantily clad women. That's what fetishism is: investing a thing with supernatural forces. And as Catholic philosopher John Kavenaugh recognized in Following Christ in a Consumer Society, fetishism leads us to turn away from our humanity.

One way we forsake humanity has to do with the high cost of living-for-the-commodity. Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that our ancestors worked hard to show their neighbors that they were destined for heaven. But although Puritanism eventually waned, our work habits endured. Now, Weber writes:

Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition

as the ultimate purpose of his life. . . . In Baxter's

view the care for external goods

should only lie on the shoulders

of the "saint like a light cloak,

which can be thrown aside at any

moment" But fate decreed that

the cloak should become an Iron Cage.

The price of the commodity is so high that we work all our lives to purchase it. And what do we get in return for our life's devotion? Does the commodity fulfill religion's promise of providing us with comfort, purpose, and identity? Marx had an answer to this question. He sums up in one word--alienation--the countless broken promises of commodity fetishism.

The commercials interrupting my viewing of "Oprah" promise me identity if only I purchase the commodity. But as Kavenaugh points out, commercials first destroy our identity by making us feel incomplete without the product. We learn, subtly and insidiously, that we are undesirable as parents, lovers, friends, or workers if we lack the commodity. In our perpetual dissatisfaction, we become alienated from our flawed selves and yearn to purchase perfection.

Television is more than just the means by which these anti-self messages are sent; it is a commodity and a form of alienation in itself. Like other commodities, only more so, television isolates us from real interaction and human connection and perpetuates alienation from others. Stuart Ewen points out in All Consuming Images that television works like a panopticon--the structure of a prison that keeps prisoners from interacting with each other and instead focused on a central controlling power. Isolated from each other, we lack the power to influence the world; exposed to television's messages reinforcing the status quo, we eventually lack even the desire to influence the world.

Finally, commodity fetishism alienates us from nature, as we destroy it both in producing our products and in speedily throwing them away. Commodity fetishism doesn't mean buying something and being happy with it for 30 years; it means compulsive buying, dissatisfaction with the old, planned obsolescence, "newer" valued over "better," the latest fashion as the only one worth wearing.

So the price of our commodity hunger is simple: all that we have and all that we are. Dehumanization, according to Marx, comes from valuing something else over the human person: "The more man attributes to God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; then it no longer belongs to him but to the object." As long as we trade our humanity for the commodity's "thingness" we will continue to lose what is most important to our survival as a civilization: the environment that sustains us, the company of other people, and our own self-respect as human beings. Weber would add to this list of losses the time we spend working to purchase a new and improved iron cage in which to lock ourselves. Insisting on holding on to the religion of the commodity, we will continue to wonder why humanity is not surviving the faith.

If commodity fetishism is a religion, it is more dangerous than most for not seeming to be one. How do you resist something that doesn't give itself a name? I think that when looking for the invisible, it helps to find a new place to stand, a point of view that differs from the dominant ideology. The alternative values of humanism can be that place. If we declare our first priority to be the human being, then certain ordinary aspects of society--like the implicit messages in commercials that products have superhuman powers, like the irresponsible destruction of the environment--suddenly seem absurd and frightening. With humanist values, we can realize that we are devaluing what is human in favor of the thing we worship. We can aspire to the "light cloak."

Humanism can also help us resist the commodity fetish through its emphasis on reason and compassion. Reason, through education, is a kind of intellectual defense. It helps us become critical thinkers so that we may resist the consumerist messages promoted by the media. Compassion means valuing each other enough to participate in communities that are not centered around the television. Compassion also means working to change the system so that human rights--including the right to food and shelter--are recognized. After all, in the larger world, overconsumption is only part of the story; plenty for the few is more than balanced by deprivation for the many.

In sum, being a humanist means working for the greater good of human beings. For humanists, comfort is not to be found in the latest commodity (or the latest god); identity is not to be found in the latest fashion; and purpose is not to be found in the constant striving for the thing. Instead, we provide each other with comfort, derive purpose from high ideals, and form our identity through relationships with others.

I don't fear the Inquisitors' knock on my door; their battle has already been lost (and won). Today, they are all dead and disgraced, their best efforts deemed humanistically indefensible. But then, the human was never their focus--it was all for God. Their methods fell out of favor, but their anti-human ideals live on in, among other things, commodity fetishism. Resisting the dominant religion is a difficult task these days, for the enemy is not nearly as solid as a church door. Instead, we fight phantoms--flickering images, social constructions, tacit messages. To gain courage in this fight, it helps to keep in mind the humanist tradition: that if we are vigilant, then one day reason and compassion may prevail over the false gods that seek to rule us.
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Author:Nugent, Lynne
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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