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Commodification is a change in business or social relations that causes something which was not a commodity to become a commodity.

The earliest use of the word commodification in English attested in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1975.[1]

The term is used in business theory and in Marxist economics, but has quite different meaning in each, corresponding to the different way the word `commodity' is used in the two genres.

To the Marxist, the word `commodity' is used to distinguish goods and services that are sold in the market from goods and services that are not. Thus commodification is the change in social relations whereby goods and services not formerly distributed via market exchange come to be distributed that way. An example of a good which has become commodified is clothing, which, once upon a time, was produced mostly within families or tribal groups for their own use, not bought or sold; but which is now produced mostly by factories which sell it into markets, and, on the other side of the transaction, most people nowadays obtain their clothing by paying money for it.

To the procapitalist economist or business person, `commodity' is used to distinguish homogenous, uniform-quality goods from those in which individual lots or items of the good are usually differentiated from each other, eg., on the basis of features, quality, or brand. An example of a commodity is iron ore, an example of a non-commodity is chairs. Commodities can often be traded merely by specifying a quantity, and perhaps a grade; but the business person who ordered `a thousand grade-A chairs' might be deemed careless....

Commodification, in the procapitalist's sense, then, is the process wherin goods formerly differentiated become undifferentiated. If formerly branded goods become sold generically or in bulk, that is an example of commodification. Commodification sometimes results from the removal of `market imperfections'.

As an alternative to the word `commodification', the business community often uses commoditization, which helps avoid confusion. (See the article by Douglas Rushkoff, Commodified vs. Commoditized.[2])

The term `commodification' in the Marxist sense has been employed as part of critical discourse analysis in semiotics.[3]

Marxist theory

Commodification (origin 1975, Marxist political theory) describes the process by which something which does not have an economic value is assigned a value and hence how market values can replace other social values. It describes a modification of relationships, formerly untainted by commerce, into commercial relationships.[4]

Not only material objects, but human beings (oh no!) can be considered subject to commodification - in contexts such as genetic engineering, social engineering, cloning, eugenics, social Darwinism, Fascism, mass marketing and employment. An extreme case of commodification is slavery, where human beings themselves become a commodity to be sold and bought. Similarly, the use of non-human animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or testing represents the commodification of other living beings.

Commodification is central to capitalism. In the hypothetical situation of pure capitalism, commodification is 100 per cent complete: everything is a commodity, all human relations are market relations.[5] As of we are still fairly far from that. Even considering what might be conventionally called `material' production, about half (maybe more) of it is done by women in domestic situations for no pay.[6]

Commodification has its good and bad sides. The commodification of home-making goods and services (eg., meals, cleaning, clothing, child care) has freed women from the iron grip of patriarchal marriage. Earlier, commodification freed the male labour force from feudal and rigidly dependent production relations.

But when commodification dissolves desirable human relations, such as the bond between parent and child (mama works in a factory assembling T.V.s; T.V. takes care of baby), it shows its grim, voracious nature.

Commodification is closely related to reification, wherin a person's relations with other people appear in the form of relations to impersonal objects.

Karl Marx extensively criticized the social impact of commodification under the names commodity fetishism and alienation. (Both of which are closely related to reification.)

Commodification is often criticised on the grounds that some things ought not to be for sale and ought not to be treated as if they were a tradeable commodity.

Cultural Commodification

American author and feminist bell hooks refers to cultural commodification as "eating the other". By this she means that cultural expressions, revolutionary or post modern, can be sold to the dominant culture.[7] Any messages of social change are not marketed for their messages but used as a mechanism to acquire a piece of the "primitive". Any interests in past historical culture almost always have a modern twist. According to Mariana Torgovnick,

"What is clear now is that the West's fascination with the primitive has to do with its own crises in identity, with its own need to clearly demarcate subject and object even while flirting with other ways of experiencing the universe."[8]

hooks states that marginalized groups are seduced by this concept because of "the promise of recognition and reconciliation".

"When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism."

Socialist movements are losing their voices on change because members of the "movement" are not promoting the message but participating in a fashion statement. Activists' hard works are marketable to the masses without accountability. An example of commodification is the colors red, black, and green, which are the colors of the African Liberation Army (ALA). For people of African descent these colors represent red (the innocent bloodshed of Africans), black (African people) and green (stolen land of Africa). These colors are marketed worldwide on all types of apparel and shoes. The colors do not carry the message of the resistance any longer; they are now merely a fashion statement.

"Given this cultural context, Black Nationalism is more a gesture of powerlessness than a sign of critical resistance. Who can take seriously Public Enemy's insistence that the dominated and their allies 'fight the power' when that declaration is in no way linked to the collective organized struggle. When young black people mouth 1960s' black nationalist rhetoric, don Kente cloth, gold medallions, dread their hair, and diss the white folks they hang out with, they expose the way meaningless commodification strips these signs of political integrity and meaning, denying the possibility that they can serve as a catalyst for concrete political action. As signs, their power to ignite critical consciousness is diffused when they are commodified. Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption."

Business and procapitalist economics

See also: `Commoditization' in Commodity (economics).

A product essentially becomes a commodity when customers perceive little or no value difference between brands or versions. Commoditization can be the desired outcome of a player in the market, or it can be an unintentional outcome that no party actively sought to achieve.

A specific case of commoditization is market transformation to undifferentiated products through increased competition, typically resulting in decreasing prices. This is closely related to and often follows from the stage when a market changes from one of monopolistic competition to one of perfect competition,

Consumers can benefit from commoditization, since perfect competition usually leads to lower prices. Branded producers often suffer under commoditization, since the value of the brand (and ability to command price premiums) can be weakened.

However, false commoditization can create substantial risk when premier products do have substantial value to offer particularly in health, safety and security. Examples are counterfeit drugs and generic network services (loss of 911).

See also


  1. commodification, n. Second edition, 1989; online version November.
  2. Rushkoff, Douglas Commodified vs. Commoditized. URL accessed on
  3. . URL accessed on September 22.
  4. This includes money itself, human beings, and the natural environment, which are not goods or services, let alone commodities. See Karl Polanyi, "The Self-Regulating Market", page 40 in Economics as a Social Science, 2nd edn.
  5. See Robert Albritton, Economics Transformed.
  6. Green economists are atrong on pointing out that the `formal' economy, which both Marx and the procapitalists focus on, is only part of the picture.
  7. hooks, bell 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press)
  8. Torgovnick, Marianna 1991. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago)

External links and further reading

  • Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 24), hardcover, 256 pages, ISBN-10: 0374203032 ISBN-13: 978-0374203030
    • After Words: Michael Sandel, "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets," hosted by Nicole Gelinas, Manhattan Institute

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