Marxism And Consumer Culture & Gender Evolution In Graphic Novels


. You will be reading the graphic novel, Watchmen, and in preparation for that, we will be reading some scholarly articles over the next few weeks about five different ways we can use a critical lens to approach a piece of literature. This week, you read two articles: “Gender Evolution in Graphic Novels” and “Marxism and Consumer Culture.” Now that you have read these articles carefully, address the following discussion prompt:

For each article, choose 1-2 claims or ideas that you found interesting. Include those claims word-for-word using quotation marks, and be sure to include a page number for each one. Then, explain why you thought that claim or idea was interesting. Be sure to organize your post logically, and make it clear which claim came from which article/author.

Gender Evolution in Graphic Novels
Gender, a socially constructed demarcator for traits
generally associated with one sex, has long been presented in the graphic novels genre of literature. Gender
is now thought to be a continuum ranging from feminine to masculine with androgyny in the middle.
Graphic novels have portrayed men and women at
many points on this continuum, bending traditional
conventions since the beginning of the genre.
While gender theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have evaluated and redefined gender,
graphic novels reinvent gender roles in pronounced
ways. Graphic novels’ predecessors, comic books,
often represented gender in binary ways: Women were
either superheroines, such as Wonder Woman or Ms.
Marvel, or damsels in distress, such as Lois Lane. Similarly, men were either the “alpha” of humanity (examples include Superman, a hero whose name elicits an
image of perfect masculinity) or the subordinate, feminized sidekick, such as Batman’s Robin, who never
seemed to outgrow his “wonder boy” status.
As the genre has grown from the Marvel classics
and superheroes, gender distinction has become a
muddy area. Writers such as Alison Bechdel and Bryan
Lee O’Malley have presented men and women as creatures of duality, embracing the androgyny of their characters. Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), a memoir about
her closeted homosexual father, their relationship, and
her childhood home (a funeral home), presents
Bechdel’s struggle with gender identity, both hers and
her father’s. O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim is a timid man
who, in order to secure a relationship with the girl of
his dreams, must defeat her seven evil exes: six alpha
males and a lesbian. Pilgrim is an awkward, nonviolent, and unlikely hero. Conversely, his girlfriend is
dark and mysterious, exuding ample masculine energy.
The Japanese graphic novel genre, manga, has also
revolutionized the way gender is represented in the
graphic novel. Manga often deals with homosexuality
and transgender issues, and gender is often questioned.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. (Courtesy of Oni Press)
Gay characters are presented without question, and the
stories are built around their lives, while androgyny is
built into the characters’ personas. Shōjo mangas, produced specifically for girls, are often written to reveal
an ideal feminine character, although this trend is
evolving to present more androgynous characters. One
need not look far in the genre of graphic novels to find
gender definitions and redefinitions along a continuum
of masculinity and femininity.
Traditional graphic novels and their comic book predecessors often portray characters that fit the mold of the
“alpha male.” He is a hero—strong, intelligent, agile,
and ready with a solution. A fantastic example of this
​Gender Evolution in Graphic Novels
motif can be found in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s revisionist version of the Superman series, Superman: For
All Seasons (1998). Each of the seasons is narrated by a
different member of Superman’s cast of characters.
“Spring,” narrated by Clark Kent’s father, reveals
Clark’s life before becoming Superman. As expected,
Clark is the son of a man’s man, a farmer who provides
for his family with his bare hands. Furthermore, as
Clark grows, his powers become stronger at a rapid
rate. When he goes to get a haircut, he realizes he can
see through walls and his hair breaks the barber’s scissors. A tornado strikes Smallville, and Clark saves a
man from an explosion at a gas station. This message is
clearly one that is applicable to all pubescent males. As
male characters’ sex drives grow and their shoulders
spread, the tradition is to highlight masculine power:
strength, good looks, and the ability to woo any woman.
Alpha males need not be quite so obvious in graphic
novels. In O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series (20042010), each of Ramona’s male exes, in his own way,
represents pure masculinity. From the first evil ex
(Matthew Patel, whose mystical powers enable him to
summon women as he may see fit) to the last (Gideon
Gordon Graves, a wealthy, self-sufficient entrepreneur
who is well-versed in fencing), each of Ramona’s
lovers has been sure of himself, confident, and incredibly ambitious. Scott, who at the outset does not seem
to be more than an awkward, mediocre musician, must
overcome these alpha males to achieve the status himself.
Damsel to the Rescue
The traditional view of femininity has been part of
graphic novels since the beginning of the genre. Shōjo
mangas often represent women as passive, willing, and
dutiful. These women are seen as the good wife or the
wise mother, who speaks traditional passive Japanese.
Similar passivity can be seen in American graphic literature. The alpha males of graphic novels cannot be
without their girlfriends. However, it would seem that
these women are of little value in their world and are
desperate to tie down the superheroes through matrimony. As brilliantly as Lois Lane has been portrayed
throughout the Superman sequences, even she is not
safe from becoming little more than a clingy girl, per96
Critical Survey of Graphic Novels
petually attempting to secure marriage and even willing
to marry Satan for a little attention (which happens in
Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, issue 103). Apparition, otherwise known as Phantom Girl, has her soul
bound to her boyfriend upon her death. Green Lantern’s girlfriend is strangled by a supervillain and
stuffed into a refrigerator.
A marked gender difference occurs within the superhero genre. While superheroes have traditionally
taken their girlfriends for granted, nearly every popular female in the traditional superhero niche has
faced an array of horrible fates. Stephanie Brown became Batman’s first female sidekick in 2004. To do
so, she needs to create her own Robin costume and
demand that Batman train her. While she was physically capable of saving Batman from a serial killer,
she was not adept enough to avoid setting off a gang
war. Although this sort of chaos is not uncommon in
comics, Stephanie is tortured to death with a power
drill by a supervillain because she is not skilled
enough to avoid causing trouble. Further, some of the
most influential superheroines (Ms. Marvel, Power
Girl, and Wonder Woman) are at some point depowered, raped, and/or impregnated “magically,”
providing a clear picture to readers what “a woman’s
place,” traditionally, is supposed to be.
Gender Evolution
Although it is crucial to understand both the highly
masculinized prototypes and the often unappreciated,
devalued feminine characters in traditional graphic
novels, depictions of gender have evolved in the genre.
Frequently, androgyny serves as a means for creating
depth in characters. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire
Slayer Season 8 (2007-2011), a graphic novel extension of the popular television series, features a main
character who is a prime example of the advanced, androgynous female. Buffy is physically strong, strongwilled, and opinionated. She is feared by much of the
world and is considered a terrorist.
Although she is not the dainty female portrayed in
much of the shōjo mangas or the brain-dead girlfriend
of a superhero, Buffy is still feminine. Her body is not
exaggerated for male fantasy, but it is not hidden to
hide her sex, which represents the more fluid, accepting
Critical Survey of Graphic Novels
standards of postfeminism. Buffy is involved in a love
triangle between two men, both alpha types, but is not
swayed by one or the other to deny who she is. This
woman can have it all and will not be unfairly punished
for having power like her predecessors.
In V for Vendetta (1982-1985; 1988-1989), Alan
Moore depicts an androgynous lead. V, a masked man
bent on destroying a totalitarian regime, wears a mask
and a cape. He has a male voice but does not exhibit
any secondary sex characteristics. V is often soft with
Evey, the female lead character, who eventually falls in
love with him. However, he is also vengeful, adept
with and knowledgeable about explosives, and strong.
On the other hand, Evey exhibits clear female sex characteristics. Because V saves Evey from a man who is
about to rape her, she then becomes clingy and overly
dependent upon him. As the story line progresses, V
stages Evey’s imprisonment and torture to make her
aware of the sort of circumstances that he faced and
that led him to choose a life dedicated to vengeance.
Evey survives, as did V, and eventually becomes his
successor. This progression of story line suggests that,
male or female, anyone is capable of mass terrorism
and vengeance.
In the twentieth century, visual media displayed few
variations of gender roles, particularly, the June
Cleaver-type domesticated woman and the John Wayne
alpha male. Graphic literature has generally followed
the same trajectory in terms of its depiction of gender,
having grown from ten-cent comic books that parents
refused to let their sons read to an expansive collection
of literature that depicts a wide array of gender roles
and identities.
Graphic literature still includes superhero fiction.
However, it also includes fantasy, science fiction,
horror, comedy, erotica, and creative nonfiction. In
each niche and in every genre, the hypermasculine
brute supervillain or damsel in need of rescuing may
still exist. Despite the stereotypical presentation of
such characters, they have appealed to many.
A growing number of educators are pushing for
graphic novels to be appreciated as an art form. The
graphic novel has allowed the comics tradition to ex-
​Gender Evolution in Graphic Novels
pand from a primarily preadolescent male audience to
an audience that includes women and men of all ages
and education levels. Despite long-held beliefs that
people must be either masculine or feminine, the majority of psychological professionals support a push
toward androgyny for optimal mental health. As more
youth are gaining access to quality graphic literature,
children who did not like to read traditional texts not
only are learning to enjoy reading but also are expanding their understanding of their own masculinity
and femininity. Also, because of the rise in likable
characters that are both masculine and feminine, children will gain a wider understanding of humanity.
Amanda Sheppard
Anders, Charlie. “Supergirls Gone Wild: Gender Bias
in Comics Shortchanges Superwomen.” Mother
Jones July 30, 2007, 71-73. With a somewhat humorous tone, discusses the history of subjugating
women in comic books. Provides a list of popular
heroines and the fates that they meet. Examines how
women have been viewed in the world of the superhero.
Carinci, Sherrie, and Pia Lindquist Wong. “Does
Gender Matter? An Exploratory Study of Perspectives Across Genders, Age, and Education.” International Review of Education 55, nos. 5-6 (2009):
523-540. Attempts to understand how a variety of
factors, including age and education levels, impact
perceptions of gender and other arenas of life.
Caselli, Daniela. “Androgyny in Modern Literature (review).” Review of Androgyny in Modern Literature,
by Tracy Hargreaves. MFS Modern Fiction Studies
54, no. 4 (Winter, 2008): 926-929. Looks at ways
androgyny influences literature, including whether
having androgynous characters affects how deeply
characters are understood.
Goldstein, Lisa, and Molly Phelan. “Are You There
God? It’s Me, Manga: Manga as an Extension of
Young Adult Literature.” Young Adult Library Services 7, no. 4 (July, 2009): 32-38. Explores graphic
literature as an introduction to reading for children.
Notes how manga provides girls with the ability to
mentally experiment with different sexual orienta97
​Gender Evolution in Graphic Novels
tions. Suggests that young adults are growing up exposed to more open portrayals of sex and gender
than their parents did.
Ho, J. D. “Gender Alchemy: The Transformative Power
of Manga.” Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 5 (September/October 2007): 505-512. Focuses on the
“boy-love” genre of manga. Explores how manga
may be able to allow youth both to experience life
from a variety of different perspectives and to understand different sexual orientations and attitudes.
Krensky, Stephen. Comic Book Century: The History
of American Comic Books. Minneapolis: TwentyFirst Century Books, 2008. Provides a detailed look
at how comic books influenced American culture
(and vice versa) in the twentieth century. Highlights
the changing face of comic books during wartime
and the evolution of masculinity.
Lefkowitz, Emily S., and Peter B. Zeldow. “Masculinity and Femininity Predict Optimal Mental
Critical Survey of Graphic Novels
Health: A Belated Test of the Androgyny Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality Assessment 87, no. 1
(August, 2006): 95-101. Examines the belief held by
psychologists that embracing the masculinity and
femininity inherent in all people is a step toward
mental health.
Ueno, Junko. “‘Shojo’ and Adult Women: A Linguistic
Analysis of Gender Identity in Manga (Japanese
Comics).” Women and Language 29, no. 1 (2006):
16-25. Examines graphic novels aimed at young
girls and women. Analyzes the speech presented by
female characters in these novels.
Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels
Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, Mass.: Da
Capo Press, 2007. An excellent overview of the
graphic novel genre, containing a section on theory
and history as well as an extensive list of book reviews and commentary. Provides information about
writing, understanding, and enjoying the genre.
NLFXXX10.1177/1095796015597009New Labor ForumLehmann
The Marxist Moment
Marxism and Consumer Culture
Chris Lehmann
New Labor Forum
2015, Vol. 24(3) 34­–42
Copyright © 2015, The Murphy Institute,
City University of New York
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1095796015597009
capitalism, contingent workers, democracy, equality, labor, marxism, neoliberalism, populism
Last winter, I dashed off an opinion piece about
the straitened political muse of The Daily Show,
suggesting that it had descended from its Bushbaiting heyday into cheap and easy segments
assailing the backward thinking of the Middle
American booboisie. The occasion for the piece
was the surprise announcement from the show’s
revered host, Jon Stewart, that he was planning
to step down, so emotions among The Daily
Show fan base were running high. Still, nothing
quite prepared me for the impassioned responses
sparked by my critique of the show’s insular,
self-congratulatory satirical tropes. Like most
journalists, I am anything but thin-skinned
when it comes to commentary about my published work; I have been attacked as everything
from a wild-eyed commie to an out-of-touch
elitist D.C. insider, and I have greeted nearly all
such salvos with quiet bemusement.
But the pushback on the Stewart essay was
different; people took it personally—and, of
course, replied in kind. I was scolded in no
uncertain terms about my rank right-wing apologetics or my ingratitude to the most robust tradition of critical liberal thought now going in
our mediasphere. The more solicitous (if still
outraged) correspondents on the subject soberly
informed me that my ruminations “reflected
poorly on me.”
It gradually dawned on me that I had done
more than merely tweaked a worldview or criticized a style of televisual satire; I had belittled a
sacred rite of consumption. My correspondents
relied on nightly rube-baiting Daily Show segments as something more than a ready stream of
laughs arising from the news cycle—and they
prized Stewart himself, it seemed, as something
more than the image of new millennial Walter
Cronkite. For a certain kind of devotee, relying on
The Daily Show brand was a badge of identity; it
shaped not only their response to the world but
also their own sense of being in the world. And
precisely because this brand of consumer-identification is fairly sophisticated, deeply media-savvy,
and (above all) self-aware, it stands, in turn, as a
useful indication of how far the “culture of consumption” has evolved.
For a certain kind of devotee,
relying on The Daily Show brand
was a badge of identity.
For much of the history in which social critics and political thinkers have pondered the
emergence of a culture of consumption, they
have been absorbed in the tricky calculations
involved in eliciting its signature state of mind.
On this line of inquiry, consumers tend to congregate along one of two fairly rigid binary
poles: They are either sheeplike and docile or
subversive and heroic. Accordingly, the range
of intellectual responses to consumer culture
also moves along fairly dreary and predictable
coordinates: Those in thrall to consumer culture
and its blandishments either suffer from a variation of false consciousness—the condescending dupedom that vulgar Marxists have
perennially assigned to unenlightened (i.e.,
non-Marxist) workers—or have become sub
rosa revolutionaries from within the citadels of
getting and spending, transplanting the signature struggles of class and caste into the familiar-yet-profound rites of savvy consumption:
Today Jon Stewart, tomorrow the world.
Corresponding Author:
Chris Lehmann,
Our obsession with the question of what sort
of consciousness attaches itself most readily to
the culture of consumption has paradoxically
blinded us to the ways in which the ideal-type of
the American consumer has achieved a new
level of uncontested sovereignty in the political
rhetoric of our market culture. The notion of
consumer empowerment is the alibi of first resort
for any measure that tends, in reality, to continue
rolling back the hard-won gains of working
Americans in our businessman’s republic. Walmart’s business model, for example, is explicitly
founded on casualizing wages and benefits for
its retail workforce so as to secure the lowest
possible prices for its customer base—which
means the managers of our nation’s largest
employer are ideologically locked into the project of beggaring its workers for the sake of preserving profit margins in a price-lowering
race-to-the-bottom. Amazon—the Walmart of
the online retail world—likewise degrades the
basic working conditions for its laborers via
sweated speed-up regimens and piecework rates
in its mammoth distribution centers, all in the
name of optimizing consumer choice for the
lordly online shopper. Rational-choice economists routinely evoke consumer sovereignty as
the self-evident, and inevitable, telos of economic life; the notion of labor sovereignty,
meanwhile, is laughed off the historical stage as
an antiquated relic of the industrial age.
The notion of consumption itself
has morphed into dramatic new
forms, and expanded into new
reaches of economic, political, and
social thought.
As we have sought to diagnose the inward
temperament of individual consumers, the
notion of consumption itself has morphed into
dramatic new forms and expanded into new
reaches of economic, political, and social
thought. To better grasp this shift, we need to
train our focus away from the question of consciousness and its recursive body of attitudinal
constructs, and fix our sights more clearly on
how the idea of the commodity has been culturalized. We need, in other words, to lay aside the
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red-herring debate over consumer culture and
false consciousness, and to take up in its stead
the far more relevant question of how the fetishism of the commodity and the culture of consumption are now blurring into the same
blandly hegemonic historical force.
Opiate or Provocatuer?
To understand how this unsatisfactory state of
affairs has taken root in the house of left intellect, we need to take stock of some history
ourselves. For most historians and critics of a
leftist bent, the culture of consumption is a
Borg-like invading force, all the more sinister
for its ability to set up shop in the hearts and
minds of the working masses. It launched in
earnest with the first burst of mass communications in the 1920s: a conglomeratized newspaper scene merged with the fledgling mass
media of radio and motion pictures to both
create and serve a brave new national market
of mass consumption. In Middletown, their
famous study of the folkways of the industrial
Midwestern city of Muncie, Indiana, in the
1920s, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd saw
the advent of the new “inventions re-making
leisure” steadily leaching away at the fabric of
the city’s distinctive communal life. Sizing up
the impact of regular radio listening on
Muncie’s suggestible populace, the Lynds
delivered this glum verdict:
It seems not unlikely that, while
furnishing a new means of diversified
enjoyment, [the radio] will operate at the
same time, with national advertising,
syndicated newspapers, and other means
of large-scale diffusion, as yet another
means of standardizing Middletown’s
habits. Indeed, at no point is one brought
up more sharply against the impossibility
of studying Middletown as a selfcontained, self-starting community than
when one watches these space-binding
leisure-time inventions imported from
without—automobile, motion picture,
and radio—reshaping the city.1
Later decades of the twentieth century all
brought their own characteristic twists on the
basic terms of this formulaic critique—the conformist fifties, the liberationist sixties, the malaise-addled seventies, and so on—but a formula
it remained. You knew the culture of consumption by its all-too-evident fruits: a commercial
republic nourished by a vast corps of suggestible consumers, mobilized under the banner of
a moment’s marketing campaign, pop-culture
fad, or political craze. If the critique of consumer culture seemed terminally inert and flattened out, regardless of the mild variations of
time and region that it might register, well, that
was largely the point: the herdlike affinities that
the masses showed for the consuming life
called forth, in equal measure, a peremptory
dismissal of consumer culture as just another
bourgeois recrudescence that the revolution
would one day dispel in short order. Not only,
per The German Ideology, would humanity be
freed to hunt and fish in the earlier parts of the
day, and philosophize and criticize in its balance, but the grubby and degrading exchanges
of consumption that governed the misbegotten
work cycles of capitalism would also wither
away, alongside the old industrial age division
of labor.
As the Anglo-American polity lurched
sharply to the right in the 1980s, though, left
intellectuals took fresh stock of the quasiMarxist critique of consumer culture. Especially
as working-class constituencies fled their traditional affiliations with the Democratic and
Labour parties and embraced a neoliberal politics of cultural ressentiment, champions of a
new left cultural politics rehabilitated the dreary
tundra of masscult conformity into an all-purpose template of radical resistance—increasingly, it seemed, the only one on offer.
Overnight, it seemed, a thousand fraught and
suggestive gestures of subversion bloomed in
the suddenly fertile and expressive agoras of
consumer culture. The new apostles of cultural
studies were able to descry revolutionary promise in the smallest efflorescence of consumer
choice, from the TV clicker alighting on the
polymorphous perversity of “Pee-Wee’s
Playhouse” to bold young feminists voguing
out devastating new blows against patriarchal
capitalism cleverly encoded in the Madonna
With the benefit of considerable marketchastened hindsight, we can readily concede
that all of these close readings and subversive
interventions aimed at identifying and perpetuating a left consumer politics were a rather sad
species of overcompensating. In reality, as left
intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s enthused
about the revolutionary semiotics of our mass
culture, the threadbare legacies of traditional
liberal and left politics sustained blow after
punishing blow in the workplace, the polling
booths, and what remained of the public sphere
(and yes, also in consumer culture, had any
leaders of the cultural-studies left paused to
note the steady corporate consolidation of the
culture industries). In doing righteous battle
with the played-out models of masscult critique, the cultural-studies left erred chiefly in
vanquishing a straw-man version of the enemy.
Without taking up the particulars of either
the original Marxian notion of false consciousness or the cultstud counteroffensive against it,
what is important to note here is that almost no
culturally influential modern American leftist
actually subscribed to the offending thoughtcrime. Even in the most ideological and programmatic years of the Red Decade, you would
be hard-pressed to find the most committed
Marxist critics plying anything remotely
approaching a false-consciousness critique.
Indeed, one could argue that one of that decade’s
most influential and severe Marxist critics of
culture, Edmund Wilson, was also our country’s most vocal and indispensable champion of
an anti-programmatic literary modernism;
while he mounted a sustained attack, in his
reportage and his historical work, on bourgeois
economic and political assumptions, his critical
corpus celebrated the very sort of individualistic moral and spiritual crises that more vulgar
materialist souls would dismiss as the very
essence of false consciousness. The most diehard foe of mass culture in the postwar years,
meanwhile, was Dwight MacDonald—an
ardently anti-Stalinist leftist, and a curmudgeonly anarchist, to the extent his irascible
politics admitted to any ideological descriptor
at all. To indict the critics of mass culture, as the
leftist insurgents of the cultstud age uniformly
did, as a means of freeing the American consumer republic from the oppressive thrall of an
imputed “false consciousness,” was roughly
akin to promoting an arms build-up aimed at
securing our borders from the imminent threat
of an invasion from Iceland.
Fetishism Is Best?
In lieu of the complacent post-Marxist ritual of
vanquishing the dread specter of false consciousness, critics who continue to wrestle with
the more stubborn contradictions and derangements of our consumer culture would be far
better advised to revisit and recover an oddly
neglected strand of Marxist tradition: the fetishism of the commodity. While other elements of
the Marxist critique of capitalist production
have not necessarily aged well, the notion of
commodity fetishism is, if anything, a more
salient organizing principle for our age of incorporeal financial capital, when all that is solid
melts instantaneously into the air, accompanied
by the background hum of a laptop or a
As Marx theorized the stages of capitalist
production, he recurred repeatedly to one of its
foundational mysteries: the imbuement of the
commodity—that is, the product of the worker’s labor—with tremendous powers of social
concealment. The commodity became
fetishized (i.e., worshipped) in Marx’s account,
when bourgeois students of political economy
elevated it into a free-standing, taken-forgranted, property of nature itself—and therefore anything but a socially engineered
subterfuge designed to render the worker’s
labor unrecognizable to himself.
For all of the anxious interpretive energies we
have expended on the inner workings of our consumer culture, we have not attended to this most
conspicuous feature: its propensity to package
itself so as to conceal the cultural and economic
tensions that have conspired in its own creation.
This is all by way of noting that, at this baroque
digital stage of capitalism’s material evolution,
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consumer culture enacts a brand of alienation
that transcends traditional Marxist schemes of
class conflict, while also deftly nudging labor
still further off the historical stage.
Marx’s speculations on the
commodity’s centrality to the
capitalist labor regime were
prophetic—just not in the way that
Marx himself intended them to be.
Here, Marx’s speculations on the commodity’s
centrality to the capitalist labor regime were
indeed prophetic—just not in the way that Marx
himself intended them to be. As Marx laid it
out, the fetishism of the commodity was, and
remains, a fungible conception of what does
and does not count as legitimate social authority over our common productive lives: the
moment that labor ossified into commodity
form, it was no longer a fit subject for political
inquiry. In Marx’s telling, the economic discipline’s ritualized worship of the commodity
was central to the much larger, and devastating,
triumph of bourgeois politics: the quarantining
of economic life from sustained political criticism. At the heart of this shift was the battery of
market mystifications that the commodity
serenely presides over: The magical and deeply
impersonal aura of the fetishized commodity
arises from the rituals of exchange that send the
financial superstructure of capitalist economies
spiraling into the ether. The commodity, “a born
leveler and cynic,” Marx writes,
is ready not only to exchange soul, but
body, with every other . . . . All commodities
are non-use values for their owners, and use
values for their non-owners. Consequently,
they must all change hands. But this
changing of hands constitutes their
exchange, and this exchange puts them in
relation with each other as values and
realizes them as values.2
It is via the jury-rigged system of exchange
value that the commodity is shorn of any significance as the product of the worker’s
labor—until, that is, the collective pressures of
systemic exploitation send the whole system
crashing down:
In the midst of the accidental and everfluctuating exchange relationships between
the products, the labour-time socially
necessary to produce them asserts itself as a
regulatory law of nature. In the same way,
the law of gravity asserts itself when a
person’s house collapses on top of him. The
determination of the magnitude of value by
labour-time is therefore a secret hidden
under the apparent movements in the
relative value of commodities. Its discovery
destroys the semblance of the merely
accidental determination of the magnitude
of the value of the products of labour, but
by no means abolishes that determination’s
natural form.3
If the fetishized commodity results in what
the later Marxists of the Frankfurt School
would call a kind of “second nature” yoked to
the prerogatives of capital, then, Marx contended, it could be readily dispelled by the reclamation of labor’s true social character and the
equitable redistribution of labor’s fruits. This
economic epiphany would effectively dissolve
the commodity’s false, attenuated, and selfinterested career as an immutable property of
nature with the brute force of a house falling on
the heads of its inhabitants.
As we know, this Marxist prophecy, like so
many others, has run afoul of capitalism’s actually existing history. As capitalist production
has taken on many subsequent guises, from
Taylorite to post-Fordist models of work discipline to its rampant financialization in the
Information Age, one unmistakable constant
has been the failure of labor’s incremental selfrealization to precipitate any crisis of higher
capitalist purpose. Indeed, extending Marx’s
own pioneering reflections on the idolatry of
commodities and their exchange, one could go
so far as to argue that the impersonal traffic in
monetized exchange values has achieved still
higher, and more bizarre, forms of mystification. The digital cult of the Bitcoin—a stateless,
universal, and decentralized currency—bears
perhaps the most powerful testimony to how a
fetishized exchange commodity is venerated
not merely as a revolutionary system of digital
commerce but indeed an augur of the coming
apotheosis of a new global libertarian power
elite. Likewise, what is the “sharing economy,”
which has undermined the pooled labor of taxi
drivers and hospitality workers in major cities,
but a digitized update of the fetishized commodity as Marx apprehended it in the mid-nineteenth century? What, for that matter, is
Amazon’s Dickensian Mechanical Turk app—
the networked command system that outsources
piecemeal tasks to the online retail giant’s justin-time workforce—but a means of disbursing,
and mystifying, the control of a laborer’s output, into casualized networks of piecemeal
When Marx asserted that “commodities, in
short, appear as the purchasers of persons” in
the guise of their labor,4 he actually managed to
understate the case: he had posited, after all,
that the persons purchased by the commodities
presiding over industrial labor relations would
awaken soon enough to their true interests and
rise up against the conditions of their servitude.
But as any cursory tour of the labor side of the
digital economy makes plain, the fetishized
commodity is, increasingly, absorbing not
merely the value ascribed to the end-product of
work but the very organization of work itself.
By virtue of the tech-revolutionary élan that the
Bezos, Uber, and our other tech moguls have
adopted as their premier market stratagem, we
have seen the mission of the fetishized commodity brought to full fruition: We increasingly
talk about our economy as if it has magically
solved the problem of labor as a happy by-product of the digital revolution. We fondly imagine
that our newly commodified network of postindustrial relations can seamlessly dictate just
how, when, and in what branding format workers will materialize before the sovereign consumer. The glorious capitalist fever dream of
perpetual labor flexibility has been conjured
before us by the imperial Internet—and this
neat trick has neatly covered up a multitude of
capitalist sins. If the nineteenth-century commodity’s main achievement was to conceal
the true nature of labor relations by effacing the
power struggles involved in its manufacture,
the twenty-first century variant of the fetishized
commodity is desperately trying to make it
seem as if no one is compelling anyone to work
at all. Workers are free agents in the same manner we imagine consumers to be—all parties to
a transaction in the sharing economy are flattened out into equivalent market players in a
faux-radical set of market relations. Why
would, say, Uber drivers strike, when they can
just as easily take their labor power over to
Lyft? (This economically prostrate model of a
free-agent workforce has been even more crippling for a constituency conspicuously omitted
from most of our prior arguments about the
political valences of consumer culture—the
culture workers who create and interpret that
culture themselves. Compared to the lot of the
average musician, writer, or editor today, harried Uber drivers are members of a labor aristocracy—workers who enjoy levels of
compensation and security that our corps of
culture workers can only dream of. And of
course the savage irony of the cultstudies boom
in the academy is that it coincided with the
descent of the humanities professoriate into
sweated, poverty-level adjunct work—a labor
debacle that most of our superstar cultstud professors were conspicuously silent on, with the
honorable exception of NYU sociologist
Andrew Ross.)
The twenty-first century variant of
the fetishized commodity is
desperately trying to make it
seem as if no one is compelling
anyone to work at all.
What is more, as labor has lost any sure footing in the face of the commodity’s steadily
expanding sovereignty, so have the demarcations
of individual identity through the taste preferences and micro-allegiances of consumer culture
asserted themselves with redoubled force, and
with no regard for economic or ideological allegiances of any kind. Consumer sovereignty is
now the watchword of everything—perhaps
most especially of our own leftist political
New Labor Forum 24(3)
culture, which displays a disconcerting fondness
for the same uncritical tech boosterism that garlands the rise of the low-price, labor-soaking
sharing economy.
To pick up further on my Daily Show misadventure: after my piece appeared, I was invited to
sit in on an hour-long public-radio panel to discuss recent media news, including Jon Stewart’s
recently announced abdication. The talk soon
turned to the well-flogged subject of the New
Media–Old Media divide—one in which I was
assigned the most unsatisfactory default position
of defending the “old” (or, as the voguish term
now has it, “legacy”) print media as one of the
last remaining (if decidedly teetering) bastions of
America’s carelessly ransacked public sphere.
Over against my arguments, a chorus of younger
apostles of Twitter, Instagram, and other exotically individualized outlets of digital self-expression assailed my fusty nostalgia as a telltale, even
pathological, tic of an unreconstructed cultural
conservative. One even serenely pronounced that
“anxious” old white guys like me were “on the
wrong side of history.”
Consumer sovereignty is now the
watchword of everything—perhaps
most especially of our own leftist
political culture.
What was most telling, from my interviewee’s perch, was that the firebreathing rhetoric of
liberation issuing from the New Media partisans
on the panel was, in truth, indistinguishable from
the marketing mantras that garland any newmedia VC confab in Silicon Valley. A music producer on the show, for instance, cited the
proliferation of political commentary on Twitter
as nothing less than the “future of journalism.”
Throughout the hour, the talk centered around
the same buzzwords and glib neologisms you
would find on any episode of the HBO satire
Silicon Valley. The old “gatekeepers” of
American media culture were being joyously
upended, together with the “hierarchies” of news
value that they had wanly presided over. The era
of “one-to-many” media transmission had been
rescinded, once and for all; in place of the “white
men in suits” who had grimly dictated the daily
news diet for an earlier patriarchal and terminally deferential America, we were seeing the
spontaneous efflorescence of fearless, truth-telling sub-communities on Twitter. There was, for
example, the “passionate” and “engaged” community of African-American voices assembled
under the hashtag of “black Twitter,” and the
robust corps of feminist commentators who have
powerfully shouted down emerging sexist
memes on the service.
One sure sign of commodity fetishism is the
careful process by which it is quarantined from
sustained public scrutiny. My co-panelists did
not make much mention of the countervailing
reactionary subcultures that also have found
accommodating homes on new social media
platforms, apart from a rushed reference to ISIS
beheading videos. Here, as in any Silicon Valley
boardroom, the uglier, more abusive modes of
self-expression enabled by our many-to-many
networks of user-generated content were confidently batted away as bugs, not features. When
I meekly observed that we perhaps went overboard in ascribing inherently democratic features to technology—and that the same New
Media transmission networks that my fellow
panelists were hailing as the battering rams for
a new digital age uprising of communards were
also the platforms that the NSA was using to
keep more and more of us under unaccountable
surveillance—my status as a spoilsport Old
Media white guy was officially sealed.
What was genuinely unnerving about this
contretemps was that, beneath the enthusiastic
refrains about New Media’s inherent liberating
genius, it did not seem to advance much of a
political outlook at all, at least not insofar as
politics concerns the delineation of a public
sphere, and argument over the goods contained
within it. All that seemed to be involved in creating radical change, it appeared, was to commandeer a Twitter account and to recirculate a
liberating meme or three. (This is also, by the
way, the model of democratic resistance
advanced by the U.S. Department of State,
which is not exactly on the vanguard of global
redistributive politics, as Evgeny Morozov, the
author of The Net Delusion, has noted.)
Just as the organization of labor has become
both more casualized and radically privatized
under the aegis of the fetishized commodities of
the digital age, so has the consumption of digital goods bulked up into a strange new brand of
anti-politics. It is of course dangerous to generalize from a tiny panel of duly vetted media
mavens. Yet, at the same time, these were selfstyled guardians of a tradition of cultural radicalism that has now become indistinguishable,
in terms of its broader structural analysis, from
the breathless, buzzword-laden applause lines
of your average TED Talk. Clearly, where the
cultures of dissent and Silicon Valley conformity blur indistinguishably into each other, the
disembodied commodity has survived an unanticipated turn of the late-capitalist screw.
Fetishism of the commodity, it seems, is a body
of superstition that, like evangelical
Protestantism itself, has proved far more durable than the bold prophecies of Marx foretold.
The mystic aura originally ascribed to the commodity may have hardened and crystallized
into money alongside the rise of the bourgeois
order, but in today’s information economy, the
digital-libertarian vanguard seeks to engineer
the rise of the Bitcoin and a new utopian age of
stateless “seasteading” experiments in marketbased deliberate communal life, thereby rendering both money and the network of nation
states that thrive on its exchange a dead letter.
And this, in turn, suggests just how thoroughly
the commodity has been unloosed from the
bonds of the industrial age; no longer content
with purchasing persons, the digitized commodity is casually annexing our political imagination—and along with it, our ability to
envision a different, more just social order. It is
no doubt premature to speculate any further on
the strange new modes of pseudo-revolutionary
expression and recursive brands of technology
worship that lay in wait for the next prophetic
phases of our wired political order. At the same
time, however, it would be a still greater mistake to confuse the low rumbling of a fresh
stampede of Twitter hashtags for the sound of
the foundation giving way beneath the house of
capital’s floorboards.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
New Labor Forum 24(3)
The author(s) received no financial support for the
research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Ibid., 168.
Ibid., 1003.
Author Biography
Chris Lehmann is co-editor of BookForum and
senior editor of The Baffler. He is the author of Rich
People Things (Haymarket, 2011) and a forthcoming
book on American Protestantism and the culture of
Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown:
A Study in Modern American Culture (New
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929), 271.
Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes
(New York: Penguin, 1990), 179.

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