The tendency to commodify has intensified in far-reaching ways, both in the number of things that are commodified and in the appropriation of market concepts to make sense of areas of life typically seen as non-economic. Why is this happening now and what do you think drives the tendency to commodify?
The United States is particularly committed to market ideology, by which I mean the idealization of property and contract and the mythology of purely private ordering. In this era of globalization, the United States also has the economic power to control the rest of the world to a great extent, for example by using bilateral trade agreements to force other countries to accept our rules on intellectual property, which are very expansive in the extent of their commodification of information. Another important factor is that U.S. market ideologues jumped in and tried to establish unregulated markets in the former Soviet nations. So one reason that this is happening now is that the U.S. is committed to market ideology and is spreading it. But honestly, I don’t know whether ideology drives economics and technology into this channel, or whether economics and technology drive ideology. That is an old debate. I also suspect that commodification is mostly a one-way ratchet—it can grow, but it doesn’t diminish. Consider a nation that does not want to commodify life, so refuses to issue patents on life forms—that nation will not be able to have a biotech industry. Industry will migrate to the nation of greatest commodification, and that drives the ratchet. At least, industry will do this until somehow it realizes the rationality of preserving a public domain for future creativity.
You have suggested that there is a spectrum of views about commodification, stretching from Marx, who argued against commodification, to the Chicago School of Economics, which applies market principles to almost every realm of human interaction. Where does your view of commodification fit into this spectrum?
About a year or two ago, an article in The New Yorker (not a radical publication) argued that it is now common wisdom that Marx was right about capitalism, even though he was wrong about socialism. I think I agree with that common wisdom. He was right that capitalism would spread globally and undermine the nation state. (Look at how market logic has led to European unification. Today Europe, tomorrow the world.) He was right that one capitalist kills many. And he was right that commodification increases to encompass more and more of the social world. But my view is that commodification is not monolithic. Non-market aspects of life, of human interaction, of communities and culture, permeate our social world, even the market transaction part of it. Chicago rhetoric ignores those aspects and distorts our picture of ourselves and our world. Even a corporation is not just a black box for profit-maximization, but also a social world with a culture of its own.