One of the most essential terms with regard to Marx and Marxist theory that often comes up in conversation and tumblr discussions is the word “commodity”. While a commodity, most simply put, is a product of labor – either a good or service – that can be bought, sold, or exchanged in a market, it is important to break down the meaning of “commodity” as a concept.
First, a commodity is produced by a worker’s labor (or the labor of many workers). Under capitalism, commodities are consumed – purchased and used – but first must be produced. Workers, whose labor is exploited under capitalism, produce commodities, while those who control the means of production – the bourgeoisie – aim to make maximum profit from the sale of such commodities primarily by lowering the cost of labor and creating surplus value in the form of underpaid labor. Workers sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get paid so they can secure for themselves food, water, shelter, and other basic means of survival. When labor is sold, it becomes a commodity, and becomes alienated from the worker because the labor no longer belongs to the worker; it belongs to the factory owner.
Culture can also be a commodity, as we see in the current phenomenon of gentrification – wealthy (typically white) individuals spend extra money to live in a city neighborhood in order to “consume” the idea of “other cultures” or the cultural value created by the presence of artists and community gardens, while at the same time pushing out longtime residents who cannot afford increasing rent prices. This is just one example of how culture is a commodity – going to a movie, buying music, and paying to see art are also forms of “consuming culture”.
It is important to remember that a commodity is not just something that is tangible, that can be held in your hand (like an iPhone), but can also take the form of workers’ labor and culture. There are many forms of consumption that parallel the many forms of commodities, and a Marxist perspective on consumer culture emphasizes the endless nature of production, the exploitation of workers, and the irony that we are all workers, but are also forced to consume the goods we produce.