Commodities and Free Labor: Marx and Terranova Essay

Capitalism, as an economy driven by hyper-consumption, is based on commodities. The role of the commodity in the labor force has been thoroughly discussed throughout various eras, and in recent years, the general account of the commodity itself has had to adapt to the constantly changing and developing digital media industry and digital economy. Karl Marx wrote in The Fetishism of the Commodity that commodities are seen as objects with intrinsic value and cloud the labor-exploiting mechanisms that produced them.

Tiziana Terranova, a more current thinker, draws on early Marxist thought in Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy, but also accounts for the changes the digital media industry produced on the labor force, the very concept of a commodity, and capitalism as a whole. Marx is the first to state that capitalism is based on the accumulation and hyper-consumption of commodities. As such, commodities are meaningful both because of their monetary/exchange value and because they reflect the social relations of production that went into making them.

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In The Fetishism of the Commodity, Marx says that the inherent problem with the capitalist structure is that society tends to focus only on the monetary and exchange value of the commodity. Marx uses the word “fetish” to describe commodities and show how they cause society to fixate on their monetary and exchange values, while ignoring the exploitative nature of the market that produced them. To illustrate his point, Marx uses the example of wood used by a worker to create a table. “The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it.

Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood” (1). While a commodity, in this case a table, is only valuable because of the labor used to make it, it is difficult to place a specific monetary value on labor quality, so capitalist society treats commodities as if they has intrinsic value. The value of the labor is masked, as is the social relations that went into creating them. Marx says this is because the “relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to [consumers] as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour” (2).

As such, the consumer is only exposed to the relationship between various products, and their exchange value in relation to each other, while never witnessing what happens behind-the-scenes. Terranova draws on some Marxist thought but adapts it and draws new conclusions in regards to the digital world in her text Free Labor. She describes working in the digital media industry as “becoming increasingly vociferous about the shamelessly exploitative nature of the job, its punishing work rhythms, and its ruthless casualization” (33).

It is easy to see how Marxist beliefs about exploitation of the labor force fit together with Terranova’s account of free labor. She says that free labor occurs when “consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited” (37). Thus, this labor, which can include everything from creating web sites, to sharing a video on Facebook, to contributing to forums, can be looked at as free both in terms of money, as it is unpaid, and free because people willingly participate in it for entertainment or “consumption of culture”.

Capitalist structures are becoming more and more reliant on this free labor, seeing as they are not compelled to reward the workers financially and it is willingly given. However, even though much of her argument begins with its roots in Marxist concepts of exploitation of the labor force, Terranova is situated in an entirely different economic climate, where there are changes in the roles assumed by the laborer and the consumer. The digital world would not exist without qualified people writing code, creating programs, and keeping up with new technologies and innovations.

As such, capitalism currently places a huge emphasis on knowledge and expertise as a main source of value. Terranova calls the Internet a “digital economy that manifests all signs of an acceleration of the capitalist logic of production” (37). She is referring to the process of innovation and production that subsequently renders old technologies and expertise obsolete, which means that laborers must keep up with new advances or risk their own knowledge becoming outdated.

Commodities in Marx’s sense were simply products had a relation to each other, that went from producer to consumer, and could not reveal the social relations behind them because the laborer no longer had a role in the exchange. In the digital world, the relationship becomes more visible. Websites and programs are not very effective if they are not continually updated or revamped, as one wants users to continue to visit and use these products. As the work process shifts from the factory to society itself, the lines between production and consumption or labor and creative processes are questioned.

The digital economy not only changes the structure of the workplace but also the labor force itself, and vice versa. From a Marxist-Hegelian perspective, this could point to the digital economy as being a process of “overcoming capitalism from the inside” (36) since the labor force possesses specialized skill, contribute to the development and at times control the means of production. Therefore, the reliance on this labor and innovation could be seen as a way to “overcome” the capitalist economy since workers are so influential on the digital workplace itself.

Terranova does not necessarily agree with this, as she says that she is attempting to “understand whether the Internet embodies a continuation of capital or a break with it” and she argues that “it does neither” (54). She does not see the digital media industry as a capitalist tool used to further exploit laborers, but she is also not arguing that it is a way for laborers to overcome capitalism. Instead, she is arguing that it is a change intrinsic to the variation of capitalism that takes place in the digital economy.

Consequently, a commodity in Marxist terms, as a material good and a fetish that clouds the importance of the labor force that produced it, is no longer relevant in the digital world. There is a different essence of the commodity in this new workplace, where the “goods” produced are generally immaterial and more information-based, and don’t produce the same type of fixation on monetary value because the relation between product and producer is a continuing one. Terranova says, “the disappearance of the commodity is not a material disappearance but its visible subordination to the quality of labor behind it” (47).

Laborers, both paid and unpaid, are more visible on the Web as there are different social relations at work and a blurred division between producer and consumer. “In this sense,” she writes, “the commodity does not disappear as such; rather, it becomes increasingly ephemeral, its duration becomes compressed, and it becomes more of a process than a finished product” (47). A commodity in the virtual world is not like a table that has a certain use/exchange value and remains the way it is. Instead, these commodities are ever changing and improved upon, and as is the knowledge and expertise of the laborer behind it.