Anthropology

Current Issue


Facebook Icon  Twitter Icon  YouTube Icon  Linkedin Icon



Could the Internet De-Festishise the Commodity?

Daniel Miller

What follows is not exactly a typical paper. It is an essay about failure in three parts. The first part tells of our global failure to make much headway in resolving the fetishism of the commodity. The second part tells of the failure by commercial and other forces to understand what the internet is becoming in its moment of consumption. The third part tells of the failure by myself and a team I assembled to gain funding for a programme intended to use the internet to educate consumers about their responsibilities to producers within the school curriculum in geography. In giving this paper here and elsewhere, I am simply hoping that some of it may be useful to someone who might turn a version of my failure into their success. To pre-empt the conclusion, the answer to the question posed by the title is another failure. The internet alone will not de-fetishise the commodity. But a consideration, and better still an applied project that examines how far the internet can assist in that goal seems a productive way to consider what would constitute such an act. So I hope this is at least an instructive failure.

THE FETISHISM OF THE COMMODITY

The rise and fall of academic Marxism has not to my knowledge been plotted per. se. Many of us who were studying social science around 1985 must recall in some shock the way fashions change in our disciplines. At that time there was a vast literature across the social sciences and humanities based upon topics such as modes of production, or the fetishism of commodities and whose citations were dominated by the likes of Althusser. Today these once crucial `debates’ now look like they were written on another planet, and those who continue to speak within such languages are treated like lumbering dinosaurs who forgot to evolve.

Yet few terms were as saturated by such concerns as that of the commodity, and it is not at all clear that this decline in attention to such matters as the fetishism of the commodity is a result of the basic issues thereby raised having been in any way dealt with or answered. Indeed now that such matters are resolutely unfashionable they may be re-appraised with a clearer sense of their academic integrity and significance. In doing so I want to suggest that we may find that in the absence of much sustained academic discussion, changes in the world have taken place which have a fundamental bearing upon these issues and which make them if anything more central rather than less to the contemporary world. In this paper I want to suggest that there has arisen a candidate if not for the ultimate task of resolving the problem of fetishism at least for the more immediate role of contributing to the amelioration of one of the most problematic contemporary effects of fetishism, which is the unwillingness of consumers to take into account the interests of those who produce their goods. This candidate is suggested by some ethnographic observations of what people have been doing with the Internet.

Unlike many other terms the word commodity is still saturated with the legacy of Marx’s thought. Marx’s starting point was philosophical rather than political as is clear in his earliest writings (Marx 1975). He took it as axiomatic that human beings create their world through the physical transformation of natural materials into culturally useful objects, and that in doing so the objects produced came to possess a value which represented the externalised labour of those same producers.

For Marx the relationship between a product and its producer is not a result of the way we see things or the way we choose to attribute value, but an intrinsic property of the dual subject-object relationship created by manufacture. So, for example, he assumed that in `primitive society’ a person who made a thing could exchange it and would be granted in return some other object of labour which recognised that the producer was entitled to a proper recompense for their labour in production. There then evolved increasingly sophisticated institutional forms culminating in capitalism where this natural relationship becomes increasingly opaque and then finally hidden. For Marx fetishism, which concept he took from the study of religion, is the capacity of humanity to ignore the fact that we create material culture and instead treat that objects as commodities are the marvellous product of some other force. If Feuerbach could argue we create Gods but manage to act as though Gods create us, so the term fetish applied to the commodity implies our capacity to deny what we should know about manufacture and treat goods as autonomous from their origins. We have to buy their value in ignorance of the fact that their value arose from us and is an aspect of ourselves as workers.

For Marx the fetishism of commodities was logically preceded by our institutionalisation of private property (Arthur 1986), since private property means that nature itself as the raw material we work is already understood as though it belonged elsewhere rather than to us. Thereafter in a series of similar institutional slights of hand, the product of labour is always viewed as other than that of the labourer. Instead its value is assumed to belong to the owners of both the raw material as private property but also the owner of the factory and indeed of the labourer who is recompensed merely by the cost of their reproduction, irrespective of the value that has accrued to the object as a result of that labour.

Within capitalist society, movements that were founded upon the desire to resolve either the fetishism of the commodity or related critiques of capitalism, included the attempt by William Morris to valorise craft production, and the rise of a substantial consumer cooperative movement under the influence of Gide (1921), an idea that remains powerful in certain regions such as Japan today (Gruber 1999). Of course the most important attempt to `deal’ with Marx’s conundrum arose in the struggle by most of the countries of the world to implement Marxism during the first half of the 20th century in many versions of communism, socialism and social democratic systems of government. Again the rise and fall of such systems are too well known to need discussion. Suffice to say that what amounted in some cases to a fetishism of the worker as proletariat did not on the whole of itself re-articulate these same workers with the value created in their products, as made evident in the lack of popular support for such systems by the end of the twentieth century, and its failures in the sphere of consumption.

In my own first attempts to write on this topic (Miller 1987) I did not attempt to distance myself from the assumption that commodities are indeed fetishised within capitalism. I feel that we do on the whole manage to misrepresent commodities such that they have become detached from their origins in labour. Nevertheless I argued that instead of trying to return to a more immediate relationship with labour, we have developed a culture in which the labourer uses money to purchase goods which are then worked on to produce relationships and appropriations that have the effect of giving back value to the producer. In short I argued that if we achieve equality of financial recompense for labour we could by bypass the problem of fetishism since we each receive value in our consumption of other peoples labour rather than our own.

This argument implies that we would have to accept commodity fetishism and in effect use consumption to recompense ourselves. Even this depended upon a fair distribution of income and thus the capacity to consume. Today I am afraid my vision looks if anything more, rather than less, utopian since global inequalities have increased and it is those still unambiguously associated with the transformation of nature as in agrarian labour who seem to be as far as ever away from such adequate recompense for the very reasons that Marx gave. That is to say we give our recompense to the shareholders of the companies that employ the workers not to those who actually undertake this labour of production.

For Marx the manifestation of the fetishism of the commodity was through a historical conflict which under capitalism had clarified into the opposing interests of capital and labour objectified in the form of the capitalist and the proletariat. So that for around a century there existed the figure of the top-hatted capitalist whose interests and manipulative endeavours characterised and gave momentum to the capitalist system and who was its key beneficiary. I suggested in Miller (1995) that this situation had changed radically. In my introduction to Acknowledging Consumption I made the surprising claim that a kind of global dictatorship had arisen through the capitalist system in which the beneficiaries were only now to a minor degree the individual capitalist. Instead power had moved to the first world consumer. Most firms were now run by managers, and answerable largely to shareholders, dominated today by the likes of pension funds and life insurance companies, which ultimately are the funds for the pensions and insurance of the mass population whether workers or consumers (Clarke 2000). But the primary beneficiaries of modern capitalism are now the mass of consumers themselves.

The first world consumer is immensely wealthy compared to previous times and compared to third world producers, simply because prices for goods are biased by competitive markets towards the thrift of the consumer rather than the needs of the producer. As argued in a separate paper (Carrier and Miller 2000) we have moved from Mandeville’s observation that private vice supports the public virtue, which in a sense was the foundation for modern economics, to the opposite. In shopping I would argue that thrift and the desire to save money arises principally out of the moral imperative which dominates ordinary shopping, where the shopper stands for the interests of family and household. But the aggregate effect of this concern amplified by the market system is vast poverty for those with least power. Our moral imperative to save money, translates to the supermarket need to provide the cheapest goods, which in turn leads to a squeeze on all aspects of production, ultimately the wages of those in the South who are involved in primary production. So we live in a world where now private virtue produces public vice.

In some ways then the new anti-globalisation movements today associated with people like Naomi Klein are missing the point. They continue to attack the corporations, and their profits, but whether it is because these profits are actually out pensios and insurance or whether it is because it is our moral thrift that drives down prices, it is the consumer that is primarily responsible for current structural conditions, not the corporations. We live in a world in which first world consumers have the aggregate power to in effect force companies out of business if they do not deliver cheaper prices than their competitors for the same consumer goods. This is certainly a more satisfactory world than the one described by Marx in that the benefits are much more widely distributed. But individuals benefit from such a system solely to the degree to which they have resources that make them consumers. This means that the ultimate villains of the piece are clearly ourselves, whose virtuous actions produce such miserable results.

At the heart of this contradiction remains the fetishism of the commodity. The modern consumer has probably rather less knowledge and less interest in the consequences of their actions as consumers than did the top-hatted capitalist a century ago who actually included a fair number of more philanthropic as well as rapaciously exploitative figures. Most modern consumers wouldn’t know where to start in analysing such consequences, given that for most complex commodities such as a washing machine, or a book, even the producers themselves have little idea of the original source of each of the component parts that make up the final product. This was illustrated in Boge’s (1995) wonderful article on the transportation involved in moving around all the ingredients that make up the pot used to contain strawberry yoghurt on sale in a German supermarket. We have to think about the plastic in the pot, the foil at the top let alone the dairy products and the strawberries.

. I once applied for a grant to undertake genuine audits of a few basic products. As part of education we need to be able to take apart say a washing machine, and be able to trace where each part of it comes from, the paint, the metal, the plastics. We need to be able to identify and audt each element of the labour that went into it, each element of the environmental costs of each component part, how much transport, what externalities. Obviously not for everything we buy, but it seems to me that to be educated we should at least have a few case studies that teach us what modern consumer goods are really made from. It would require a mixture of a multi-cited ethnography and detective to do the work, but it should be done. We may know about primary producers and about consumers, but much less about the middle range, about shipping, packaging, wholesale, the role of retail buyers who decide what to stock and so forth

Fortunately although I don’t think work of this scale on more complex industrial goods is forthcoming, at least there is some on the smaller and simpler, for example food chains, there is important new work especially by geographers, A new forthcoming book edited by Hughes and Reimer traces chains such as cut flowers from Kenya, furniture from Canada. In the latest issues of the journal social and cultural geography there are some important papers on this topic. These build on earlier work by Cook and Crang on food chains, and what amount to our food tourism based on fashions for cuisines represents increasingly obscure parts of the world. This also followed a famous television programme in which for the first time british viewers were confronted with their most popular supermarket Tesco actually running a farm in Zimbabwe that supplies its mange tout and increasingly restricting what it accepted from the farmers as its perfect vegetables. This constriction of supplies runs parallel with the growing appearance of fair trade concerns and with apparent transparency. In practice the desperate concern with bad press that could tarnish the brand is leading to even less of a sense of what actually produces these goods, what freifberg calls the benign dictatorships of these large supermarket supply farms producing perfect hygiene and perfect shapes foods as in the new baby vegetables. Even if we are not carrying out audits, they certainly are. The supermarkets insist on clinics, schools, good conditions, though they are entirely unwilling to pay for them.

My own students have been doing the same thing. One phd student Elia Petridou looked at all the stages of the greek dairy industry, from farmers and factories to advertising and consumption. In another case we are challenging the assumption that the market will always fill a given consumer niche. A student Kaori O Conner has masses of documentary evidence that the generation of late middle aged today want to stay fit and even go to gyms, and for this they want clothes that work for them, for example of lycra. But her studies in the Dupont company show there is total blindness to this older market and no one will make such clothes for them, since they only want to ackowledge the existence of younger consumers. When it comes to the older population it is simply nonsense to assume that the market will naturally colonise or respond to any existing demand. I have another student Pat Clark who is looking at what actually happens to fair trade bananas in the Caribbean. The point is that before we can talk about educating our children in their responsibilities as consumers, we need to make sure as academics we remain in touch with what is actually going on, and in the world of complex commodities this is by no means easy. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that we are losing touch at the moment. I don’t know of a single authoritative account of what goes into a complex commodity such as a washing machine.

Furthermore fewer and fewer consumers have the empathy with producers that comes from being producers of commodities themselves. How many people do we know involved in commodity production? Services seem not to have suffered from the same degree of fetishism as commodities. Increasingly even the low paid service providers such as nurses, teachers and the like are asserting their visibility and insisting on the right to turn their labour into more participation as consumers through higher wages. Though there remain many exceptions within societies such as ours, for example, telephone call-centre operators.

Anthropologists and geographers because of our fieldwork are in the relatively rare position of seeing the degree to which the fetishism of the commodity has taken on an increasingly spatial form of commodity chains and supply chains.

While anthropologists tend to know peasants and agricultural workers, the geographers are following and including the packers, sorters, shippers, business managers and all the rest that ultimately make up the link between producer and consumer. The resultant literature on commodity chains is growing apace and is an essential contribution to this argument (Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994, Hughes and Reimer 2002).

So while much of Marx’s analysis seems antiquated and redundant, the problem of the fetishism of the commodity remains core to the maintenance and extension of contemporary global inequality. The primary question has perhaps become - what would induce first world consumers to know about, or care about the consequences of their actions as consumers and ultimately what would make them pay more for goods in order specifically to recompense producers. Attacking or blaming capitalist institutions is simply too easy and largely unproductive. As long as there are competitive markets, (and these are not about to disappear) then it is us who benefit from that system and while we can all work towards `changing the system’ while we are waiting for this to happen, the only really effective way of intervening is find some way to get us, the consumers, to pay more for our goods and ensure that this money gets to producers.

THE USE OF THE INTERNET

That then is my problem. I now want to start again from a completely different point of departure which is a book recently published called The Internet- An Ethnographic Approach written on the basis of an ethnography of internet use in Trinidad by myself and Don Slater (Miller and Slater 2001). The publication is part book and part an accompanying website (http://ethnonet.gold.ac.uk). As far as we know this is the first publication to take a regional perspective on the impact of the internet, examining not just internet provision and ecommerce but also its impact on consumers, on relationships, on identity and even on areas such as religion. As a study of every day usage this work contradicts many common assumptions. For example, instead of being an expansive global media, we found the internet to be the single most nationalistic genre we have yet experienced in Trinidad.

At the present time an initial wave of utopianism about the potential of the internet has been matched by early empirical work which has had the much required effect of deflating this particular bubble. For example much of the work from the Virtual society programme led by Steven Woolgar (2002) has revealed the limitations of the internet as a social and economic instrument. Nevertheless our work in Trinidad tried to avoid the speculation about the future of the internet and instead focus upon the mainly different and unexpected potentials that emerged from their own usage. By learning from them it may be possible to construct a more viable programme of positive use.

Trinidad by its relatively small size but also because of its thirst for modernity proved ideal for such a study. To our surprise, instead of a digital divide we found that even the poorest Trinidadians we worked with, a community of squatters, were finding ways of gaining access and educating themselves in the latest skills. One reason for this rapid spread in usage was the attitude of the government and commerce. All public service workers and indeed most others can obtain a large interest free loan to buy computers and modems, and duties on relevant imports were abolished. Most companies allow employees free access after working hours, schools allow children access after school hours, and libraries were quickly adding further free internet access. Also people are liberal in giving others access to whatever equipment they can afford. This may explain the otherwise rather astonishing evidence of our house to house survey in 1999 that found one in three houses with an internet user, rather more than in the UK at that time. There are many countries where this is clearly not the case, though in some instances there has been a parallel opening up of communications around the mobile phone.

At the time of our study, which was within the period of the dot.com boom, there was widespread hope that ecommerce had the potential to bring Trinidad’s huge entrepreneurial and other talents onto the centre of a global stage from which it had previously been marginalized. On the other hand, there was widespread frustration at how little ecommerce had actually developed as yet. As elsewhere, some of this pessimism arose from looking only at transactions with consumers, and ignoring the growth of transactions between businesses. Businesses felt limited by what we felt was their underestimating of the local on-line marketplace and there were infrastructural problems such the banks’ failure to establish the real-time on-line verification of credit card payments, and consumer mistrust of such payments.

Commercial website development revealed a critical tension between the whizkids, many still at secondary school, with astonishing technical abilities producing the most creative personal websites, and the business professionals with their experience and acumen in selling goods and management. Either on their own proved hopeless. When combined they could create the better catalogue style sites as used for example in the selling of Carnival costumes online. But the ideal model that dominated discussion demanded further kinds of ‘Interactivity’ and integration with offline life. For example to quote one conversation:

So I said ‘what do they want to do with this site, why do they want to put a site on”? Because an 11 year old kid who is going on to the net, if they even go on to a site that’s about milk, they are not interested in grams of fat and the amount of calcium. Her response was, we don’t know, we’d just want to put a site on so we can put information on. And I think it typifies the understanding with clients now, they know [the Internet] is something they should be in, but they don’t know what to do with it. What I said to her was, they have is a kids club, in which they have something like 18,000 members: and what they do with that kids club is they offer discounts, because this group also owns several key restaurant franchises in Trinidad, so you can get coupons through that, on your birthday; you can get information if you want to get their team to come to your school; they offer help in buying computers. I said to her, basically think of what you do with the kids club, that is something that you can do on the Internet.’

At the time of our research this level of interactivity, with its massive commitment of resources in programming, advertising and infrastructure was more a prospect than an actuality. The one exception was the site created for the Miss Universe competition that was held in Trinidad during our research. This involved a local media and Internet company working with companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Real and Palace Chat. This not only effected major technology transfer, but placed the local company in a position where it had high hopes of taking over many of Donald Trump’s websites in areas such as future Miss Universe competitions and international onsite casinos. The site demonstrated the ideal of both bringing in the consumer at one end and linking it to extensive back-office integration, customer relations systems and systems analysis at the level of business operation. As such the site proclaimed the Trinidadian ideal of using their extraordinarily high level of education and skill to gain access to the global market in hi-tech services.

An aspect of this site that will now be familiar in terms of the global experience of ecommerce is that Miss Universe involved huge investment in design and maintenance while generating very little in the way of revenues. Miss Universe did not pay: it was done – as was so much dot.com activity – for free, as an investment, as part of an almost panicky desire to participate in what were assumed to be future revenue streams, and as part of the Trinidadian company’s desire to be part of the future, to be leading edge and linked to leading edge global capitalism. Trinidadians were hardly alone is subscribing to this belief at the time.

This site also introduces our work on consumers since it was the one site that almost everyone we spoke to had logged onto as part of their involvement in the miss universe competition, for example, the facility that allowed them to chat online to the competitors themselves. In Trinidad as elsewhere, we could have argued that there was little ecommerce where this is understood as involving direct payment for goods and services. However, if we forget the bit about paying for stuff and just look at what consumers take from the net, then ecommerce was booming. Because the net was already a huge source of all manner of free things. Trinidadians were consuming a very large quantity of goods such as music files, pornography, free information, electronic postcards, free software and games. They just didn’t pay for much. Email was seen as a very cheap alternative to international phone calls. Trinidad very likely represents much of the world where actually paying for software when you can copy it for free is not viewed as honesty but stupidity.

At the time it was believed that free goods would be a necessary means for initially involving consumers in far deeper extensions of commodification, with the eventual movement of the high street to their desktop (or mobile phone). But we could see evidence that some products and services were undergoing genuine long term decommodification as people will no longer need to pay for them. In general commodification and decommodification should not be seen either as mutually exclusive futures or as independent processes. What the Internet makes clear is that each can be a tool of the other.

But our main relevant point for the present paper is that for the consumer, this mixture of commodification and decommodification arises as a ‘mode of involvement’, an expectation about the nature of their experience of the Internet which is increasingly has to be acknowledged in creating ecommerce sites. People judge a website – in the sense of stopping to visit it, or returning to it repeatedly – in terms of being involved in it in a variety of ways: the provision of multimedia experiences, interactivity which gives them things to do and places to explore, the ‘coolness’ of a site which gives them a sense of participation in global popular culture, the availability of things they can take away for free. Also valuable were links, information about other organizations or events connected not so much with the product as with the wider culture in which it circulates, cultural capital concerning style and celebrities. It was no surprise that amongst the most popular sites visited by Trinidadians were entertainment sites like MTV or soap opera sites on the one hand and sites for sportswear such as Nike.

One result of our emphasis upon the consumers perspective was that we didn’t just look at what ecommerce had achieved but also at areas that were absent from ecommerce but could be seen as consumer interests from the rest of our study of internet use. For example unlike most other successful media such as soap operas, ecommerce had none of the narrative content that makes for more sustained relationships between consumers and sites. But it was also clear from non-commercial activity that on the internet unlike for other media, such narratives might be better constructed around real people and not through the usual fictional forms of a soap opera. This point has become much clearer with the massive development of `real-life’ television programmes such as Big Brother.

Indeed most of the important lessons we learnt about how websites and the internet could develop arose not from the study of ecommerce but from non-commercial uses of the internet. For examples it was in the wider aspects of relationships, the emotions, the care and indeed the morality that was central to the highly successful development of religious websites that we studied but also within the whole genre of using the internet to develop relationships. Websites worked well where they related to particular enthusiasms. An example were those associated with the steelband. They tended to be encyclopaedic, with volumes of information on how the pans are produced and played, competitions, events, and notable personalities - not just players but even tuners. It was often hard to separate out commercial interests where these sites were used to export actual steel pans and the details that derived from those involved being avid amateurs and hobbyists wanting to tell the world about their enthusiasm.

It was these kinds of sites that seemed to suggest the potential for future development of websites. Imagine if they were to use the full range of media technology. They set up an archive of mp3 files of steelband music from schools, competitions, professional concerts, and celebrities. They develop on-line pan tutorials. They start to use broad-band to set up video conferencing between schools, players and hobbyists around the world. We see webcams at pan workshops and in panyards. We set up archives of pan music arrangements. We link the whole operation to music curriculums in school systems around the world. In short the provision of experience and knowledge needs to be developed in relation to the stimulation of desire for such experience and knowledge.

To summarise our findings, the study of the way people use websites, chat and other aspects of the internet suggests that there are certain qualities that are likely to be successful. Some are common to most media, for example the power of narrative, as found in soap opera and sit coms, secondly the power of what appear to be `real people’ as against fiction, as seen in the recent success of big brother, and the kind of voyeurism that dominates so much of internet use from the earlier dominance in pornography to the huge success of interactive chat such as MSN. Thirdly what is seen as the specific strength of the internet as against other media which is interactivity and involvement by the user.

EDUCATING THE CONSUMER

I do not think that the internet can resolve the issues raised by the fetishism of the commodity, especially not the way this issue was posed by Marx which would require more fundamental changes in the nature of property, ownership and the recompense for labour. But as argued in the first part of this paper, if we consider some of the fundamental changes that have occurred since the time of Marx, then we see the rise in importance of one critical question. `What would induce consumers to gain knowledge, care about and ultimately pay more money to producers?’. In the second section we saw the potential of internet models that use narrative, real people and interactivity. My aim in this final section is to consider how these two might be put together to create a result which while less utopian than the ideal of abolishing the fetishism of the commodity, might have the merit of creating a feasible instrument for ameliorating some of the most negative consequences of that fetishism.

The issue of fetishism is one that implicates not a few select people, but the consciousness of the mass body of consumers. For this reason a solution to the problem involves what in some sense much be considered as an education. Indeed an obvious way of re-thinking the issue of fetishism is to consider it as a lack of education. We could start from the point of regarding it as extraordinary that we call people educated at school when they gain almost no exposure to the way commerce operates, in particular operates to create the commodities they buy every day. Why is it considered essential that children learn about Ancient Rome or Physics but not about the consequences of their actions for producers? Most of them will never use their physics or remember much about Julius Caesar but they will act as consumers almost every day of their lives in blissful but dangerously ignoranct of their actions. While there has been an expansion of economics in the UK school curriculum this teaches little about actual commerce, and outside of that there is very little attempt to make commerce itself visible, except as a kind of second choice education for those who aren’t are as able academically. As a result consumers can think of commerce as a kind of black box that is held responsible for whatever happens at both the production and consumption end. The one group who are rarely faced with their responsibilities for their actions are the consumers themselves except in the rarefied market of ethical goods which in my previous ethnography of shopping was found to be restricted in practice to a small, section of the middle class, where being ethical appears as a kind of lifestyle choice. Research by myself and others suggest that most organic and charity shop buying is done from selfish not altruistic reasons (Miller 2001 Gregson and Crewe 2002).

Into this conundrum may be inserted the findings by myself and Slater as to how people use the internet. This suggested that what was desired from this technology was narrative, real people and interactivity. If these findings are used to address the issue of fetishism then it suggests that our first task is somehow to make the commodity a narrative - a story. This most obviously could be the story about how it starts from, for example, a seed in the ground to become an object on the supermarket shelf, or from crude oil into woven fabric etc. My previous image of the telling of such stories comes from school geography when, as a child, I watched well meaning videos of smiling plantation workers followed by the arrival of by ship to Britain, where it is turned into bars of chocolate. I vaguely remember that these made me even more interested in consuming large quantities of chocolate but I think had very little impact on my consciousness of the implications for producers. But with the internet this could all be changed beyond recognition. The key differences are as follows:-

First instead of watching people acting their roles in front of cameras, the internet could allow us in real time to be talking with actual producers going about their work. This should be an equal relationship with producers meeting and questioning consumers as part of the same on-line chat. By producers I don’t mean only, though I would include. plantation labourers but the entire sequence of commerce, managers, packers, transporters, planners etc. What is also required was not just the personalisation of the people but also the goods themselves. To as it where, following Mauss (1954) and Sahlins (1974: 149-184) put the spirit of the forest origins back into the commodity means making the commodity the personalised objectification of the relationships that it creates. As well as interaction we need the immediacy of experience. So for this process to work, we should deal not with generic chocolate or bananas as in educational videos, but establish a system such that schoolchildren end up buying and eating the very bananas and chocolate bars they have watched being created. A system where the tree is already being named with the school its products are going to.

Now clearly neither producers nor consumers have the time, inclination or facilities to follow the movement of every object that they buy. This process would establish a small but exemplary class of commodities that were created with the names of their ultimate consumers already inscribed from the moment their process of creation began. The argument is that a consumer would willingly pay more for a commodity that may be regarded as in a sense already specifically theirs. My first work on consumption was all about how consumption consists of a process by which people try to personalise what comes to them as alienated forms from an anonymous marketplace. With the internet this process could begin with production itself and not wait until after the goods were sold. For the whole population to have accrued a new consciousness that makes a real dent in the fetishism of the commodity, this needs to be inculcated in school. A suitable target audience are children aged 13-14, who might learn about three particular goods.

The first example should be a simple product such as a banana. An individual school might follow two cases of production. The first of multinational plantations run by companies such as of Chiquita or Dole and the other of small scale banana production as in the Windward Islands. Our work in Trinidad suggests that it would be quite possible to have webcams supplied to those actually involved in each stage of production. The schoolchildren would go online each week to inspect the progress in their particular bananas. At that time a worker, manager, shipper or other participant would be on line, showing them, for example, the trees in question, or the unpacking of pesticides, or the cargo on board the container ship, or the ripening sheds in Portsmouth etc. The goods themselves are being grown for and end up with the actual schools involved. So a plantation is destined for say St Mary of Nortun on sea. In practice more than one, since such a scheme would inherit the commercial need to secure supplies.

The second product needs to be a more complex object to teach the multiple source of most goods. For example in Trinidad one could use a bottle of ginger beer, by following the production of gas as a by product from its industries, the growing of sugar and the work of the factory that locally makes glass bottles. I also believe that in general Trinidadians would act to counter some of the problematic aspects of this scheme. In general I find Trinidadians to be self-confident cosmopolitans who do not define themselves by their work. In short this would not create a situation where British schoolchildren could be patronising, or pigeonhole people entirely as workers outside of a wider sense of their lives or create the inequalities where workers are put in a position to in effect beg the first world for additional resources. On the contrary I would hope and expect Trinidadian workers to establish relations of equality where inequalities of recompense emerge as structural faults that need to be challenged.

The third product should be local to the schools themselves as in a local factory or farm within their part of Britain. This would ensure that Caribbean workers are directly juxtaposed with British workers and ensure that the schoolchildren understand that the implications of this scheme addresses their own future as workers as well as consumers. It also involved school children in considering more local circuits of production consumption relations, choices about what kinds of production, e.g. organics, or paying more for goods based on better paid workers as it effects their more immediate environment.

There already exists a vast amount of material used for the critique of capitalist companies, which academics in anthropology and geography constantly replenish. But there is a danger in such critiques that placing all blame for the lack of welfare on companies may have the effect of encouraging consumers to ignore their own responsibilities, where in a market economy ultimately much depends upon what the consumer can be persuaded to pay. In this project the companies appear as mediators, so it is company managers who will be in the position of demonstrating their position between producers and consumers in terms of how they see their competitors. Ultimately the responsibility for the conditions of workers comes closer and closer to the consumers themselves. For example one of Waitrose’s (a British supermarket chain, but also part of a worker’s co-operative) conditions for taking part in such a project was that it included a direct comparison between multinationals and the Windwards as suppliers of bananas in such a way that the implications of consumer choice is made clear. Consumers need to see both the contrast between small and large scale production and the subsequent price differentials. Such a project implies a general benefit where producers receive more money as personalised goods can command higher prices. Consumers gain goods they can identify with. Businesses gain enhanced profits assuming that they extract the same proportional cut owing to the added value accruing to the goods through this process. They also gain a chance to present their view of the world. The supermarket managers we have spoken to are also workers who feel frustrated that the general public have little appreciation of what they do.

The issues raised by such a scheme could/should be discussed in volumes. It might be better to have a more didactic lesson about the influence of the WTO and the larger structural conditions that perpetuate global inequalities, but I suspect this would put most pupils to sleep. Learning about these effects from knowledgeable banana growers who are very well aware of the impact of these economics structures might well have a much more lasting impact. I would much prefer for this to be a two-way programme with Trinidadian consumers also following UK producers of products they import, but I suspect the pilot schemes to show that this can work will have to be ironed out in the wealthier countries such as the UK. Such a project might lead to higher prices merely creating further profits for companies but this is much less likely given the transparency that is created by virtue of the project itself. Putting schoolchildren onto direct chatlines with workers can lead to all kinds of abuse by either side establishing private connections and then attempting to exploit the other, but this concern is countered by the merits of having precisely those people who live in ignorance of each other involved in each others lives. Poorer families in the UK may not want to pay more for their bananas, but these scheme involved paying a few more pence at the point of consumption to effect considerable gains in income at the point of production. Such a scheme involves having the companies involved directly gaining access to schoolchildren, but this can be countered by working with generic rather than branded products. Most importantly it would be naïve to assume that just because we learn about the exploitative potential of our actions doesn’t mean we are suddenly going to all buy exclusively fairtrade produce in the future. But this does not invalidate the need to ensure that we are confronted with the consequences of what we do such that we can no longer claim that we act is sheer ignorance of the most important consequences of our own actions.

All these and many more problems were discussed and considered when I attempted to turn this into an actual programme. After forming a team with the geographer Ian Cook, the sociologist Don Slater, the educationalist Jon Morgan and the commercial specialist Meg Abdy, I tried to gain the agreement of both the industry and the educationalist to develop such a scheme. I failed. Although businesses expressed a willingness to take part, after a year of pushing and pleading I was unable to obtain funding or a niche in the re-thinking of the educational curriculum. Indeed it was probably naïve to expect a group of academics to be able to effect such changes. Not surprisingly where such initiatives are actually coming to fruition they have emerged from the most experienced sources. For example at wwflearning.co.uk one can find active debates being fostered as primary and secondary school level in the UK sponsored by the WWF One Word project, that currently feature a primary school debate over precisely the issue of the impact of responsible consumer choice given the distinction in working conditions between small scale Caribbean banana growing and Latin American plantations run by multinationals. At present a Ph.D. student of mine Pat Clark is researching the Caribbean banana commodity chain in more detail in order to develop a firmer academic foundation for any future initiative of this kind. From my perspective then this paper is written in the spirit of a signing over any intellectual copywrite to the public domain. I would be delighted to see another body develop a vision and version of such a scheme, and would be happy to discuss the problems pointed out to us and the potential solutions we proffered.

CONCLUSION

While I cannot offer the lessons of a successful scheme, I would argue that our failure does not detract from the advantages of an envisaged applied project for re-thinking the theoretical and academic debates that the project sought to address. In theoretical terms the project involved what my colleague Don Slater calls a process of disintermediation. That is to say putting consumers and producers directly in touch with each other, so that the enthusiasms and interests and complaints of producers in their products are communicated to consumers and the consumer desires, identities and complaints about the consumer goods are transmitted to producers. At a time when we are increasingly acknowledging all the internet cannot do, or at least doesn’t seem to do particularly well, it seems worth pointing out that the now considerable use of the internet around the world might also points to some things it potentially could do a great deal better than any precedents such as the didactic videos about production traditional used in schools. These claims for the internet based upon an ethnography of its use may be rather stronger than speculative projections based on the hope for future revenue streams.

Above all this project points towards some critical characteristics of consumption itself. It addresses the contradiction of consumption as the desire to engage with particular and personal goods and services which begin with the calculative act of purchase from the array created by often vast and anonymous markets and states. It envisages instead a consumption that is comparatively knowledgable: one that looks beyond the price and quality of the goods in the shop to the social world in which those goods are produced, are circulated and have social and environmental effects beyond the act of consumption. It forces actual consumption to meet the gaze of a consumption that is responsible: a consumption that brings ‘externalities’ such as environmental and social impacts within the ambit of consumer decision making.

In my conversations about this project with the Consumer Association they noted that in school teaching the emphasis has moved from teaching about citizenship to teaching about consumption. But the stress which they laid upon this new education is the importance of teaching schoolchildren about consumer rights. The problem, however, is that what has been lost is the way in which the term citizen matches rights with responsibilities. We need to redress this balance by ensuring that the concept of the consumer is as much inclusive of issues of responsibility as was the term citizen. As geography develops its current concern with commodity chain analysis it offers a considerable aid to such an expanded conceptualisation of consumption.

Finally we have opened up the question of what it means to address the de-fetishism of the commodity. While acknowledging that many of Marx’s original arguments about fetishism have be no means been answered by subsequent transformations in the world, this paper does not merely accept Marx’s position on fetishism. Anthropologists have rightly questioned the premise that value is largely a product of labour (e.g. Strathern 1988). What is thereby raised is a wider ambition, one to which merely paying more for commodities speaks to but by no means exhausts. The scheme I would envisage puts people in touch as workers and consumers but this is intended only as the initiation of relationships that would quickly spill out of any such constrained characterisation of persons, Today we can appreciate that what de-fetishism should create is not just the valorisation of labour, but the re-inscription of the larger humanity we share as both workers and consumer.


Request page update
UCL Anthropology, 14 Taviton Street, London, WC1H 0BW Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8633