Commodification: the essence of our time

by Colin Leys and Barbara Harriss-White:
The dominant process underlying the transformation of life in all societies, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, is the conversion of things and activities into commodities, or commodification. In advanced capitalist countries this process is now outstripping our political and social capacity to adjust to it...

Even the functions of the state are being commodified: not just the provision of public goods and services, such as electricity and airport operations, but activities hitherto seen as quintessentially public, such as prisons and policing, and even including core responsibilities like policy. Policy-formulation is contracted out to think tanks, foundations and management consultancies; publicly-collected data is entrusted to private companies to keep and sell...

When the commodification of all of nature (including human nature – our dreams and fears, as well as our genes) becomes so familiar as to be seen as normal, few effective limits to commodification will remain. The process has already gone very far. Most of the world’s agriculture and food production has already been commodified... Not only have farmland and fresh water supplies been commodified, but also parts of the oceans (through the creation and sale of exclusive fishing and drilling rights), and even air itself (carbon trading is - in theory - a market for fresher air)...

The outsourcing of major sectors of policy development to management consultancy firms leads to the loss of public scrutiny and accountability, and drains democracy of its meaning. Expertise oriented towards the public interest disappears along with what was once considered indispensable institutional memory. Joined-up policy goes too – if it was ever there.

The notion that there is a conflict between public and private interests disappears in the blur of the revolving door between business and government. The logical end of neo-liberalism is the commodification of everything – everything from speculating on the future prices of staple foods and housing to making profits from prisons. As capital is pushed to extremes, pathological effects become painfully clear.

The political agenda comes to exclude  all possible futures that would be incompatible with commodification. The loss of a brake on the process delivers irrational and self-defeating consequences. When the state has relinquished the capacity to regulate capital, capital itself starts to suffer from the lack of stable long-term frameworks needed for investment. The contemporary incoherence of energy, transport and climate change policy in the UK has become a notorious obstacle to investment. When society’s capacity to define and plan for its collective interests has been surrendered to the pursuit of the private interests of a few hundred global companies, then its – our – very future is at risk..

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