Today is a rather unassuming spring Saturday, with one exception: the long-awaited release of the Apple iPad. I have always been rather unimpressed by Apple products, but the froth generated by iPad lovers in their anticipation made the cult of cool around previous Apple releases seem almost tame by comparison. It is this cult of Apple that fascinates me, besides many of the cogent criticisms of the iPad (exorbitant price compared to netbooks that perform the same function, less memory, battery life, smaller screen). Apple, and the culture around the company, is one of the clearest examples of commodity fetishism we have in the contemporary United States.
No, commodity fetishism doesn’t have much to do with S&M dungeons, leather, or whips and chains. It’s the idea that we impart values on consumer goods that have little or nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of an object. The mystique surrounding an iPod, iPad, or iPhone has little to do with the labor that went into making the product, or the fact that they are miniature computers with specific functionality (some overlapping), or that there are many competing products that do the same thing. The fetishism, the religious nature of Apple goods, is linked to the image Apple marketing has sold to purchasers of the product, which becomes a “real” quality once they have acquired it. Apple users are hip, futuristic, minimalist and part of a select group once they own that item. In this way it’s no different than people who buy a hybrid car or BMW; Apple is just more ubiquitous because it’s cheaper than exclusive cars.
Marx explains somewhat obtusely that
“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”
The value we attach to the products we purchase has as much, if not more to do, with what society and our peer groups think of the product. Apple banks on creating a cultural demand for its goods as lifestyle enhancers. The religious fervor attached to release dates for their products is as good an example of this as any. It isn’t much different from what other companies do with their commodities, but it may be the most obvious.