Commodities and Free Labor: Marx and Terranova

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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. 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...
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