Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Luxury Commodities: How to spend it and where it comes from

How to spend it

Each weekend the FINANCIAL TIMES publishes a glossy magazine "How to spend it". The magazine showcases expensive commodities from houses to paintings only the seriously rich can afford. Commodity pornography or, as Marx put it in the first volume of CAPITAL: "commodity fetishism".

Commodity consumption of the rich was well known to Marx. He had the example of his friend Frederick Engels who enjoyed good quality wine and a life-style denied to the working class. Marx wrote in the 'Results of the immediate Process of Production' that luxury goods are only "absolutely necessary for a mode of production which creates wealth for non-producer" rather than for the poor producer (Appendix to the Penguin edition of CAPITAL vol 1, 1976: p1045). And by luxury consumption Marx meant "all production that is not required by the reproduction of labour power" CAPITAL vol. III p 201).

When writing CAPITAL Marx divided consumption or consumer goods into two parts: working class consumption and the luxury consumption of the capitalist class. In the 'Schemes of Simple and Expanded Reproduction' in volume II of CAPITAL he brought subsistence consumption and luxury consumption into one department. However we can define luxury commodities as those products which are generally out of the reach of the working class. Workers may dream of escaping into a world of luxury commodities but it only a dream.

The point Marx was making is that there are two streams of income going to the working class and capitalist class respectively; one based on wage labour the other on the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. Workers have to labour for their wage or salary, the capitalist do not have to work but live off the exploitation of the working class. These two classes might consume commodities but do so as separate and diametrically opposed classes. Unlike the FINANCIAL TIMES Marx not only showed how the rich spent their money but more to the point showed where it came from.

Commodity Fetishism

Marx described commodity production and exchange for profit as "commodity fetishism". Not just leather wear, gas masks and shoes but all commodities. The section is known as 'The fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof' and concludes the first volume of CAPITAL. We are confronted with a world of commodities but this world is mysterious and alien.

Why commodity fetishism has a bearing on the FINANCIAL TIMES magazine can be gleaned from the following quotation from Marx's CAPITAL:

"The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social"
(THE COMMODITY, Chapter 1, pp 164-165 Penguin edition).

For Marx, the commodity: "is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assume here, for them, the fantastic form, of a relation between things" (p 165).

Marx goes on to say that commodity fetishism "attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities...", it arises "from the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them" (p.165).

Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism is carried on throughout all three volumes of CAPITAL where the most intense form of fetishism is to be found in banking and finance. Marx writes in the third volume of CAPITAL "the most complete fetish in interest-bearing capital". Obsession with money is indeed a fetish!

It is only under the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society that the mystical veil of commodity production is removed. Marx asks the reader to imagine:

"an association of free men, working with the means of production in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force...labour is social instead of individual" (p171)

The abolition of commodity production and markets would give conscious control over society as a whole to plan goods and services to directly meet human need. Production and labour would become social, creative and co-operative.

Where it comes from

What the FINANCIAL TIMES does not tell the readership is where the money comes from to buy these luxury commodities in the first place. We assume the commodities displayed in the magazine - Louis Vuitton jewellery, Art nouveau martini glasses and 'prestigious' apartments in Rome - are bought solely by the capitalist class –industrialists, bankers and rentiers. Where did this money come from? For an answer we have to turn to Marx and draw upon his theory of exploitation.

Under capitalism workers do not own the means of production and distribution. They are forced to work. They have to enter the labour market and sell their ability to work as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary.

There is a market for luxury commodities. You only have to think of all those yachts owned by Russian oligarchs which are now being impounded. Roman Abramovich, late owner of Chelsea football club, has a yacht 'eclipse' worth some US$700 with an annual running cost of US$50-70 million. Tens of thousands of workers make the jewellery, work in the art auction houses, build the luxury houses.

However no matter where workers are employed they get as wages less than the value of what they produce. The exploitation of labour power produces what Marx called a "surplus value". A capitalist buys labour power for wages, puts the workers to work and realises a surplus when the commodities are sold. Surplus value is the source of the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.

A vast amount of the money going to the capitalist class has to be re-invested to make more and more capital, but a not too sizable portion goes into buying a life style only the rich can afford and which is displayed in the FINANCIALS TIMES magazine "How to Spend it". And spend it they do. When asked how they sleep at night in a world of unremitting poverty they say "within silk sheets and security guards outside the bedroom door".

A world free from capitalists and their luxury commodity consumption

Subsistence commodity consumption for the working class and luxury commodity consumption for the capitalist class; does it always have to be this way? Of course not.

In a socialist society production and distribution would be democratically controlled and held in common. Production would take place directly to meet human need. Production would be undertaken by free and voluntary labour. There would be no labour market, no buying and selling of labour power and no capitalist class living off the unpaid labour of the working class.

So would there still be luxury consumption. It is doubtful if the range of products in the magazine "How to spend it" would have any relevance to a socialist society. There would no money and no spending. There would be no market for luxury goods and conspicuous consumption.

That is not to say socialism would be stamped with monastic asceticism. Far from it. Socialist production would engender the best possible housing, clothing, education, health care, and provision for old age. Socialist luxury would be to have no employers; no bosses and no capitalists. It would be luxury to have control over a person's time and their work a fact currently denied workers who are forced to do as their told by capitalists. It would be a luxury to be creative and to give one's ability to the democratic affairs of society.

The capitalist propaganda of consumerism and to want to emulate the consumption of a parasitical class who posses and consume through privilege and economic power would lose its meaning. "To be" would be the standard of luxury within socialism not "to have".

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk