The common view of summarizing American culture abroad as the
triumphant march of Disney and McDonald's embodies this thesis.
Marx articulated this line of thought in the early pages of the
Manifesto; and it is one of the hardiest elements in Marxism,
very much alive today in the writings of academic Marxists. While
it seems at times as if everything has its price and we admire
only what is profitable or expensive, it is not clear that this
is so very much worse than the earlier sort of society in which
things were valued according to their aristocratic prestige or
holiness. After all, market value is an expression of collective
democratic attitudes. If we decide that a basketball player is
more valuable than a ballerina it is not because we are capitalists
but because more people enjoy basketball than ballet.
But most people in capitalist societies deplore the fact that
price and profit seem to lie behind everything we do and self-denunciations
of excessive materialism are commonplace. So there is some truth
in the accusation.
However, it is not clear what the socialist alternative would
be. It seems obvious that because public debate and the arts were
strictly controlled in Communist countries public discourse was
also radically simplified. Ideas and artistic creations became
political rather than economic commodities, at the service of
political ends. Exceptionally complex and subtle thinkers emerged
in Communist states here and there (Mikhail Bakhtin is a currently
popular example), but the trademark of most Communist public culture
was crudity and over-simplification.
"But that was not real socialism," socialists may argue.
And indeed, the point is a valid one. True socialists would never
have tolerated such a narrow, anti-democratic culture as existed
in the former Soviet Union and China. However, any culture which
prizes the masses above the individual and in which collective
power is expressed in a central government claiming to represent
those masses is going to have difficulty encouraging complexity
and subtlety, characteristics more often associated with aristocratic
cultures, whether in Renaissance Florence or Heian Japan.
The analysis of "commodification" can be seen as just
another instance of "essentializing," a term popular
on the contemporary left. It may be true that almost everything
has a price in a market economy, but that does not mean that it
makes sense to reduce the essence of everything to its price.
When people's homes burn, they usually don't rush to save the
most expensive items in the house, but the most personal: family
photographs, children's stuffed animals, etc. Marxists see economic
forces everywhere just as Freud saw suppressed sexuality everywhere,
and as some religious people see sin everywhere. There is no simple
formula for determining what is the "real" key to understanding
human behavior--we're more complicated than most Marxists allow.
Back to list of misconceptions.
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