Commodification, Identity and Campus Politics

With the start of the new University year in South Africa upon us, it seems pertinent to comment upon some of the recent trends in university politics. While debates concerning identity politics, intersectionality and the ‘new left’ are nothing new, having become increasingly popular abroad in recent years, there is a worrying scarcity of such analysis and examination originating from the left in South Africa. Indeed, much of the writing concerning the new left seems to originate from the right and from echo chambers such as The Rational Standard. The following is a brief comment upon the nature and role of identity politics, as well as some thoughts about the commodification of identity.

What should not escape our attention is that, at the core of the recent Fees Must Fall university shutdowns and protests, is a fundamental antipathy towards capitalism. This is illustrated by various calls to ‘rail against the commodification of education’, reference made to the ‘capitalist class’ in Fees Must Fall statements and various criticisms of capitalism leveled by left student organizations. Of course, this is not representative of the entire movement and one would be remiss to generalise a movement which, at its core, is made up of various other movements and groups with different ideological positions. One can, however, identify a number of common themes that exist within the broader movement. A focus on identity, the consequences of identity and a general reliance upon identity politics which has been made popular by various academics and the struggle movements in the US. We can define identity politics as a set of positions based on the interests, perspectives and narratives of social groups with which people identify. Politics, in this case, includes ways by which a person’s politics may be shaped by certain aspects of their identity. In South Africa, particularly at the University of Cape Town, identity politics has offered a means by which people can share and express their ideas and struggles. As a result, those who have been marginalized are given a platform from which they can express themselves. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such an approach, this has resulted in the view that the person’s identity either validates or falsifies the statements that they have expressed. Through the use of ‘subjective narratives’ and terms such as ‘my truth’, these movements are able to avoid having to grapple with realism and the implications of objective, fact based discussions. That is not to say that these opinions and views do not have a place in rational discussion, but by admonishing those who present statements and hypotheses that can be tested, while presenting one’s own personal experiences as the only truth, the framework by which rational discussion can occur is diminished. The result of this, thus far, has been a growth in identity based politics, a reliance upon ones own identity as a basis for discussion and claims and the ad hominem criticism of those who presents alternatives.

But, within the current framework, is it not the case that the consequence of ‘buying into identity’ will lead to the inevitable commodification of identity? That is to say that by expressing how society and the market should respond to my presence, one is furthering the goals of capitalism itself.

One might regard this as a misnomer, as a commodity, by its very nature, is a product. Something that can be bought and sold, traded and given away. As such, in what sense can identity be commodified? One can talk about two possible meanings for identity as a commodity. The first is that self-understanding is often mediated by the consumption of goods, images and symbolism. Self-definition, in this sense, depends upon the appropriation of the traits of commodities. Our understanding of the self, of identity and of our social relationships is often determined by the experiences and identification with the things that we buy. As a consumer, identity is increasingly shaped and conditioned by the patterns of our consumption The second form of commodification of identity relates to the organization of the personal and the social on the basis of our relationship with the market. This relates to the practice of personal branding and of appearance manipulation, a strategy of creating a name and image of ourselves that we use for economic and social gain.

Immanuel Wallerstein noted that the evolution of capitalism has involved the commodification of everything. Early colonialists made a “market” for the identity of the Other, in which they have traded as a commodity ever since. The expropriation of imagery, ideas, stories and art for symbolic and hegemonic purposes has led to the development of market in which commodity no longer relates to the object itself, but to the meaning and identity associated with it.

By incorporating the language of self-determination and transformation, capitalism is able to harness the idea that being true to our unique inner selves is a powerful moral idea. This is most evident in the use, by market players, of powerful messages that rail against the conventional norms of society and sell products as instruments of liberation. The result is a market ethic of nonconformism coupled with vigorous consumerism. The issue here is that, as identity becomes more valued by mainstream society, it also become more valuable to those who would use it to their own advantage. If being a part of a group is materialistically advantageous, those that can assimilate that identity will do just that. As is the case with black identity in the USA, creating profit from identity becomes a business that is relatively easy to maintain. What it requires is the continued reproduction of that perceived identity – which creates the opportunity for perpetuating stereotypes and manipulation of that identity. Such commodification of identity becomes a dynamic part of the system of oppression as any and all marketing of the identity in question becomes complicit with the existing exploitative-oppressive nature of the structure itself. Although identity politics, in this case, presents itself as a remedy for the stressful tensions and antagonisms of capitalism, it actually functions as a perfect ideological supplement to capitalism.

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