Commodification and its Evils
I have repeatedly discussed how commodification has encroached on areas of life it has no business being in, and this has had disastrous consequences for our selves and society at large. Commodification being, of course, the treatment of some thing (whether a physical object or an intangible relationship) as something intended for exchange/an object of economic value (aka a commodity).
To commodify our relationships, to lay them at the altar of utility, is to reduce every deep, rich, meaningful connection we have with another person into a shallow one driven by "value":
Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.
If we believe that autonomy is the core good in the world, then it is the final justification. It is the final arbiter of right/wrong. Something is good if it allows for individuals to express their autonomy, and bad if it does not. "Personal relationships", so far as they exist in a world that worships autonomy, only persist so long as the people in them want them to. In other words, at the bedrock of every personal relationship, every supposedly "non-commodified" connection, is utility. Everything is governed by the logic of the market and its central tenet: "value". There can be no "unconditional love". Everything is conditional, and it's conditioned on value.
All of these identities, these bonds, must be chosen. And if they are chosen in this atomized hellworld, they are chosen according to market logic. In other words, they are consumed. In my all-too-human search and desire for identity, I am compelled to CONSOOM.
What is terrifying about this is that we have gone far beyond a commodification of our labour, of our bodies, perhaps even of our minds. We have commodified our very SELVES. For a Liberal, their identity is a commodity. Something to be picked up and tossed aside according to the logic of how much value it gives them. And yet the Left, in its broad endorsement of the value of autonomy, has embraced this wholeheartedly. They usually don't realize it, and they'll fight you tooth and nail if you tell them this, but our leftist friends hold the same core values as the "neoliberal capitalists" they claim to despise. Yeah, maybe you redistribute the means of production. But that change pales in comparison to what you do to the entirety of our social relationships. Autonomy demands atomization, which forces everything (including your very identity) to be governed by market logic. It is as hypercapitalistic as it comes.
It is ironic that our main ethical stance, the background ethos of our age, demands that we strip away the very things that make life worth living in order to satisfy an abstract goal of "freedom." We embark on a broad project of instrumentalizing everything around us, including people, in pursuit of autonomy or pleasure and then wonder why we are so unhappy. Is it any surprise that a world of instruments is so cold?
Commodification and the Family
So, when one sees commodification encroaching on a sphere of life it does not belong, it appears reasonable to fight it off. Which leads us to the "wages for housework" debate. In response to a controversial court ruling in China, Mary Harrington had this to say:
This mysterious other value [of marriage] stays so elusive because the moment you try and put a number on it, the relationship stops being a marriage and becomes something else. You can reframe housekeeping and sex as services (and indeed, some modern feminists are keen on viewing prostitution as a feminist activity) but this leaves little space for the possibility that either of these might happen outside of a transactional setting, in a context of mutual loyalty and love.
And yet if you enter a marriage expecting it to function as a series of win/win contracts it will rapidly sour. Nothing will erode a loving relationship like using sex for leverage, or resentfully scorekeeping over who gets up with the baby at 4am. A healthy marriage is more like a miniature commune, in which loyalty and mutuality precede any particular thing you do with or for the other person. That relation can of course be abused, but a marriage premised on the need to hedge against abuse will not foreclose a resentful dynamic but cultivate it.
Even if the market mechanism functioned properly in bringing about fair results, there might be an independent problem of commodification, which is detached from the malfunctioning of markets. According to such a line of reasoning, which is termed ‘corruption’ by Michael Sandel, regarding some human attributes as monetizable or even as exchangeable is intrinsically flawed. It is not the consequences that the market brings about but, rather, something about the mere combination of money and intimacy that makes those intimate contexts ‘tainted’ or ‘corrupted.’ They become, in a sense, less humane – less self-expressive, less freedom exercising, or less personhood defining – in a way that undermines their intrinsic value.
But we now have an intuitive snag: what about something like SNAP benefits? Certainly providing financial support for families to support their children is not commodification, no?
What I intend to do in this piece is demonstrate that financial support to a family, properly structured, does not constitute the commodification of the family or the child. In other words, this support does not corrupt the intimate relationships of the family. From this, I will argue that financial support for stay-at-home parents is justified and necessary.
Examples of Commodified/"Corrupted" familial relationships
In the 20th century, Landes and Posner argued that a free market for adopting children would lead to greater utility. Bridal markets exist in various corners of the world. Prostitution is the literal commodification of intimacy, mostly physical but sometimes emotional as well. Many have argued surrogacy represents a commodification of the body perhaps even more heinous than prostitution.
In each of these examples, there is a clear element of commodification: A relationship typically characterized by love, care, respect, and affection is replaced by one governed by value/utility. Our celebration of autonomy demands we "liberate" ourselves from the contexts we are embedded in without our consent, and then we sit around and wonder why so many of us are depressed, as if instrumentalizing everything around us was supposed to make us care more about each other.
The natural flower of true empathy is compassion, the root of true empathy is love. And love can only be built in a particular relationship. Love is built via increasing intimacy, as individuals grow together like vines until one cannot exist without the other. The loss of the other is very much a loss of the self. One's self expands to encompass the other. This, of course, can only happen in a limited fashion. Love is always particular. Expanding who you love necessarily diminishes the depth of the relationships you have. This depth is a function of both intimacy and time. You cannot escape this.
If the root of your relationships is not love, if it is instead corrupted by value/utility, our world will continue to become colder and colder, until "deaths of despair" begin to be considered a relief from the oppressive horror we have engineered.
If adoption is shifted from a process of evaluating the character and suitability of prospective parents to a process of market competition, whatever love adoptive parents might have for their kids is corrupted (even if only a small amount) by the inhuman process they engage in to acquire a child. If marriage shifts from love to a bridal market (or a groom-al(?) market, or a general spousal market), whatever love two people might have for one another is also corrupted by the inhuman market processes they must engage in.
In every one of these examples, we have individuals engaging in processes devoid of love and respect in order to acquire a familial relationship. A corrupted familial relationship. Even if the adoptive parents love their new child, even if the groom purchases a bride who he has already fallen in love with (and who already feels the same way about him), the processes of acquiring this love via the market is the key problem. The child and bride have become commodities to some real extent. Their value is determined by the faceless mob.
Familial Support does not (necessarily) Corrupt the Family
But let's return to SNAP benefits. These don't seem to present the same kind of problems that markets for brides and children (good lord) pose. Why is that? Put simply,
Systems of financial support for families should not be considered commodification or corruption so long as they reflect an evaluation of the needs of the family, not the family's value.
Let me illustrate this.
Imagine the State decides that in order to increase its birth rate, it is going to project the average lifetime net economic value of a new citizen, and pay the present value of that number to new parents. (For reference: "Present Value" refers to an economic axiom that most people would prefer having money today versus tomorrow. For instance, I would prefer $20 today versus $25 in 6 months. Of course, this doesn't mean you prefer having any amount of money today versus a far greater amount tomorrow. I may wait 6 months for $1000 instead of taking the $20 today. Effectively, future money has a “present value”/value today that is calculated by multiplying the future money by a “discount factor.” If our discount factor is 10%/year, I would prefer $200 today to $210 next year, but I would prefer $225 next year to $200 today.)
So we drum up some calculations, determine the average net value of a citizen to the country over their lifetime is ~$10mn and decide to pay parents $1mn today for brining a new child into the world.
This scenario is deeply troubling. It reduces the worth of a child to their economic value over their lifetime. This kind of "support" reflects a deep corruption of our familial relationships. Love replaced by economic value oriented around the State.
On the other hand, if the State surveys the country, decides that "families should be able to provide for their kids' needs," determines the price of decent housing and clothing, healthy food, and safe transportation in various communities, and provides the money required to purchase those things to the family, this is not commodification. Why?
At no point in this scenario is there a calculation of an economic value inherent to any familial relationship. We are not even calculating the "worth" of a stay at home parent or a child. We are saying "what does a child need to survive and develop in a healthy manner," not "what is the value of a stay at home mother and a child."
So, if the State were to offer substantial financial support to families, there is no corruption of familial relationships, no commodification of the family, so long as the financial support has to do with the family's needs, and at no point considers the supposed "value" of any member of the family, or the family as a whole.
Policy Proposal: Serious Stay-at-Home Parent Support
Which brings me back to the original impetus for this piece: a recurring debate I've had over whether or not my views on family support constitute commodification. I believe I have successfully demonstrated that support =/= commodification (so long as it follows the condition above), and so I want to lay out the basics of my position:
A core principle of mine is that I believe 40 hours of minimum-wage work in any and every town and city in this country should be enough to raise a family of 4 in modest, but comfortable conditions.
Put simply, parents need time with their children, adults need time to develop themselves, half of our economy is full of BS jobs that add no real productivity to society anyways, and everyone deserves the right to start a family. I understand this will be insufficient argumentation for some of you and I apologize. A full defense will have to wait for another time, as this piece is already far too long.
Considering the various issues with raising wages by 300% to get this done (teenagers making enough money to support a family, breadwinners living in fear of unemployment, etc), it should be understood that the 40 hours of minimum-wage work can not be the only income stream for the family.
And here is where Stay-At-Home Parent support comes in. The magnitude of this support will differ regionally, but the sum of 40 hours of minimum wage work + the support for a SAHP should be sufficient to cover the costs of raising a family. Now, that does not mean you are forced to stay home. If both parents make significant amounts of money and live a lifestyle that requires both of their incomes, neither is going to be forced to quit; they just won't receive the SAHP support. I would advocate for something like "one parent who works <20 hours/week is eligible to acquire SAHP support if they wish for it."
One final pushback I've heard some people say is "there is a difference between giving the SAHP cold, hard cash versus giving them the goods they need themselves. The former is more corrupt (in Sandel's usage)." On the one hand, I understand the intuition. On the other, no. Beyond the fact our bureaucracies should not be trusted with managing the collection and distribution of a huge number of goods (if that's even possible in some cases), I was a cashier for a time in high school and had customers who used SNAP benefits. Let me tell you something: it is a degrading experience for the person who uses the benefits, and they 100% know this. You can see it etched on every line of their face. Giving people cash rather than telling them what they can spend the benefits on is not more corrupt (so long as, again, it is given with reference to the family's needs, not their value). I would go so far as to say it is far more compassionate. Every family situation is different. Kids in one family may not eat what kids in another family do. Giving families cash support is not commodification, and honestly respects the diversity and dignity of families far more.
Obviously there remains a huge number of pragmatic considerations for such a proposal which will need to be worked out, but my point with this piece was to knock down perhaps the most damning philosophical opposition: that the policy would necessarily corrupt familial relationships and therefore would cause vastly more harm than good. I think I have demonstrated that this simply is not the case. I can imagine many comments will be focused on my "40 hours of min-wage work" comment, but that remains basically my most strongly held concrete political position. In the future, I intend to defend it more vigorously.
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