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 theĀ 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.