For Sale: Personal Brands and Commodity Lives

Modern marketing changes language and machinery but not its material foundation, which existed long before the industrial age. An allegedly “new” economy of information technology (IT) is just an update with different jargon and tools but the profit and loss substance remain exactly what they’ve always been: great for some, nice for many, and terrible for the earth and most of its people.

Consuming at the market is the same whether walking, riding a horse or driving a car to get there, ordering on a phone or tapping a keyboard. Fewer and cheaper workers result in more profits from new forms of automation, which bring greater loss to those no longer employed. Along with being replaced by machines, exporting jobs to cheaper foreign labor markets and importing cheap foreign labor to this market, we can add apps that act as hi-tech scabs by displacing workers with phone-text-symbol manipulation. All these create profits for private investors and loss for everyone else.

Sometimes, in contradiction to ruling dictates, people use newer tech to communicate about things other than commercial consumption. These steps toward real democracy have not yet been “branded, though they could help create a product called social revolution in a transformed marketplace of the near future.

Slavery, peasantry, wage labor, and middle classes have been means to an end for centuries. Machines, computers, cheap immigrants, native scabs, and other ways to put people out of work and get more private profits at public loss are nothing new. The techniques change but the game is always the same: lower costs for investors while increasing profits for them and their servant class and telling those who absorb the loss to work harder and things will get better for them. Or telling them to pray, see therapists, get drunk or get stoned. If that doesn’t work and they resist, just kill them in the biggest profit maker of them all: War.

Talk of “new” markets only means commodities with new packaging or new labels being sold to still another consumer group with ads describing old stuff with new terminology. The present global crisis of incredible wealth amassed by a shrinking minority with expanding majorities carrying the loss has created new jargon to rationalize such inequality as the will of market deities. But sometimes the power centers revive old terms and unconsciously reveal more than they would like about just what is going on. At least if we pay attention.

The all-encompassing term “branding” was initially used in modern market-speak to make products out of all entities at the mall, including those in what used to be considered a public sector, supposedly free of market forces. Colleges, museums, and other real or imagined non-profit institutions have spent tens of millions of dollars in order to fix their “brand” in people’s minds and differentiate it – supposedly – from all similar products. Brand names and branding have meant products, firms, businesses, and the revived term “entrepreneur” – moving from economics classes into every day thought – all involve lessons for individual endeavors in the market under this all consuming term. Its original use was not quite the adventure in ego and commodity glorification it has become. The creatures suffering the “branding” did not find it romantic or pleasant.

Cattle – the cows and beef we milk and eat – had ownership established by investors burning their initials-logos into the flesh – “branding” – so that no one would confuse one owner’s cattle with another’s. They all looked alike – packaging hadn’t yet been invented and anyway they were animals – so there had to be a way of establishing distinctions between different products, which is all they were and, to an uncomfortable extent, we still are. And cattle rustlers – early crooks who took far more risk than present financial swindlers – would have more difficulty selling the beasts when burnt flesh revealed the “brand” of the original owner. We’ve come a long way?

Now our owners don’t need to actually burn logos into our flesh, since our minds are more easily accessible and invading them isn’t as likely to cause us to retaliate as violently as we might against people who would put us to the torch. But personal brain-branding has joined all the other forms of marketplace consciousness controls, with people urged to differentiate their “product” from others in the same way major firms and institutions separate themselves from the alleged competition. It’s not by creating a better, more reliable, longer lasting and healthier product, but by getting people to believe their “brand” is far better than any other, despite the usual lack of material evidence to back up such claims.

Thus we have athletes, entertainers, celebrities from all walks of wealth and even folks selling “gourmet” food out of glorified pushcarts all “branding” their products – their brawn, beauty, money, hot dogs – to better claim what is called market share. Even that humane term – sharing – has become a brand in profiteering as people claim a new “sharing economy” as a brand in competition with less sharing marketeers, especially those with union employees. An important part of the so-called new economy is what the old economy taught it to dread; workers who organize and act in a democratic style that contradicts market profits for their owner investor bosses.

We haven’t yet seen the term used to describe the real nature of our economy – warfare – and if it were used we’d hear about hundreds of thousands of humans in the Middle East being branded as “dead”, while millions more would qualify for the brand “refugee”. And of course the horrifying brand “terrorism”, the alleged cause of our most recent slaughters, would acquire a negative cache as a product only to be seen as positive in clandestine deals conducted by weapons merchants. They are always positive.

Perhaps our most negative brand, mass murder, will force us to confront the horrors of life reduced to commodities bought and sold and move us to strip humanity of divisive marketing labels and finally face the unity of people. Along with new product names like democracy and social revolution we might develop the catchiest and most priceless brand name of all:

Universal Peace.

Frank Scott writes political commentary which appears in print in the Coastal Post and The Independent Monitor and online at the blog Legalienate. Read other articles by Frank.