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How Modern Day Capitalism Commodifies the “Self”

How does capitalism exploit individualism and what research as been done to show the inescapable reality capitalism creates?

Photograph of Ralph Turner

In the 70s and 80s, there's a shift in how individuals and society viewed the idea of self and how one found it. Set understanding of self on a societal level shifted from institutional, structured values, to a hyper individualist one. On a very broad level, we can see this shift was fueled by ongoing social and cultural changes of the time on individualization and whatnot. To look closer, we can turn to Ralph Turner, a sociologist who in 1976 found a shift in the position of the spectrum of self and what it meant to be yourself- the feelings, actions that we identify as expressions of our real self as movement along the line of institution on one end to impulse on the other. At the institutional pole one recognizes the real self in the pursuit of institutionalized goals self control volition and exacting standards with an Institutional frameworks are paramount. At the impulse pole by contrast institutional motivations are external artificial constraints and superimpositions that bridle manifestations of the real self. Turner argued the conception of self on a societal level was getting closer and closer to the impulse point of the line. His findings weren't unique either as simple sociologists were coming to the conclusion in a more empirical vein Joseph Veroff and his colleagues comparing the results of national surveys they conducted in 1957 and 1976 found a significant shift in the way that people structure their self definition and sense of well-being.

They characterized this change as one from a socially integrated paradigm to a more personal or individuated Paradigm and identified it in three aspects:

The demure nation of roll standards as the basis for defining adjustment
Increased focus on self expressiveness and self-direction in social life
A shift and concern from social organizational integration to interpersonal intimacy.

(Joseph Davis). Moreso, Daniel Bell, Robert Bellah, and Daniel Yankelovich, all too found an increasing rise and the emphasis on the personal desires and explanations of immediate experience, over institutional standards and values.

There are two different ways the “self” has been commodified.

The first being through manufactured desires and branding within the market, the second being the conscious commodification of personality in a social setting. Let’s take a closer look.

In this cultural shift of the time, the term “self” was deinstitutionalized and for this reason became its own criteria in each person’s mind. In simpler terms, each person would attempt to work out what they deemed “self” in relative isolation from others and their viewpoint on the matter. What it meant to be yourself, find yourself, all were now individualized concepts, relative to the person that was creating their own answers. Without needing to point any further, the very market forces that created this vacuum of hyper-individual definition settings of “self” and fulfilling “self” rushed into filling it. Even in the 70s, sociologists were talking of scripts, as Louis Zurcher, a social psychologist at the William A. Menninger-Foundation described it point blank, that scripts are being written to channel these inner impulses into manufactured consumer choices for consumption on the market. To understand the sheer absurdity of this phenomena, we can take branding for instance, the strategy we deem as innate to capitalism, was only formed in the mid-to-late 1980s some 40 years ago. At this time, companies became obsessed with manufacturing images, not things in and of themselves, but emphasizing a carefully crafted image, a descriptor of a company’s product pitch to the consumer and how their commodity would help fulfill themselves. Branding expert, Scott Bedury expanded upon this, “a great brand is an emotional connection point that transcends the product…”

Photograph of Scott Bedbury

That is an almost myth-like evolving story that creates “the emotional context people need to enhance it, incorporate the language of self-determination and transformation, and build upon the set societal idea that being true to our unique inner desires and overall selves is a powerful moral ideal.

“Authenticity has been so thoroughly appropriated and packaged in the metaphorical stories of the mass marketers that we barely notice anymore. Advertisements rail against the conventional demands of society and sell products as instruments of liberation. Brands of jeans signify rebellion and rule breaking, fruit drinks and sneakers have countercultural themes, and cars let us escape and find ourselves.”

-(Joseph Davis).

We can, sadly, dive even further. The journey of self-actualization, understanding oneself, and then finding oneself, has quite literally been laid subject to marketers who manufacture desire and exploit this need of self-finding. Putting it further, sexual expression, self development, and spiritual growth are now the subject of market master advice, and pre-packaged programs and algorithms.

In a depressing manner, we then come to the realization that to have a sense of “self” one must partake, either consciously or subconsciously, in the manufactured desires of the market to be part of the transaction every human being takes place in right now value judgements. Under this system of manufactured desires and marketing warlords, we are naturally quick to judge based on consumer consumption, as consumption is used as a means of showing and describing one’s self, and thus it is only natural to judge another person’s “self” based on their consumption. We cannot escape this system; it is impossible. Every time we log onto the technology we need to work in our workplaces, we serve algorithms and “scripts,” that then cause us to over consume to express one’s self and identity. It is an entire system of commodity and sign, a system of representation and cultural exploitation, a means of exploiting the natural desire to find, and then fulfill the idea of “self”.



Davis, Joseph E. "The commodification of self." The Hedgehog Review 5.2 (2003): 41-50.

Zurcher, Louis A. "The war game: organizational scripting and the expression of emotion." Symbolic Interaction 8.2 (1985): 191-206.

Turner, Ralph H. "The real self: From institution to impulse." American journal of sociology 81.5 (1976): 989-1016.

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