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Lithium How capitalism forces us to commodify our personal lives

Oct. 15, 2021

Writing is everything to me. When in doubt, rage, or confusion, I turn to my diary. It’s such a personal, sacred process, and I’ve wanted to pursue it as a career since I was young. When I finally had the opportunity to write part-time for a magazine, I was over the moon—until I realized that I was mainly writing to promote brands. The majority of my work back then was strictly commercial and formulaic; I was writing to make different labels look good, producing a range of editorials without nuance. Writing, something I’d proudly honed and was emotionally attached to, began to feel far away from me. Writing for work drained me of the energy to create anything else.

I’m not the only one who has felt detached from something dear to me because I had to put it up for sale. During the pandemic, the need for profit by whatever means necessary has heightened. We may find ourselves ascribing a monetary value to parts of our personal lives for others to consume, but what does this mean for us? How can we make sure our precious and vulnerable work doesn’t lose its meaning? 

In an essay for The Hedgehog Review, sociology professor Joseph E. Davis defines a commodity as a product that is bought and sold—but how does this apply to the self? Davis explains that self-commodification occurs when we reconstruct our personal lives for market relations, in a process known as “personal branding.” We fit our selfhood into a mold made for consumption, all with the goal of achieving economic gain. Some have claimed that this process encourages self-empowerment despite having to identify yourself as a product. While personal branding may sound appealing as a means of accommodating corporate culture, it’s simply dehumanizing to constantly shape the very way you live to stay relevant in an ever-changing market.

Under capitalism, success is measured by profitability—and how well we can package our personal lives to gain likeability and engagement. For quite some time, I’ve marketed myself as a teen writer who learns quickly and adapts well to fast-paced (a soft, often misleading word companies like to use to replace “toxic”) environments. I am bright, eager, and full of ideas. This is supposed to be my brand, but I rarely feel like I live up to it—I hardly ever have any room for expression, variation, or actual creativity when I get paid to write. In the end, I’m left highly unfulfilled and too tired to touch my blog or journal.

This isn’t specific to me, either. Whatever skill or talent you have, people with capital will slap a price tag on it; everything is transactional in this sense, encouraging competition and shrinking our value as human beings capable of sincerity in our craft. When our personal lives seemingly exist for market needs, it becomes easier to lose creative autonomy in our work because we are often creating and selling for somebody else according to the standards that they set for us.

Really, it’s not enough to produce profit without meaningfulness. We must look inward and reflect on what work is supposed to be: it should serve the market but also ourselves. We must consider our self-fulfillment, purpose, and meaning when we work, and so should our employers. 

This isn’t a reality, however, as clients and employers often exchange our labor’s value with insufficient compensation. Even if the market we serve does attempt to give us a higher purpose, it’s often orchestrated, pretty words sugarcoating exploitation. Branding is very often prioritized over welfare, causing many workers to put their work above their own well-being and opinions. 

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with my good friend Margianta, who leads a youth organization focused on modern slavery and workers’ rights, about how we can work together to reduce harm in self-commodification. I learned that, as workers, what we should be emphasizing the most is collective solidarity, which is the key to helping each other overcome capitalist obstacles. 

Many of us have the privilege to negotiate the rates at which we sell our goods or services. Sometimes we also have access to platforms that allow us to speak against mistreatment. When our basic needs are already met, and we don’t depend on a particular aspect of our lives or projects for sole income, it will be easier for us to maintain control over our work. But to those whose livelihoods primarily rely on self-commodification, negotiation and protesting against unethical acts can be difficult and infeasible.

There are a number of things that we could start doing regularly to achieve and express solidarity: sharing stories about mistreatment, discussing salary transparently to realize when we’re underpaid, and negotiating rates. It is the role of the privileged to take a stand and bargain whenever necessary to pave the way for those unable to do so themselves. If you can safely express your opposition, complaints, or needs, you should, as you’ll be encouraging the development of a healthier and more ethical setting for those with precarious jobs. 

According to Margianta, unionizing doesn’t always mean organizing an official labor union. Unionizing can start when we establish dialogue among our peers—co-workers, friends, and other people who operate in similar fields—addressing the market’s unfair power relations between employees and employers. After gathering like-minded individuals who share the same vision, we can exchange resources and information, freely communicate concerns about work, and learn together. Those with privilege should offer tips on negotiating rates, recognizing the value of our work, and how to protest unfair treatment. Facilitate, distribute, and share opportunities whenever you can. 

After you’ve been working for a while, it’s not uncommon to find that commodifying your personal life leads to burnout—but don’t blame yourself for it. It’s hard to stay in touch with your identity when you’re trading parts of it, and the market’s vicious expectations expect you always to give 100% when what you’re getting in return is almost always less than that. No matter what work you do, dignity must always be part of the transaction; your work’s value must be acknowledged and respected for you to genuinely enjoy the fruit of your labor. We deserve fair pay, appreciation, and a life dedicated to ourselves, not the market. We work to live, not the other way around.