iDolatry — obituary for a capitalist revolutionary

by Jerome Roos on October 7, 2011

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Observing the sudden outpouring of sentimentalism, there is no doubt that the passing of Steve Jobs has struck a chord in our collective commodity fetish.

God is dead. His passing has unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of sentimentalism in the mainstream and social media alike. But while we obviously feel sorrow for his friends and family, some modest critical reflection seems to be in place. Swamped by front-page obituaries and corny status updates, like “iSad”, it is difficult to fend off the impression that we are not so much mourning a man as worshiping an icon.

In an age of material delusions and false promises, Steve Jobs, it seems, was God. For right at the time when the “post-material” consciousness of the baby-boomer generation started to run headlong into its own internal contradictions, he was the man who offered the bourgeois intelligentsia of the West a way to keep consuming while still being able to hold on to the illusion of being a hippie. In the process, Jobs took our age-old commodity fetish to a whole new level.

Stuck between our contradictory needs for immediate gratification, constant self-affirmation and superficial self-actualization, we embraced Jobs like the Holy Father: the invisible man who “made stuff”. He would satisfy all our desires while allowing us to repent for our sins at the same time. For wielding an iPhone was no longer just a matter of utility or an affirmation of status — it became an act of rebellion. Against what, nobody knew. But “thinking different” felt great.

No obituary better exemplified this idolatry than the one in the Economist. Aptly branding him “The Magician”, the paragon of free-market ideology celebrated Jobs as a “man who liked to see himself as a hippie, permanently in revolt against big companies,” but who “ended up being hailed by many of those corporate giants as one of the greatest chief executives of all time.” It wryly concluded that “the revolution that Steve Jobs led is only just beginning.”

The reaction to his death, with people leaving candles and flowers outside Apple stores and the internet humming with tributes from politicians, is proof that Mr Jobs had become something much more significant than just a clever money-maker. He stood out in three ways—as a technologist, as a corporate leader and as somebody who was able to make people love what had previously been impersonal, functional gadgets. Strangely, it is this last quality that may have the deepest effect on the way people live. The era of personal technology is in many ways just beginning.

As a quintessential baby-boomer, Jobs was not just a brilliant innovator or the world’s most successful entrepreneur. He was a marketer. Having lived through the 1960s, Jobs realized like no other the importance of aesthetics for the progressive post-material middle class in late capitalist society. I will never forget how my mother, upon seeing her first iPod Nano, embarrassingly exclaimed “what a sexy little machine!”. Jobs was brilliant like that.

So, yes, Steve Jobs was a revolutionary. As Karl Marx put it, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Jobs’ innovative spirit and entrepreneurial mindset helped to revolutionize our society. Joseph Schumpeter wrote that entrepreneurs unleash the “gale of creative destruction”. Creative destruction is what Jobs did best.

In the process, Jobs ended up shaping history. He was one of a handful of corporate elites who helped propel the US into what we now (misleadingly) call a “post-industrial” society. But unlike the men at Goldman Sachs, he did it with flair. At a time that Western capitalism moved away from physical production and towards a financialized knowledge economy, Jobs took the reigns at Apple to navigate it to the commanding heights of the global economy.

Apple is now the biggest publicly traded company in the world. But what does this mean? Is Apple really representative of a new era in human history? Or is it just the same wine in a slightly fancier bottle? Does Apple really hover in some kind of post-material, post-industrial universe? Or are we deluding ourselves into thinking that capitalism took a major turn for the better, and progressive business has set us free from the scourges of Dickensian industrialism?

Well, as an answer to that question, and as an antidote to that wonderful video of Steve Jobs giving a commencement speech at Stanford University, urging students to actualize their potential in life, perhaps we should consider the following — all taken from headlines in Guardian over the past year or so:

Once we see all the uncritical admiration of Steve Jobs in this context, it becomes obvious to what extent our minds are still perverted by the commodity fetish. As Marx put it in Capital, ”A commodity [simply a consumer product] appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” David Harvey explained the phenomenon as follows:

The advent of a money economy, Marx argues, dissolves the bonds and relations that make up ‘traditional’ communities so that ‘money becomes the real community’. We move from a social condition, in which we depend directly on those we know personally, to one in which we depend on impersonal and objective relations with others. […] Money and market exchange draws a veil over, ‘masks’ social relationships between things. This condition Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities’.

For Marx, commodities, or what we now call consumer goods, are given certain mystical qualities that obscure the real relations between different people in capitalist society. So when we walk into an iStore, what we see is a “sexy little machine” — not a product that was created by the the toiling labor of Chinese children working 80 hours a week for $1 per hour while being poisoned with chemicals and seeing their environment deteriorate around them.

In this respect, Jobs’ greatest achievement in life was nothing like the lofty goals of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize-winning activist who fought poverty, corruption and environmental degradation and who silently died in Kenya two weeks ago, apparently without anyone noticing. No. All eyes are focused on a man whose greatest achievement in life was simply to bring aesthetics and rebellion to the forefront of his highly successful brand, thereby perpetuating the commodity fetish at the heart of our so-called post-material society.

In the consumption-driven circus sideshow of postmodern capitalism, Steve Jobs was the magician. “Mr Jobs,” the Economist wrote, “spent his life packaging … magic into elegantly designed, easy-to-use products.” But to all the fetishists out there: have no fear, for Žižek reminds us that “commodity fetishism is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself.” This reality will outlive Steve Jobs. Indeed, “Apple’s mystique,” according to the Associated Press, “may grow with Steve Jobs’ death.”

So perhaps Steve Jobs was not really God in the end. Is it possible that he was just a mortal human being? A King, maybe, one in a line of many? In that case, the conclusion would be sad but simple. The King is dead — long live the King.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011), founder and long-time CEO of Apple, Inc., passed away today at the age of 56. He is survived by a net worth of $8.3 billion and the largest publicly traded company in the world. May he rest in peace.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael T. October 7, 2011 at 02:56

Fantastic analysis, I thought the public reaction to his passing was a little ridiculous as well.

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Zacqary Adam Green October 7, 2011 at 03:29

I wrote this when he resigned from Apple. Replace “resignation” with “death”, and it applies just the same in this situation.

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Panos October 7, 2011 at 03:57

All mourn the death of the philoshoper-king!!! HAIL

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Sonali Pattnaik October 7, 2011 at 09:17

This is such a critical article and one that comes in at a very important moment. I agree with your analysis of the ideological double blind of commodity fetishism that informs the production, circulation and validation of Apple products as ‘rebellious’, ‘different’ and ‘anti-corporate’; all of these terms themselves have lost the edge to make a dent in the capitalist universe, the language of dissent itself co-opted and fetished. Here Zizek becomes important, as does Foucault who remind us that we are produced as consumers and fetishes will evolve into things, discourses, gestures that even when they make visible the oppression of materialist society continue to act as distancing mechanisms that foreclose the possibility of revolution or resistance. On can only attack from within, imploding the self-sameness of social reality as unstable and reclaimable.
Thank you for putting this out there.

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Daniel October 7, 2011 at 10:02

Dear Jerome,
I think this is a great piece, but would like to add a couple points. I think the sentimental reaction to Jobs’ passing demonstrates more than just iFetishism. I think Western society – especially America – has a strange, obsessive yet unaccepting relationship with death. Jobs (now) famously said death is the greatest invention of life: I don’t think many people are able to relate to that message. The number one rule in dealing with taboo subject of death is: speak no evil.
Sympathy for Jobs’ death does not surprise me. What surprised me, was the outpour of sentiment over Michael Jackson’s death! Here was our biggest Freak, some one no would could safely say was NOT a child rapist, and all it took was the simple act of him dying, for him to escape one of the most hostile public spotlights ever pointed at a person, and become an icon again.
I am somehow reminded of the book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and the ideas expressed in it about quality. By obscuring the negative impact of Apple, Jobs was able to produce goods of unchallengable quality. A computer is no more than a mechanical reproduction of the human brain. And the quality of his brain was reproduced in a way that works better for a lot of people. And I think there is real quality in that. The fact that this products were succesfully marketed to the extreme, doesn’t take away the fact that Jobs introduced a certain real quality, marketing and aesthetics aside. Another point made by ‘Zen’, is that it is irrational to fear technology – such fear is an form of fear of the unknown. To most people, the actual workings of technological devices are unknown. By making products sexy, Jobs has indeed brought people in touch with technology – enabled people to operate technology and gotten them over some of their fears of it. The difference is, when your iPod breaks, you do not get the benefit of tinkering on it in a zenlike state: you trash it.
I think many people are stuck between wanting to reject the current form of capitalism, yet being even more inclined to reject Marxism. Steve Jobs embodied what people can accept. In fact it would be comforting to know that all of the 1 % had gotten to where they are by being brilliant entrepreneurs, by truly being elite. It’s different from bankers playing with people’s savings. It is even different that Bill Gates stealing ideas from Xerox and making far more money that Jobs, with a much lower quality product, that constantly crashes.

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The Multitude October 7, 2011 at 10:48

Terrible analysis. Much as we all might find the mawkish outpouring over Jobs distasteful and his labour practices disgusting, get your critical terminology right if you are going to start holding it over people. You do understand that you have completely misinterpreted the term ‘commodity fetishism’ don’t you, despite linking and citing? Maybe read the Wikipedia entry you link, then try again.

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Jérôme E. Roos October 7, 2011 at 12:14

Thanks for your views Mr Wiseguy. We might take them seriously if you actually provided some argument to back up your claims.

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The Multitude October 9, 2011 at 16:47

Okay. Lets try the Wikipedia article you actually link:
“commodity fetishism denotes the mystification of human relations said to arise out of the growth of market trade, when social relationships between people are expressed as, mediated by and transformed into, objectified relationships between things ”

Commodity fetishism is the formation of social relations expressed as the relationship not between social forces (which are by their nature dynamic and changeable) but between things. So, it is not the case that it is commodity fetishism that obscures the exploitation of workers in the “sexy” commodity, rather that the relationship of capital to labour is the result of abstract fictions like “money” which appear to be “natural” rather than being a social relation. Or to put it as Marx did “There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”. You are right that “commodities, or what we now call consumer goods, are given certain mystical qualities that obscure the real relations between different people in capitalist society”, but in relation to Apple you misdescribe it. A good example would be when people start talking about “the market” in pious tones, not recognising that “the market” is not a thing, but a social relation. Indeed, the whole of mainstream economics is a commodity fetish, assuming its categories to be not the products of class society, but natural kinds.

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Allen Ruff October 7, 2011 at 13:50

Thanks ever so much for your much needed critical assessment, Jerome! When the “Industrial Titans” and “Robber Barons” of the late 19th and early twentieth century went to their graves, the mainstream press could do nothing but lavish praise and admiration. The likes of Schwab and Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford and Morgan received nothing but honorifics despite their capacity for plunder and bloodletting, of unimagined ruthlessness and exploitation, masked by occasional “philanthropy” and a public relations industry that grew up around them. The bourgeois press still does its job (snow Jobs?) in reproducing the wonderment and mystification for the existing order.

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Chris October 7, 2011 at 17:57

Damn Jerome, how do you keep pulling off these articles? Good job once again brother!

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Tom October 7, 2011 at 18:58

“This article was written on my iphone”

This was an important article for you to have published, because it demonstrates that ROAR will “R”evolt against anything… even the hand that feeds it. It is good entertainment to read a webmag called “ROAR” trivialize a corporate ad campaign that sought to create a social “act of rebellion… Against what, nobody knew. But “thinking different” felt great,” just because the social movement was successful, and ended up having a free market impact. Naturally, this would be your reaction.

I guess it would be no fun to describe the “personalization of technology” for being what it really is… technology that has simply become simply small and fast enough to be truly useful. People haven’t become dependent on their gadgets because they worship Steve Jobs, or even because they worship their gadgets. People have become dependent upon their gadgets because they WORK! Primarily, the things that we do with this new technology is communicate. Jobs is the new Gutenberg or Morse. Do we blame Gutenberg for our dependence on books. Do we blame Morse because we feel the need to communicate with people beyond our line of sight. Perhaps you would. Naturally, you would.

Try to schedule an uprising in downtown Manhattan, without using technology. How many people would be camping downtown right now if organizers had used flyers on telephone poles in stead of the internet. Does that mean that the outcome of the revolution will be detracted from because of its use of (dependence on) social media and technology? Ultimately, it will.

I agree that the term “commodity fetishism” is likely misinterpreted in this article. Unlike “The Multitude”, I don’t suggest reading the Wikipedia article you cited, rather I would suggest reading a critical text on Marx in its entirety. Unfortunately, I cannot suggest a particular one. Perhaps, one would start from the left and read you way to the right (note: there may be two shelves). I am curious as to what an informed student of Marx would say about your use of the term, and your dependence on it for validation of your article.

While I am disappointed in your Freudian dys-reaction to the world Spectacle that is unfolding upon the death of Steve Jobs, I find the flawed humanity of your subtext comforting. The revolution lives, and it is human. Long live the revolution.

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Jérôme E. Roos October 8, 2011 at 12:37

Actually, this article was written on a desktop computer in the library at my university — so much for your “critical” assumptions. And what I was trying to do was describe exactly what the personalization of technology constitutes: a commodity fetish. The fact that these products are “simply small and fast enough” is entirely irrelevant in this respect. What matters is the way they are produced and the way this production process alters the relations between real people in society. Will you deny the headlines I mentioned? Will you deny that while Steve Jobs innovated some of the most revolutionary technology of the past decade, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people suffered enormously and unnecessarily just to get those products out onto the market?

You argue as if I am anti-technology, which is nonsensical. Technology has the power to transform our society for the better. The point is, how do we go about producing it — and who benefits from it and who suffers as a result of it? I’m not hating on technology, to the contrary. I am merely exposing how the age-old social relations of capitalism have altered very little in our so-called “post-industrial” or “post-material” society. In this case, the continued relevance of these hidden social relations is exemplified by the contrast between the collective mourning for a multibillionare CEO and the complete social ignorance about the multitude of disaffected workers who actually produce the real value which Jobs then re-appropriated, and who are dying in droves just to deliver us our fetishized commodities.

Interestingly, like the Multitude, you do not offer a single argument as to why my interpretation of the commodity fetish might be wrong, even though this interpretation is derived from the works of two of the most respected Marxist philosophers of the moment: Zizek and Harvey. You do not offer a single alternative interpretation nor are you capable of mentioning even one critical work of Marx that could shed light on why this concept might be wrong. This is exactly the debate on capitalism today: people either claim to understand Marx like no other (usually the fancy bourgeois intellectual types) and then derive great pleasure from always telling everyone else how they’re wrong — or they don’t know his work at all, yet are extremely willing to criticize it on the basis of superficial intuitions. While the Multitude appears to be part of the former crew, I’m afraid to say you’re part of the latter. Come back after you’ve read Capital.

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Raja October 7, 2011 at 20:42

While I agree with the analysis, it could be much more solid with some examination of the political economy of personal computing – specifically in relation to flexible accumulation [both in production - offshoring, sweatshops, coltan mining, expansion of regimes of repression out "there", and the consumption side of things - the "personal" as a new domain for ideas of productivity, flexible consumption], but also how once publicly funded research projects [the internet being a prime example] became the basis for the massive expansion of private capital accumulation. Apple’s reputation for creating and serving the consumption needs of a “sexy” bourgeoisie rapt with its own sense of importance, stands in stark contrast to the socialist leanings of initiatives such as the open source movement.

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Jérôme E. Roos October 8, 2011 at 12:18

Interesting perspective that I unfortunately know too little about. Contact me at jerome@roarmag.org if you’re interested in writing a contribution on this.

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dave October 7, 2011 at 22:42

Terrific piece, was about to write something like it myself.

Two quick points:

The phrase “creative destruction” originates with Mikhael Bakunin I believe. And if it doesn’t he said something very much like it. Like Proudhon’s phrase “to each according to his ability…” falsely attributed to Marx, this too has been pilfered from us anarchists.

It is not true that Wangari Maathai died silently nor is it true that nobody noticed. I noticed. If anyone is interested there are two brief posts on my blog about her both with videos. One was made just before she died. She and Kenya’s other “mother”, Wambui Otieno, died within weeks of one another.
saveourcola.blogspot.com

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maria October 12, 2011 at 16:31

Great article.
I think one doesn´t need to read Marx to understand commodity fetishism. It is something that can be grasped easily just by observing people act and talk about their “lovely gadgets” and how little interested are they about the workers who made them.
I still don´t get the criticism to this article. It seems to me more an act of pedantry than a real wish to engage into a constructive , dialectical?? debate.

Enhorabuena Jerome, I found you those first days of the Spanish revolution. I drop from time to time. I think you are brilliant.
salud y un abrazo
maría

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Jérôme E. Roos October 13, 2011 at 17:58

Thank you for the kind words María, I greatly appreciate it :) Very glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog, thanks so much for your interest! None of this would have been possible without you guys — you started it all back in May. Thanks for giving us all the inspiration to carry on the struggle!

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Daniel Owen October 13, 2011 at 09:56

I wonder if all the data collected by the smart phones people are carrying with them to the Occupation movements, will be scrutinized. All those little tracking devices, mapping out the collective movement of groups, so that organized and organic movements of people can be analyzed. And prepared for. Am I paranoid?
http://www.occupy-wallstreet.com/things-to-consider/ioccupy/

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mimi lolol October 27, 2011 at 12:12

stevie jobs was 1 bozo for me so,good,arrivederci jobs,for ever

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