iDolatry — obituary for a capitalist revolutionary

  • October 7, 2011

Capitalism & Crisis

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.

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