On energy bars and commodity alienation
This is another post in my occasional “Friday Feature” series. Friday Features are published on (surprise!) Fridays, and are longer-form discussions of some aspect of archaeology, history, theory, etc., that doesn’t lend itself to a typical post. Friday Features are archived on a single page, linked at the top, for easy access.
It was early one morning of finals week, and I was short on cash, tummy rumbling. The student union at UNC Wilmington has a very well-appointed convenience store that takes “Seahawk Bucks,” a sort of debit account linked to one’s student or faculty ID card. I had just enough for a coffee and that tasty-looking energy bar over to the left. It had me at “chocolate-dipped coconut.”
Back at the office, I looked a bit more closely at the wrapper. I noticed the print below the flavor: “Whole Nutrition Bar For Women.”
Stay with me. I guarantee this isn’t going where you think it is.
With those five words, I had an epiphany – I instantly and viscerally understood a somewhat tricky feature of contemporary life: that odd sense of separation we often feel from the things and people and institutions that surround us. In short, I finally got the concept of “alienation.” If you’ll stick around a bit, I’ll try to explain what it’s all about, why it’s important, and even why it took me so long to get here.
Some of you might be thinking “Oh, you felt alienated? Welcome to the club, Jack.” You’re right that I’m late to the alienation party, but there’s a good reason. Or at least an understandable reason, one that helps explain how alienation works.
First, though, a preface or two. I want to make clear there’s no sexism at work here. This post isn’t an excuse for a cheap joke about a dude buying a “girl” product. It’s also not about hating on a particular brand. I thoroughly enjoyed the Luna Bar, and the company itself seems remarkably socially conscious. Good on them. I use this particular product as an example simply because it gives me an entre into issues of commodities, production and consumption, and alienation.
Alienation and capitalism
The story so far: I bought an ultimately delicious energy bar that is very clearly NOT intended for people like me to purchase. People like me? I’m a straight white male, age 18-36, middle class (in the true, relational sense of someone who occupies the stratum between workers and bosses and is charged with enculturating middle-class values into current and future members of my class.) The bar is made for – in other words, marketed to – women. The packaging talks a lot about the bar’s various vitamins and compounds that are balanced for a woman’s nutritional needs (we’ll let that stand as read).
Reading the label, I experienced a strange feeling. This was “my” food, but the object itself seemed to be distanced from me. Though it was mine, I had an uncanny feeling that it ought to be someone else’s. I felt almost as if I had stolen it, my receipt notwithstanding.
This feeling is a reaction to alienation: a distancing or estrangement between people, objects, social institutions, and so on. The social sciences have been studying and theorizing alienation at least since the middle 19th century, and each discipline (sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, etc.) has its own way of focusing on different aspects of the concept. My discussion here is obviously a tiny part of a small fraction of the whole, and it’s influenced by my own training and scholarship. In other words, your experience and interpretation of alienation may vary.
In this case, the alienation arose through a complex interplay between my own social position, the conditions under which I acquired the energy bar, and the conditions under which the bar itself was produced. All of those conditions are more or less unique to the larger economic system at play here – capitalism – the dominant (and historically, the newest) mode of production among contemporary cultures and the nations that contain them.
Mode of production refers to the ways that people go about obtaining the resources necessary for cultural reproduction. In other words, how people get their food, clothing, and shelter, and the tools they use to obtain those things, so they can live their lives and make the next generation. Each mode of production – whether we’re talking foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, agriculture, or capitalism – has certain cultural features that are more commonly seen in it than in other modes. For instance, anthropologists observe that land ownership is something we commonly see among agriculturalists but rarely among pastoralists, or that polygyny (one man marrying multiple women) is more common among horticulturalists than it is among foragers.
The capitalist mode has some features that are either rare or absent among cultures living under other modes of production. One of them – the one at issue here – is a basic separation of economic activity from the rest of one’s social life. Unlike in other modes, our work doesn’t create the resources we need to sustain ourselves. We work for wages, which we then use to purchase our food, clothing, and shelter. Those things – the goods that are utterly basic and necessary for our survival – are made by other people, usually people we don’t know and will never meet. In turn, the things we make at our work are used by strangers for their own purposes.
In short, work in the capitalist mode produces commodities: objects created by human labor intended for sale on a market. Commodities are made by people who typically do one small step in producing the final product, which is consumed by other people, and there is no real social relationship between the maker and user, the buyer and seller. This is where the alienation arises. And you can think about alienation in terms of both the consumption and production of commodities. So let’s do that.
Capitalism encourages people to consume in a way that is distinct from other modes of production. It encourages desires that are for all practical purposes infinite, and directs them toward products that aren’t strictly necessary. A person doesn’t need energy bars, cigarettes, SUVs, coffee, laptops, and so on, to survive and even thrive – witness the first 3 million years of human evolution, or the millions of living humans who get along just fine without any of those things.
This attitude toward consumption that is familiar to Americans and anyone else living in a culture permeated by contemporary capitalism is different from how people living in other modes think about acquiring and using things. Foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists tend to view their desire to consume as finite and easily met through their work and their trade, leaving relatively more time for all the things that humans do outside of their work. And we know this because anthropologists have been living among, observing, and talking to non-western people for over a century now.
When I say that capitalism “encourages” hyperconsumption, I don’t mean it’s necessarily direct or intentional or a plot by specific people. Rather, hyperconsumption is an outcome of the “logic” of capitalism: competition, markets, consumer choice, expansion, a drive to increase productivity through fewer workers doing more in less time, and so on.
You might say “but people do need those things that you said aren’t necessary to survive and thrive. People couldn’t do their jobs without SUVs to get to work (because many live 40 miles from their office). Coffee breaks and the occasional smoke keep folks alert when they’re short on sleep. People eat energy bars because they don’t have time to fix a meal. A laptop lets one person do the work of three people in a day.” You’re correct of course, with one caveat. People need all of those products not because they’re necessary to life, but because those products are necessary to their lives, under the capitalist mode. They’re necessary because of the conditions of how we work: we sell our time for a wage, we work far from our homes and close social networks, and our work is precarious – we’re under threat of losing our work due to pressures outside our control, like “efficiency,” markets, and corporate profits. Convenience foods and stimulants are, in part, adaptations to the pace of work life and the pressures of alienated wage labor.
The range of options available for consumers of those stimulants and convenience foods is also an outcome of the logic of capitalism. Dozens of companies employ workers to produce energy bars, with the assumption that consumer choice will dictate success through out-competing others on a more or less free market. Various makers employ different strategies to capture part of the “market” for energy bars: Some stress “natural” ingredients, others focus on the chemistry (“Now with extra B vitamins!”), and Luna targets female consumers.
This is where the alienation in consumption came into play for me. As I mentioned, I’m a white, middle-class, young(ish) male consumer. In short, I’m part of THE target demographic. White middle-class male consumers are what we call the “unmarked category.” Commodities that aren’t clearly marketed to any other social group are targeted at consumers like me.
Targeting a particular social group is a way of masking the alienation that’s inherent in the production of any commodity, and consuming products whose meanings are firmly attached to one’s own social position hides the alienation to the consumer. I may not know the people who made a certain product, but it’s meaningful to me as a young(ish) white male, so consuming it gratifies my desire (temporarily), and the product itself doesn’t broadcast the alienated conditions of its production. But consuming a commodity that’s targeted outside my social group brings those conditions to the forefront. The Luna Bar, “for women,” throws up all sorts of questions for me. “This isn’t for me, I wonder who it’s for? How did it get into my hands? Where’d it come from? Who decided I wasn’t meant to consume this? How is it different from any other energy bar? Is it made differently? Who made it? Did they know they were making a product ‘for women’? If they didn’t know, why didn’t they? Did they expect me to consume this?” And on and on and on.
Starting down that road leads quite naturally into the ways that alienation arises in commodity production.
Alienation also describes the separation between a person who produces a commodity (or more likely, a part of a commodity) and the finished commodity itself. The worker may or may not even know what the finished commodity looks like. Sugar is a terrific example – for an extended discussion of the history and changing meanings of sugar production and consumption, I highly recommend the classic anthropology work Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz.
In terms of energy bars, the basics of the story are the same, as for all commodities, though the specifics differ. There is a vast history of productive labor behind the Luna Bar that I bought at the union: People mixed the ingredients, different people made the packaging, still different people designed the label, still different people boxed and loaded and unloaded the shipments of bars, while yet other people transported and warehoused the product, others displayed it at the store, until finally a cashier and I engaged in a little game of sale that marked the end of the commodity’s journey to my “ownership.”
That small moment of exchange hides the history of the commodity itself. None of the human labor behind it is obvious to me. I simply see an energy bar, with a price, which I pay for with wages that represent some fraction of my finite time on Earth that I had previously sold to my employer. The history of its production is hidden to me, re-interpreted in terms of consumption. The bar is “worth” what I paid for it, and my own labor is what resulted in my acquiring it, not the vast history of alienated labor that produced it.
That moment of transaction, of course, leads us right back into consumption.
My main point with this perhaps overly long discussion is that alienation rarely becomes visible. That’s both by nature and by design. Awareness, though, can arise when we consume across our social position.
Alienation and social position
Above, I claimed that alienation arose through a complex interplay between my own social position, the conditions under which I acquired the energy bar, and the conditions under which the bar itself was produced. That’s not quite true. In fact, alienation is a necessary feature of our mode of production and consumption. In a capitalist economic system, alienation is always everywhere.
What was odd about the case of the Luna Bar was that I recognized its existence.
I’m not used to feeling alienated through my consumption. That’s because I’m in the unmarked category, and most of what I consume is either directly targeted toward young(ish) white men, or seems to be targeted at everyone and no one (which actually means, again, targeted at young(ish) white men.) The transaction game also hides the history of production behind any commodity. There’s a sort of double-masking going on when we make routine purchases.
For people who aren’t like me, feeling alienated through consumption is certainly nothing unusual.
Once we recognize history and the separation between ourselves and what we make and buy, what do we do with it? I suppose that’s up to each of us. Becoming aware of alienated production and consumption is one thing, acting on the knowledge is quite another. Some people try to change their consumption, others try to raise awareness of the conditions of people who produce certain commodities, and still others dismiss the whole thing as unimportant.
I’d say the latter is not much of a solution. Fact is, this is important, and it’s important because our whole system is predicated on keeping alienation hidden, on encouraging us to think of ourselves as individuals, totally unconnected to the mass of people behind the artifacts we use in daily life. Moreover, the fact that this artificial separation – alienation – is so concealed from us means that revealing it is a potentially powerful act.
In the long term, humans haven’t had very much practice at this mode of production and consumption. It’s worth asking how sustainable it is, and what sorts of effects it has on the rest of our cultural lives. First, though, we have to be able to see what’s going on.