Can you put a price on human life? AOC’s attack on Big Pharma turns the spotlight on commodification

Washington, DC/USA- May 13, 2019: Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez speak about the importance of a Green New Deal at a town hall organized by the Sunrise Movement

A recent video of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) railing against Big Pharma could be an important landmark for putting a particular concept in the forefront of people’s minds — but not the one you might be thinking of. 

Diatribes against Big Pharma, although valuable, are not new, and just because AOC has picked up the baton on this one does not necessarily mean much will change in this domain, at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, the important part of her monologue is the angle of attack she used. By comparing healthcare to the iPhone — saying “this [iPhone] is a commodity…people’s lives are not a commodity” — she was shifting the focus of the Big Pharma debate towards another important concept, one that is absent from the public consciousness but has a totalitarian-like governance over our lives. The concept of “commodification”!

So, what is commodification? 

“Commodification” is the bedrock of neo-liberalism. But unlike the term neo-liberalism, which over the past 15 years has found its way into the public consciousness (albeit in a very confused manner), discussions on commodification have remained mostly confined to academic discourse. A quick comparison of the two terms using Google Trends clearly demonstrates this. 

Commodification, simply put, is the transformation of something that previously had no commercial value into something that does; something that was not tradable into something that can be traded. It is the act of putting a price on something. This might not seem absurd — after all, we were born into a world where the rights of private property are well-established and we have been educated to believe that everything has its price. Commodification is such a normal part of our everyday lives that it almost goes unnoticed. But where does this propensity to commodify end? 

To take the grimmest historical example of commodification, we only need to look at the transformation of free human beings into slaves to be bought and sold, shipped across continents, and seen as no more than private property. The answer, then, to where it ends is simple: commodification is defined by the Overton window, a window that shifts to reflect the range of socially acceptable views in any given society at any given point in time. The Overton window itself is controlled by (hyper)normalisation, the process whereby a previously unacceptable idea obtains the status of an acceptable norm. It is this process that, for example, makes citizens of the USA believe that a Scandinavian-style health system is not feasible while a Scandinavian citizen considers the USA’s healthcare system barbaric. Under pure neo-liberal ideology, everything except chattel slavery – neo-liberalism relies heavily on modern slavery – is subject to commodification and is exposed to the “free-market” pricing mechanism.

Considering its implications and its highly visible role in the history of political economy, the lack of public consciousness around commodification is particularly interesting. For example, in his book The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi talked of the three fictitious commodities: land, labour and money. They are fictitious because they are not produced for sale; they are “embedded” in society and are essential for everyone. With the rise of “free-market” capitalism, these fictitious commodities started to become disembedded from society and subject to “free-market” pricing mechanisms, resulting in undesirable consequences for the population. As has been pointed out elsewhere, healthcare is another one of these fictitious commodities, incomparable to the iPhone for the well-being of society. So when healthcare is commodified, as is the case in the USA, the populous suffer. 

The point is that society needs to recognise that the “commodification of everything”, with a strong focus on the essentials for life, is a major component of the latest neo-liberal phase of free-market capitalism. In the last forty years it has succeeded in pushing the commodification of fictitious commodities to impressive heights never before seen. Land is commodified to such an extent that houses are no longer homes but, in places like London, mansions sit empty as wealth-stores for the super-rich while corporations scour the Global South for new lands ripe for primitive accumulation. And although labour under the wage system has always been commodified, the latest stages of neo-liberalism, with its “Uberfication” of employment directly exposing workers’ wages to the “free-market” pricing mechanism, has had devastating effects on job security and, as predicted by Polanyi, fuelled the subsequent rise in Fascism.

So while everyone is cheering on AOC for attacking Big Pharma head on, the main goal here should be to focus the public’s attention on how neo-liberalism’s “commodification of everything” is at the root of many ills of our societies. 

We need to widen the debate on what can and should be commodified; it is not just healthcare that should be exempt from the pricing mechanisms of the iPhone, but also every other object, concept, and interaction that is essential to maintaining the well-being and fabric of a community. With the commodification of everything and a lack of public discourse on what should be commodified, our social interactions, and therefore the norms we reproduce in society, remain governed by one, impersonal and damaging mechanism alone…the price.


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