Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hip Hop and Generalized Commodity Production

If I return to hip hop over and over to explain the dynamics of capitalism, it is because hip hop more than any other genre of contemporary popular music faces directly the economic realities of our times. Unlike many of the fantasies generated by affirmative culture in which we retain the purity of our souls, hip hop maintains that there is no place that guarantees freedom from the material necessities of capitalist society.

Perhaps the most stunning moment in Capital is when after a long explication of how a useful thing becomes something meaningful in the logic of capital only because it can be exchanged and thus enters into the world of money as a value, Marx makes commodities speak. This is what they say: “Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values.” In other words, capital transforms things that are made and used by people into objects whose primary value is defined by their ability to be exchanged with one another. Specifically, these things, commodities, are understood as having an intrinsic value that is different and separate from the way we use or consume them and which can be expressed as a price in the ultimate medium of exchange, money. This price becomes its value and allows us to relate and compare it to other things that also have a price. When things relate to each other primarily as commodities they are in a sense freed from the human labor that produced them and the human necessities they satisfy. They can stand side by side as objects defined by what they cost. This is what makes Marx’s rhetorical move to give commodities a chance to speak so effective. So doing, he makes his argument concrete and tangible: in capitalism, relationships between people are replaced by relationships between things. Human labor and human needs are effaced by the “value” of commodities, which seem to come from the things themselves as their own natural property.

Capitalism describes a society with generalized commodity production. Our society is capitalist because nearly all of us work in the production of commodities (we make things or provide services primarily for people to purchase) and we treat our own labor-power, the amount of work we can do in a specific amount of time, as a commodity we exchange for money. But while we are often under the illusion that we willingly sell our labor-power, that no one forces us to work, we nonetheless do not have the liberty to not work for wages. If we were able to provide for ourselves outside of wage labor, then capital would be unable to function. That is why capital compels us to sell our labor-power whether we want to or not and that is the engine that keeps commodities and money in circulation.

Unlike most other genres, hip hop never loses sight of this fact. When Rich Homie Quan raps, “My niggas been hustling trying to make him something/Ain’t no telling what he’ll do for the paper,” he confronts us with a truth we’d rather ignore: that under the right circumstances there is no telling what any of us would do for money. Many of us pretend that the pursuit of money is shameless precisely because we don’t really worry about not having money. By selling our labor-power we are each of us hustling trying to make something, even if we just call it making a living and act as if this is exactly what we chose to do. And when he raps later, “That car I’m driving/Make you feel some type of way,” the envy, the latent racism aimed at successful young black men, and the antagonism many people feel toward hip hop’s materialism appear as emotional responses to a social and economic structure people created but think they no longer have any control over.