Culture and Market Forces

By Abel Merawi

Culture-and-Market-ForcesDecember 26, 2019 ( -- Hegel and, more recently Fukuyama claimed that the ‘motor of history’ is ‘the struggle for recognition'. To gain recognition is, in other words, to find meaning in our lives in the approval of others. Individuals find meaning to their lives either from their personal pursuits or from fulfilling the societal values. In most cases, even our personal life goals are the product of the environment. This explains why we feel discomfort even when we do the right thing but don’t get the approval of others around us. To escape the fear of isolation, we mostly shape our lives to fit into the culture that construct our environment. This reality may make the individual depressed but it is a marketable idea for capitalists.

In the past, societal values were manifested in archetypal qualities such as bravery, respect for others, and love for family and friends. A mother gains recognition from the society when she loves and takes care of her children and husband. A man is recognized as a good husband when he provides for his family and is emotionally available. As for friendship, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’ The whole family seeks recognition from neighbors and relatives by hosting and enjoying holidays together or by helping them out when trouble finds them. After the advent of capitalism, these qualities have been turned into profitable commodities.

The best way to sell a product is to make it part of a culture. This is exactly what we did in capitalism. If a mother gains the respect of her children and neighbors by showing how much she loves her family, the producers just have to associate the meaning of love with products. This is achieved by creating a competition between different families, friends, and others in any sort of social relationship. Accordingly, a good mother shows affection to her children by buying them the best toys and clothes the market offers so that the family gains the recognition of the community. There is currently even a nursery rhyme that talks of how much a mother loves her child because of all the products like toys she buys for the child. The good husband is he who buys his wife and children clothes from the best brands. The ‘cool kid’ at school is the one who brags about the fashionable products s/he owns. If a boy comes to school wearing shoes and clothes made by Nike or Adidas, he is likely to win the admiration of friends and the heart of his sweetheart. And if a girl comes to school with designer purse and with the scent of Victoria’s Secret, the envious friends will surround her and the boys will compete to get her attention. The list can go on, but it is enough to show the family and youth culture is swallowed by a culture of consumerism.     

Speaking of the modern culture, Naomi Klein in her book ‘No Logo’ states, “Though the degree of meddling varies, our culture was built on compromises between notions of public good and the personal, political and financial ambitions of the rich and powerful.” It should be admitted that modern culture all around the world is created by compromising culture so as to leave room for commodities. Since the primary motive of corporations is making profit, public good and societal values are disregarded. We enable corporates to dominate us through our innocent desire to buy a product and to be recognized by others. The sacrifice we make is higher because we are abandoning the very foundation upon which society stands. Yet we cannot blame the corporates for they only won the battle against the culture by our own consent.   

As we continue to represent cultural values through commodities, we are creating a different kind of culture. Naomi Klein argues, “corporate sponsors and the culture they brand have fused together to create a third culture: a self-enclosed universe of brand-name people, brand-name products and brand-name media.” In modern culture, famous people are like brands that everyone else desires to become. Advertisers know our desires and they constantly commit two logical errors and fallacies in order to sell their products. In commercials we are told that everyone is buying a certain product and that we should not be left out, committing the fallacy of ‘bandwagon’ by appealing to collective identity. In other commercials, we see famous people using a certain commodity and telling us we should buy it if we want to be like them, which is committing the fallacy of ‘argument to the person.’ Most advertisements do not say much about the quality of the actual products but trick us by appealing to our fear of isolation and our desire for recognition. In addition, there are other holistic strategies that are used to make commodities part of public events and holidays.

Whenever we hear of a concert or any other social event, we find a number of sponsors that endorse it. In the past, the sponsors were just mentioned and the brands were put on a display board. Presently, the big brands are even organizing an event themselves in which the performers are put to the display board and the products are celebrated as the reason for the event. Naomi Klein describes this process by stating, “The effect, if not always the original intent, of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. It is not to sponsor a culture but to be the culture.” Accordingly, the products become an actual culture of their own and people begin to gather in celebration of commodities rather than actual cultures.

The media also plays an integral part in the fusion of culture and commodities. The dependence of the media on the sponsorship from producers influences the way the media portrays certain commodities. It is through the entertainment shows, music videos or movies that the current trend is promoted and transformed into national and global culture. As Naomi Klein argues, “As culture becomes increasingly homogenized globally, the task of marketing is to stave off the nightmare moment when branded products cease to look like lifestyles or grand ideas and suddenly appear as the ubiquitous goods they really are.” She describes how MTV and other media outlets promote a specific kind of youth culture through brands, which eventually constitutes the dreams and cultures of young people across the world. They feel pride in wearing certain brands, which explains why brand tags or labels are no longer written in small font under the collar of clothes. The product labels are now written in large fonts across the shoes or clothes because it has become a source of pride that shows social status for the people who own them. This is how consumerism enveloped culture in various ways, making it harder to distinguish between cultural values and commodities.

In a capitalist society, people might wonder why this trend should even be considered as an issue. This is because we are becoming detached from the actual meaning of culture and letting the market decide. The highest value in our lives should not be an external commodity but an internal essence. Let us conclude our idea by using the words of the famous historian and writer Yuval Noal Harari in his second book, ‘Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow.’ He says we should not let the market decide our lives by stating, “It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces because these forces do what’s good for the market rather than what’s good for humankind or for the world. The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible.”


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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