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The commodification of youth: waiting to grow up

struggle-1271657_960_720I find myself reflecting on the problems of youth as I watch my two lads growing up and preparing to leave school. Well I think they’ll leave school and I think they’ll grow up.  The latter begs the question, when is a young person grown up, when does a young person embark on that journey into adulthood?

In the eyes of the law an adult is 18 or over and yet in certain aspects, young people are treated differently until they are 25, for example, state benefits are not equitably distributed between those that are under 25 and those that are over.  Young people cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18 and yet they can legally have sex, get married, with parental consent, and sign up to a near enough £30,000 debt as part of their commitment to higher education, a commitment that derives many a time from external social and economic pressures and expectation rather than personal choice.

At the age of 16 I left school and went to work with 5 O’ levels to my name.  I had a choice and looking back, it was a good job I did; education at that time was not for me.  What choice do 16 year olds have now? Stay at home and be funded by parents, an extension of childhood and then at 18 a debt that hangs over them like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to be sold off to the highest commercial bidder later on? Or simply stay at home with parents and then at 18 seek work in low paid zero hours contract jobs that belie the true state of unemployment in this country.  A somewhat limited choice, I would suggest.

I have watched the manufacturing industries of the past disappear and with them the hope of jobs for many a youngster, perhaps not academically inclined to go through higher education.  So the choice for young people is stark, low paid, irregular work usually in a service industry, resulting in a need to stay in the parental home, or a massive debt and some offer of freedom, albeit perhaps temporary.

Unemployment is at its lowest level and there are more people accessing higher education than ever before. On the surface a success story but delve a little deeper and it is the young that are a paying the price for the elongation and commercialisation of education.  They are prevented from growing up by the restriction on school leaving age and the socio-economic pressures that seem to abound. But if the young cannot get jobs, are not allowed to grow up and develop into adults that contribute to the treasury’s coffers, then in the not too distant future they will not be the only ones to suffer as various services slowly disintegrate due to the lack of funding.  It is time government rethought education but more importantly thought about the future of the young, they are after all our future and deserve better than a lifetime of debt, poverty and insecurity.

Fighting the Tide or Following the Current?

This week’s blog is a reflective piece that will, I think, resonate with some of my ‘Outsiders’ students and perhaps with criminologists more broadly. It concerns the nagging tension between being a reluctant capitalist subject and a critical criminologist, more specifically between the roles of consumer and critic. Whilst criminology undoubtedly possesses transformative potential, particularly in its critical and ultra-realist forms, some sections of the discipline and arguably some, but certainly not all, of its proponents sit comfortably within the very structures subject to criticism during the ‘working day’. Indeed, we (and I include myself in this) hold the world to rights from 9-5 Monday to Friday then disavow the many harms we so vehemently lecture/write about whilst indulging in conspicuous consumption on weekends; fitting neatly into the circuitry of consumer capitalism.

Whilst I resolutely resist the drive to mask the fallout of free-market capitalism by not giving to charity, which is, as Žižek (2009:19) notes, the quintessential “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation”, I am guilty of indulging a range of consumer impulses. It would be nice if this dilemma was as simple as being a hypocrite, something I could rectify by having a strong word with myself. Unfortunately, the reality is that this reflects a tension that emerges from occupying a social terrain that requires a dual identity and one within which the risks of protesting too ardently are severe.

Yet rather than serving as a vestigial port from which to take critical aim at pressing issues the university sector, as an industry, compounds this tension further. For criminology in particular the irony is painful. We occupy positions in what is now a heavily marketised sector; one that dictates the state of play based on the logic of the market, on catering for elusive customers rather than educating students. The irony of course is that, as criminologists, we are employed to research, write and lecture about criminalised and un-criminalised harms that pervade the social world by a sector whose neoliberal institutions have no qualms about inflicting severe harm on those who work and study within them. Universities seem to have become marketised, profit seeking institutions that pay lip service to helping communities whilst adopting the very structures that cause severe harm to society.

Perhaps the university can no longer be seen as a place from which to do some good. Or perhaps there is still a great deal of good that can be done from under the neoliberals’ nose. Either way, we cannot retain a blind and baseless optimism that refuses to acknowledge and tackle the many harms of neoliberalism, including those inflicted by the university sector. Rather, we should maintain an ultra-realist commitment to “explaining the world as it is, warts and all” (Winlow and Hall 2013:175).

 

Justin Kotzé, July 2017

References

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books Ltd.

The Commodification of Abstinence

 

rebel grafitti

The inspiration for this short blog post comes from an incredibly stimulating discussion with some of my second year students studying the criminology module ‘Outsiders’. In class we were discussing how rather than constituting active forms of rebellion that resist the mainstream, various ‘trendy’ acts of so-called deviance, such as graffiti, parkour and ‘rooftopping’, have actually become absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture. Following this we began to discuss ‘new’ ways of resisting. Amongst the ideas offered was the notion of somehow disconnecting ourselves from the now ever-present network of social media and its frequent and avid advertisement of consumer items. Interestingly, having already discussed the tendency for social media’s ‘revolutionary potential’ to be integrated within rather than threaten capitalism (Crary 2013), this proposed disconnect would also require avoiding the latest online driven micro-revolution. The result of this discussion was the idea of ‘going mobile free for a week’.

The problem with this proposed ‘period of abstinence’ is that it becomes another micro-revolution that simply represents a new opportunity for commodification. This is because capitalism has the uncanny ability “to incorporate every attack by integrating the attack into the system” (McGowan 2016:12). It does this by taking the seemingly revolutionary practice and transforming it into a marketable commodity. With this in mind, we started to consider how such periods of abstinence would be integrated and commodified. It was suggested that a number of high-street retailers such as Game and HMV would perhaps have preparatory sales the week before to help us cope with the inevitable upset of ‘going mobile free for a week’. Similar offers would no doubt be made by a range of other providers; why not get into cycling, mountain climbing, or Zumba? That is after buying all the essential gear and merchandise of course. Then, once this period of abstinence is over, what better way to show how ‘resistant’ you were than by posting pictures of, or tweeting about, all the things you got up to during this ‘rebellious’ period; thereby further contributing to the marketing of consumer items.

Rather than representing some form of resistance then, this period of abstinence becomes commodified and successfully integrated into contemporary consumer capitalism. This does not mean that there is no alternative to capitalism, it simply means that if we wish to make a genuine attempt at resistance we should avoid being absorbed or forced into the next ‘trendy’ micro-revolution or simulated rebellion (Hall et al. 2008). Precisely how we do this is of course another matter entirely.

Justin Kotzé, March 2017

References

Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press.

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