In our market society, every thing is transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. Buyers and sellers meet to trade not only petrol, but also fine art and literature. We also sell ourselves on the market, renting out our lives to employers. In our current epoch these commodities are not just sold, but actively moulded to better suit the demands of the market. Not only do brewers adjust their formulations based on sales, but we shape ourselves to better fit our perceptions of what the market demands.
Who are you? You are your self – the central tenets of your own identity. But your self is not set in stone, it is shaped by your choices and experiences. You aren’t the same person you were at age 18.
There are some aspects of your self that you share freely with the world and others which you keep close to your chest. This is normal, humans are naturally duplicitous creatures. The self you show to the world exerts a pressure on your core self, refining your values and choices through reflection. In the age of social media, our selves have been opened up to the world in unprecedented ways. Every post, every interaction is subject to public scrutiny. This scrutiny is not just from our peers, but also from the myriad of market actors which can have profound impacts upon our lives.
On social media or in life, every interaction may be the start of a path to that elusive good job. Advertising your capabilities as a worker could lead to that opportunity, but conversely displaying unsuitable traits may freeze you out. So a pressure is exerted on what you say, the company you keep and the activities you undertake. Do you attend the gig or the seminar; talk about work or politics? The invisible hand of the market directs you towards those activities which enhance your personal brand and thus market value.
Your work doesn’t finish when you leave the office, but instead becomes a filter through which you mediate your life. You worry about whether a particular education makes you employable, about whether a gap in your resume will prove insurmountable. Instead of drinking with friends, you network with professional colleagues.
Your performed self is alienated from your actual self, driven by the need to hustle for every opportunity and avoid anything which might cast you in a negative light next time you make an application. As you continue to perform, your internal self moves away from that actual model, warped by the demands of the market. In this grim late capitalist world, your self is increasingly concerned with maximising its worth to employers rather than with self-actualisation.
By this point, you have completed the transition from person to commodity. You are no longer defined by your individual character or values, but instead are simply interchangable wage labour, another bottle of cola trying to appeal to a customer with snazzy branding or a low price. What is LinkedIn but a human supermarket where recruiters can choose among millions of wage labourers?
In the Soviet supermarket, there were only two kinds of worker available, peasants and bureaucrats moulded by the police state. In the neoliberal supermarket, there exists a rainbow of worker brands. But they all taste the same, all shaped by the market towards a kind of dull positivity and competence with spreadsheets.
The power of the market is in shaping people and their actions with incentives rather than gulags. The prospect of material riches is a powerful motivator. The market does not force you, but rather encourages you to turn yourself into a commodity. But you do not have to accept this. Even without abolishing markets, a skilled worker can still hold true to their values.