Commodification: Turning Words, Labor, People, and Time into Units of Exchange
Labor Before Capitalism: In pre-Modern England, "service" is the key term which binds humans together in productive relationships. Vassals pledge their service to their lords and ladies in ceremonies of homage and fealty, and in return, their lords and ladies offer them military and political protection, and rewards ranging from meals and clothing to the management of vast estates or lucrative sources of income. Peasants swear to serve their lords with their labor in return for secure access to productive fields and craft equipment and dwellings. Among nobles, rewards for faithful service are expressed as "gifts" rather than monetary payment, which would shame the recipient. Strict proportionality between service offered and benefits conferred was an indicator of mere commercial "trade," a behavior held in suspicion by all but the merchants involved in the practice because of its association with fraud and outright theft. (See Chaucer's "Shipman's Tale" and other fabliaux about the intersections of commerce, deception, and sexuality.) For this reason, disproportionate offers of service or protection were used by nobles to demonstrate their "fredom" (Anglo-Norman, ability to dispose of one's property without hindrance) and "largesse" (Anglo-Norman, vast generosity), both of which were considered ideal character traits indicative of and available only to nobles. A commonplace tale type, the "rash boon" (i.e., ill-considered gift), plays with the possibilities resulting from a king's inability not to grant an unspecific wish, as when King Mark of Cornwall grants a strange knight's request for his next wish, and the object of the wish turns out to be possession of Mark's queen, Isolde (in Malory and the Prose Tristan, M's source). These plots depend upon the conventional belief that nobles always will be exceedingly generous. All the tales of stingy noblemen that I am aware of involve the noble's punishment. In medieval romances, extraordinary promises require characters to expend enormous, usually unmeasured, amounts of time and effort to fulfill them, a measure of their generosity.
All levels of pre-Modern English society participate in these service-protection relationships. Even the pre-Modern Church can have vassals, both temporal (those who serve the households of wealthy bishops, etc.) and spiritual, in that all Christians are taught to serve the Lord God. English concepts of service often are fused with a notion of "love" understood as a political state of amicable relations between the superior and inferior elements of the relationship. Erotic notions of "luf" in texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (especially Fyt 3) and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur often are in dramatic tension with the older, political sense of love arising from loyal service and protection, and it may be that the erotic sense of the word was associated, by Middle English speakers, with French court customs. (See Gawain's experience of the "frankish" manners of Bertilak's court, and Malory's use of a specialized French modifier, "love paramours," for the erotic variety.)
Modernity brought many changes to English traditional culture, most notably the notion that change, itself, was both inevitable and desirable. Fashions and fads and "news" (a plural once!) are sought after and eagerly repeated by characters in late seventeenth century works like Oroonoko, Hutchinson's Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, and Congreve's The Way of the World. So-called "projectors" used emergent mass literacy and the printing press to spread ideas for the progressive redesign of English society to correct ancient evils like ignorance (see Chaucer's Miller on "Goddes pryvytee"!), hunger, poverty, crime, and other social evils we take for granted as part of "modern" civilization's unwanted byproducts. Authors increasingly sought to profit from their words by selling single-sheet broadsides or short pamphlets to an eager populace who sought the latest innovative ideas to comfort their increasing perception that the world they lived in was imperfect and badly in need of improvement. In this way, words became "commodified," something one could exchange for money, and money became a way to measure words' worth (sales statistics, etc.). Works of literature that didn't sell well might be considered "cheap" or valueless, whereas a works' popularity might confer upon it some kind of literary merit irrespective of its form or content. Partly in response to this commercial drift toward a pound-based literary tradition, critics like John Dryden began to write essays to persuade readers that literature had intrinsic qualities that could be judged on their own merits, and effects upon readers that could be evaluated for other than commercial motives. When appeals to reason failed to persuade, Dryden and others like Pope and Johnson could turn to satire, the poetic criticism of art, itself, that moved the passions by exposing the follies to which reason was susceptible under the influence of popular opinion and commodification of literature.
Among the more subtle ways Early Modern Capitalism commodified human existence, the measurement of time might be the most insidious. Medieval vassals' duties might be expressed in seasons or annual repetitions, but laborers' jobs were not measured in days as much as in tasks. One worked until the contracted job was done. Accounts were kept, and a character like "Everyman," in the late fifteenth century, might be "called to account" to his Lord for how he had "spent" his life. Nevertheless, though the Lord's accounting is precise, it apparently does not parse Everyman's life into hours, minutes, and seconds for judgment. By the time Christopher Marlowe writes Doctor Faustus, however, he can imagine not only a twenty-four year contract in which Faustus promises Lucifer his (commodified) soul in exchange for terrestrial powers, but Marlowe also can imagine Faustus' last hour on earth, quartered by the striking clock in Scene 13. In each quarter hour, Faustus' anxiety about his "job performance" increases, and time speeds up, exactly like a modern assembly line in one of Henry Ford's automotive plants when the managers decide they want more productivity out of the workers. Time no longer is measured in the sacred cycle of the Church year, from Easter to Easter, Mass by Mass, but in the Modern Era, Time is metered according to a contract controlled by the Boss. Workers dream of "vacations," literally "vacancies" in their contractual work days, and the lucky ones actually do manage to achieve these secular capitalist "feast days" before having to return to their jobs and precisely metered time. Only the rich can be "permanently on vacation," living the ancient cyclical life without clocks or calendars.
Frauds multiplied in Modern capitalist England and Europe because the population had little way to tell the difference between a real, practical plan and a fantastic scheme that merely seemed sound. Speculators in agricultural products, like the Dutch tulip market (1634-7), turned ordinary farm products into "commodities" whose prices could be bid up to spectacular levels based on nothing more than the popular belief that the price would continue to rise (see Marvell's "The Mower Against Gardens"). The "South Sea Bubble" (1711-21) was the first modern stock-market crash, resulting from speculation in shares of the British monopoly trading company for Far Eastern colonial exploitation. As Marx pointed out, modern capitalism is capable of turning anything into a commodity for sale. First medieval "service" was commodified as "labor" for sale at rates controlled by the manufacturers. Then servants were commodified as "laborers" or "workers" whose activities were controlled by laws restricting organization against employers or promoting fair wages. Finally, through slavery, such as that described in Behn's Oroonoko, and indentured servitude and debtor's prison, people could be turned into portable commodities that could be openly sold to the highest bidder. Jonson's Volpone and Shakespeare's King Lear might be said to anticipate, far in advance, the distant threat of ambitious change-merchants like the legacy hunters or the ambitious Edmund. Jonathan Swift's famous satire, "A Modest Proposal," combines a satire on the modern reason-worshiping ambitions of the projectors with the brutal exploitation of human beings as commodities to point out the dangers of both. The marriage plot in Congreve's The Way of the World documents the formal sale of future spouses as so many "pounds a year" in income, and the transformation of marriage into a commercial marketplace such as that Mary Astell opposes. Though all of these works of literature appear to be "about" different topics, a deep suspicion of the commodification of words, labor and people might be a common thread uniting them all.
As in the case of Modernity's headlong embrace of change as a cultural value, its interest in commodification of words, labor and people also is a well-documented generalization, but it can be used to develop insights of your own for papers. To dig deeper in the evidence of any from this era, ask how any specific character's or narrator's words might be used in the text you are considering, including "giving one's word" in the sense of oath-taking. Are words being traded in a commercial-like contract for power, social status, promised income in rents or immediate currency? Or are words used to establish open-ended bonds of service and protection, especially in ways that emphasize the imbalance of either service or protection? If labor is being commodified, it will confer upon the laborer no expectation of enduring protection by the employer and will be subject to sudden and capricious termination. If people are being commodified, how is the "trade" being managed? Who pays and who profits and who determines the rate of exchange? If workers resist commodification of their labor, or if people resist being bought and sold in some fashion, upon what practical grounds do they object to the practice and to what abstract values do they appeal? If time is being measured with respect to its commodity value, whether in labor or in leisure (e.g., "vacations"), how does the text describe the way characters' "spend time."