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A Theory of Hockey 2: Commodity Fetishism and the Spectacle of Deadline Day

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Karl Marx via <a href=";">Wikimedia Commons</a>, Copyright expired
Karl Marx via Wikimedia Commons, Copyright expired

Ahh deadline day. I love deadline day. Really nothing gets me going more than watching Bob MacKenzie and a bunch of talking heads in glorious High Definition (only 720p…I am a student after all) nattering on and on about trading people to various places and the way that human beings are reduced to nothing more than their cap hits and contract values. It’s truly a spectacle the likes of which only happen a few times a year. Deadline day, like draft day and free agency frenzy day (known in some parts as Canada Day) are to me the embodiment of yet another set of really complex theories written by a dead German guy and later expanded upon by another dead Frenchman. Yup, you guessed it, today is time for another one of my theory posts, just so that you can all understand a little more about what is really happening in the hockey world while the rest of the planet deals with rising oil prices and the fall of various dictators and scumbags. It’s a nice diversion if you ask me.

Back in the late 1800s, another famous German with famous facial hair started talking about the economy, how it really works, and how the factory owners are constantly exploiting workers. Karl Marx gave us many things including a great little theory called "Commodity Fetishism." About 120 years later, give or take a decade, a French thinker and notorious drunk named Guy Debord expanded on this theory. Today I am going to talk about these ideas and how they relate to deadline day, draft day and the July 1st Frenzy.

A commodity is... a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses…. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising there from. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things... This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1)

To translate from Karlspeak into blogspeak, Marx is basically saying that "Fetishism" in this context refers to symbolic attribution of power to an object to the point where people believe and act as though the fetish object really has that power over them. It comes out of the distinction Marx makes between the use-value and exchange-value of any given commodity. Use-value represents the value quite literally attached to its use, while the exchange value is the relationship or measurement, (the labour values of the commodity), the money attaches to the buying and selling of the commodity. Money is a sort of universal equivalent, but it must be remembered that money itself is also a commodity. 

Ian Craib, a sociologist from the UK, uses the analogy of a pint of beer to clear up this distinction. Effectively, use-value = the joy of drinking while exchange-value is the (often artificially inflated) cost of the delicious pint (Craib, 93). Marx argued that a similar sort of perception arises in market trade, like, for example, the trading of players (our commodity) where special powers are given to the traded objects and their relationships; effectively, people believe and act as though those powers are natural, normal characteristic of the traded objects. Since social relationships are expressed as the relationships between the things being traded, it begins to look like social traits like value and exchangeability, are the natural, normal, even ubiquitous characteristics of the things being swapped. So then on deadline day, what we have is a situation where it becomes totally normal for us as fans, consumers and speculators to look around at what’s going on and see this as a completely normal socioeconomic process associated with sport. We talk about salary coming back, specialized skill-sets of the players in question (which in Marxist terms would be known as labour power), and whether or not teams are buyers or sellers and whether a player is merely a "rental" or a potential long term piece of a team’s overall strategy.

Hmmm, this seems a bit unusual to me, but maybe that is because I try not to see players as property with use-value and exchange-value but instead as people with lives and families and kids who have the potential to be displaced and separated because of this potential exchange-value in the open market.

Photo by Lisa McRitchie, All rights reserved.

An important consequence of commodity fetishization lies in the concept of reification. This basically is the idea that social relations become "thingified" if you will-that an object begins to take on human properties, or represents a sort of social relationship between traded objects. Objects become subjects and subjects appear as objects under this theory. This is very clear in the trading of players-the people involved-become more about their potential use or exchange values and less about, well, their humanity, thus straddling the line between Marx’ concept of Alienation as well as the Commodity Fetish. Marx's argument is that in a society where many independent, private producers trade their products with each other on their own individual initiative, without much coordination, their production volumes and activities can only be adjusted to each other through the fluctuating values of those products when exchanged in markets. As a result, humans might not have any other relation with each other except for the transactions between them.

As a result of this process, their social relations are constantly being mediated and expressed by things like commodities and money. But not only that; relationships between these traded objects/subjects are brought into being which exist and can change quite independently of what individual (players) do, and almost entirely independent of their social relationships (families, any other social factors outside of labour). How the traded objects will be related will depend on their costs, both real and imagined, which can be reduced to a measure of quantifiable living human work. In reality, the worker has precious little control over what happens.

Guy Debord took Marx’ ideas further in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle. Debord’s concept in a nutshell looks like this: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." According to Debord, the spectacle is the inversion of image and society; relations between commodities have displaced relations between people, in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants actual living activity. "The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." To put it into context, I opened this article intentionally mocking the idea of deadline day, a day devoted to a media frenzy of epic proportions, to an extended series of images propagated by the mass media with the sole purpose of monitoring, tracking and analyzing the movement of people as products.

Debord takes the already obvious religious undertones of the original Marxist idea and makes a case for the supplanting of faith with media. The spread of Commodity-images by the mass media, produces "waves of enthusiasm for a given product" resulting in "moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism" (Debord, Thesis 25). For years now, TSN, Sportsnet and other sports media outlets have made deadline day into a sort of national holiday in Canada. Hell, there’s even a TSN tradecentre iPhone app so that the player movements can be tracked and critiqued anywhere. Talk about "fervent exaltation!"

I can’t lie, I’ve written about Debord once before at my home-base blog, prior to the 2009 draft, but it seemed a worthy moment to return to the topic. BCB, my partner in crime, made an interesting comment regarding the draft then and I think it’s worth actually addressing it now.

We can take this argument one step further by questioning if the spectacle is a representation of something Real at all, ala Baudrillard. What would happen if we considered the draft an image of an image, or Simulacra? Then the draft is not even about what these players even appear to represent, since they are only representation and never presentation. They are not men at all: they only are the charts, mock blogs, and finally their draft order. Even outside the rink, they stop being anything but a commodity. They are only ever commodities and never people anymore. There is a permanent disconnect between the being and appearing; that they are only every appearing and we can never get back to having (might as well being). 

What if the deadline day frenzy is nothing more than simulacra? What if all this talk and conjecture and artificial importance is all that’s left? What if this representation is just an illusion to keep us all at bay, providing us with some sense of synthetic happiness like the church once did for the members of its flock? We spend so much time talking about the importance of these trades through various forms of mass and social medias that we cease to really live as free people anymore, and certainly neither do the players. We put so much stress and pressure on ourselves to theorize about who is moving where and for what spare part or draft pick and how that might impact the financial or social structure of the team as if it is a living organism while people in other parts of the world use these same social and mass media tools to mobilize and organize, to bring about large scale change.

What is it all for? Why do we get so worked up about whether or not Ales Hemsky is worth Brayden Schenn? Is this use-value or exchange-value? Do we care whether or not Hemsky might, as a person, actually want to stay in Edmonton? Would we believe him if he did? Why would that not factor in to any of the decisions Steve Tambellini may or may not be making?

We as a society have gotten so used to the notions that players are commodities and that their large contracts justify the way they are dehumanized by the media. They have been made a part of the spectacle because they like to play a game. They are put on display for us to watch and that the money they make validates this some how. As people are dying in Libya and Bahrain for their freedom, we are glued to our computer monitors wondering who is going to be moved next, waiting for the next tweet or status update not to tell us the location of the next protest but rather to brace ourselves for the latest news about how Erik Johnson wants to stick it to his old GM, or why Brian Burke is trading anyone for the right price. Spectacle? Check. Alienation? Yup. Dehumanization of the workers? Absolutely. And still we watch, just like last year, just like next year. 

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