Much of Marxist ideology is centered on his concept of labor power which can be simply understood as a worker’s (Proletarian’s) abilities and the time they offer to employers (Bourgeoisie). With this in mind, Marx frames labor power a commodity exchanged with the Bourgeoisie for a wage. Although it is something owned by the Proletarian, the Proletariat does not have much control over his/her situation. This conceptualization of labor power is used to explain the phenomena of commodity fetishism and alienation.
Commodity fetishism occurs when typically relevant factors that play into the value of a commodity are ignored and instead incurs value through societal perception or its perceived/exaggerated use value. What is important to note is that labor power is a major concept that is ignored through this process. Commodity fetishism highlights the negative consequences of Capitalism and Marx’s main critique that the bourgeoisie will get richer and the proletariat will get poorer. Alienation then, is the disconnect between a worker and the product and process of their labor, their liveliness, and from other workers through competition.
These theories show how Capitalism, in Marx’s view, is exploitative by nature of the Proletariat (with varying degrees of impact depending on class).
Monologue: Meager and Futile Complaints from a Proletariat
Coffee and coffee shops, especially Starbucks and particular independently owned shops that fit a ‘hipster’ style, have become trendy and fetishized commodities. Essentially it’s cool for particular demographics to have a Starbucks cup or cup from their local coffee shop. Starbucks has set the standards and thus expectations for consumers that a cup of coffee, latte, or mocha should be produced like fast food. The fashion in which this commodity has been fetishized in American is unique from Europe, though, because working in a diverse coffee shop in Chicago I can tell which customers are American and which are immigrants. While other cultures may fetishize coffee or tea, their focus is on quality. Some insist on watching while I make their drink, others check for quality once they’ve received the drink and will say something if not up to their standards, etc, but all are patient.
Well I was able to get a job as a barista at a coffee shop that in of itself could be viewed as a fairly fetishized job as far as minimum wage positions go. From my experience most customers and friends view my job fun or something that could be enjoyed. But let me be the one to tell you that it’s not as glorious as it seems because you are dealing with the portion of the population that hasn’t yet had their cup of coffee. I really did go into the job enjoying making drinks but became disconnected from the work. I did not have the time to make each drink the perfect latte or cappuccino (pouring milk truly is an art) and certainly did not have the time to practice latte art. (Even if I did put a shamrock on a latte for St. Patrick’s Day or a flower for a girl I thought was cute, she probably never would have noticed because everything is so ‘in and out’, ‘grab and go’).
I become alienated from the work: customers are ungrateful of the product I produce, the novelty of the product for me is ruined, I don’t enjoy making drinks for myself or others unless given adept time (a rarity), and eventually I dread going to work and wish I could be spending my time on things that contributes to my ‘species being’. It is hard not to with customers complaining about the product quality and the manager complaining about ‘the bottom line’, an unresolvable contradiction to this Proletariat.
Customers will continually complain about pricing of specialty beverages such as lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas. As a result of commodity fetishism and the general conception of commodities, labor power is completely forgotten and ignored. What they do not realize is the incredibly lengthy and work intensive efforts necessary to go from cherry to bean. The company I work for get their cherries directly from growers overseas and make sure all plants are Rainforest Alliance Certified: a ‘non-governmental organization with the published aims of working to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior’ (RainforestAlliance.org). To put the process in fairly simple terms, those cherries are then washed, converted to beans, roasted (without chemicals, an even more expensive process than Starbucks), and packaged by Caribou and then shipped to stores (Company Training Materials). Not to mention material and labor costs.
What I wish I could say to customers: “Sir/Ma’am, your dark chocolate soy mocha costs more than half of what I make an hour working here. You do realize your drink includes the cost of a cup, lid, espresso beans, chocolate, soy milk, and labor cost. If you would like to buy your own espresso machine, beans, grinder, chocolate chips, soy milk, pitcher, thermometer… be my guest.” And anyway, me as the lowly Proletariat have no control over pricing so their scoffing and scolding earns them no more than the little control I do have in the labor process: to put decaf espresso in his/her dark chocolate soy mocha.
In short, from the viewpoint of a minimum wage barista at a coffee shop, it is easy to find truth in Marx’s assertion about the exploitative nature of Capitalism.