Branding the Commons: An Addendum

June 16, 2015

Earlier today, I published a piece in Jacobin that offered a criticism of the way developers are privatizing public spaces and commodifying culture, especially in Durham. I argued that this trend is a novel one, demonstrating an expansion of capitalist exploitation.

But there’s a counter argument that I didn’t have the space to address: very simply, selling culture (and destroying it in the process) isn’t new. In fact, the entire tourism industry is built on just that; a stroll down Bourbon St. or through Times Square is enough to prove the point. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the long history of selling other cultures, often with a stress on exoticism. The kind of thing happening in Durham—controlling land, mining history to control contemporary narratives and communities, and so on—began by selling other cultures back to the Western world. More recent critiques of Iggy Azalea and the problematic centrality of “the white gaze”, amongst other things, make that fact familiar.

But in all of these cases, the aim is to take advantage of a difference of location—either geographic or social. Most often, it aims to package the culture of communities of color for white consumers. The point, then, is the fact of otherness, which is used to motivate the commodification in question.

What I hoped to point out in Durham consists of two differences.

1) In part because of the now familiar critiques, developers are now attempting to justify their commodification as a beneficial safeguard of the culture they’re selling. They deny the difference of location, and thus disclose their attempts to control culture as such. This is what I meant when I said that “capitalism’s cultural turn has now turned to the very existence of culture itself.”

2) While this commodification of culture previously affected largely poor communities and communities of color, it is now spreading to moderately well-off white communities. In that sense, it’s an expansion of capitalist exploitation into new markets. This doesn’t mean the issue is suddenly more problematic, but it does show how successful capitalists have been in their efforts. In short, Malcolm X was right: the chickens have come home to roost.