How the commodification of knowledge is creating a new age of colonialism
By becoming passive consumers of knowledge produced in the global north, developing countries are slowly being recolonized.
This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.
The 2008 global financial crisis revealed that the accumulation of capital has its limits. But it also proved that capital has the ‘accumulated power’ to restore itself. This power is not only the $700 billion injected into the US economy to rescue the existing economic order, but also the concentration of neoliberal knowledge that prevails in global political, economic and financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, UN, etc.
The 2008 crisis ‘woke up’ social movements across the globe, including Occupy Wall Street, the 'Yellow vest’ protestors, environmentalists and women’s rights activists. On the other hand, skepticism remains as time reveals that all social movements are sentenced to fade.
But why do they fade? Because their initiatives have been addressed? Because compromise, social justice and gender equality achieved? Or because the environment has been preserved? Or maybe it is because those who control capital have a coercive power, particularly through law enforcement agencies to cope with protesters, and through media sources to criminalize or discredited social movements by accusing them of being extremists.
The answer is simple and not new. Capital is able to generate global consensus over one common commodity – money. Consensus over money is reflected in the contemporary economic development approaches: free trade, investment, private public partnership and good governance. These are well-known approaches extensively promoted by the leading global institutions to address climate change, underdeveloped infrastructure, poverty as well as to promote gender equality and access to education.
However, the most vital aspect here is that the aforementioned mainstream development approaches are the products of knowledge which, primarily, have been designed to serve a neoliberal agenda and, secondly, to commodify people’s understanding on socio-economic development globally. The commodification of knowledge is not simply the process of its commercialization – more importantly it is an instrument to build a global consensus over the power of capital. Unfortunately, social forces across the globe are still incapable of resisting the process of commodification.
In this essay, I expand on Karl Polanyi’s concept of commodities, which he discusses in his iconic book ‘The Great Transformation’. Polanyi distinguishes commodities into real commodities which are produced for the market (money, for instance), and fictitious commodities which were not originally market products but have become commercialized in modern economies (things like labour, nature and wildlife).
To which type of commodities should we allocate knowledge? Obviously, from the prism of neoliberal thought, knowledge is a commercial product since it is in demand in the market. However, it is important to consider the process of knowledge commodification as a critical instrument which enables the neoliberal system to reproduce and undermine social initiatives globally.
The commodification of knowledge is a complex process which I divide into three major components: production, ideologization and transnationalization. The very first stage of commodification derives from the classic Marxist explanation of the production process – restraining access to means of knowledge production in order to sustain knowledge ‘consumers’ in a dependent role. The second and third stages, ideologization and transnationalization, are described from the prism of neo-Gramscian approach of hegemony.
Producing and ideologizing knowledge
All people have the ability to use and produce knowledge, but not all have an access to means of knowledge production such as universities, libraries, literature, internet, laboratories, qualified teachers etc. Among these, universities and research institutions can be considered as intellectual centers. They are the dominant producers and distributors of knowledge and intellectuals. However, the production and distribution of knowledge also entails a hidden second component, specifically, knowledge ideologization.
Intellectual pressure, through academic instructors, readings and assignments, is an essential force to ideologize knowledge of ‘consumers’, particularly students. Intellectual pressure aims at generating consent to the information and knowledge provided. Consent generates trust to the acquired knowledge, while trust enables them to reproduce knowledge. Reproducing knowledge in real life is a principal objective of intellectual centers.
How does this all link to social movements? As a matter of fact, the global north is the center of economic knowledge production and the ideological hub of the mainstream economics agenda of ‘never-ending growth’. The agenda of growth has been developed and settled over the evolution of capitalism from the industrial revolution, colonization, the Fordist era, and latterly the shift to the neoliberal agenda. This evolution would not have been possible without a ‘triangular cooperation’ between policy, capital and intellect. This cooperation enabled the knowledge commodification process to develop and to integrate into political, economic and academic systems in order to build commercial-oriented societies in the countries of market knowledge origin.
Eventually, in order to generate consent and trust towards the neoliberal agenda, localization of the knowledge commodification process at both domestic and international scales is an ultimate purpose of mainstream economic intellectual centers. Thereby, transnationalization is the last but not least important stage.
International institutions are ideal global distributors of the knowledge commodification concept. Likewise, the triangular cooperation of policy, capital and intellect is present at these global institutions. The latter are initiated and ‘ruled’ by the states, private capital is involved, and numerous neoliberal intellectuals consult global institutions in designing their agendas, preparing reports, action plans etc. All this enables the process of knowledge commodification to settle within the institutions, while the enforcement power of the global institutions enables them to deliver the commodification agenda beyond their own borders. When the knowledge is localized and accepted by the society in the field, it will be reproduced by the society itself. Thereby, the reproduction of knowledge internationally leads to the phenomena of knowledge ‘glocality’.
The process of knowledge commodification is among or even the most dangerous process for all social forces and initiatives, particularly because social movements do not have global institutions underpinned by nation states, such as the IMF, World Bank and others. In addition, due to the deficit of the domestic knowledge production centers and external intellectual pressure, people in less developed countries are especially vulnerable to commodification of knowledge. This undermines global unity of social forces from both developed and developing countries.
My own region, Central Asia, is a practical example of the knowledge commodification process. Decolonization of the Central Asian countries moved them to their next and current status – transition. In other words, the nation building process is still underway. These days political and economic uncertainty, security instability, substantial deficit of knowledge production centers and intellectuals in combination with an external intellectual influence provide a flourishing environment for the process of commodification to take place.
The commodification of knowledge can be witnessed in the imitation of the developed countries across many areas: academia, governance, business, economy, lifestyle, architecture, fashion industry and many other sectors. The same process happens in many other developing (postcolonial) regions and countries. Developing states have become ‘consumers’ of knowledge, and recolonized through this knowledge.
The de-commodification of knowledge is a critical component to consider while discussing the decolonization of knowledge and economy, the rethinking of international development and the democratization of international institutions.
“Free thinking for the world” is not just a power quote but rather an agenda which has to be incorporated into the agenda of the global institutions. Social forces globally, in turn, should be far more proactive in advancing north-south cooperation and de-commodifying knowledge by initiating intellectual centers and interconnecting them as alternatives to existing mainstream neoliberal centers in New York, London, Frankfurt, Moscow, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, and Tokyo.
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