Branding ≠ Capitalism: Another Naomi Klein Fallacy

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/02/2011 12:01:00 AM
When it comes to flyweight and academically insubstantial commentary, few outdo pseudo anti-globalization author Naomi Klein. Aside from dubious wholesale denunciations of "capitalism" via The Shock Doctrine--as if there were a single all-encompassing version of it--we also have inane economic analyses of trade and other fallacious ramblings.

Today, however, I am here to debunk her earlier work which established her reputation among many of the impressionable and those who simply don't know any better, No Logo. An overly long jumble of rewarmed Marxist critiques of capitalism, it takes aim at branding as an artefact of modernity. But, since penetrating insight is not one of the hallmarks of Naomi Klein-style writing, this suggestion is easy to dispel. Something which unites her sort with those she purports to condemn is the assumption that branding goes hand in hand with contemporary capitalism.

Not so. In my recent research work, I've once again been reminded of this fact by archaeological research which refutes this notion. If we are to take a longer view perspective of things, branding for the purposes of commercial exchange did not originate during the past few centuries of industrialization. Try Iraq circa 4000 BC for instance according to David Wengrow at UCL, our sister University of London institution:
Commodity branding has been characterized as the distinguishing cultural move of late capitalism and is widely viewed as a historically distinctive feature of the modern global economy. The brand's rise to prominence following the Industrial Revolution and the attendant shift of corporate enterprise towards the dissemination of image-based products have been further cited as contributing to the erosion of older forms of identity such as those based on kinship and class. However, comparisons between recent forms of branding and much earlier modes of commodity marking associated with the Urban Revolution of the fourth millennium BC suggest that systems of branding address a paradox common to all economies of scale and are therefore likely to arise (and to have arisen) under a wide range of ideological and institutional conditions, including those of sacred hierarchies and stratified states. An examination of the material and cognitive properties of sealing practices and the changing functions of seals in their transition from personal amulets to a means of labeling mass-produced goods helps to unpack the interlocking (pre)histories of quality control, authenticity, and ownership that make up the modern brand.
I've also borrowed a very interesting edited work entitled Cultures of Commodity Branding by Andrew Bevan and again David Wengrow which expands on the journal article by including several more examples of branding exercises drawn from antiquity:
Commodity branding did not emerge with contemporary global capitalism. In fact, the authors of this volume show that the cultural history of branding stretches back to the beginnings of urban life in the ancient Near East and Egypt, and can be found in various permutations in places as diverse as the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and Early Modern Europe. What the contributions in this volume also vividly document, both in past social contexts and recent ones as diverse as the kingdoms of Cameroon, Socialist Hungary or online EBay auctions, is the need to understand branded commodities as part of a broader continuum with techniques of gift-giving, ritual, and sacrifice. This volume obliges specialists in marketing and economics to reassess the relationship between branding and capitalism, as well as adding an important new concept to the work of economic anthropologists and archaeologists.
There's also an earlier post on the superb Material World anthropology blog from which the image of a seal at the top of this entry is taken.

The main takeaway is that branding and the emergence of global capitalism are not inseparable concepts, with the former having appeared on the scene long before the latter. It is indeed a sad reflection on our age how someone with Geraldo Rivera-like investigative reporting chops and non-existent scholarly chops receives so much attention. Call it the Sarah Palin self-promotion effect. Further investigation, however, easily betrays a characteristic lack of awareness or erudition.