BHS storefront and signage Oxford Street, London, UK (2016)
Brands developed in market society (the term capitalism is far superior), attempting to distinguish essentially very similar commodities from each other by imbuing them with symbolism and all manner of social connotations. Some now genuinely believe the work involved in this process creates all value and that the labour involved in producing things in contemporary society is marginal.
According to Marx (1990) the objects of our labour, the things we make, become commodities under capitalist social relations. As things which were made by workers to be sold on markets, not directly consumed by them, they can develop an unhealthy fascination for us. Rather than seeing these products as evidence of our social and creative labour power and the range of uses which can be met by what we make, commodities can come to dominate us. They seem in themselves capable of transforming our lives. This was what Marx meant by commodity fetishism.
A lot of current theory argues we are now dominated not just by the commodity but by commodity signs. But when a brand collapses it becomes clear that brands as signs are socially worthless, mere empty shells. The value of BHS never resided in its semiotics or symbolic reach. Instead, like Woolworths before it, its value lay above all in the organisation of productive collective human labour. It was this which brought the store to life, filling its shelves with a range of familiar goods from sweets to clothes and furnishings.
But take the workers out of the equation whether in the shop itself or in its supply chain or in the factories that made the goods on its shelves and what is left is nothing but an absent presence – a numbing sense of what was before but is no more. Dead brands/empty stores like BHS expose the madness of markets, the greed of capitalists and the emptiness of theory which discounts the centrality of social productive labour to all our lives.
So when I look on this image of the now empty BHS storefront in Oxford Street it brings to mind something which Marx wrote with great prescience about the power of our collective social labour.
‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities is nothing but the definite social relation between people themselves assuming for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.’ (Marx, 1990: 165)
Marx, K. (1990 ) Capital Volume One, London: Penguin.