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Karl Marx can spark joy for you

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Sarah Bates enjoys Marie Kondo’s new show Tidying Up. But, she writes, its popularity says something deeper about life under capitalism and our relationship to commodities
Issue 2639
Marie Kondo says you should keep the things that make you happy
Marie Kondo says you should keep the things that make you happy

How many things do you own that “spark joy” for you? That’s the question organisation expert Marie Kondo has got millions of people ­asking themselves.

Her new TV programme, Tidying Up, released on Netflix in January has proven to be a smash hit.

In each episode Kondo teaches hapless residents how to declutter their homes using the “KonMari” method.

Families are encouraged to collect their items in a big pile, hold each one in turn, and see if it “sparks joy” for them. Everything else goes in the bin. It’s so popular, charity shops around the world are reporting a spike in donations.

This is not just a TV ­programme about ­well-ordered linen closets and neatly organised shoe racks, though. It’s about a complete transformation of your life.

The homes that Kondo visits are often creaking at the seams with objects their owners neither want nor use. The idea is to turn those homes into “spaces of joy” that are filled with possessions that owners really love.

For Kondo, the opportunities are limitless. “When you ­organise things, you can put your life in order, too”, she said.

“The tidying process is not about decluttering your house or making it look neat on the spur of the moment for visitors. You are about to tidy up in a way that will spark joy in your life and change it forever”.

But joy doesn’t come cheap.

An army of certified KonMari consultants can organise your house for you, charging £76 per hour, for a minimum of five hours, plus travel costs. Some more experienced consultants cost even more.

The trademarked KonMari brand sells not just a method to get rid of your unwanted belongings—but an ­opportunity to achieve your “ideal life”.

What does it say about the world we live in that people will happily part with large sums of money to enrich their lives through the magic of tidying?

And why is it that people continue to own so much stuff they’re unable to move around their own homes in the first place?

Tidying Up doesn’t reflect the experiences of the vast majority of people who struggle to make ends meet—over 14 million live in poverty in Britain.

But it does shine a light on some of the problems of ­everyday family life. Some of the houses are full of clutter because of the time-consuming nature of children and work.

It also showcases one of the most easily recognisable features of capitalism—the mass buying and selling of goods. Some owners have spent decades building collections—of Christmas decorations, ­baseball cards or shoes.

In others the sentimental value attached to inanimate objects makes it impossible for their owners to get rid of them.


Filling homes and lives with objects we enjoy helps cope with the constant difficulties life throws at us, and helps develop a sense of identity.

For instance one episode features a migrant woman struggle to throw away clothes that fostered a sense of ­connection with her country of origin.

The way we live at home, like everything else in society, is a product of how that society is organised.

In the world of KonMari the notoriously untidy figure of Karl Marx probably looks a little out of place.

But like Kondo, Marx was also interested in the strange and complicated relationship between people and the things they own.

More than a century before mass advertising and TV ­shopping channels, Marx wrote about how owning commodities gave people a sense of purpose.

“Through money I can have anything the human heart desires,” he wrote. “Do I not therefore possess all human abilities? Does not money therefore transform all my incapability into their opposite?”

For Marx, the ­buying and selling of commodities shaped everything about human life. He wrote about how access to commodities allowed people to gain control, or at least a sense of control over their lives.

Key elements of life are reduced to items to be bought and sold for profit. Items have a usefulness that Marx called use value. But crucially they are “worth” what can be traded for—what Marx called exchange value.

“An object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it” he said.

A system of alienated labour means misery for workers
A system of alienated labour means misery for workers
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But he went further and analysed how work under capitalism shaped both the end product of labour and individual.

Under capitalism, ­workers are separated from the ­products of their labour—this is a ­fundamental difference to how ­societies were organised before.

For instance, those who make computers won’t see the finished product of their labour. They may produce the hard drive, but won’t ever come into contact with the RAM, ­keyboard or monitor.

Workers are wrenched from any effective control of the ­process of production.

This means a dynamic where workers are estranged from the finished product of their skill, time and creativity.

Marx called this alienation—and although others had used this term before, for Marx it was a feature of the material world, a product of the social system, not something that existed in someone’s head.

The development of ­capitalism in the 19th century saw a dramatic transformation in the way in which people worked.

Work stopped being performed in the home, or in the fields, and workers flocked to factories where work was undertaken together.

Because the bosses ­control the means of production, ­workers became dependent on the factory owner paying them a wage.

The end result of the ­workers’ labour is owned by the boss, despite it being the worker, not the boss, who has creatively made it.

So bosses get rich off paying workers less than the value they create. In capitalism, ­everything has a price. Even things necessary for human life—water, food or shelter—are commodities.

It can seem the most natural thing in the world for commodities to be such a central feature of life.

Marx said that in capitalist society, wealth appeared as “an immense collection of commodities”.

But this process of constant buying and selling transforms relationships between individual humans into a relationship between commodities.

In this “system of all-round material dependence” workers are divided from each other, but rely on the fruits of each other’s labour to survive.

For instance, a baker lacks the materials and skills to ­construct a house—but the builder relies on the baker’s time and creativity to make a loaf of bread.

Marx called this “commodity fetishism”—where the central relationship in this ­process appears to be between ­commodities—not the workers who produced them.

The labour that went into baking a loaf of bread, or ­building a house is never acknowledged, and the worker becomes invisible.

Money makes all this possible. It allows commodities to be valued at different rates, and it means transaction between commodities runs smoothly.


Workers live in a world where they are forced to produce products that they themselves, could not afford.

And people are bombarded with adverts that imbue ­material objects with all sorts of qualities that will improve their lives.

Everyday firms pump out propaganda that explains how their product will improve you as an individual.

How many car or perfume adverts carry the message that buying their ­product will improve their sexual prowess?

Bosses can get away with this because under capitalism human relationships are so distorted that commodities are able to fill the void created by a society run for profit.

As engaging as Marie Kondo is—and as much as she connects with those who feel ­overwhelmed by life—tidying up, sadly, won’t help us take control of our lives.

To live in a world without alienation, there will have to be total transformation of society.

In a socialist society production would be based on human need—not because bosses’ want to make a profit. And the people who do the producing will be in charge of running it.

This will fundamentally change not only in workplace experience, but the human relationship to the natural world and individuals themselves.

When there is real choice over elements of life, the markets for both unwanted items and decluttering services will be unnecessary.

Commodities that are sold to us as fulfilling one or other human need and desire simply wouldn’t make sense.

To live in a world that truly “sparks joy”, capitalism has got to go.

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