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“Man really attains the state of complete humanity when he produces, without being forced by physical need to sell himself as a commodity.” (Guevara: 1965a.) One of the basic premises of Marxian works, that economic relations have been established by the capitalists to their own benefit, and at times to the disbenefit of the proletariat is a well known one. The fetishism of commodities, as set out by Marx in Capital, volume 1 (1867) is but one way of maintaining this (im) balance.
This essay will set out to explain Marx’s conceptualisation of commodities and subsequently commodity fetishism. I will then argue that the critique provides a useful lens for viewing modern economic relations with; before concluding that the view of fetishism as something that has enslaved humans is, for the most part, valid and persuasive one that can be viewed in capitalist societies this day. Indeed, as time has progressed it appears that the capitalist system has grown ever more “fetishised” and powerful.
The whole of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867) is about the subordination of a menagerie of concrete practical activities to the imperatives of the accumulation of capital imposed as capital passes through its circuit of self-expansion. In order to understand commodity fetishism, and explore further how it forces humans to interact with the world of Capital we must understand what Marx meant by commodities, and also by the fetishism of commodities. Marx outlines his theories and ideas surrounding commodities in Capital, Volume I (first published in 1867), he defines commodities as being either a good, or a service (Marx uses the terms “products” and “activities”((Marx: 1986: 80)) that is produced by human labour, and subsequently offered to others in exchange for goods or money in general markets (Marx: 1986: 36-8.
) It is perhaps noteworthy that under the definition of commodities Marx would include things such as: human labour-power, natural resources and even, possibly, works of art. This is because in the right market a value could be assigned and any of these purchased.
A commodity, Marx argues; has a value that stems from the quantity of human labour that went into producing it (Marx: 1967: 38.) It should, if it is to be tradable in a market-like system have a “use-value” which emanates from the commodity having an intrinsic usefulness allowing it to fulfil a human desire or need (Marx: 1987: 269-70.) Almost entirely separate to this the commodity will also have an “exchange value” which is derived from the value that is ascribed to it when trading with and for other commodities, or when selling the commodity for money; thus giving the owner benefits of the products of the labour of others (Marx: 1986: 167-168.) The price of a commodity is the assignment of a monetary value to the good/service in accordance with its exchange value Marx: 1986: 148.) Throughout Marx’s Capital, and other works on the political economy, perhaps the most central concept is that of the distinction between use-value and exchange value; with the former describing the material relations between consumer and commodity; and the latter describing the social relations behind the commodities (Clarke: 1980: 9.)
The nature of commodities is that they interact with one another in the market; indeed they only really become commodities in the context of their social exchanges in said market (Rubin: 1990: 5.) There is no way for us to experience the social relations and exchanges between the commodities; to the consumer they are intangible. We are only able to have an experience between ourselves and the physical commodity; even if we are conscious of the background social relations we are blind in our being unable to experience them directly. It is argued that commodity trading began in non-commercially productive societies after periods of bounty left them with tradable surpluses (Marx: 1967: 87.)
Societal and economic relations then developed so as to create a regular market for goods, along with a larger and further reaching monetary based economy which encouraged ever greater amounts of production to accrue ever greater levels of capital. It is in this process that the exchange value of commodities acquired a “separate existence alongside the commodity” (Marx: 1986: 102.) The essence of commodity fetishism is, according to Marx, the perception of the social relations that arise in production as being economic relations between commodities in market trades, as opposed to relations between people.
Ultimately then, fetishism can be said to transmute what should be seen as abstract and subjective aspects of economic value; into tangible, objective things that are perceived to have an intrinsic value (Rubin: 1990: 4-6.) An effective way of illustrating the term is to explain its origins in the “misty realm of religion” (Marx: 1990: 165.) The concept of fetishism was developed as one whereby religions or cults gave thanks to, or in some way worshiped, idols for performing services unto them. This is despite it almost ubiquitously being the case that the idols simply represented manifestations towards which the worshipers attributed their own achievements (de Brosses: 1760.) In the critique of commodity fetishism the social value of goods will appear to be an organic characteristic of the commodity itself. In a society constituting private producers trading their products without coercion, and without and significant co-ordination the production and commercial activities of producers are governed by the fluctuations in the values of their produce.
This is the singular most important relation, according to Marx, that people have with each other. And it is represented almost entirely by money and production. It is in this sense that one might begin to see a picture emerging of the nature of a world in which commodity fetishism drives human behaviours away from what they might otherwise be. First and foremost one of the most significant problems with commodity fetishism derives from economic values of products referring to a symbolized relationship. One which is not directly observable, except as an exchange value or number signalling a potential money price (Nicholas: 2011.) Put simply, the economic values of items are abstract constructs that humans only perceive to be objective.
Despite the fact that commodity fetishism is a social construct, it would appear that the values, prices and capital that have sprung from it are now too powerful for society to take back any semblance of a world without them. Humans have created a world in which to survive we must exhaust both our labour and time (labour time) in the production of commodities in order to accumulate capital; if one wishes to sustain themselves that is. The problem with this is that labour time only becomes socially validated after production has finished, it is the process of exchange that gives the benefits of production to the producer (Clarke: 1980: 9.) Before this time a producer does not necessarily possess any knowledge of the future value of the products of their labour time, and as such are almost forced into producing in quantities and using methods that are most likely to yield a surplus value to the producer.
Another important aspect of the capitalist society that has fallen victim to commodity fetishism is the adherence to the idea that the market as an entity is enabled with some form of sentience and/or autonomy and independence. This visualisation, of a market that we have no exertion of control over is how humans and capitalists have normalised market exchanges and patterns that may well be to their disbenefit. Such is the prevalence of this belief, that one is able to describe the cycles and patterns of the non-autonomous and decidedly abstract creation of the market (fig. 1.)
The prominent political philosopher Adam Smith could be viewed as a major exporter of this belief. In his major work “The Wealth of Nations” he opined that market fluctuations were economic delineations that represent human nature. In short, it was suggested by Smith that a market was a in fact an autonomous entity that had natural predilection towards economic equilibrium; ergo the value of a commodity would act to ensure that the buyers and sellers could obtain the commodities they wished for through trade (Smith: 1776; bk 1 ch. 2.) The critique of commodity fetishism set out by Marx in his writings expressly rejects the premise that markets have any inherent features of self determination, the idea that they do is tantamount to apologetics from (and indeed for) capitalists in order to confound producers about the true nature of the value of commodities and their trades.
As with many economic and political theories there are schools of thought that disagree with Marx’s analysis of commodities and fetishism; neo-Ricardians such as Piero Sraffa, for instance, view production in a capitalist society as a purely technical means of producing use values (Sraffa: 1960.) They would argue that class struggles are only presented in the distribution of those use values (Clark: 1980: 7.) Another school of thought that stems from Marx’s works is often referred to as ‘fundamentalism,’ this too falls prey to many of the same criticisms of a neo-Ricardian view of commodity relations. For instance, neither of the two schools pays adequate attention to the interactions between values of commodities (specifically surplus values) and its “circulation in the integrated circuit of capital” (Clark: 1980: 7.)
This means that both of the analyses have an all too simplistic view of the enslaving nature of the fetishism, caused by accumulations and crises. An analysis by Berger and Pullberg based itself around the premise that “…man forg[ot] that the world he lives in has been produced by himself” (Berger and Pullberg: 1966: 61.) This train of thought, unlike the other two, misses the point of the fetishism of commodities by quite some way. If it simply were forgetfulness that had led to the inequalities of the market trading system then theorists reminding mankind of the fact should be enough to start the fires of change (Geras: 1971.) However, fetishism is based on something far more complex than simple idle mindedness; wherein an economic abstraction in this case value, is ‘reified’ into an object, which humans will believe is in possession of an intrinsic value, simply in and of itself.
The individual human relationship to material nature is presupposed in Marx’s theory – however this relationship for Marx is always mediated by social relations between people. The basic premise of this that no man is an island; i.e. we can only fulfil our desire for material things by producing things for each other. So we are trapped into the capitalist system of production and trade to try and accumulate capital. Value is a quantitative construct so we also don’t know “how much” our production is valued on the market. What is “forgotten” or “hidden” is that it is our actions in producing things and valuing them on the marketplace which creates the real phenomenon of material commodities with the autonomy to determine, literally, whether we live or whether we die. Therefore, in the capitalist, bourgeois society, social relations between people are perceived as economic relations among objects, that is, how valuable a given commodity is when compared to another commodity.
Therefore, the market exchange of commodities masks the true economic character of the human relations of production, between the worker and the capitalist. In Capital, it is argued that the fetishism of commodities owes, in part, its existence to the “peculiar social character of the labour that produces them” (Marx: 1983: 77.) What is said to be peculiar about the labour is that whilst it is ostensibly ‘private’ labour, it is social as well; for the production of the individual is determined by the capitalist society as a whole (Bonefeld: 2010: 263.) Again, in this sense it is possible to see that the individual in a capitalist society has very little autonomy over their labour power and means of production. The illusion of modern capitalist societies that value comes from the commodities themselves and not from the social relations that take place behind them is a “fetish.”
Money appears to be an almost all-powerful force in capital relations and modern society; however, really this is only because money is used to express numerically the value of all other commodities. In commodity fetishism social relations between people are taking on material forms, and then in turn feeding back to the very social relations that they originate from. Labour takes the form of a monetary value that can be found embedded into our perceptions of commodities. The pursuit of money itself has become one of the greatest goals of modern society, money shapes the way we view politics and people; ultimately it has shaped the way we interact with almost every facet of the world around us.
Recent studies that shown that even those of us who claim to be ethically minded’ still buy into a system of exploitative consumer-producer relations in the modern market (see Cluley and Dunne 2012 for a study.) This shows that even 150 years after its initial development, the concept of the fetishism of commodities can still accurate describe out economic relations with the capitalist world around us. Since its creation in 1867 Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities has been applied to other areas of human relations. This has provided more sociological and cultural understanding of areas of a world in which mankind, both as an individual and member of a non Capitalist class suffers.
The fetishism theory has even been applied to areas such as sexual relations. French psychologist Alfred Binet put forward the idea that there exists sexually charged relationships that are economic in nature; between humans and commodities. A good example of this relationship comes in the form of advertisements; these are specifically designed to ascribe human qualities to commodities in order to persuade consumers (Binet: 1887.) The Frankfurt School philosophy holds the concept of commodity fetishism as very important. The work of sociologist Theodor Adorno, aims to describe the methods in which commerce has managed to, in some ways, have an impact on the very nature of what it is to be human. It has been able to cast a person into a role that they may well not have otherwise chosen for themselves.
The “Theory of the Culture Industry” describes how the human imagination, its spiritual, artistic and academic activities, have become commoditised having been subordinated to the “natural commercial laws” of the market (Adorno and Horkheimer: 1972.) In actualising such cultural roles and identities, the individual becomes a “passive consumer; and so does not play an active role in achieving their concept of the good. Being an individual with any great deal of expressive creativity is almost totally at odds with a bourgeois culture that demands collectivism and normality. In this view it is clear that commerce (market exchange in a capitalist system) can be seen as something that has a definite hold over what a human does with their life; and so definitely contributes to a world that ‘enslaves’ us.
This increasing grasp that the market and exchange values hold over humans is really best illustrated by the simple fact that abstract entities such as knowledge, information and ideas have been reified from these valueless abstract concepts into commodities such as ‘intellectual property’ (Perelman: 2004.) The transformation of knowledge into a commodity for trade may well show one of the best examples of the veritable prison that the Capitalist world is creating to constrain the proletariat classes. Knowledge, in its original philosophical ‘form’ represents a means, not an end (to capital) as fetishism would have it, to a better and more meaningful life.
Previously the points that I have made have by and large been about constraining economic relations and choices for producers; turning knowledge into a commodity represents a capitalist challenge to own and trade the very set of capabilities that many people believe sets us apart from animals. Building on the theory of commodity fetishism; academics have focussed on developing the theory of reification (the psychological transformation of an abstract entity into a physical and tangible object) they have identified it as being one of the major obstacles to class consciousness. Academics have postulated that a simultaneous development has been occurring over time; as the capitalist system has been constantly producing more capital and reproducing itself at ever higher economic levels the reification process has been penetrating ever more “definitively into the consciousness of Man” (Lukács: 1971: 93.)
An immediate result of this has been that commodity fetishism has been able to percolate through ever increasing layers of human consciousness, increasing the reach of the market ever further. In summation, this article has established the nature of Marx’s commodity fetishism theory. In short the idea that social relations between people are reduced to the economic relations between the exchange-values of the produced commodities. I have then argued that it is necessarily a bad thing, that mankind lives in a world where their primary social relations come from a life of production out of necessity. This is true regardless of how the situation arose; it is immaterial to a (wo)man now that he finds himself in this situation because of the actions of distant men long ago.
Despite their living in a modern capitalist society, it has been argued that fetishism of commodities has reduced the abilities of humans, in specific roles as producers and consumers, to hold any real autonomy over their labour power, production or indeed lives. The market which; according to Marx is a social construct designed for the benefit of Capitalists, is seen as exerting economic force over producers which influences their decisions. In spite of Marx’s assertions that the social relations of the market are abstract constructs the fact that they enslave people to produce or die’ is no less real, or any less enslaving. “…The members of modern “civilized” society are really, like the savage by his fetish, controlled by the work of their hands’ (Korsch: 1963: 13.)
We are now at a stage where the capitalist society is so all pervasive that one cannot easily detach himself from it. To be able to live I must produce a commodity to trade and acquire food, even if I wanted to sustain occurring over time; as the capitalist system has been constantly producing more capital and reproducing itself at ever higher economic levels the reification process has been penetrating ever more “definitively into the consciousness of Man” (Lukács: 1971: 93.) An immediate result of this has been that commodity fetishism has been able to percolate through ever increasing layers of human consciousness, increasing the reach of the market ever further. In summation, this article has established the nature of Marx’s commodity fetishism theory.
In short the idea that social relations between people are reduced to the economic relations between the exchange-values of the produced commodities. I have then argued that it is necessarily a bad thing, that mankind lives in a world where their primary social relations come from a life of production out of necessity. This is true regardless of how the situation arose; it is immaterial to a (wo)man now that he finds himself in this situation because of the actions of distant men long ago. Despite their living in a modern capitalist society, it has been argued that fetishism of commodities has reduced the abilities of humans, in specific roles as producers and consumers, to hold any real autonomy over their labour power, production or indeed lives.
The market which; according to Marx is a social construct designed for the benefit of Capitalists, is seen as exerting economic force over producers which influences their decisions. In spite of Marx’s assertions that the social relations of the market are abstract constructs the fact that they enslave people to produce or die’ is no less real, or any less enslaving. “…The members of modern “civilized” society are really, like the savage by his fetish, controlled by the work of their hands’ (Korsch: 1963: 13.) We are now at a stage where the capitalist society is so all pervasive that one cannot easily detach himself from it. To be able to live I must produce a commodity to trade and acquire food, even if I wanted to sustain myself on a plot of land somewhere I have no recourse to gain this without producing and trading commodities for it. In this sense I am truly trapped in the system of fetishism, my very existence will be spent accumulating the actualisations of abstract value constructs.
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