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Commodity fetishism

In Marx's critique of political economy, commodity fetishism denotes the (quasi-religious) mystification of human relations said to arise out of the growth of market trade, when social relationships between people are expressed as, mediated by and transformed into, objectified relationships between things (commodities and money). Commodity fetishism is not unique to capitalist societies, since commodity trade has occurred in one way or another for thousands of years; but in Marx's opinion, commodity fetishism became pervasive especially in capitalist society, because this kind of society is based almost totally on the "production of commodities by means of commodities". That means that market relationships influence almost everything that people do, something which was not the case in pre-capitalist societies, where commerce was much more restricted.

The concept of commodity fetishism plays a crucial role in Marx's theory, because it links the subjective aspects of economic value to its objective aspects, through the transformation of a symbolization of value into a reification which attains the power of an objective social force. It is introduced at the conclusion of an analysis of the value-form of commodities in the first chapter of Marx's main work, Das Kapital. Subsequently he clarifies that many different economic phenomena can be "fetishized" (the fetish of money, the fetish of interest-bearing capital, etc.) to the extent that they attain an independent power vis-a-vis the people. But these further developments of commercial fetishism nevertheless have their origins in commodity trade.


[edit] Textual origins

The term is introduced in the opening chapter of the first volume of Das Kapital (Marx modified his discussion in the second edition of this work).

"A commodity is... a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of menâs labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of menâs hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them." - Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, chaper 1 section 4 [1]

However, Marx had already referred to the notion of fetishes and fetishism much earlier, usually in the context of religious superstition or in criticizing the beliefs of political economists.

"The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous glitter of precious metals, and are therefore still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations. Contrast of France and England. The extent to which the solution of theoretical riddles is the task of practice and effected through practice, the extent to which true practice is the condition of a real and positive theory, is shown, for example, in fetishism. The sensuous consciousness of the fetish-worshipper is different from that of the Greek, because his sensuous existence is different. The abstract enmity between sense and spirit is necessary so long as the human feeling for nature, the human sense of nature, and therefore also the natural sense of man, are not yet produced by manâs own labour. - Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress, 1975, p. 312 [2]).

"In real history, wage labour arises out of the dissolution of slavery and serfdom --or of the decay of communal property, as with oriental and Slavonic peoples -- and, in its adequate, epoch-making form, the form which takes possession of the entire social being of labour, out of the decline and fall of the guild economy, of the system of Estates, of labour and income in kind, of industry carried on as rural subsidiary occupation, of small-scale feudal agriculture etc. In all these real historic transitions, wage labour appears as the dissolution, the annihilation of relations in which labour was fixed on all sides, in its income, its content, its location, its scope etc. Hence as negation of the stability of labour and of its remuneration. The direct transition from the African's fetish to Voltaire's supreme being, or from the hunting gear of a North American savage to the capital of the Bank of England, is not so absurdly contrary to history as is the transition from Bastiat's fisherman to the wage labourer. - Karl Marx, Grundrisse, chapter 17 (1857) [3]

"...we find in the capitalist process of production [an] indissoluble fusion of use-values in which capital subsists [as] means of production and objects defined as capital, when what we are really faced with is a definite social relationship of production. In consequence the product embedded in this mode of production is equated with the commodity by those who have to deal with it. It is this that forms the foundation for the fetishism of the political economists" - Karl Marx,Results of the Immediate Process of Production, appendix in Capital Volume 1. Penguin edition, 1976, p. 983).

These references illustrate that Marx used the notion of fetishism in various contexts throughout his economic and ethnological studies across 25 years or more, in the course of refining his understanding of economic value. There is no evidence of a sharp break between the ideas of the "young Marx" and the "old Marx", as the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser claimed, only evidence of an evolution and gradual refinement of ideas. There were only "turning points" in the course of Marx's life, just as there are in anyone's life.

[edit] Important dimensions of the concept

[edit] "Fetish"

"Fetishism" in this context refers to symbolic attribution of power to an object to the point where people believe and act as though the fetish object really has that power, and this power is even regarded as being intrinsic to (a natural, inherent characteristic of) the object, rather than a human attribution. In reality, that power is not an intrinsic characteristic of the object at all. However, in terms of social behavior, if a sufficient proportion of people act as though the object has the power, then the object can function as if it had that power.

For thousands of years, people already knew or believed that particular objects or activities could cause harm, and that others could have good effects, even although they did not really know why in a "scientific" sense. Consequently these "primitive" people were apt to regard such objects as being ruled by good and evil spirits, or endowed them with magical or supernatural powers, and they devised rules for their appropriate use. Some objects were then treated as sacred or taboo, meaning they could not be touched or used, or that they could be used only under specific conditions, or by authorized people.

Marx argued that a similar sort of perception arises in market trade, where special powers are attributed to the traded objects and their relationships, to the extent that people believe and act as though those powers are the natural, inherent characteristic of the traded objects and theorize about them in that way. Since social relationships are expressed as the relationships between the things being traded, it begins to look like social characteristics, such as value and exchangeability, are the natural, intrinsic characteristic of the things being exchanged.

[edit] Example

A $100 note is not really worth $100 (it cost only a few cents to produce), but if people accept it as a currency, it can claim $100 worth of goods, in which case it really seems to be worth $100, and the goods seem to be worth $100. The money has the power to claim $100 worth of goods, and the goods have the power to exchange for $100. Then it seems like the value of $100 inheres in the money and the goods themselves. The buyer is worth $100 to the seller, and the seller is a $100 expense to the buyer. In considering the trade between buyer and seller, how the buyer and seller are socially related, or what their identity is, in principle doesn't really matter (except perhaps for marketing purposes), all that matters is that $100 can trade for $100 worth of goods; the seller insists the goods are worth $100 and the buyer insists that they are not worth more. The transaction can be expressed and analyzed quite independently of the transactors, but also the possession of $100 provides the owner with the power to experience, use or consume things which he could not create himself. Moreover, whether the buyer and the seller will be related at all, may depend just on whether the one has $100 and the other has $100 worth of goods. Where the money, the goods and the trading parties originated from may remain unknown to all concerned.

[edit] Reification

The reified perception in commodity trade denoted by the concept of commodity fetishism (i.e. the belief that a symbolization of a social relationship is an independent "thing" which can act in its own right) is reinforced by several circumstances:

[edit] Beliefs

Marx's use of the term fetish could be interpreted as an ironic comment on the "rational", "scientific" mindset of industrial capitalist societies. In Marx's day, the word "fetish" was primarily used in the study of primitive religions to describe a revered object or talisman; Marx's "fetishism of commodities" might be seen as proposing that just such primitive belief systems exist at the heart of modern society.

In subsequent Marxist thought, commodity fetishism is often defined as an illusion arising from the central role that private property plays in capitalism's social processes. It is regarded as a central component of the dominant ideology in capitalist societies. Behind the appearance of freely traded commodities are private property rights enforced by the state.

[edit] Marx's argument

Marx's argument is simply that in a society where many independent, private producers trade their products with each other on their own individual initiative, without much (or any) overall coordination, their production volumes and activities can only be adjusted to each other through the fluctuating values of those products when exchanged in markets. Their social co-existence, and the meaning of it, is expressed through their trading activity and transactions in markets. People may indeed have no other relation with each other except for the transactions between them.

Thus, their social relations are constantly being mediated and expressed by things (commodities and money). But not only that; relationships between many traded objects are brought into being which exist and can change quite independently of what individuals do, and quite independently of their social relationships. How the traded objects will be related will depend a great deal on their costs of production, reducible to quantities of living human work. But in reality the worker has little control over what happens to his product.

[edit] The domination of things

The effect is that the relationships between things begin to shape and even dominate the relationships between people, to the exent that they must constantly adjust - consciously or unconsciously - to the changing value proportions between things over which they don't have any control anymore (because nobody really controls the markets). The trading values of things then gain an independent, objectified power, to the point where social characteristics seems to be the natural, inherent properties of things, the relationships between which evolve in their own right. "The market" seems to spontaneously balance supply and demand, but people no longer see the human cooperation behind the market which makes it all possible. In economic theories, human cooperation plays hardly any role anymore, because self-interested market actors are thought to be trading things and associating as individuals according to their own rational choices, held together or brought together by the market; cooperation is focused upon only in management theory insofar as people must be united and organized to produce the things that are supplied to the market, and in behavioural sciences where how people do things together is studied.

[edit] The objectification of value

Normally one would say, that values are something that people have, it is they who make valuations. Human evaluations have their origin in the ability of sentient living organisms to prioritize and weigh up behaviours consciously according to self-chosen options; if they value or cherish something, that is in the first instance a subjective appreciation. But in fact, the growth of trading relations among large masses of people creates many value relationships between traded objects which gain an objective reality, and which escape from the individual or even the collective control of people. If for example the housing market collapses, this is a reality that home owners cannot get away from. It has effects on house values, the construction industry, employment and incomes.

[edit] Naturalization

As Marx notes, market phenomena are then typically regarded as "natural" phenomena that "just happen of their own accord", and indeed the political economists he criticized frequently referred to "natural equilibria" and "natural" prices, the idea being, that they were merely a reflection of human nature, a natural state of affairs, or a natural order of things. Indeed, Adam Smith regarded the propensity to "truck, barter and exchange" as a natural feature of human beings, and thought that market economy corresponded best to human nature, however defined; a self-balancing market economy was thought to be constituted, which spontaneously gravitated towards a natural equilibrium state such that price-relativities ensured that everyone could get what they wanted. In modern times, the state of the markets is often likened to the weather, and meteorological metaphors are used such as "the investment climate", "financial headwinds", "financial tsunami" etc.

But, Marx argues, this "naturalization" of market relationships in economic theory, apart from its ideological or apologetic function in making them unchangeable and eternalized "facts of life", actually is the result of the inability to provide a serious scientific explanation of social phenomena - primarily because trading processes are separated, in theory and in practice, from the social processes and production activities (the labor efforts of socially related people) which are behind them and give rise to them. His book Das Kapital aims mainly to reveal the relationship between production activities and the circulation of products in trade, and thus to demonstrate what is behind the fetish of commodities and what constantly reproduces it.

According to David Ricardo, for instance, the proper focus of economic science was the distribution of resources through markets, and modern economics has become largely a mathematical "science of price movements". In this sense, the fetishization of commodity relationships seriously distorts or even mystifies real economic relationships between people and between people and their environment, by detaching the conditions of production from the conditions of distribution. In the process, the social organisation of the relationships between people, and what holds them all together, becomes rather mysterious - something about which one could have a personal interpretation, but which ultimately cannot be known for certain.

[edit] The opacity of economic relations

The primary valuation which counts for practical purposes is the trading value of goods and activities expressed in terms of money-prices. To work out what the relationships involved are, people then only compare prices and price trends in the market. They are hardly able to see and understand anymore all the human processes which bring goods and services to their door, they don't know who the people are that facilitate that, and indeed this is often not much of concern to them anymore. They depend on commodities being available to them and trust or assume they will be there, without having any control over, or insight into, the human cooperation that can ensure this will be the case.

The results of the collective labor efforts of people present themselves, or are expressed to people, in the form of the values and prices of products, assets or services. But what the exact connection is, between those things, their values and the efforts that enabled their supply, is no longer at all clear. Thus, "what markets will do" is explained by what other markets will do, by rising and falling prices, and analysts try to estimate probabilistically the effects of different market trends. Markets then seem to be things that evolve in their own right, they gain an autonomous power, and it is often no longer clear what market trends can really be attributed to; one could dispute about causes and effects, or try to research it with different hypotheses, without being able to verify absolutely what exactly caused changes and fluctuations in the market.

[edit] After Marx

The fetishism of commodities has proven fertile material for work by other theorists since Marx, who have added to, adapted, or, perhaps, "vulgarized" the original concept. Sigmund Freud's well-known but unrelated theory of sexual fetishism led to new interpretations of commodity fetishism, as types of sexually charged relationships between a person and a manufactured object. Fetishes are often visible in advertising, where human qualities are associated with a product in a way which the advertiser hopes will encourage people to buy them.

[edit] Cultural theorists

György Luk¡cs based History and Class Consciousness (1923) on Marx's notion, developing his own notion of commodity reification as the key obstacle to class consciousness. Luk¡cs's work was a significant influence on later philosophers such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard.

In the most recent literature, the focus of theorists is often on the transformation of information and knowledge into a tradeable commodity (or capital) which is bought and sold, and which exists through an interaction between people and computers. This begins to alter human consciousness in a very powerful and direct way. The argument is that this creates a new kind of topsy-turvy world in which information and knowledges become objects of value in themselves, which are no longer lodged in people's heads, but assume a life of their own and acquire "magical" powers, even to the point where people are barred from the knowledge they themselves helped to produce (the "privatization of knowledge"). It is also argued that increasingly communication itself begins to function according to, or imitates, the rules of financial transactions; giving attention becomes a kind of negotiation (or haggling) conditional on the expectation of a return on the "investment" into it.

Several main themes can be distinguished here.

In general, these kinds of (often dystopian) interpretations suggest that the whole of human knowledge itself is increasingly being restructured in terms of the relationships between objects of commercial value and the property rights they involve - to the point where the true nature of human relations is shrouded or hidden away, or indeed becomes a total mystery, because all the relevant concepts necessary to understand them are denied, disconnected or erased. Gradually, it is argued, all knowledges which do not serve business interests are being "wiped out". That might not seem to wipe out so much, to that extent that many knowledges are compatible with making money, but even if the relevant disciplines are not starved of funding, the argument is that the structures of the knowledges themselves are being reformed and deformed, according to a specific pattern of conceptualizations which reflects commercial interests and business culture. As a side-effect, however, metaphysical (rather than scientifically sound) beliefs begin to substitute more and more for a "genuine self-knowledge of society" obtained through independent, critical and comprehensive scientific inquiry. Ultimately, people can then no longer understand themselves and their own lives anymore without the use of commodities, state authorities and specialized "expert" services (which could be religious services offered by specialists on the spiritual condition of the human species).

[edit] Menger and subjective wants

Strongly pro-capitalist economists, such as Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian School have insisted that the attribution of value is only a matter of subjective preferences:

"The value of goods, accordingly, is a phenomenon that springs from the same source as the economic character of goods--that is, from the relationship, explained earlier, between requirements for and available quantities of goods. But there is a difference between the two phenomena. On the one hand, perception of this quantitative relationship stimulates our provident activity, thus causing goods subject to this relationship to become objects of our economizing (i.e., economic goods). On the other hand, perception of the same relationship makes us aware of the significance that command of each concrete unit of the available quantities of these goods has for our lives and well-being, thus causing it to attain value for us. Just as a penetrating investigation of mental processes makes the cognition of external things appear to be merely our consciousness of the impressions made by the external things upon our persons, and thus, in the final analysis, merely the cognition of states of our own persons, so too, in the final analysis, is the importance that we attribute to things of the external world only an outflow of the importance to us of our continued existence and development (life and well-being). Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being, and in consequence carry over to economic goods as the exclusive causes of the satisfaction of our needs." - Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (1871), chapter 3 [6]

The difference between Marx and Menger is just that for Marx, value relationships exist and evolve between things and activities also quite independently from the wishes or desires of any individual or even group of individuals. The fact that this is so, is precisely what helps to sustain the "fetish". It is not merely that people habitually regard value as intrinsic to objects, but also that the economic value objects have, and the way they are related, gained a real power over people. For Menger, value is only exclusively an expression of subjective preferences, but for Marx, value begins to assert itself as a mind-independent, objective force, quite regardless of what people happen to prefer, with the effect that people must often adjust to economic values, rather than the supply of goods and services adjusting to the needs and wishes of people. If individuals don't have the money to buy things, they can prefer all they like, but they won't get the goods and the prices often won't change either.

Obviously, in markets there is a tendency for supply and demand to adjust to each other, however haphazardly that may occur, causing economists to extrapolate a "natural tendency of markets to reach equilibrium" provided there is no outside interference in market activity. Therefore, Menger's view has a certain plausibility; after all, markets are in good part driven by demand, and therefore by the choices and preferences of myriads of individuals. This reality was already noted in ancient Greece by the philosopher Aristotle, who therefore attributed the value of goods simply to the intensity of demand for them.

It is just that the very meaning, scope and limits of these choices and preferences themselves is also determined by objective market forces over which individuals have no control, and with which they are confronted every day. They do not control the results of the fact that a mass of working hours has, or has not been worked. They have to adjust their behaviour to price-levels, like it or not ("market discipline"). This means that, mostly, the value of goods is set by a price-level which people normally cannot change, or change only within narrow limits, and the fact that people individually strongly or weakly prefer a good offered for sale does not normally change its basic supply price. The market does not change at all, simply because people have a desire for particular goods, but because they really buy or sell them (or not). If somebody strongly desires a candy bar that sells for $1, the $1 price for the candy does not spontaneously by itself change because of that desire. At most the seller of candy might say, that "if you get five bars, I will give you a discount".

[edit] Market freedom

Menger's theory leads to the result, that market effects can only be explained in terms of the subjective preferences of individuals and nothing else. If markets expanded, that must be because the intensity of desires increased, and if they shrank, it must be because appetites reduced, causing changes in the free choices people made to buy or sell. But for Marx, this sort of vulgar and naive theory (in his opinion) was itself a product of commodity fetishism, insofar as it completely disconnected market trade from the constraints placed on that trade by the labor efforts of people, by history and by the framework of social relations within which they co-existed, like it or not (see law of value).

"Market freedom" might only be a sort of illusion created by the ability of people to choose whether to buy and sell or not, and by the potential choices they could conceivably make, even if they had only very little money. They feel unconstrained in market activity only because they have internalized the constraints and agree to play by its rules. But people might not buy or sell out of free choice at all, but because they were forced to do so by circumstances, like it or not, at prices not to their liking.

The theories which economists made up about markets were, in Marx's opinion, themselves ultimately a product of the way market trade itself functioned, and not the other way around. If markets involved a reified consciousness, which attributed an independent power to symbols imposed by "the many" on "the few", or by economic community on each of its members, this would also powerfully influence the economic theories created about markets - in ways which actually promoted the fetishization of economic phenomena. Ultimately this created the belief that "the economy" and "the market" were independent things which could act in their own right, even if few people could explain or define what "the economy" or "the market" means. People might say, "the market does this" or "the market does that" but in reality people do these things, and the market results are merely the effects of what they do. Thus, ultimately, commodity fetishism contributed to a process of dumbing down.

[edit] Criticism

Five criticisms have often been made of the concept of commodity fetishism:

How exactly Marx would have responded to such criticisms remains unclear, because he never explicitly defended his idea of commodity fetishism after he published it, and seemed to regard it as a rather obvious aspect of life. No doubt he would not have denied that people can be very self-aware; they can make choices and relativize matters, and few objectively given economic circumstances are so compelling that one cannot actively do anything about them at all. But probably he would have referred to the enormous power that money has over people's lives, and to the quasi-religious zeal with which the business world may pursue its aims.

Perhaps he would have pointed to what people in capitalist society actually do when the "crunch" comes, when there is a real economic crisis (as a "test case"). What do people do in the first instance? Do they for example try to secure their possessions, perhaps investing in gold or other assets that hold their value? Or do they spontaneously seek to cooperate with others to resolve the crisis?

It is evident from Marx's text that in drawing an analogy between the fetishes of a religious cult and the fetishes involved in commerce, he did not commit himself to the idea that commodity fetishism is a "religion of commerce", the same as a religious faith. "Having a fetish" (endowing something with powers it does not really have) need not involve a specifically religious belief at all. However, how people regard commercial phenomena could also be influenced by a mixture of religious, semi-religious and non-religious beliefs.

How Marx would have regarded Marxism is not known, because Marxism emerged as a significant political movement only after his death. Although very aware of the desire of human beings to remake the world after their own image, and immortalize themselves, Marx stayed an atheist and a humanist. He was rather skeptical and derisive when some French leftists began to call themselves "Marxists" in the early 1880s (see further Christophe Prochasson, Histoire des gauches en France. Paris: La Découverte, 2005). According to the testimony of Friedrich Engels, Marx quipped wrily, "what is certain is that, as for myself, I am no Marxist" (or, in another version, "All I know is that I am no Marxist") - the suggestion being that if this was "Marxism", he wanted no part of it. Marx did seek influence for his ideas, but not for himself; he recommended that people should "think through" matters for themselves, using their own critical faculties, and his writings were intended only as a aid for this. Yet it could be argued that this contradicted with the intellectual authority he and Engels definitely did seek in the labour movement, which could after all hardly exist without followers; and it was not unreasonable that these followers would begin to call themselves "Marxists", to distinguish themselves from other trends. The old Engels, by then an intellectual mentor of the growing social-democratic movement, eventually accepted the label of "Marxism" - which he did not invent himself - to express the political tendency he and Marx represented, and for which he had written many popular pamphlets, articles and books.

[edit] See also

Marx's argument
After Marx

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Notes

[edit] External links

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