On Commodity Fetishism

Recently I’ve been re-examining both Marx and my understanding of him. One of the most important aspects of Marx’s theory is “fetishism”. Marx first introduces this concept in Chapter 1 of Capital under the heading “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”.

Often people misunderstand commodity fetishism. Taking the “social relations between things” to refer to the way material things can give us some sort of social status i.e. that material things function as status symbols. It’s readily apparent however that this is not what Marx means.

In Chapter 1 of his analysis, Marx is not dealing with a Capitalist society. He’s dealing with a society of commodity producers. More concrete determinations like “rent” or “wage labour” are completely absent from this world of commodity producers. With that said, every society needs to allocate a social division of labour. Marx gives several examples of different ways this can be done. For example when talking about Communism:

“Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product.”

This is to say: the labour power each individual needs to apply is decided in advance by the community. Therefore, when the individuals go to perform their labour it immediately appears as what it is – carrying out a social function.

However, a commodity producing society presupposes two things about the social formation:

  • That labour is carried out privately and independently by individuals.
  • That there is a social division of labour which necessitates the exchange of products between individuals to meet social needs

So then if we ask “how is the social distribution of labour regulated” it would be through the exchange of things. This is not always clear with Marx. Marx can be very specific with what he is trying to convey. For example in Chapter 3 when discussing price: “Magnitude of value expresses a relation of social production, it expresses the connexion that necessarily exists between a certain article and the portion of the total labour-time of society required to produce it.”

Or in the section on Commodity fetishism: “As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange.”

In other words, the function of the social relation of “value” and the equal treatment of qualitatively different kinds of labour is to regulate the social distribution of labour. This means that the social distribution of labour is regulated by the material relations between commodity producers. By bringing my commodity into relation with the universal equivalent, my labour stands in relation to all other labours. My private labour becomes a part of the social distribution of labour, but this is only accomplished through the act of exchange which is a relation between materials. This is why Marx refers to “material relations between people and social relations between things”. The material relations between commodities regulates the social distribution of labour. This is why Marx refers to commodity production as “indirectly” social labour, “social hieroglyphics” or to the “reification” of production relations. Social relations only become established indirectly through relations between the products of labour as opposed to social relations established between individuals regulating the production of material.

Marx compares this to the realm of religion. Where the products of our mind exert a power over us, so in commodity producing society the products of our hand hold a power of us by establishing the proportions in which we share in the total distribution of labour, and therefore to what degree our social needs (and which kinds) can be met.

One has to be careful then, to treat commodity fetishism as the sole fetishism of Capitalist society as opposed to one part of a more general theory of fetishism. But then we must ask: what is fetishism? In Marxian discourse fetishism generally refers to believing the social or economic properties a thing obtains in a given set of social relations to be a “natural” or “intrinsic” part of the actual material thing. Marx talks about this at the end of the Chapter, where he quotes several economist referring to value as a “property” of thing as opposed to the “use-value” as a socially determined property. The power of commodities to establish a social distribution of labour is taken to be natural, and therefore the way we interact in these relations is “natural” too. Take for example, Adam Smith’s point that humans have a propensity to “truck, barter and exchange”.



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