Red Letter
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The Fetishism of Commodities
by Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho
Estimated Reading Time: 8 min

Marx perceives that the exchange of produced use values reflects the social organization of labour that has produced these commodities. Ben Fine, who co-wrote this explanation of Commodity Fetishism for the book Marx's Capital, also wrote the definition for Tom Bottomore's Dictionary of Marxist Thought. There Fine pointed out: "Marx's theory of commodity fetishism is never taken up again explicitly and at length in Capital or elsewhere. Nevertheless its influence can clearly be discerned in his criticisms of classical political economy. Commodity fetishism is the simplest and most universal example of the way in which the economic forms of capitalism conceal underlying social relations; for example whenever capital, however understood, rather than surplus value is seen as the source of profit. The simplicity of commodity fetishism makes it a starting point and example for analyzing non-economic relations. It establishes a dichotomy between appearance and concealed reality (without the former necessarily being false) which can be taken up in the analysis of idedology. It discusses social relations conducted as and in the form of relations between commodities or things and this has application to the theory of reification and alienation."

Tomorrow, we'll read Marx's chapter on Commodity Fetishism (look forward to some Robinson Crusoe references). Because it can read a little dry, we have a special treat for you after that.
But to many of his contemporary economists and to nearly all subsequent ones, the relationship between workers and the products of their labour remains merely a relationship between things, that is to say, of the type x loaves of bread = 1 shirt, or one worker- week is worth so much of a standard of living (the wage bundle). Thus, while capitalism organizes production in definite social relationships between capitalists and workers, these relationships are expressed and appear, in part, as relationships between things. These social relations are further mystified when money enters into consideration, and everything is analyzed in terms of price. Marx calls such a perspective on the capitalist world the fetishism of commodities. It is most apparent in modern economics, where even labour power is treated as an input or factor like any other. Factor rewards are seen first and foremost as due to the physical properties of the inputs, as if profit or rent were directly produced by machinery or land, rather than by people existing together in particular relationships and societies.

Marx draws the brilliant parallel between commodity fetishism and feudal religious devotion. God is humanity’s own creation. Under feudalism, human relationships with God conceal and justify the actual relationships to fellow beings, an absurd bond of exploitation as it appears to the bourgeois (capitalist) mind. Capitalism, however, has its own God and bible. The relationship of exchange between things is also created by people, concealing the true relationship of exploitation and justifying this by the doctrine of freedom of exchange.

But there is a major difference between religious and commodity fetishism. For, whereas God is a creation of religions, commodities do have a real existence, and their exchange represents and, to some extent, conceals the real social relationships of production. Similarly, the price system does exist and is attached to the broader economic and social system, but without making the nature of that system transparent. In particular, buying and selling commodities does not reveal the circumstances by which they have come to the market, or the exploitation of the direct producers, the wage workers, by the capitalist class. Consequently, Marx’s emphasis is upon prices as a value system, determined by the class relations of production and exploitation. But it is worth emphasizing that it is not only class and production relations that are fetishized by their commodity form. Only by tracing back from the marketplace through to production can we pierce through the veil of advertising and discover whether products are, for example, environmentally friendly (‘organic’), or free from exploitation of child labour, and so on.

In this light, commodity fetishism can be made the basis of a theory of alienation or reification. Not only are the workers divorced from the control of the product and the process of producing it, but also the view of this situation is normally distorted or at most partial. Further, the capitalists are subject to social control through competition and the need for profitability. For both capitalists and workers, it appears that external powers exert this control, and not the social relations of production and their effects peculiar to capitalism. Once again, there is a sense in which this is true. For example, the loss of employment or bankruptcy may be blamed on a thing or an impersonal force, as in the unfortunate breakdown of a machine, changes in consumer preferences, international competition or an economic crisis of whatever origin or cause. Most recently, ‘globalization’ has been understood in generic, almost religious, terms as being able to explain all things good or bad about contemporary capitalism. But to breathe analytical and explanatory life into competition, economic crisis and globalization, and go beyond mysticism, we must start with a clear under- standing of the social relations underpinning capitalist production, rather than fetishize its effects.

The distinction between religious and commodity fetishism is not simply academic. Because of its imaginary origins, religious fetishism can readily be rejected, at least in theory, although in reality it can be buttressed by material forces and practices giving it considerable power and influence over our daily lives. By contrast, however well it is understood, it is not possible to wish away the price system by an act of will, except in marginal instances and fragile attempts at self-sustainability. As a result, and here again there is a parallel with religious fetishism, underlying capitalist realities are grasped from time to time through the consequences of daily practices and reflection upon them, and thereby become the subject of both material and ideological struggle. The existence of profits, interest and rent indicates that capitalism is exploitative; and unemployment, economic crises, vast inequalities, environmental degradation, and so on, are no less transparent than the inability of the meek to inherit the world and to eat pie in the sky when they die.

This raises two closely related and hotly debated issues within Marxism and across the social sciences and the political spectrum more generally. The first is the methodological and analytical question of how to order the diverse empirical outcomes associated with capitalism. Can we deal with inequality independent of class, poverty apart from economic and other forms of repression, and growth separately from crisis? Second, to what extent are such conditions endemic to, or reformable within, capitalism? For it is not simply a matter of the logical connections between the different categories of political economy, between value and price for example. One of the strengths of Marx’s Capital, acknowledged by friend and foe alike, is to have pointed to the systemic character of capitalism, and to its essential features. By the same token, Marxism’s antipathy to reformism other than as part of a broader strategy for socialism is based on its inevitable limitations within the confines imposed by capitalism. Around these issues, there remains much room for dispute over method, theory and the politics of reform, both within and with Marxism.

Such perspectives shed light on Marx’s own intellectual development. For his later concept of commodity fetishism forges a link with his earlier work of 1844. Then, while breaking with Hegelian idealism and adopting a materialist philosophy, he developed a theory of alienation. This concentrated on the individual’s relationship to physical and mental activity, fellow beings and consciousness of these processes. In Capital, after extensive economic study, Marx is able to make explicit the coercive forces exerted by capitalist society on the individual. These can be the compulsion of profitability and wage labour, or the more subtle distortions by which these forces are ideologically justified: abstinence, the work ethic, freedom of exchange and other aspects of commodity fetishism. Unlike other theories of alienation, a Marxist theory places the individual in a class position and analyses the perceptions of that position. Each is not seen, in the first instance, as a powerless individual in an unexplained ‘system’ of irrationality, impersonality, inequality, authoritarianism, bureaucracy or whatever. These phenomena have their own character and function in capitalist society at a particular time. They can only be understood as a whole or in relation to individuals against the perspective of the workings of capitalism.

The Fetishism of Commodities
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