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The Fetishism of Commodities

Commodities initially appear as trivially obvious: 3M makes gaskets and they serve a particular need, hence they sell. But, under closer inspection this activity becomes increasingly mysterious. The gaskets sell because they serve a particular need, sure, but why do they sell at a certain price? To take the stock example, why is two ounces of gold worth a ton of iron; or why should the Adobe Creative Suite be worth as much as the beater rust bucket I drive around? In terms of what these objects do, there is little to relate them: a ton of iron is quite qualitatively distinct from a rubber gasket, and neither relate very well to a software program. Nor can we simply say that they are all products of an ethereal labor, since the concrete labor that goes into writing code is qualitatively distinct from the concrete labor that goes into mining ore. Insofar as we look at the natural characteristics of objects, their chemical structures and atomic numbers, there is no reason whatsoever that one should be worth anything in terms of another, any reason why a particular use is worth Y and another Z. This requires something over and above natural characteristics.

Over and above natural characteristcs: we have to look to the society that produced them. Value becomes a necessarily social variable. If we take our ton of iron and ounces of gold, we see that they are, in fact, both products of human labor, albeit of different types, yet they are unified in a way that is not merely ethereal but social. The labor that makes them is at once concrete, or particular, and abstract, or general.

We do not see this when we look at our quantities of iron and gold and recognize them as equal. What is apparent to us is only a relation between material things: the particular processes that mined and refined both, in accordance with social customs (perhaps 8hr workdays, with machinery or picks, &c), all of the production process recedes in the exchange. What appears is the supposed immediate relation of iron and gold, wherein a definite amount of one is equal to a definite amount of another; knowledge of the genesis of the equality is not necessary for exchange to occur. This is the source of what Marx calls the “fetishism” of commodities, wherein objects, which are produced by humans, “appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race” (165). Since the values of iron and gold is not grounded in their social conditions of production, each is free to float off in ethereal mysteriousness. Why is this worth that? Who knows! But it is! Let’s make some more of this to get that!

With their values taken as a given, iron and gold begin to seem as if their values are only natural. And then the entire process of itself comes to seem only natural.Though how this is supposed to be demonstrated is unclear, an object of faith. The problems set in motion by this disharmony or misrecognition are much the concern of Lukács in his reification essay: on the surface it appears that the basic laws of commodity exchange are outside of our control, but when it comes down to it it is our aggregate socially oriented labor that makes exchange function. If we were to reorient ourselves, the value of commodities that appears only natural now would metamorphosize into something new.

In the short section of Capital that Marx dedicates to fetishism — or reification — he lays out what he sees to be its sources. When commodity producers work, they do so in isolation from each other. They do not come into ‘social contact until they exchange the products of their labor, the specific social characteristics of their private labours appear only within this exchange’ (165). And the appearance of this is that the exchange relation is immediate, fundamental, while each individuals social labor is mediate, derivative. One works in order to exchange his product. For laborers, then,

social relations between their private labours do not appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things. 166

Value, then,

does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language. 167

Value, like the content and form of expression, is an intersubjectively constituted thing. What I make can’t have value without reference to what you make any more than the words I say can have meaning without reference to the words you say. The apparent self-givenness of values or of word meanings ought not distract us from their necessarily social genesis.

The social patterns, or, as Marx calls them, the “forms of human life” (168), that allow this illusion to take place are not investigated by people interested in value: for them value is a natural thing. As such these underling patterns, and the historical process that refined them, are not elaborated; instead, value is determined in terms of money, as a universal equivalent or as a facilitator of exchange. But money itself serves to obscure the real social relations that make exchange possible, as it is the very embodiment of the contradictions inherent in exchange. It does this by making it look as if the objects themselves were worth a given amount, and hence were evenly exchangeable.

By accepting the self-evidence of this equivalence as a natural given, rather than a historical achievement or end result, classical political economy can remain only on the surface of exchange-relations. And a person who internalizes its mode of thought can only envision himself as subject to the laws of the economy, rather as an agentive subject that goes about creating those laws. Because of this, economists must read bourgeois relations back into historical social forms: as those forms are natural and necessary, that have to have existed, in some way, in every society. You might even argue there is a gene for it.

Categories: Notes.

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8 Responses

  1. JCD - hope you’re well. This is a bit of an anal Marxological thing to say - but re-reading this post I think your first blockquote from the fetishism passage is wrong? In my Fowkes translation (I don’t read German) Marx[/Fowkes] writes:

    the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are

    rather than:

    the social relations between their private labours do not appear as what they are

    I think this changes the sense of the analysis - since it removes it from the realm of the purely intersubjectivity? If the relations between commodities are, indeed, social relations between things then the social no longer necessarily = the intersubjective.

    Of course, I don’t have German, so if my Fowkes edition is faulty, that’s a significant change in what I’d taken to be Marx’s argument. Which is why I mention it, I guess.


  2. Hey Duncan, thanks for pointing this ouy. You are correct; I typed the quote in wrong. But I don’t think incorrectly keying it changes the analysis that precedes or follows; we might well be served by defining precisely what we each mean by social and intersubjectivity. But it’s too late for me to get into that tonight.

  3. Thanks jcd. Sorry - wasn’t meaning to drag us into Marxological debates. I just had a nasty shock when I thought I’d been misquoting the guy.

    Hope you’re well…

  4. No need to apologize; I had to edit the quote in my notes database, so you did me a favor! I mean to comment on your recent post on the human limit.

  5. Wow - a reader! :-P Cheers…

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