On the Fetishism of the Commodity


Another text that should be helpful with understanding the nature of the fetish of the commodity. This is an excerpt from Michael Heinrich’s book, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, 2004).

3.8 The Secret of the Fetishism of Commodities and Money

The final section of the first chapter of Capital is titled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret.” The term “commodity fetish” has enjoyed a certain amount of propagation since Marx’s time, but is not always used and understood in a way referring to phenomena dealt with by Marx. Marx did not use the term “commodity fetish” to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. The term also does not refer to making a fetish of brand names. There is no “secret” behind possessing expensive commodities as status symbols that needs to be deciphered.

It is often the case that the commodity fetish is characterized solely as a state of affairs in which the social relationships between people appear as social relationships between things (the relationships of those engaged in exchange appear as a value relationship between the products being exchanged), so that social relationships become the property of things. But if we leave it at that, then fetishism appears to be merely a mistake: people ascribe false properties to the products of their labor and fail to see that “in reality” a social relationship between people lies behind the relationship between things. Fetishism would therefore be a form of “false consciousness” that merely conceals the “real conditions.” If that were the case, then this false consciousness must disappear once the real conditions have been explained. In this reductionist conception of the commodity fetish, important points of Marx’s analysis are lost. We will therefore deal with Marx’s argumentation in great detail. To offer a better overview, the following is divided into lettered sections.

a. One must first pose the question, where can we pinpoint the “secret” that Marx speaks of in the section heading and that he seeks to decipher? Marx commences with the following:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. (Capital, 1:163, emphasis added)

The commodity is thus only a “very strange” and mysterious thing not in terms of everyday perception, but as a result of the analysis (as rendered thus far). A table, for example, is “an ordinary, sensous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing, which transcends sensuousness” (Capital, 1:163). This translation is wrong, Marx literally writes that as a commodity it is changed “into a sensuous extrasensory thing” (sinnlich übersinnliches Ding).

To our everyday perception, a table is above all a particular use value. As a commodity, it also has a particular value. Both aspects are not at all mysterious to our spontaneous, everyday consciousness. And the notion that the magnitude of value depends upon the volume of expended labor-time may be accepted or contested, but the circumstance itself is in no way mysterious. The “sensuous extrasensory” character of the commodity is first made clear by analysis: the analysis shows that the value-objectivity of the commodity cannot be expressed within the commodity itself (and is therefore “extrasensory,” that is, a “spectral objectivity”) but only in another commodity that effectively acts as a direct embodiment of value. The substance of value, abstract labor, was demonstrated to be just as elusive as the objectivity of value. The analysis has thus unearthed a number of disconcerting findings.

b. Marx then asks, “Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, as soon as it assumes the form of commodities?,” and formulates the following answer:

Clearly it arises from this form itself. The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour.

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact, that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties [gesellschaftliche Natureigenschaften] of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation, which exists apart from and outside the producers. (Capital, 1:164-65; emphasis added)

In every social form of production characterized by a division of labor, people stand in a particular social relationship to one another. In commodity production, this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities. People’s social relationships therefore appear to them as “socio-natural properties” of the products of labor: what Marx means can be demonstrated using the example of value: on the one hand it is clear that “value” is not a natural property of things like weight or color, but on the other, for the people in a commodity-producing society, it seems as if things in a social context automatically possess “value” and therefore automatically follow their own objective laws to which humans must submit. Under the conditions of commodity production, things take on a life of their own, for which Marx only finds a suitable comparison in the “misty realm of religion”: in religion, it is the products of the human mind that take on a life of their own, whereas in the world of commodities it is the “products of men’s hands” that do so:

I call this the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (Capital, 1:165)

c. If fetishism “attaches itself” to commodities, then it must be something more than simply a case of false consciousness; the fetishism must also express an actual situation. And, under the conditions of commodity production, producers do not relate to one another in a direct, social way; they first enter into a relationship with one another during the act of exchange—through the products of their labor. That their social relationship to one another appears as a social relationship between things is therefore not at all an illusion. To those engaged in exchange, writes Marx, “the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things” (Capital, 1:166, emphasis added).

That things have social characteristics under the conditions of commodity production is in no way wrong. What is wrong is the assumption that they possess these social characteristics automatically, in every social context. Fetishism does not consist of products of labor being regarded as objects of value—in bourgeois society, products of labor that are exchanged are in fact objects of value—but this objectivity of value is considered a “self-evident and nature-imposed necessity” (Capital, 1:175).

d. What must interest commodity owners first and foremost is the value of their commodities. These values are the objective expression of asocial connection produced by humans, but not transparent to them.

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (Capital, 1:166, emphasis added)

Commodity producers produce their social connection precisely not as a result of a particular awareness concerning the connection between value and labor, but independent of such awareness. It would therefore be completely wrong to understand Marx’s theory of value as claiming that people exchange their commodities according to their values because they know how much labor is contained within the individual products. It is Marx’s intent to show that humans act without being aware of the conditions of their action.

e. This unconsciously produced fetishism is not simply a state of false consciousness, but rather possesses material force. Whether my individually expended labor is recognized as a component of the total labor of society, and to what degree, is not information provided to me directly by society, but by the value of my commodity in exchange. And my prosperity or misfortune depends upon this information. But the magnitudes of value of commodities

vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers. Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, which far from being under their control, in fact control them. (Capital, 1:169-70; emphasis added)

The value of commodities is an expression of an overwhelming social interaction that cannot be controlled by individuals. In a commodity producing society, people (all of them!) are under the control of things, and the decisive relations of domination are not personal but “objective” (sachlich). This impersonal, objective domination, submission to “inherent necessities,” does not exist because things themselves possess characteristics that generate such domination, or because social activity necessitates this mediation through things, but only because people relate to things in a particular way—as commodities.

f. That this objective domination (sachliche Herrschaft) and the objectification of social relationships to properties of things is a result of a specific behavior of humans is not transparent to everyday consciousness. For this spontaneous consciousness, “forms which stamp products as commodities . . . possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life” (Capital, 1:168; emphasis added). In addition to everyday consciousness, classical political economy (and modern neoclassical economics) labors under the delusion of these forms. However, this delusion is not the result of the subjective delusion of individual economists. Marx emphasizes that this delusion is itself based upon a specific objectivity and therefore has a certain necessity:

The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective [gesellschaftlich giiltige, also objektive Gedankenformen], for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e. commodity production. (Capital, 1:169; emphasis added)

These “objective forms of thought” constitute what individual economists perceive as a matter of course to be the immediate, obvious object of political economy. In this passage it becomes clear what Marx meant by “critical expose of the system of the bourgeois economy” in his letter to Lassalle (quoted in section 2.2): the critique of bourgeois categories is not an abstract exercise in the philosophy of science, but is rather inseparable from it.

The various schools of political economy do not engage in debate concerning the form-determinations of their subject matter, but rather concerning the content of these form-determinations. In contrast, Marx renders a fundamental critique, a critique applied to the foundations of bourgeois economics: Marx criticizes forms that are always presupposed by bourgeois economics:

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. (Capital, 1:173-74)

Because value-objectivity ( Wertgegenstàndlichkeit) is a result of very specific behavior by human beings, namely producing things privately and exchanging them, this correlation is not apparent to either spontaneous, everyday consciousness or to political economists. Both see in the commodity form a “socio-natural property” (gesellschaftliche Natureigenschaft). In this respect, both everyday consciousness and the science of economics remain imprisoned within this fetishism.

As Marx makes this fetishism recognizable, he not only provides the foundations for a critique of consciousness and the fields of knowledge, he makes clear that social relationships must in no way remain the way they are: the rule of value over humans is not a natural law of society, but the result of a very specific behavior by humans, and this behavior can—at least in principle—be changed. A society without commodities and money is conceivable.

g. Fetishism is not limited to the commodity. It is also inherent to money. Money as an independent manifestation of value possesses a special form of value: it exists in the form of the general equivalent; all other commodities do not. The special commodity (or piece of paper) that functions as money can only function as money because all other commodities relate to it as money. However, the form of money appears to be a “socio-natural property” of this commodity.

What appears to happen is not that a particular commodity becomes money because all other commodities express their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity, because it is money. The movement through which this process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind. Without any initiative on their part, the commodities find their own value-configuration ready to hand, in the form of a physical commodity existing outside but also alongside them. (Capital, 1:187; emphasis added)

What applies to the commodity also applies to money: only as a result of the specific behavior of commodity owners does money possess its specific properties. But this mediation is no longer visible, it “vanishes.” For that reason, it seems as if money possesses these properties in and of itself. In the case of money, whether it is a money commodity or a piece of paper, a social relationship appears as an objective property of a thing. And just as with the commodity, social actors do not have to be aware of the mediating relation in order to act: “Anyone can use money as money without necessarily understanding what money is” (Theories of Surplus Value, MECW 32:348).

h. The “absurdity” [Verriicktheit\ (Capital, 1:169) of this reification of social relationships is increased in the case of money. If products of labor are turned into commodities, they acquire a value-objectivity in addition to their physical objectivity as use values. This value-objectivity, as illustrated above, is a “spectral objectivity,” apparently just as objective as use value but nonetheless not tangible or visible within the individual object. But money now counts as an independent manifestation of value. Whereas commodities are useful objects that additionally have the objective status of being values, money is directly a “value-thing” (Wertding). In the first edition of volume 1 of Capital, Marx makes this point clear using a nice example:

It is as if, in addition to lions, tigers, hares and all other really existing animals which together constitute the various families, species, subspecies, etc. of the animal kingdom, the animal would also exist, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom. (MEGA 11.5:37; emphasis in original)

That “the animal” walks about among the various concrete animals is not only factually impossible, it is also logical nonsense: the abstract category is placed at the same level as the individuals from which the abstract category is derived. But money is the real existence of this absurdity.

i. In bourgeois society, people’s spontaneous consciousness succumbs to the fetishism of the commodity and money. The rationality of their behavior is always a sort of rationality within the framework set by commodity production. If the intentions of social actors (that which they “know”) are made the point of departure of analysis (as is the case in neoclassical economics and various sociological theories), then that which individuals “don’t know,” the framework that preconditions their thought and activity, is blanked out of the analysis from the very start. Proceeding from this consideration, not only can we criticize a considerable portion of the foundations of bourgeois economics and sociology but also a popular argument of worldview Marxism: namely that there exists a social subject (the working class), which, on the basis of its particular position in bourgeois society, possesses a special ability to see through social relationships. Many representatives of traditional Marxism expressed the need to “take the standpoint of the working class” in order to understand capitalism. But in doing so, they overlooked the fact that workers (just like capitalists) in their spontaneous consciousness are also subject to the delusions of the commodity fetish. In the next few chapters, we’ll see that the capitalist mode of production brings forth other inversions and absurdities to which both workers and capitalists succumb. One cannot therefore speak of a privileged position of perception occupied by the working class—but one also cannot make the claim that fetishism is in principle impenetrable.


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