On Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”

In this section we discover one more characteristic of the commodity: its ability and tendency to be fetishized. Marx begins by elaborating on how the ostensibly concrete categories of mainstream political-economy, specifically the commodity, are not a complete account of the social relations of production. The problem is that the bourgeois political-economists take the commodity-form for granted; they grasp it at the level of appearance only, and thus fetishize it. Marx will go on to debunk the Robinson Crusoe example to illustrate this point: the hypothetical situation of a lone Briton on his sunny island is totally at odds with the social character of labor.

But to take a step back, Marx begins by provisionally agreeing with the political-economist. Yes, he concedes, the appearance of the commodity is an appropriate point of departure. It’s not a falsehood that commodities are created by human labor and they are useful. Moreover, the political-economists were right to see the value of a commodity as determined by the socially necessary labor-time involved in its production – this labor being social in nature, meaning that is is done for the purpose of exchange. This is all consistent with the Robinson Crusoe example.

It’s all obvious and not inaccurate, Marx says.

Yet, political-economy fails to see this social relation as existing between producers; instead it sees only the products of labor in relation to each other. In his words, “It (exchange-relations) is nothing but the definite social relation between men which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” (p.165) We can attribute this phenomemon to the nature of labor under capitalism. Specifically, we produce commodities so that they can be exchanged. Thus our only obvious exchange relation to other producers is that we interact with them only to the extent that they produce commodities. What we have are “material relations between persons and social relations between things.” (p.166)

Marx chooses to title this phenomenon “the fetishism of commodities”, borrowing a religious term signifying that the creations of human labor appear to be independent, to live a life on their own. Marx lists some of the attendant effects of the fetishism of commodities:

  • A failure to see social relations between producers of commodities even as they exchange commodities with each other.
  • A reduction of all qualitatively different labor to the value-form, thus making all labor commensurable.
  • Confusion over the substance of value; seeing it as something other than the crystalization of labor-power.
  • Misrecognition of the social character of private labor.

Ultimately, the fetishism of commodities naturalizes that which is historically specific. A perfect example of this is that gold and silver, or any other metallic currency, are things whose values is assumed to be intrinsic to them, though of course if one were to rigorously interrogate the issue we would find that the values of such things exist purely as social relations. Revisiting the first chapter of Capital with this in mind, we see Marx’s argument to be that the commodity is not only a thing. It is also the structure of labor-in-capitalism, turning all labor in value-production and obfuscating its own specificity as a social form.

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