Essay by German author Anselm Jappe discussing the history and continuing relevance of the concept of commodity fetishism, with particular emphasis on the role of situationist theory in its further elaboration after Marx.
The Metaphysical Subtleties of the Commodity –
My presentation will be quite different from the others you will hear at this forum. To attend a conference concerning the commodity in order to launch a polemic against the very existence of the commodity could very well appear to be about as sensible as going to a congress of physicists to protest against the existence of magnetism or gravity. The existence of commodities is usually considered to be an entirely natural fact, at least in any half-developed society, and the only question which is posed is what to do with them. It can be stated, of course, that there are people in the world who have too few commodities and must be given a few more, or that some commodities are poorly-made or poisonous or dangerous. But this says nothing against the commodity as such. One can certainly disapprove of “consumerism” or “commercialization”, that is, one can ask the commodity to keep its place and not invade other terrains like the human body, for example. But such observations have a moralistic flavor and also seem rather “old-fashioned”, and to be old-fashioned is the only intellectual crime which still exists. Besides, on the rare occasions when it appeared that the commodity was called into question, modern society hurriedly evoked the crimes of Pol Pot, and ended the discussion. The commodity has always existed and always shall exist, however much its manner of distribution changes.
If one understands the word commodity to mean simply a “product”, an object which passes from one person to another, then the statement concerning the commodity’s inevitability is undoubtedly true, if also somewhat tautological. This is, however, the definition provided by all bourgeois political economy since Marx. If we do not wish to content ourselves with this definition, we must recognize in the commodity a specific form of human production, a social form which for only a few centuries—and in a good part of the world, for only a few decades—has become predominant in society. The commodity possesses a peculiar structure, and if we thoroughly analyze the most diverse phenomena, contemporary wars or the collapse of financial markets, the hydro-geological disasters of our time or the crisis of the nation-state, world hunger or changing gender relations, we will always find the structure of the commodity at the bottom of it all. I maintain that this is the consequence of the fact that society itself has reduced everything to a commodity; theory only takes account of this fact.
The commodity is a product destined from the start to sale and the market (and nothing changes much if the market is regulated by the State). In a commodity economy the usefulness of the product does not count, but only its capacity for sale and its transformation, by the mediation of money, into another commodity. Consequently, it only attains use value by means of the transformation of the product itself into exchange value, into money. A commodity qua commodity cannot be defined, therefore, by the concrete labor which has produced it, since it is a mere quantity of indistinct, abstract labor; that is, the quantity of labor time which it took to produce it. From this fact a grave inconvenience arises: it is not men themselves who regulate production in view of their needs, but an anonymous moment, the market, which regulates production post festum. The subject is not man but the commodity as an automatic subject. Man’s vital processes are abandoned to the totalitarian and unilateral management of a blind mechanism which they nourish but do not control. The commodity separates production from consumption and subordinates the concrete usefulness or harmfulness of each thing to the question of how much abstract labor (represented by money) it is capable of realizing on the market. The reduction of concrete labors to abstract labor is not merely a cunning trick or a simple mental operation. In commodity society, private and concrete labor can only become social, which is to say useful for others and consequently for its producer by being stripped of its own qualities and becoming abstract through exchange. As a result, only quantitative movement counts, that is, the augmentation of abstract labor, while the satisfaction of needs becomes a secondary and accessory effect which may or may not take place. Use value becomes a mere carrier of exchange value, unlike what occurred in all previous societies. Nonetheless, use value must always exist; this latter fact constitutes a limit against which the tendency of exchange value and money to constantly and tautologically increase constantly collides. The best definition of abstract labor, after that of Marx, was given by none other than John Maynard Keynes, although without the least critical intention: “From the point of view of the national economy, to dig holes and then to fill them in is an entirely sensible activity.”
The commodity and its general form, money, might have served a positive function at first, facilitating the expansion of needs. But its structure is like a time bomb, a virus inscribed in the genetic code of modern society. The more the commodity seizes control of society, the more it undermines the foundations of society itself, rendering it entirely uncontrollable and transforming it into a self-operating machine. It is thus not a question of praising or condemning the commodity; it is the commodity itself which will get rid of itself over the long term, and maybe not just itself. The commodity inexorably destroys the society of the commodity. As a form of indirect and unconscious socialization, it cannot but produce disasters.
This process by which man’s social life is transferred to his commodities is what Marx called commodity fetishism: instead of controlling his material production, man is controlled by it; he is governed by his products which have made themselves independent, the same thing which happened with religion. The term “fetishist” has entered into everyday language, and it is often said of someone that he is a car fetishist, a clothes fetishist, or a cell-phone fetishist. This use of the term “fetishist” appears to be linked, however, rather to the sense in which Freud used it, namely, that of conferring upon a mere object an emotional significance derived from other contexts. Even if the objects of such fetishisms are commodities, it seems unlikely that this everyday “fetishism” could be the same thing as Marx’s “commodity fetishism”. This is because, first, it is rather difficult to admit that the commodity as such, and not only various particular commodities, could be, among us moderns, the object of cult comparable to that in which the so-called primitive peoples worship their totems and their embalmed animals. The excessive love for certain commodities is only an epiphenomenon of the process by which the commodity has bewitched social life in its entirety, because everything that society does or is capable of doing has been projected into commodities.
But even those for whom the commodity should not seem so “normal”, that is, the presumed Marxists, have shown themselves to be little disposed to recognize themselves as savages. Such fastidiousness is clearly helped along by the fact that “commodity fetishism” and its derivatives—money, capital, interest—occupy a very limited space within Marx’s work, and it cannot be said that the concept is positioned in the center of his theory. Besides, the Marxian definition of fetishism, like all of his theory of value and abstract labor, is tremendously difficult to understand; which is not due, by the way, to Marx’s inability to express himself clearly, but to the fact that, as he says himself, a paradoxical reality is expressed in linguistic paradoxes. The splitting of all human production into two aspects, exchange value and use value, determines almost all aspects of our life and nevertheless defies our understanding and common sense, perhaps somewhat like the theory of relativity. It was hard to create a popular discourse for fetishism, as was done with “class struggle” or “exploitation”. Furthermore, the Marxian analysis of fetishism pointed towards a sort of secret nucleus of bourgeois society, a nucleus which has only slowly become visible; for almost a century, attention remained fixed upon the secondary effects of the commodity-form, such as the exploitation of the working classes. Not in vain did Marx employ, when speaking of the fetish character of the commodity for a few pages, the terms “arcane”, “metaphysical subtlety”, “theological niceties”, “mysterious”, “admirable extravagances”, “mystical character”, “enigmatic character”, “quid pro quo”, “phantasmagorical form”, “nebulous region”, “hieroglyphics”, “extravagant form”, “mysticism”, “sorcery” and “spell”. Fetishism is the fundamental secret of modern society, that which is never spoken of and must not be revealed. In this regard it is like the unconscious; and the Marxian description of fetishism as a form of social unconsciousness and as a blind self-regulating process displays interesting analogies with Freudian theory. It is therefore not surprising that fetishism, just like the unconscious, employs all its metaphysical subtlety and all its theological tricks so as not to be recognized. For a long time, such concealment was not very difficult for it: to critique fetishism would have implied calling into question all of the categories which even the presumed Marxists and the critics of bourgeois society had completely internalized and had long considered natural data concerning which one could only discuss the questions of more or less, how, and above all, “for whom”, but whose existence could not in itself be questioned: value, abstract labor, money, the State, democracy, productivity. Only when the struggle for the distribution of these goods had led, during the postwar period, to a situation of equilibrium in the Fordist welfare state was it possible to place the commodity as such, and the disasters which it brings in its wake, in the center of attention.
For many decades after Marx, and despite the contributions of Lukàcs, Isaac Rubin and a few others, all analysis of fetishism was diluted in the much larger and indeterminate category of “alienation”; along with the latter, fetishism was transformed into a phenomenon of consciousness, into a false opinion or evaluation of things which somehow could be related to the much-discussed topic of “ideology”. Only during the second half of the sixties did the concept of fetishism, the analysis of the structure of the commodity and of abstract labor come to occupy a distinguished place in debate, above all in Germany and Italy.
The Situationist International, however, achieved a greater and longer lasting effect during the sixties with its integral critique of modern life and its proclamation of “a revolution of everyday life”. Up until now the situationists have been deliberately misunderstood and taken for a mere artistico-cultural movement; and their principal book, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, is often seen as a simple critique of the mass media. But it is actually a solid social theory which is deeply rooted precisely in the critique of the commodity structure. Debord denounces the autonomous economy removed from human control, the division of society into separate spheres such as politics, economy and art, and arrives at a critique of abstract and tautological labor which molds society in conformity with its own requirements. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”, one reads at the beginning of The Society of the Spectacle: instead of living in the first person, we contemplate the life of commodities. Debord also says: “The spectacle does not sing the praises of men and their weapons, but of commodities and their passions” (Sec. 66). Without needing to attend endless Marxological seminars, he had rediscovered the whole Marxian critique of commodity fetishism and brought it up to date.
Nor is it just another bookish theory: the Paris May revolt, of which the situationists had in a sense been the intellectual precursors, was also the first modern revolt not made in the name of economic or strictly political demands, but was born rather from the demand for a different life, autonomous and freed from the tyranny of the market, the State and their common source in the commodity. In 1968 the States of the East were as afraid as the States of the West, the trade unions and the bosses, the right and the left: in other words, the various faces of commodity society. And no one knew how to rise to the occasion of that rebellion like the situationists.
Debord had foreseen it in 1967: “As soon as society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy, in fact, depends on society…. That which was the economic it must become the I…. Its opposite is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making” (Sections 52-53). The social unconscious, the It of the Spectacle, upon which the current social organization is based, thus had to mobilize to seal this new crack which had opened at just the moment when the dominant order believed itself to be more secure than ever. Among the measures which the economic unconscious took, we also find the attempts to neutralize the radical critique of the commodity which had found its highest expression in the situationists. It was impossible to domesticate Debord himself, unlike what had happened to almost all the other “heroes” of 1968. And his theory left no margin for misunderstanding: “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life”, one reads in Sec. 42 of The Society of the Spectacle. But another possibility remained for the sorcerers of the commodity: that of faking the language of radical critique, apparently even in a slightly more extreme and yet more audacious manner, but in reality with the opposite intentions and contents. That our epoch prefers the copy to the original, as Debord says, quoting Feuerbach, also turns out to be true in respect to radical critique itself.
According to Debord, the spectacle is the triumph of semblance and of sight, where the image replaces reality. Debord mentions television only by way of example; for him the spectacle is a development of that real abstraction which dominates commodity society, based on pure quantity. But if we are immersed in an ocean of uncontrollable images which prevent our having access to reality, then it would seem to be yet more audacious to say that this reality has itself totally disappeared and that the situationists were still too timid and too optimistic, now that the process of abstraction has devoured all of reality and the spectacle is today even more spectacular and more totalitarian than it was ever imagined to be, carrying its crimes to the extreme of assassinating reality itself. The “postmodern” discourses which radiated from France in the 1970s freely helped themselves to situationist ideas, without, naturally, citing such a disreputable source, although they were certainly aware of it, even by way of certain personal experiences. As Asger Jorn had already said in 1964: “It is not that Debord is unknown; he is known as evil.” It is not only a question, however, of the usual intellectual self-seeking but of a veritable strategy launched to neutralize a dangerous theory by means of its parody and exaggeration. The postmodernists, so as to appear to have gone beyond situationist theory, in reality converted it into its opposite. Once the spectacle, which is a specific historical-social formation, is confused with the timeless philosophical problem of representation as such, all the terms of the problem are inverted without even being noticed.
The critique of postmodern theories is difficult due to their self-immunizing character which renders all discussion impossible, transforming their assertions into articles of faith which can only be believed or disbelieved. But it is possible to say something about their function, concerning the question of cui bono, thus observing the metaphysical subtlety which the commodity displays in self-defense. While reading postmodern texts one notices that, even if they almost never quote the situationists, the terms “spectacle” or “society of the spectacle” are frequently encountered, and that these texts, whether from 1975 or 1995, very often give the impression of being nothing but responses to Debord’s theses. From him the postmodernists take the descriptions of a spectacle which progressively distances itself from reality; but they appropriate them on a purely phenomenological plane, never seeking a cause beyond the assumption of an irresistible and irrational impulse which drives the spectators toward the spectacle. On the contrary, they condemn any search for explanations. When we read that “the abstraction of the ‘spectacle’, even for the situationists, was never exempt from appeal. Its unconditional realization, on the other hand, is just that…. The spectacle still leaves room for critical consciousness and demystification…. Today we are beyond all disalienation,” then it becomes clear what purpose is served by postmodern references to the spectacle: to announce the uselessness of all resistance to the spectacle.
This supposed disappearance of reality which is so pompously presented as an uncomfortable truth and even as a terrible revelation is in reality the most reassuring assertion one could make in these times of crisis. If the tautological character of the spectacle, denounced by Debord, expresses the automatic character of the commodity economy which, removed beyond all control, madly veers along its way, then there is indeed much to fear. But if signs, on the other hand, only refer to other signs, and so on, if one never finds the original of the unfaithful copy, if there is no real value which must uphold, without ever being able to succeed in doing so, the accumulated debts of the world, then there is absolutely no risk that what is real will effect us. The passengers of the Titanic can remain on board, as Robert Kurz says, and the band can keep playing. Then one can also pretend that one is pronouncing a radically negative moral judgment on this state of affairs; but such a judgment is still just ornamental when no contradiction within the ambit of production has yet managed to shake this autistic world. It is, nonetheless, precisely on the terrain of production where the real basis of the fascination exercised by the “simulacrum” is found: in the global economic system which, thanks to those contradictions of the commodity, about which one wants to know nothing, has run up against its economic, ecological and political limits; a system which stays alive only thanks to a continuous simulation. When the trillions of dollars of speculative capital “parked” in financial markets, in other words, all the fictitious or simulated capital, returns to the “real” economy, it will be seen that speculative capital was not so much the result of a cultural era of virtuality (quite the contrary, certainly) as of a desperate flight to keep ahead of an economy in the process of dissolution. Behind so many discourses concerning the disappearance of reality, nothing is concealed but commodity society’s old dream of being able to free itself of all use value and the limits which the latter imposes on the unlimited increase of exchange value. This is not a matter of deciding whether this disappearance of use value, proclaimed by the postmodernists, is positive or not; the fact is that it is thoroughly impossible, although many think it desirable. That there should be no substance, that one could live eternally in the reign of the simulacrum: that is the hope of the owner’s of today’s world. South Korea and Indonesia are the epitaphs of postmodern theory.
But the very fact of having described the processes of virtualization and of having taken them seriously also constitutes the moment of truth contained in postmodern theories. As a mere description of the reality of the last decades (which they reluctantly provide), these theories often demonstrate their superiority to Marxist-inspired sociology. They knew how to justly denounce the Marxist fixation on capitalist categories such as labor, value and production; they therefore appeared to align themselves, at least at first, with the radical theories that were the main beneficiaries of the legacy of 1968. But later they came to speak of the real problems only to provide answers with neither origin nor goal. In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), Debord compares this kind of pseudo-radical critique to a copy of a gun which only lacks a firing-pin. Like the structuralist and post-structuralist theories, the postmodernists understand the automatic, self-referential and unconscious character of commodity society, but only to convert it into an ontological datum, instead of recognizing it as a historically determinate, scandalous and surmountable aspect of commodity society.
As one can see, it is not easy to avoid the perverse fascination of the commodity. The critique of commodity fetishism is the only way which today opens upon a global understanding of society; fortunately, such a critique is in the process of formation. Forming part of this process are the increasing interest in the theories of the situationists, as well as the work of the German journal Krisis and the echo which is beginning to be heard in Italy as well. For a long time the commodity deceived us by presenting itself as “a trivial and obvious thing”. But its air of innocence has passed because we know today that it is “a very complicated thing, full of metaphysical subtlety and theological niceties”. And all the prayers of its priests will not avail to save it from the evidence of its condemnation.
Anselm Jappe is the author of the critical study, Guy Debord (Tracce, Pescara, 1993), translated into various languages. In MANIA he has published: “Sic Transit Gloria Artis. The ‘End of Art’ According to Theodore W. Adorno and Guy Debord,” no. 1, pp. 31-52; “The Absurd Market of Men without Qualities,” no. 2, pp. 39-43; and “Social Critique or Nihilism?,” no. 4-5-6, pp. 227-241.
Translated from the Spanish translation, Las sutilezas metafísicas de la mercancía, at: