The fetishism of commodities

There are a lot of people that are really powerful in the world: Presidents, CEO’s, bankers, leaders of movements… But there is an object, a thing, that is more powerful than any of them. This object is money.

Money is really powerful. It makes people, societies, and countries do all sorts of things. The pursuit of money, as and end in itself, occupies many people’s lives and is the driving force of economic growth. And all over society money acts as a symbol of status, prestige and social power.

The funny thing about money is that it is just an object. Nowadays its not even a valuable object like gold. It’s just pieces of paper, or digits on a computer screen. It has all of this power and influence yet it needs no will, weapons, or words.

Why?

This phenomenon where objects have social power, in which things act as if they have a will of their own, is what Marx sought to unravel with his notion of “the fetishism of commodities.” When Marx talked about fetishism he wasn’t talking about whips and chains and leather outfits. He was talking about the way the relations between producers in a capitalist society take the form of relations between things.

The word “fetishism” originally was used to describe the practices of religions that attributed magical powers to objects like idols, or charms. If the Israelites of the Old Testament won a battle with the Philistines they attributed it to the powers of the ark of the covenant that they carried around. If they lost it was because they had pissed off the ark. Of course in reality it was their own actions that caused them to win or lose. Attributing their own powers to an object is fetishism. For Marx, money and commodities are much like this. We think that they have mystical powers, yet their powers really come from us, from our own creative labor.

Let’s take a look inside a workplace. It could be any workplace- a capitalist factory, a peasant commune, a family farm, whatever. Here the relations between different workers are direct. I make a widget and I hand it to the next person. If something needs to change about the labor process a manager brings the workers together and says, “Now we will organize things differently.” Whether it is a democratic or hierarchical form of organization it is an organization that happens directly between people.

Now let’s look outside the workplace at the market. In the market things are different. The organization of work, the division of labor, doesn’t happen through direct social relations between people. In the market the products of labor confront each other as commodities with values. These interactions between things act back upon production. They are what send signals to producers to change their labor, to produce more, produce less, go out of business, expand business, etc.

Coal miners, bakers, carpenters and chefs don’t directly relate to each other as workers. Instead the products of their labor, coal, bread, cabinets and pasta, meet in the market and are exchanged with one another. The material relations between people become social relations between things. When we look at coal, bread, cabinets and pasta we don’t see the work that created them. We just see commodities standing in relation of value to each other. A pile of coal’s value is worth so many loaves of bread. A cabinet’s value is worth so much pasta. The value, the social power of the object, appears to be a property of the object itself, not a result of the relation between workers.

[Money is the god of commodities. Through money all other commodities express their value. The amount of social labor that goes into a pencil becomes 20 cents. The portion of the social labor that goes into making a grand piano becomes 20 grand. As the god of commodities money becomes the ultimate expression of social power. It can be anything, buy anything, do anything. Yet money is just a scrap of paper, a pile of shiny rocks, a digit in a computer… It only has this power because it is an expression of social relations.]

We are atomized individuals wandering through a world of objects that we consume. When we buy a commodity we are just having an experience between ourselves and the commodity. We are blind to the social relations behind these interactions. Even if we consciously know that there is a network of social relations being coordinated through this world of commodities, we have no way of experiencing these relations directly because… they are not direct relations. We can only have an isolated intellectual knowledge of these social relations, not a direct relation. Every economic relation is mediated by an object called a commodity.

This process whereby the social relations between people take the form of relations between things Marx calls “reification”. Reification helps explain why it is that in a capitalist society things appear to take on the characteristics of people. Inanimate objects spring to life endowed with a “value” that seems to come from the object itself. We say a book is worth 20 dollars, a sweater worth 25 dollars. But this value doesn’t come from the sweater itself. You can’t cut open the sweater and find $25 inside. This $25 is an expression of the relation between this sweater and all of the other commodities in the market. And these commodities are just the material forms of a social labor process coordinated through market exchange. It is because people organize their labor through the market that value exists.

The illusion that value comes from the commodity itself and not from the social relations behind it is a “fetish”. A capitalist society is full of such illusions. Money appears to have god-like qualities, yet this is only so because it is an object which is used to express the value of all other commodities. Profit appears to spring out of exchange itself, yet Marx worked hard to explain how profit actually originates in production through the unequal relations between capital and labor in the workplace. Rent appears to grow out of the soil, yet Marx was adamant that rent actually comes from the appropriation of value created by labor. We see these fetishistic ideas in modern day mainstream economic theory in the idea that value comes from the subjective experience between a consumer and a commodity, and that capital creates value by itself.

Yet the theory of commodity fetishism isn’t just a theory of illusion. It’s not that the entire world is an illusion, reality existing somewhere far below the surface, always out of sight. The illusion is real. Commodities really do have value. Money really does have social power. Individual people really are powerless and material structures really do have social power. There is not a real world of production existing below the surface in which the relations between producers are direct. Relations between producers are only indirect, only coordinated through the mystifying world of commodities.

Conclusion:

The theory of commodity fetishism is central to Marx’s theory of value and it’s one of the things that sharply distinguishes him from his predecessors. Adam Smith and David Ricardo both held that prices were explained by labor time. But Marx’s value theory is much more than a theory of price. It is a theory of the way the social relations between people take on material forms that then act back upon and shape these social relations. Labor takes the form of value embodied in commodities. Money price becomes the universal expression of this value. The pursuit of money as an end itself dominates society. Means of production become capital. Money, commodities and capital, as representatives of social value, become independent forces in their own right out of the control of society. The law of value is the law of these forces. Attempts to exert some control over these forces through monopoly or the state always become enmeshed in the social antagonisms of value.