Commodity fetishism  

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[In] the religious world[,] the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and enter into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities[.] --Das Kapital, 1867, Karl Marx

'World exhibitions were places of pilgrimage to the fetish commodity'. --Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

If the commodity was a fetish, then Grandville was the tribal sorcerer. --Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project (1927 - 1940)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In Marxist theory, commodity fetishism is a state of social relations, said to arise in complex capitalist market systems, in which social relationships are defined by the values that are placed on commodities. The term is introduced in the opening chapter of Karl Marx's main work of political economy, Capital, of 1867.

Marx's use of the term fetish can be interpreted as an ironic comment on the "rational", "scientific" mindset of industrial capitalist societies. In Marx's day, the word was primarily used in the study of primitive religions; Marx's "fetishism of commodities" might be seen as proposing that just such primitive belief systems exist at the heart of modern society. In most subsequent Marxist thought, commodity fetishism is defined as an illusion arising from the central role that private property plays in capitalism's social processes. It is a central component of the dominant ideology in capitalist societies.


Marx's argument

People within capitalist societies find their material life organized through the medium of commodities. They trade their labour-power (which in Marx's view is a commodity) for a special commodity, money, and use that commodity to claim various other commodities produced by other people. The social nature of society is destroyed by the abstraction of commodities, in the sense that "use-value" (the usefulness of an object or action) is totally separated from "exchange-value" (the marketplace value of an object or action). An example is that a pearl or a lump of gold is worth more than a horseshoe or a corkscrew. This abstraction is referred to as "fetishism". (The term "social" is used by Marx to refer to the essential organization of a society, i.e., to those processes by which a society allocates the tasks necessary to its survival.) Under this system producers and consumers have no direct human contact or conscious agreements to provide for one another. Their productions take on a property form, meet and exchange in a marketplace, and return in property form. Production and consumption are private experiences of person to commodity and material self-interest, not person to person and communal interest.

The work of social relations seems to be conducted by commodities amongst themselves, out in the marketplace. The market appears to decide who should do what for whom. Social relationships are confused with their medium, the commodity. The commodity seems to be imbued with human powers, becoming a fetish of those powers. Human agents are denied awareness of their social relations, becoming alienated from their own social activity. As a consequence of commodity fetishism, the basic political issues involved in social relationships are obscured, from both exploiter and exploited. Commodity fetishism ensures that neither side is fully conscious of the political positions they occupy. In Capital, this argument is presented by tracing the formal aspect of a commodity, its value, from the most abstract model possible towards more concrete, real life models. This method of analysis owes much to Hegel, is densely written, and proves highly resistant to summarization.

After Marx

The fetishism of commodities has proven fertile material for work by other theorists since Marx, who have added to, adapted, or, as Marxist orthodoxy might see it, "vulgarized" the original concept. Sigmund Freud's well-known but unrelated theory of sexual fetishism led to new interpretations of commodity fetishism, as types of sexually charged relationships between a person and a manufactured object.

György Lukács based History and Class Consciousness on Marx's notion, developing his own notion of commodity reification as the key obstacle to class consciousness. Lukács's work was a significant influence on later philosophers such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard. Debord developed a notion of the spectacle that ran directly parallel to Marx's notion of the commodity; for Debord, the spectacle made relations among people seem like relations among images (and vice versa). In the work of the semiotician Baudrillard, commodity fetishism is deployed to explain subjective feelings towards consumer goods in the "realm of circulation", that is, among consumers. Baudrillard was especially interested in the cultural mystique added to objects by advertising, which encourages consumers to purchase them as aids to the construction of their personal identity. In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard develops a notion of the sign that, like Debord's notion of spectacle, runs alongside Marx's commodity.

Other theorists have been concerned with the social status of the producers of consumer items relative to their consumers. For example, the person who owns a Porsche has more prestige than the people working on the assembly-line that produced it. But this version of commodity fetishism refers to more—the belief that the car (or any manufactured object) is more important than people, and confers special powers beyond material utility to those who possess it (see also Conspicuous consumption).

See also

See also

Pre–Marxist theories
Marxist theories pertinent to the theory of commodity fetishism
Post–Marxist theories derived from the theory of commodity fetishism

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