In 1867 Karl Marx published perhaps one of his most important works on political economy and capitalism titled “Capital”. In this work Marx chooses to introduce the fetishism of commodities in the first chapter. Based on this placement it is easy to see that he considered it an important part of his theoretical framework. By adding “and the Secret
Thereof” to “The Fetishism of Commodities” Marx (in Appelrouth and Edles 2008:62) hints at the mystical nature of commodities and the unseen power they have over us.
In reviewing Marx’s writing three key concepts emerge, each connected to the others. These three key concepts are the theory of value, the theory of commodity fetishism, and the concept of alienation. The first part of this essay will examine the theory of commodity fetishism.
Marx defines a commodity as “…an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another,” (Marx in Appelrouth and Edles 2008:59). He goes on to broaden the definition by excluding considerations of the nature of such wants by stating, “The nature of such wants… makes no difference,” and further “Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants,” (Ibid.). Marx later qualifies this statement by stating that “A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity,” (Ibid.:61). Rather than being contradictory Marx means by this passage to indicate that an object must be useful to others rather than simply to yourself. The usefulness of an object creates a “use-value” but depends on the unique situation of each individual and is therefore incapable of being compared directly. Being of use to others is one way to create a type of value known as “exchange-value”. Use-value and exchange-value are the two factors of a commodity that Marx assigns.
In assigning use-value and exchange value and examining the interplay between the two Marx develops his theory of commodity fetishism. To understand the term “commodity fetishism” you must look past the current usage of the term “fetish”. Fetish now commonly refers to an obsession or disproportionate pleasure, often in a sexual context. While that definition may apply somewhat to Marx’s theory it is more instructive to consider it in historical context. In Marx’s time “fetish” usually referred to religion. It is clear to me that Marx specifically intended the term “fetishism” as a critique of capitalist beliefs. This is exemplified by the passage: “There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. … In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world,” (Ibid.:63) Through this passage we may begin to grasp the nut of Marx’s commodity fetishism concept.
The main thrust of the commodity fetishism concept is that the exchange-value (what makes something a commodity) doesn’t relate in proportion to the use-value. The use-value is inherent in the object, while the exchange-value is entirely a product of society and most particularly of capitalist society. The difference between natural and inherent properties vs. societal properties and the role, or lack thereof, of nature in exchange-value is shown succiently when Marx points out that “Since exchange value is a definite social manner of expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object, Nature has no more to do with it, than it has in fixing the course of exchange,” (Ibid.:65).
It is the nature of and disconnect between the different types of value assigned to objects that create commodity fetishism. Marx points to the source of this being capitalism and the related social constructs that underlie the obfuscation of (wo)man’s direct relation to fellow (wo)man. Marx most clearly points this out near the end of his section on commodity fetishism when he writes, “What confirms them in this view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use value of objects is realized without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man, while, on the other hand, their value is realized only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process,” (Ibid.:65-66).
In examining the prevalence of the fetishism of commodities in capitalistic societies it is easy to see that commodity fetishism is an inescapable product of the production of commodities, which is the main goal of capitalistic societies. Current trends in the post-industrial era serve to create increasing commodity fetishism as people become more and more disconnected from the relationship of their labor to the labor of others. Consolidation of mass media and the increasing number of ways that advertising is thrust into our lives further enhance the illusion of exchange-value being innate in a product. It becomes increasingly hard to see how the (use) value of products could be the same as a more heavily marketed product with a higher exchange value.
Examples of commodity fetishism abound in everyday life. I consider myself to be a very utilitarian and frugal person, therefore drawn strongly towards a use-value oriented manner of consumption, yet I can still find examples in my life of commodity fetishism. One example would be watching new movies. New movies obviously have no greater use-value to me than older movies that I haven’t yet seen, but the hype, advertising, and inflated exchange-value often cause me to choose to see a new release even though they are mostly lower quality than those that have stood the test of time. Another example, also in the field of entertainment, would be computer games. New games at the height of their exchange-value, often with expensive hardware requirements, are no better than slightly older games at a fraction of the cost.
While introspection can sometimes be tough, it’s easy to see wanton consumer fetishism in others. Some people I know would never even consider buying a generic cereal, even after being shown that it’s the same cereal produced in the same mill. Another example is the consumption of beer in America. The vast majority of beer produced and consumed in America is heavily advertised, but of poor quality. Yet people see nothing inherently queer about pounding down large quantities of tasteless, watered-down swill.
Earlier I mentioned alienation as another key point in Marxist theory. One effect of consumer fetishism is to increasingly cause relations amongst people to take the form of relationships between objects. Thus a person’s relationship to the product of their labor is transformed to the relationship of the product of their labor to other commodities, thereby isolating them from their creative value as a human being. This is a component of alienation, which is the topic of the next section.
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2008. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. Los Angeles, CA: Pine Forge Press
Marshall, Gordon. 1998. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press