Leftism, Theory

What Is Fetishized About Commodities?

Author’s Note: Seeing much of the reactions and few comments, let me make clear: I am here not intending to expound Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, or fetishism in general, in this blog. This blog is actually my own thoughts on commodity fetishism from a common notion of fetishism instead of Marx’s own peculiar use, mostly because I find what people say his theory is to not match a common notion of fetishism as such. I am here not intending to be speaking of the theory of reification either, for at least with that term I can agree concerning the objective reality of the inversion of the subjectivity of value as capital and labor.

In Capital Vol. 1’s last section, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Marx briefly mentions one of the biggest theoretical points of Marxism as a social science. Drawing on his love of bashing on religion and its mysticism, Marx calls back to his prior works critiquing religion, and specifically, critiquing the religious structure of capitalist economics. Just as in religion humanity alienates itself from itself and attributes its own capacities and powers to God, in capitalism humans alienate their own activity and relating from themselves and attribute such to commodities themselves. Fetishism, is then, this reality of the power of commodities to act as if on their own instead of us acting through them. This I term the objective reality of value, and here I differ from Marx in this: I don’t agree that fetishism is quite the proper term for this objective power.

Fetishism implies psychological and belief structures which Marx’s fetishism goes beyond, in fact, as some have told me, it can have little to nothing to do with beliefs of any kind, it is the objective structure of society under the power of value. Though Marxists don’t say this explicitly, and perhaps deny it, I think it’s obvious the only thing underlying as the genuine fetish of commodities is value. If value in its many forms is fetish, it is the most unique fetish to ever exist. Unlike a typical fetish, this one exists and acts without any need for belief from anyone, its manifest power is happenstance on a prior social structure and arising from a mass of decentralized interactions in which no one in particular has willed its existence and pressure.

I know Wikipedia is a taboo source, but here I want to be close to what most mean by fetishism:

“A fetish is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.”

It is in this conception of the fetish that I shall continue my considerations of this blog for the simple reason that I see no value in technicality of this term regardless of what Marx intends. The structure it communicates is easily conceived without it, and its expansion into the objective structures of society go beyond what the term is about.

Commodity fetishism, with this conception, is one thing and can be one thing only: the belief that value is inherent to commodities as commodities. From this belief cascades a whole slew of psychological effects. In the exchange of commodities the appearance of the transaction appears as if merely the interaction of commodity and commodity, of their own movement rather than the movement of individuals. An apple is worth three oranges, and it is their value that makes this transaction equal and possible. As Marx says, we believe things relate without any acknowledgement that their relating is the relation of living individuals and their wills.

In contrast to what we would believe is the intuitive reality, that things have value because we desire them, in commodities we find the inverted reality: we desire things because they are valuable. This inversion, however, is not a simple misunderstanding or fiction; in fact, it is a direct consequence of something underlying the reality of commodities: social relations, particularly the actuality of social being as social power. It turns out that the fetishism of value is actually a rational development rather than a mere spook, and thus can and does survive its full revelation.

An Example of Commodity Fetishism

Antique collection for the sake of making a profit one day is, perhaps, the most common extreme version of commodity fetishism which we will normally encounter among people we know. I should know, I have lived with people who hoard old things on the belief that they are very valuable.

If you’ve ever watched any show where antiques are appraised for their value, their potential price, you’ve watched as peoples’ jaws drop when they hear that their old hand me down furniture is worth thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars or whatever currency you please. They’re told that old wardrobe has a value of $20,000, go back home, and look upon that old thing with glee and joy: “I didn’t know I was this rich!” They live in an average house, they’re usually white, and they’re often old and lower middle class with plenty of debts—but hey, no problem! That wardrobe is $20,000… except it’s not.

These people, after being told it’s worth this much, really believe it is worth that much. They think they really have that money on hand in the form of that thing, as if there is a power in it that commands people to want to give that much money for it. They boast about it, live as if they really have that money—and then they take it to auction. What do they find out at auction? That far more often than not, that old thing isn’t actually worth what they were told. They’re disappointed, they feel cheated as if they were stolen from. Why, there are many who believe the original appraisal is so objective that to give up their antique for less is being cheated, so they just refuse to sell it to anyone offering less. They keep their antiques, and they also keep their delusion of having a net worth of value which they in fact never did nor do have.

What one finds about antiques is that they are only worth what someone is willing to pay, and the high rolling stooges with stupid amounts of cash to dispose on irrational desires are few and far between. What one idiot spent $20,000 once on is not what another idiot will spend as much on. That old wardrobe, instead of having $20,000 in value ends up being only worth $5,000, and out of that you get probably slightly more than half after the auction house takes its cut because, face it, a regular person doesn’t have the connections to find people to buy these things.

The reality is, of course, that they weren’t cheated out of any value. They were not ‘forced to undersell’, rather, that’s just what a piece of old furniture goes for. Things have value only insofar as people give it that value, they don’t have an objective value in themselves that can be violated. Nonetheless, aside from antique auctions and collectible rares, value has an objective power to command in the general economy in the form of the system of the economy.

How Value’s Role Becomes Inverted

To think that value simply is a psychological imposition on things, or that it imposes itself on us in simple manner in this inversion is to lack the nuance of how this inversion is even possible. Value comes to command desire, to become a principle which organizes us, because there is a social reality behind it. Upon what is the inversion of the direction of desire and value made? One is the psychological delusion, but second is the chain of market necessity.

Value, as commodities, and more specifically money, first acquires its fetishized power on a simple social reality: to have the objects of desire for others is desirable itself, for it gives social power over those who desire or need these objects. The objective power of value first arises in the recognition that objects have value for others, and because the possession of them in a society that recognizes private property gives one this power, value for others becomes valuable for me. The absolute value of value, that which enables its command of the desire of all, is first that it is already desired or needed by others. In that I need anything in a market economy, I myself need value, I need commodities or money to exchange to others for what I truly want. In this, I am forced to desire what others desire in order to set up a situation of exchange in which they must be able to give me what I myself desire. With money, this power of exchange is universal; all things will exchange for money, and all people desire money as the key to exchange for anything for which they have a whim and will to exchange. This is the origin of the power of what is desired to be the generator of its being desired, of value being desired because it is value rather than being merely valuable because it is desired. This is the psychological basis, but there is also an objective basis.

The Fetish Unleashed

Value comes, under this initial power over others, to itself have power over those who desire it for gaining power over others. Because of the social reality of objective property relations themselves, and the chaos of the ever-changing market, the desire and need for value itself as money takes a life of its own as certain structures arise in order for the expansion of value as capital to be possible. As this objective reality, however, the notion of fetishism starts to lose coherence as a concept. Nobody needs to believe anything about value, in fact the very denial of its power does nothing to it. Today, strangely, it seems most people are well aware that money is nothing but a social invention… and yet our lives are completely dominated by its reality despite this faithlessness. In this level of conception fetishism itself takes a back step as a background source and gives way to objective enforcement of the more fundamental reality of property rights on top of value itself. It is on property right that the split between the means of production in the hands of the few and the enacting force of production, labor-power, as the only means of exchange for the many is made.

The concentration and accumulation of value generates the concentration of means of production under companies/corporations which increasingly go beyond the control of single individuals and groups of individuals due to the forces of competition. Desire and need of things itself becomes unhinged from the reality of economic production with the movement of money. Things may be desired and needed, but those who have these needs have no money and thus the market does not recognize them. In inverse, things may not be desired or needed, but those with money command their production in their blind greed and end up producing things few want or need. The fetish of value here is unleashed from the mind of mortals and takes a life of its own which is wholly unintended. It remains as psychological fetish in that people seem to suffer a peculiar forgetting of the fact that material reality can go on without money, that they can coordinate themselves and produce without mediation by it.

It is no longer a mere psychological fetish, however, in that objective structures enforce value’s necessity and violently punish those who would try to engage private or social production without it. One needs permits from the government, to pay property taxes, to show income for qualifying for government services, etc. Even the most independent homesteading requires one to acquire money and render it to the state. On the flip side of property, even if a great number of the nation’s populace is going homeless and hungry, the state stands in protection of the rich who hoard the money which it demands for the recognition of all social worth. Property rights are sacrosanct, and regardless how ridiculous the imbalance of wealth concentration is the capitalist state makes its last stand stand not on value’s sacredness, but on property right. We may starve as the rich play gambling games among themselves, “But,” say the politicians, judges, and apologists of the rich, “what right have we to take what they earned as the fruit of their labor?”

Through competition objective conditions and limits arise as the structures and practices of successful businesses that are baseline for remaining competitive and profitable; thus, ethics and personal preference take a backseat to business. Even if our skills would better serve society in certain ways, if there is no market demand, then our skills will not make us a livelihood, and we are forced to work at something else that does have demand. Even if we wanted to be a kind capitalist, we could only pay our employees so much and give so many benefits to remain profitable and competitive against another company which engaged more ruthless and unethical practices. Value, as the absolute need and desire of all, objectively asserts itself through the universal ground floor of competitive pressure on business and employee standards on top of the class conflict that occurs between capitalists, renters, and workers.

To reiterate what was noted earlier, this entire objective structure is only possible upon the structure of objective property rights within a society structured on the assumption and enforcement of these rights above all other social duties and morals. Value concentrates as it does first by capital’s natural function, but is originally enabled and remains in this concentration only through the underlying supremacy of property itself over all social rights and considerations.


2 thoughts on “What Is Fetishized About Commodities?”

  1. Aren’t you being a little un-dialectical? I’m sure you are tired of hearing these words, but why are property rights a sacrilege in the first place? It doesn’t come out of nowhere, or is itself the primary reified structure from which the commodity fetishism naturally follows. Plenty of constitutions for instance have a clue for what is going on: The German basic law states for instance that property is a right, but property has to function “for the benefit of all”. That is, if someone uses his property against the benefit of the whole, then it is taken away. What this clue tells us is that property relations have their place in society due to what they enable: capitalist accumulation. Because it is private property that allows the functioning accumulation of capital and thus the accumulation of value, thus commodities, thus *wealth* is it a structure in the first place. Of course, capital accumulation and the specific mode of commodity exchange that we have is in turn necessitated by property relations in the first place, but they both necessitate one another, create one another, are specific moments of the same universal (I use these terms in the Hegelian way). Basically, the fact that commodity fetishism, which is what people ave to engange with in order to exchange commodities with one another, allow capital accumulation and the generation of wealth that it’s supported. Don’t think that none of these politicians ever wondered in their life whether it was fair some people are billionaires and some are poor suckers despite the poor sucker having worked hard for all his life. The system is functioning, its functioning justifies itself, and all of the moments of this functioning are equally necessary for the functioning, thus equally necessary for each of its moments.

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    1. Perhaps I should mention that I live in the US, and thus speak from the standpoint of US culture as well as much of the western hemisphere. Here and south of here property *is* sacrosanct above all. Since in this part of the world it is value and capital that are the highest measure of social value, here they are given way in the face of everything else.

      >property has its place in society because it enables capital accumulation
      Historically that’s just wrong, since accumulation and then came property as law. Accumulation preceded capital, so did property, and they did not need each other any more than a dog needs the concept in order to hoard bones. Logically it’s irrelevant to the discussion here, however, for capital does not posit property right directly, it posits the need for the *law* of civil society to protect property right and accumulation. Logically property is prior to market relations, market relations simply function within this presupposition of property.

      I frankly do not understand your point. The ‘system’ functioning is not what I investigated here. Capital, *capitalism*, and *capitalists* are not one and the same in systematic fashion either. What is good for capital is not automatically good for capitalism nor capitalists, but that’s a whole other issue. The issue here was the ‘fetish’ of value and its ascendant objectivity, an objectivity Germany itself does not overcome.

      About being ‘undialectical’, that’s just a terrible phrase. One sided? Obviously. Unsystematic? Of course. I didn’t intend it to be. This was an exercise in thinking this issue for myself rather than simply following Marx. Perhaps I ought to qualify every post like this with a disclaimer that I’m not a Marxist, not a communist, and really write these for self-clarification. I have no personal or philosophical issues with property, for I am all for property right in place within society, but simply not as an absolute.

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