The Law of Value 2: The Fetishism of Commodities

part 2 in the Law of Value series.

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.

Suggested Reading:

Das Capital vol 1. by Karl Marx: The theory of commodity fetishism is laid out in the end of chapter one.

Essays in Marx’s Theory of Value by Issac Rubin. This is a great book about many aspects in Marx’s value theory. In many ways this video series is intended to be a modern take his book. The opening chapters are about commodity fetishism.

Also see the beginning of this article from Endnotes about value-form theory.

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18 Responses to The Law of Value 2: The Fetishism of Commodities

  1. Nancy Lopez says:

    Do you know where to download this book in ebook version?

    Das Capital vol 1. by Karl Marx: The theory of commodity fetishism is laid out in the end of chapter one.

  2. pamanner says:

    One of my favorite Marxist concepts!

  3. Everpresent says:

    I don’t like the term “marxist”. If I would use theories or methodologies of for example Robert Merton, would they call me a “mertonian”? I doubt it.

  4. pamanner says:

    So it’s only because you see the word “Marxist” as a negative label? I could have said “Engelist” too. Freud’s concepts are referred to as “Freudian” and I’m not buying the argument that each time an author’s ideology is preface by the author’s last name that it’s meant as an insult. I’d be flattered if I, like Hegel, came up with a fantastic new philosophy and my philosophy was prefaced by “Rossowist.” It doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Marxist” though.

    • Everpresent says:

      I agree but for some scholars “marxist” is almost an insult for a biased scholar openly following dogma. When they use their theories there are almost no problems. It’s a political strategy to denigrate their intellectual opponents. One can write a (political ?) history just showing how distorted the words “communism” and “marxism” have become since Marx his writings.

  5. lifeisgood says:

    Its my sincere thanks to you for undertaking the Marxian(as I prefer to call it) method of analysis in Modern times. Am developing a deep interest in Marxian economics. I find Mainstream Economics as a collection of dumped garbage from all ‘Vulgar’ Economists put together to victimize poor students of Economics & brainwash them to believe all sorts of rhetoric! Its initial assumptions, modes of analysis, specialized nature, divorce from reality, divorce from other disciplines of Humanities, etc. make it unreliable.

    In my Bachelor & Masters course in Economics, the text books claim to have rejected Marxian ideas outrightly. This while putting some childish arguments against it which even a Novice Marxian could refute. The textbooks are filled with Pro-capitalism rhetoric, its very hard to digest it & reproduce it in exams. One has to go through this Garbage to score well in exams afterall.

    Your blog provides a modern day analysis of Marxian ideas. As soon as I finish a chapter of ‘Capital’, I visit you(and a few other sources) to get its modern day examples & summary. Kudos. Keep writing.

    • allan says:

      Your comment about going through garbage reminds me of Marx’s saying that he waded through the economic filth of bourgeois economics in order to write Capital. I think the German word for filth is “sh..t”

      Not much has changed in 150 yrs,..Marxists still have to wade through economic filth in order to get to an understanding of capitalism.

  6. ultraviolet says:

    Hello! Thank you for making these videos on Marxist theory for layfolk such as myself. :)

    Your explanation of commodity fetishism has me wondering whether commodity fetishism would still exist in a communist society. (And by communist I don’t mean Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, or any other variant of State-socialism; I am referring to libertarian-communism, using direct democracy.)

    From what I’ve read of people’s visions of what a libertarian-communist society will function like, they usually say that we will consume goods by going to distribution centers and taking what we need/want. In this way, aren’t we still relating to objects? And isn’t the labor that is embodied in those objects still abstract?

    I’ve also often heard it said that production collectives will know how much to produce based on stock levels and flows, which indicate the community’s demand for what they’re producing. Stock levels and flows will also tell them how much of the necessary materials and inputs to order from other production collectives.

    So even with no profit, no prices, no buying and no selling, isn’t there still the persistence of human relations mediated by objects?

    I’m not bringing this up to criticize libertarian-communism. I actually don’t really see how a certain degree of commodity fetishism (if that is defined by human relations being mediated by objects) is avoidable and I also don’t see why it would be undesirable.

    When I go to a distribution center to get my groceries or some curtains or a teddy-bear or whatever, I don’t see how I could do so while fully encountering the labor process behind it or why this would be at all necessary.

    Thoughts? Maybe my understanding of commodity fetishism is just wrong.

    • Ultraviolet,

      Thanks for asking this important question. I think the answer can be found if you ask the question backwards: what sort of society would be necessary to not have commodity fetishism? (This is, why I think Marx is relevant to post-capitalist politics. His analysis of capital is essential if we want to know how to not have capitalism. Before we discuss the specifics of this or that model of producing and distributing goods we have to know what our goal is.)

      In your comment you seem to be thinking that any time humans interact with nature to produce material objects for a social purpose that this results in commodity fetishism. This makes commodity fetishism seem like a universal phenomena, basic to all human production. Marx never makes these sort of universal statements. Social relations of production always take on specific forms depending on their particular organization. Commodity fetishism is a specific feature of the capitalist mode of production. It did not exist in feudalism or prior modes of production and it will not exist in communism.

      I think you are seeing commodity fetishism in subjective and physical terms and that you are confusing the distribution of labor with the mediation of social relations by objects. You see that in any society with a complex distribution of labor an individual cannot directly interact with all of the people that produces that products she consumes and thus you assume that commodities are mediating these social relations. This is not necessarily the case. Commodity fetishism comes from the fact that our labor is indirectly social, and that therefore our labor is ruled by impersonal market forces out of the control of people. In a communist society, and in past societies, labor was/is directly social and people decide directly how much labor is to be distributed between different tasks.

      In a capitalist society we don’t decide what gets produced. Rather we produce, throw our commodities into the market, and then the market decides who wins and who loses. These market signals then act back upon production, regulating labor so that it functions at the average level of productivity and regulating the division of labor so that labor is apportioned to the right tasks in accordance with social demand. The market does this not in order to make the lives of people better but in order to maximize profit for its own sake. This is what is abstract about the process…. it is not labor for any rational social purpose. It is just labor in the abstract to make profit in the abstract. It’s particular use is meaningless to capital.

      A communist society would be the opposite of this. Rather than a market making decisions based on a profit motive people would make decisions about what to produce and how to produce it. Rather than being indirectly social (where a person only knows if their labor is social labor after it goes to market to be compared with the products of all other labor) it would be directly social (because society would have decided before hand what labor is to be performed.) The exchange value between commodities (in the form of price signals as well as in the form of profit as the goal of production) wouldn’t be directing the labor process. Instead people would be directing the labor process. Even though they still would produce products these products would not be mediating the social labor process. People would be directly controlling this.

      Given this theoretical grounding, this description of the necessary features of a non-capitalist society not ruled by commodity fetishism and the law of value, we can then adjudicate different proposals for a communist society.

      What do you think?

  7. ultraviolet says:

    Hello! Thanks for explaining this to me.

    “In your comment you seem to be thinking that any time humans interact with nature to produce material objects for a social purpose that this results in commodity fetishism.”

    Oops, I didn’t mean to say that I think commodity fetishism = interacting with nature to produce objects for social purposes. I meant to say that I think commodity fetishism = interacting with objects created by others but not interacting with the people who made them.

    “You see that in any society with a complex distribution of labor an individual cannot directly interact with all of the people that produces that products she consumes and thus you assume that commodities are mediating these social relations.”

    Yes, this well describes what I was saying. :)

    “This is not necessarily the case. Commodity fetishism comes from the fact that our labor is indirectly social, and that therefore our labor is ruled by impersonal market forces out of the control of people. In a communist society, and in past societies, labor was/is directly social and people decide directly how much labor is to be distributed between different tasks.”

    This makes sense to me.

    That being said, in some versions/visions of communism I’ve heard described, the allocation of labor is to a large extent decided by consumer demand. (Real demand, as measured by what is taken from distribution centers, and not the purchasing-power dependent demand of capitalism.) Meetings in workplaces do occur to decide how to produce things, and meetings in communities do occur to decide what goods and services to produce for the community as a whole (like parks, hospitals, schools, infrastructure, wind mills, dining halls, etc.), but individual consumption (like radios, clothing, booze, phones) is not planned in meetings, but based on people independently deciding to go to the distribution center go pick something up, or for big items putting in an order. Other versions/visions of communism do describe pre-planning everything, but if individual consumption is not planned, then it seems that workers in say the bread factory would not have a meeting to plan how much bread to produce, but rather would know how much bread to produce because they are aware of demand statistics. These aren’t market forces, but they are impersonal, so I wonder if that involves a degree of commodity fetishism?

    “These market signals then act back upon production, [...] regulating the division of labor so that labor is apportioned to the right tasks in accordance with social demand. ”

    I assume that even without a market, the signals of (real) demand will still do this in communism(?). However, this will be entirely eradicated:

    “The market does this not in order to make the lives of people better but in order to maximize profit for its own sake. This is what is abstract about the process…. it is not labor for any rational social purpose. It is just labor in the abstract to make profit in the abstract.”

    So if the signals of real demand in communism regulate the division of labor, but conforming these signals is done to meet community need rather than to make profit, it seems to me we have half of the commodity fetishism equation. But perhaps what you’re saying is that without that crucial other half of the equation (profit), commodity fetishism no longer exists?

    • Ultraviolet,

      When I talk about the impersonal forces of the market controlling the producers I am not referring to consumer demand. I am referring to two inter-twined phenomenon: The disciplining of labor to the socially necessary labor time, and the disciplining of labor to the profit motive (“accumulation for accumulation’s sake” as Marx puts it).

      When firms compete against each other in the market they compete to lower the socially necessary labor time it takes to produce a commodity. The focus of production is not placed on meeting the needs of society. Rather the focus of production becomes the value relations between commodities, specifically how best to lower the unit value of commodities in relation to competitors so as to make a higher profit. The organization of production is devoted to the accumulation of value for its own sake, not for meeting any social need.

      This organization is fetishistic because it is the value relations between objects that regulate production rather than the conscious organization of people. Commodities (including money) seem to (and do) have social power and people are powerless. The power seems to come not from people but from the objects themselves. But Marx wants us to see that the power of these objects comes not from the inherent properties of the objects but from their place in capitalist social relations: people create them and people give them power.

      Fetishism is not a matter of “interacting with objects created by others but not interacting with the people who made them.” as you say. If this were the case then fetishism would exist anytime we use a product. It would be a timeless condition of all interaction between subjects and objects. Marx is saying just the opposite: that the particular subject-object relations of a capitalist society are unique to that society. Fetishism does not describe any subject-object relation. It describes a particular kind of subject-object relation where the objects dominate the subjects and where the objects seem to be the active subjects in the world and people their objects. My Law of Value 8: Subject/Object video talks about this.

      I think your question is a good one and it helps to clarify the issue. I also think you are correct to test this idea of fetishism against different models people propose for communist societies. I think the question should be asked the other way around though: Rather than looking at different proposed organizations of society and asking if fetishism would still exist, we should look at fetishism, inquire into its basic nature, and then ask what sort of organization of society would be necessary to not have fetishism. This would give the discussion more focus because the details about how the workplace is organized, the relation of distribution to production, etc would all flow from the an understanding of what it takes to negate fetishism, capital, value, and all the rest of it.

  8. ultraviolet says:

    Makes sense! Thanks for taking the time to make this clear to me, and for creating these videos which explain Marxist economics in a way that makes it much easier to understand. You rock. :)

    By the way, have you read “Marxist Economics for Anarchists” by Wayne Price? I recently read it and thought it was very good… but I’m nowhere near an expert on Marx, so it would be nice to know your take on it.

    I posted the same question on libcom forum if you’re interested in seeing what others had to say: http://libcom.org/forums/theory/wont-commodity-fetishism-also-exist-libertarian-communism-04062012

  9. lifeisgood says:

    Dear Brendan, I’ve been grappling to find the difference between “Anthropomorphism” and “Commodity Fetishism”. Are these two different concepts? Or are they inter-related? Can it be said that Com. Feti. is a sub-part of the former?

    Do clarify this. Regards.

  10. Joe says:

    Thanks for doing these posts brother. I was thinking of the idea about the social relations being hidden from the consumer. I used to work at an iron foundry and when I would see the iron pipe outside of work it was different, something I never quite appreciated until having put my labor into it. Also, “A Dangerous Business” on http://www.frontline.org is a good look at U.S. manufacturing today and made me think about Taylorism in practice.It’s where I used to work and a documentary was made on the company.

  11. Clive says:

    At the moment i am undertaking a property law course as part of my law degree and I found some interesting observations within bourgeois property law.

    In bourgeois economics capital is often referred to as a “thing”- eg factories, goods etc. In law property is referred to not as a thing but as a legal right to a thing, whether it be in the form of title, a lease, a mortgage etc. Some immaterial rights can be classified as property rights under bourgeois law, such as an easement (this is a right to cross land) which is classified as a property right just as much as your right to own your pair of sneakers are.

    Property law seems to be a bit closer than bourgeois economics at giving a workable definition of property as something that is immaterial. In this respect it is a bit closer at getting past the commodity fetish. However it is still unable to define property relations as what they really are- i.e. social relations between people mediated through things. To do this they would have to look at the social nature of the means of production and extend property law to its logical conclusion and grant property “rights” to the ultimate producers.

    To sum up, bourgeois law can not define property properly. To do this would be to uplift the veil of the market which conceals raw theft and exploitation in the production sphere.

    Because of the limitations of the bourgeois line of thinking, it merely concludes that property is some sort of abstract “bundle of rights”. As law Professor Gray has said, that “the ultimate fact about property is that it does not really exist: it is mere illusion”.

    Anyway, here is an extract from a case we are studying at the moment, Yanner v Eaton 1994:

    “The word “property” is often used to refer to something that belongs to another. But in the Fauna Act, as elsewhere in the law, “property” does not refer to a thing; it is a description of a legal relationship with a thing[26]. It refers to a degree of power that is recognised in law as power permissibly exercised over the thing. The concept of “property” may be elusive. Usually it is treated as a “bundle of rights”[27]. But even this may have its limits as an analytical tool or accurate description, and it may be, as Professor Gray has said[28], that “the ultimate fact about property is that it does not really exist: it is mere illusion”. Considering whether, or to what extent, there can be property in knowledge or information or property in human tissue may illustrate some of the difficulties in deciding what is meant by “property” in a subject matter[29]. So too, identifying the apparent circularity of reasoning from the availability of specific performance in protection of property rights in a chattel to the conclusion that the rights protected are proprietary may illustrate some of the limits to the use of “property” as an analytical tool[30]. No doubt the examples could be multiplied.

    Nevertheless, as Professor Gray also says[31], “An extensive frame of reference is created by the notion that ‘property’ consists primarily in control over access. Much of our false thinking about property stems from the residual perception that ‘property’ is itself a thing or resource rather than a legally endorsed concentration of power over things and resources[32].”

    “Property” is a term that can be, and is, applied to many different kinds of relationship with a subject matter. It is not “a monolithic notion of standard content and invariable intensity”[33]. That is why, in the context of a testator’s will, “property” has been said to be “the most comprehensive of all the terms which can be used, inasmuch as it is indicative and descriptive of every possible interest which the party can have”[34]. “

  12. mreverpresent says:

    Indeed, if they would define capital as a process then everyone would eventually notice that as workers reproduce capital they become the proprietor of it.

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