Reading Guide to Marx, K. Capital (Ch. 1,section 4).'Commodity Fetishism'

 The notion of commodity fetishism has been developed much more widely than in economics. The "fetishism mechanism" is a key to understanding a number of "humanist" marxist pieces on culture and social life generally (including analyses of the media). Fetishism stands as an argument about the loss of control over, and misunderstanding of, all aspect of social life. Since the concept appears in the mature works of Marx, some (eg Colletti) see it as evidence of the continuing interest in what the young Marx called alienation: "de-fetishisation" is still the key to Marx's method for them. Others, especially Althusser, find the  whole discussion in Capital an inexplicable throwback to older and less pure concepts (and urge us to ignore the section in Capital altogether): Marx himself insists we start reading Capital with this discussion, however. 

Main points

1 Commodities seem simple things but they're not. The relations between them and the men who make & use them is mystifying. We need to pursue the true relations. We can explain the mystification by using an analogy with religious fetishism. 

2 Relations of exchange are difficult to grasp: what is the unit of exchange, what do different commodities have in common? The real answer is that exchange is organized (long term) according to the amount of 'socially necessary labour time' expended in the production of commodities - but this is not immediately apparent to persons in everyday life. Indeed, even economists have only dimly grasped the truth. It seems as if objects exchange with each other according to some quality of their own, or according to custom, or as if they had a life of their own. No-one could really grasp the truth until the fully developed production of commodities (in capitalism) arose and made things clearer. 

3 The snag is that our attempts to make sense of social life operate on existing 'facts' and patterns - we tend to see what exists 'on the surface' as 'facts' to be grasped directly by our theories. Thus the economists got confused about the value of things (really determined by amounts of labour etc) and the money price of things (the form in which value is exprssed in capitalism). Hence the categories of economics (or in social sciences more generally) are merely 

'...forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz the production of commodities'.

They do not capture 'reality'; they are too close to the existing state of affairs to really understand it. 

4 We can get to the real picture by comparing capitalism with other forms of production. In the Middle Ages in Europe, a personal dependence was the basis of social relations, production was confined to goods and services as use values, there was no need for any abstract forms of production or social relations. (Exploitation was also pretty obvious and clear, and took a visible 'political' form). In modern societies, there is a need (both economic and ideological) for abstract principles to organize the distribution and exchange of products. But capitalism does not operate only according to abstract principles (it also works on more restricted and partial 'principles' such as the 'profit motive'). Exchange in capitalism has to distribute products 'fairly', according to labour time invested, but it also has to be arranged so as to lead to the creation of surplus value. This is what is not grasped properly in economics. 

5 The nearest analogy to the sorts of misunderstandings that go on is found in religion. In religion, gods appear to have an independent existence, interacting among themselves and controlling human beings. But the reverse is the real picture: men have created those gods in the first place and given them their power: 'the religious world is but a reflex of the real world'. 

6 It is the same with economics, which offers a limited and fetishised analysis. The 'facts' of capitalist organization are assumed to be natural, God-given forms. Earlier (and different) forms of economic life are either ignored or considered as early efforts, as 'artificial'. A proper use of the early examples makes it possible to de-fetishise the forms of capitalist production (although some fetishes are easier to replace than others - modern economics agrees that money is no magic commodity, but keeps its illusions about capital, for example, and the myth that 'Nature' plays a key role is as pervasive as ever).There is also a clear 'political' issue: 

'The life-process of society...does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan'. 
The formulae of economics '...belong to a state of society in which the process of production has the mastery over man...' 
(This is why labour is measured in the abstract way it is). 

 back to samples

back to S Hall on ideology