Commodity fetishism

Commodity fetishism

In Marx's critique of political economy, commodity fetishism denotes the mystification of human relations said to arise out of the growth of market trade, when social relationships between people are expressed as, mediated by and transformed into, objectified relationships between things (commodities and money).

The concept of commodity fetishism plays a crucial role in Marx's theory of capitalism, because it links the subjective aspects of economic value to its objective aspects, through the transformation of a symbolization of value into a reification which attains the power of an objective social force.[1] It plays an integral part in Marx's explanation of why economic relationships and interactions in capitalism often appear quite different from what they really are. The concept is introduced at the conclusion of an analysis of the value-form of commodities in the first chapter of Marx's main work, Das Kapital. Subsequently he clarifies in Das Kapital that many different economic phenomena can be "fetishized" (the fetish of money[2] the fetish of interest-bearing capital, etc.) to the extent that they attain an independent power vis-a-vis the people.[3] But these further developments of commercial fetishism nevertheless have their historical origin in commodity trade.[4]


Textual origins

The term is introduced in the opening chapter of the first volume of Das Kapital[5] (Marx modified his discussion in the second edition of this work)[6]

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. .... There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes ... the fantastic form of a relation between things. In [the religious] world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering 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, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin ... in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them." - Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, chapter 1 section 4 [10]

Marx had referred to fetishes and fetishism in his early work, usually in the context of religious superstition or in criticizing the beliefs of political economists.[7] Marx borrowed the idea of "fetishism" from a book he had read by Charles de Brosses[8] This work provided a materialist theory of the origin of religion, and represents one of the first theoretical works in ethno-anthropology. Marx was also influenced in the 1840s by Auguste Comte's discussion of fetishism [9] and Ludwig Feuerbach's interpretation of religion.

The first mention appears in Marx's 1842 response to a newspaper article by Karl Heinrich Hermes (a government spy, as it turned out) which defended the Prussian state on religious grounds.[11] Hermes followed the German philosopher Hegel in regarding fetishism as the "crudest form of religion." Marx ridiculed this argument, together with Hermes's definition of religion as that which raises man "above sensuous appetites." Instead, Marx argued, fetishism is "the religion of sensuous appetites" (die Religion der sinnlichen Begierde), adding that "the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an 'inanimate object' will give up its natural character to gratify his desires. The crude appetite of the fetish worshipper therefore smashes the fetish when the latter ceases to be its most devoted servant"[10]

The next mention occurs in Marx's famous 1842 articles in the Rheinische Zeitung about Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood.[12]. Marx wrote:

"The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea. If the Cuban savages had been present at the sitting of the Rhine Province Assembly, would they not have regarded wood as the Rhinelanders' fetish? But a subsequent sitting would have taught them that the worship of animals is connected with this fetishism, and they would have thrown the hares into the sea in order to save the human beings."

In 1844 Paris Manuscripts, Marx refers several times to fetishes. For example:

The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous glitter of precious metals, and are therefore still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations. Contrast of France and England. The extent to which the solution of theoretical riddles is the task of practice and effected through practice, the extent to which true practice is the condition of a real and positive theory, is shown, for example, in fetishism. The sensuous consciousness of the fetish-worshipper is different from that of the Greek, because his sensuous existence is different. The abstract enmity between sense and spirit is necessary so long as the human feeling for nature, the human sense of nature, and therefore also the natural sense of man, are not yet produced by man’s own labour.[11]

Marx also referred to the notion of fetishism in his ethnological notebooks.[12] Here, Marx comments on John Lubbock's ideas about fetishism in The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man (1871).

In the Grundrisse, the idea occurs again when Marx criticizes Frederic Bastiat:

"In real history, wage labour arises out of the dissolution of slavery and serfdom --or of the decay of communal property, as with oriental and Slavonic peoples -- and, in its adequate, epoch-making form, the form which takes possession of the entire social being of labour, out of the decline and fall of the guild economy, of the system of Estates, of labour and income in kind, of industry carried on as rural subsidiary occupation, of small-scale feudal agriculture etc. In all these real historic transitions, wage labour appears as the dissolution, the annihilation of relations in which labour was fixed on all sides, in its income, its content, its location, its scope etc. Hence as negation of the stability of labour and of its remuneration. The direct transition from the African's fetish to Voltaire's supreme being, or from the hunting gear of a North American savage to the capital of the Bank of England, is not so absurdly contrary to history as is the transition from Bastiat's fisherman to the wage labourer.[13]

In the manuscript Results of the Immediate Process of Production (probably written in 1864), Marx comments that:

"...we find in the capitalist process of production [an] indissoluble fusion of use-values in which capital subsists [as] means of production and objects defined as capital, when what we are really faced with is a definite social relationship of production. In consequence the product embedded in this mode of production is equated with the commodity by those who have to deal with it. It is this that forms the foundation for the fetishism of the political economists"[14]

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx refers to John Ramsay McCulloch's A Discourse on the Rise, Progress, Peculiar Objects, and Importance of Political Economy (1825). McCulloch argued “In its natural state, matter ... is always destitute of value” and Marx comments "This shows how high even a McCulloch stands above the fetishism of German “thinkers” who assert that “material” and half a dozen similar irrelevancies are elements of value".

Marx used the notion of fetishism in various contexts throughout his economic and ethnological studies.[15]

For Louis Althusser, the development of these ideas suggested a "break" (or epistemological rupture) between a "young Marx" and an "old Marx". Others such as Istvan Meszaros and Ernest Mandel argued against the idea of a break, in favor of an evolution and gradual refinement of ideas.[16]


The concept of fetishism first appears in Das Kapital, as part of Marx' discussion of the nature of commodities. In Marx's view, a central problem of market economies is that the social and political relationships that exist between people are hidden behind the exchange of material goods; laborers and their efforts are invisible, and the complex act of production and exchange is reduced a finished product and its observable value. He draws on the sociological conception of a fetish to explain this. Like religious fetishes - where inanimate objects are imbued with mystical powers, animating spirits, or intrinsic relationships with animals, people, or supernatural beings - commodities become detached from the tangible social relationships that are their actual source and take on a life of their own. For Marx, market-based societies treat concepts like 'value', 'capital' and even 'the Market' as though they have objective form, with concrete interactions between them, and people steeped in these cultures accepts these 'objects' unquestioningly. In this sense, commodification becomes a kind of voodoo, where mere belief creates self-confirming social effects.

A claw vending machine at Saint Giles’ Fair, Oxford. Cheap toys and 20-pound banknotes to be grabbed up, at the cost of a coin.

Marx points to money as a clear example of fetishism. Money as a physical object has no intrinsic value, aside from the generally trivial value that goes into its production. From a material perspective it is no different than paper or base metals. However, money becomes the core element in the social process of production and exchange in market cultures: it is assigned values, regulated and controlled, exchanged for labor or for goods. Yet money is not perceived as a token of a social relation. Money is taken as an object in its own right to be pursued, collected, or spent. Further, many social relationships lose their 'social' nature because of money. Most specifically for Marx, the purely socio-political relationships that exist between a landholder and a serf, or between a master and a slave, is transformed into a wage-relationship between an employer and an employee. Wage-relationships are the commodification of human labor, where neither the employer nor the employee need any social interaction with the other except through the payment of money, which becomes a fetish personifying all of the aspect of the relationship.

Commodity fetishism is an early manifestation of what would later be more generally known as reification - the interpretation of abstract concepts as concrete objects with determinate behavior and characteristics. The term is still used in later Marxist theory, but generally in terms of the social aspect of private property.

Marx's argument

Marx's argument is simply that in a society where many independent, private producers trade their products with each other on their own individual initiative, without much (or any) overall coordination, their production volumes and activities can only be adjusted to each other through the fluctuating values of those products when exchanged in markets. Their social co-existence, and the meaning of it, is expressed through their trading activity and transactions in markets. People may indeed have no other relation with each other except for the transactions between them.

Thus, their social relations are constantly being mediated and expressed by things (commodities and money). But not only that; relationships between many traded objects are brought into being which exist and can change quite independently of what individuals do, and quite independently of their social relationships. How the traded objects will be related will depend a great deal on their costs of production, reducible to quantities of living human work. But in reality the worker has little control over what happens to his product.

The domination of things

The effect is that the relationships between things begin to shape and even dominate the relationships between people, to the extent that they must constantly adjust - consciously or unconsciously - to the changing value proportions between things over which they don't have any control anymore (because nobody really controls the markets). The trading values of things then gain an independent, objectified power, to the point where social characteristics seems to be the natural, inherent properties of things, the relationships between which evolve in their own right. "The market" seems to spontaneously balance supply and demand, but people no longer see the human cooperation behind the market which makes it all possible. In economic theories, human cooperation plays hardly any role anymore, because self-interested market actors are thought to be trading things and associating as individuals according to their own rational choices, held together or brought together by the market; cooperation is focused upon only in management theory insofar as people must be united and organized to produce the things that are supplied to the market, and in behavioural sciences where how people do things together is studied.

The objectification of value

Normally one would say, that values are something that people have, it is they who make valuations. Human evaluations have their origin in the ability of sentient living organisms to prioritize and weigh up behaviours consciously according to self-chosen options; if they value or cherish something, that is in the first instance a subjective appreciation. But in fact, the growth of trading relations among large masses of people creates many value relationships between traded objects which gain an objective reality, and which escape from the individual or even the collective control of people. If for example the housing market collapses, this is a reality that home owners cannot get away from. It has effects on house values, the construction industry, employment and incomes. Whatever valuations people may have in their minds, it does not prevent the fall in the value of their assets. They value their assets, but the assets lose value without them being able to do anything about it. At that point, a conflict develops between their personal values, and the values of the things they own or want to own.


As Marx notes, market phenomena are then typically regarded as "natural" phenomena that "just happen of their own accord", and indeed the political economists he criticized frequently referred to "natural equilibria" and "natural" prices, the idea being, that they were merely a reflection of human nature, a natural state of affairs, or a natural order of things. Indeed, Adam Smith regarded the propensity to "truck, barter and exchange" as a natural feature of human beings, and thought that market economy corresponded best to human nature, however defined; a self-balancing market economy was thought to be constituted, which spontaneously gravitated towards a natural equilibrium state such that price-relativities ensured that everyone could get what they wanted. In modern times, the state of the markets is often likened to the weather, and meteorological metaphors are used such as "the investment climate", "financial headwinds", "financial tsunami", etc.

But, Marx argues, this "naturalization" of market relationships in economic theory, apart from its ideological or apologetic function in making them unchangeable and eternalized "facts of life", actually is the result of the inability to provide a serious scientific explanation of social phenomena - primarily because trading processes are separated, in theory and in practice, from the social processes and production activities (the labor efforts of socially related people) which are behind them and give rise to them. His book Das Kapital aims mainly to reveal the relationship between production activities and the circulation of products in trade, and thus to demonstrate what is behind the fetish of commodities and what constantly reproduces it.

According to David Ricardo, for instance, the proper focus of economic science was the distribution of resources through markets,[17] and modern economics has become largely a mathematical "science of price movements". In this sense, the fetishization of commodity relationships seriously distorts or even mystifies real economic relationships between people and between people and their environment, by detaching the conditions of production from the conditions of distribution. In the process, the social organisation of the relationships between people, and what holds them all together, becomes rather mysterious - something about which one could have a personal interpretation, but which ultimately cannot be known for certain.


Marx uses the theatrical concept of a character mask, to describe the functional way that people express how they are relating or related in capitalist society - their relationships and the things they trade frequently appear other than they really are, they are "masked" or "disguised". The "masking" Marx mentions does not mean that the real nature of what goes on is completely hidden away, and indeed people may very well know that something is being masked. It is just that some essential aspects of a reality appear other than they really are, so that the meaning at the observable surface is actually not the whole meaning of what goes on. Things seem transparent, self-evident and obvious, but really they are not; in truth, they are not related in the way they seem to be related; and "part of the story" hides the "whole story". Paradoxically, the "unknown" is actually created by the way people relate or are related, by the "barriers" they set up in their interactions. These barriers arise ultimately from property rights and the interests they give rise to. If people are the "guardians" of commodities, as Marx says, they will "guard" their own interest.

It therefore takes scientific inquiry and fact-finding to understand what the whole story is. For ordinary purposes, it may not even matter what the whole story is, and people can just carry on in their daily business without knowing it; but it does matter, when it becomes practically necessary to know what the whole story is, to solve a very real problem. If, for example, the market economy starts to collapse, even though plenty of resources exist for everybody's needs, people begin to question how that was possible at all. And one of the factors involved is a systematically distorted (reified) perception people have, powerfully promoted by commodity fetishism, the effect of which is that people habitually mask things to others and to themselves - without necessarily being aware that they are doing it. People can buy and sell plenty of things without understanding the full implications of what they are doing.

The opacity of economic relations

The primary valuation which counts for practical purposes is the trading value of goods and activities expressed in terms of money-prices. To work out what the relationships involved are, people then only compare prices and price trends in the market. They are hardly able to see and understand anymore all the human processes which bring goods and services to their door, they don't know who the people are that facilitate that, and indeed this is often not much of concern to them anymore. They depend on commodities being available to them and trust or assume they will be there, without having any control over, or insight into, the human cooperation that can ensure this will be the case.

The results of the collective labor efforts of people present themselves, or are expressed to people, in the form of the values and prices of products, assets or services. But what the exact connection is, between those things, their values and the efforts that enabled their supply, is no longer at all clear. Thus, "what markets will do" is explained by what other markets will do, by rising and falling prices, and analysts try to estimate probabilistically the effects of different market trends. Markets then seem to be things that evolve in their own right, they gain an autonomous power, and it is often no longer clear what market trends can really be attributed to; one could dispute about causes and effects, or try to research it with different hypotheses, without being able to verify absolutely what exactly caused changes and fluctuations in the market.


In this way, Marx aims to prove that markets can function perfectly well, with people buying and selling, without people knowing what the real nature of those markets is, what it all means, or even what the real nature is of the social set-up they live within. If the markets seem to work well, they think it's a good thing, and if they don't, they think it's a bad thing, but why it all happens they may have little idea about, other than "imagining" things which they are in no position to verify. True knowledge about markets is not required to participate in markets, and the meanings involved could be tilted just a bit (or a whole lot) to support a favourable perspective on them. In fact, the distorted perception of markets facilitates or is conducive to their operation, to the extent that it legitimates and justifies the position of participants in them.

After Marx

The fetishism of commodities has proven fertile material for work by other theorists since Marx, who have added to, adapted, or, perhaps, "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. Fetishes are often visible in advertising, where human qualities are associated with a product in a way which the advertiser hopes will encourage people to buy them.

Cultural theorists

  • György Lukács based History and Class Consciousness (1923) on Marx's idea, but developed his own notion of reification as the key obstacle to class consciousness. Lukács observed that the growth of capitalism converted all spheres of human life more and more into marketable "products" to be bought and sold; thus, the commodity form increasingly invaded every kind of conscious human activity.[18] The corollary of this was, that the fetish of commodities, money and capital also began to manifest itself everywhere as well. Lukács's writings were a major influence on later radical philosophers such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard.
  • Debord developed the concept of the society of the spectacle that parallels to Marx's notion of the commodity; for Debord, the "spectacle" made relations among people seem like relations among images (and vice versa), where people passively watch while their own representations are active (for example, on television). The spectacle is the form taken by society once the instruments of cultural production have become wholly commoditized, and subject to commercial trade, so that aesthetic value becomes ruled by commercial value, and artistic expressions are shaped by their ability to attract market sales. In the further development of capitalism, it is argued, the whole sphere of personal consumption is reorganized according to commercial principles. In that case, cultural products also gain "a life of their own" completely independently of the producers. Debord's work could be seen as a further interpretation of what Marx's critique anticipated, insofar as in modern society even the deepest intimacies of inter-subjective and personal self-relating become subject to commodification and are turned into separate "experiences" which can be bought and sold as a "product" for a price. The ultimate form of human alienation then occurs when people begin to view their whole being as a marketable commodity, and regard every human interaction as a (potential) transaction.
  • In the work of the semiotician Baudrillard, commodity fetishism is used 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 (1972), Baudrillard develops his notion of the sign that, like Debord's notion of spectacle, aims to elaborate on Marx's theory.
  • Other theorists (such as Thorstein Veblen and Alain de Botton) have been concerned especially with the social status of the producers of consumer items relative to their consumers. In this sense, the argument is that the identity of a person becomes defined and expressed by what he owns and buys, far beyond simply cherishing one's belongings, since sending out the "correct signals" about one's status then begins really to depend on the possession of commodities: if you don't have them, you don't belong, something which can create status anxiety. For example, the person who owns a Porsche has more prestige and worth, than the people working on the assembly-line that produced it, and you have to own a Porsche to be a "member of the set". If you don't own a Porsche, this impacts negatively on your social standing. This interpretation of commodity fetishism refers to a belief that the car (or any manufactured object) is more important than people, and that it confers special powers beyond material utility to those who possess it (see also conspicuous consumption). Prestige goods and flaunting wealth have been human practices for thousands of years, but in capitalist society they are very closely linked to monetary valuations, and how those valuations will be interpreted.
  • The concept of commodity fetishism is absolutely central in the literature of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, especially of its leader Theodor W. Adorno,[19] which focuses mainly on how the forms of commerce invade the human psyche, cast people in roles not of their own making, and affect human development. Adorno invented the concept of the culture industry to describe how the human imagination and all artistic, spiritual or intellectual activity becomes subordinated to the laws of commerce. The Marxist Frankfurters tried to show that while markets offer the promise of a richly developed, creative individuality, in reality this development is severely restricted or even stunted, to the point where people hardly have "time for themselves" anymore, because they are constantly acting out or caught within roles which they have little control over. They become passive consumers rather than active creators of their lives, and any creativity which is incompatible with bourgeois norms is beaten down in some way.

In the most recent literature, the focus of theorists is often on the transformation of information and knowledge into a tradeable commodity (or capital) which is bought and sold, and which exists through an interaction between people and computers. This begins to alter human consciousness in a very powerful and direct way. The argument is that this creates a new kind of topsy-turvy world in which information and knowledges become objects of value in themselves, which are no longer lodged in people's heads, but assume a life of their own and acquire "magical" powers, even to the point where people are barred from the knowledge they themselves helped to produce (the "privatization of knowledge"). It is also argued that increasingly communication itself begins to function according to, or imitates, the rules of financial transactions; giving attention becomes a kind of negotiation (or haggling) conditional on the expectation of a return on the "investment" into it.

Several main themes can be distinguished here.

  • Culturally, Marxist theorists such as Fredric Jameson link the reification of information and knowledge to post-modernism. One of the main concerns is with the distinction between authentically knowing and experiencing things, and "fake", "surrogate" or superficial knowledge/experience made possible by the fact that money can buy just about anything. Through the media, people can for example acquire all kinds of beliefs without having any of the personal experience which gives rise to those beliefs. A kind of "pseudo-world" is created which begins to substitute for the real one. Wolfgang Fritz Haug offers a "critique of commodity aesthetics" which examines how human needs and desires are manipulated or reshaped for the purpose of commercial gain.[20]
  • In the field of economics, Marxians such as Michael Perelman have critically examined the belief systems involved in the rise of intellectual property rights; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis critically reviewed the beliefs involved in the theory of human capital [13]. Knowledge as the means to make a better life contrasts here with knowledge as a tradeable commodity or a type of capital, which can generate income and wealth. In the process, knowledge and information become detached from the knowing subject and begin to lead a "life of its own".
  • Sociologists like Frank Furedi and Ulrich Beck have focused on the growth of commodified knowledges in the context of modern "risk prevention culture" growing out of the preoccupation with portfolio risk and the insurance of wealth or status. The Post-World War II economic expansion created gigantic savings, and the dominant bourgeois ideology shifted gradually towards the way of thinking of fund managers controlling the investment of financial assets ("the talk follows the money"). The global pension funds accumulated by 20% of the world population (mostly in OECD countries) who have pensions nowadays alone amount to circa $17.5 trillion;[21] to this gigantic asset must be added the even greater funds of other institutional investors such as banks, finance companies, hedgefunds and the like. In 2008, the world's total tradeable financial assets (stocks, debt securities and bank deposits) were estimated at $178 trillion, more than three times the value of what the whole world produces in a year.[22] These gigantic funds have to be invested for profit while the future is uncertain, and this creates a tremendous preoccupation with risk calculations. Yet, while more and more funds are spent to insure capital assets against possible loss in value, workers' lives are increasingly insecure; workers cannot be sure that the job they hold now will still be there in future; this creates general uncertainty and an increased preoccupation with risk allround. If one has a lot of money, it is easier to pose as a "risk-taker"; taking a risk might forfeit considerable money, but after the loss, there is still a lot of money left. If one has little money, one might lose rather little money from taking a risk, but the risk can nevertheless have a huge impact on one's life. When risk is fetishized as "a quantity of money", this may powerfully distort the very perception of the real risks ordinary people run in everyday life.[23] And thus the very valuation of risk is susceptible to ideological biases. The sociologists note that fortunes are nowadays earnt from insights by "experts" into the relationship between "knowns" and "unknowns", and in which all kinds of primitive fears, anxieties and superstitions about what "might happen" are manipulated and capitalized on - not infrequently in a fraudulent way. The authoritativeness of these experts, it is argued, often begins to rely on a quasi-religious belief by people in the experts' powers of analysis and forecasting, and in the power of their knowledge, something which is sustained with sophisticated techniques for persuading and seducing the public. The valuation of knowledge gets a somewhat "mystical aura".
  • Inspired by various authors including Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin, various artists and art critics have explored fetishes in the world of art, and how the definition and valuation of art is altered by commerce (the relationship between commercial value and aesthetic value). The most obvious example of "artistic fetishes" occurs, when the trivial personal belongings (or rather trivial artistic productions) of a famous artist are sold for gigantic sums of money. But fetishes may also enter into the very design of art work.

In general, these kinds of (often dystopian) interpretations suggest that the whole of human knowledge itself is increasingly being restructured in terms of the relationships between objects of commercial value and the property rights they involve - to the point where the true nature of human relations is shrouded or hidden away, or indeed becomes a total mystery, because all the relevant concepts necessary to understand them are denied, disconnected or erased. Gradually, it is argued, all knowledges which do not serve business interests are being "wiped out".

That might not seem to wipe out so much, to that extent that many knowledges are compatible with making money, but even if the relevant disciplines are not starved of funding, the argument is that the structures of the knowledges themselves are being reformed and deformed, according to a specific pattern of conceptualizations which reflects commercial interests and business culture. As a side-effect, however, metaphysical (rather than scientifically sound) beliefs begin to substitute more and more for a "genuine self-knowledge of society" obtained through independent, critical and comprehensive scientific (or artistic) inquiry. Ultimately, people can then no longer understand themselves and their own lives anymore without the use of commodities, state authorities and specialized "expert" services (which could be religious services offered by specialists on the spiritual condition of the human species).

Menger and subjective wants

Strongly pro-capitalist economists, such as Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian School have insisted that the attribution of value is only a matter of subjective preferences:

"The value of goods, accordingly, is a phenomenon that springs from the same source as the economic character of goods--that is, from the relationship, explained earlier, between requirements for and available quantities of goods. But there is a difference between the two phenomena. On the one hand, perception of this quantitative relationship stimulates our provident activity, thus causing goods subject to this relationship to become objects of our economizing (i.e., economic goods). On the other hand, perception of the same relationship makes us aware of the significance that command of each concrete unit of the available quantities of these goods has for our lives and well-being, thus causing it to attain value for us. Just as a penetrating investigation of mental processes makes the cognition of external things appear to be merely our consciousness of the impressions made by the external things upon our persons, and thus, in the final analysis, merely the cognition of states of our own persons, so too, in the final analysis, is the importance that we attribute to things of the external world only an outflow of the importance to us of our continued existence and development (life and well-being). Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being, and in consequence carry over to economic goods as the exclusive causes of the satisfaction of our needs."[25]

The difference between Marx and Menger is just that for Marx, value relationships exist and evolve between things and activities also quite independently from the wishes or desires of any individual or even group of individuals. The fact that this is so, is precisely what helps to sustain the "fetish". It is not merely that people habitually regard value as intrinsic to objects, but also that the economic value objects have, and the way they are related, gained a real power over people. For Menger, value is only exclusively an expression of subjective preferences, but for Marx, value also begins to assert itself as a mind-independent, objective force, quite regardless of what people happen to prefer, with the practical effect that people must often adjust to economic values, rather than the supply of goods and services adjusting to the needs and wishes of people. If individuals don't have the money to buy things, they can prefer all they like, but they won't get the goods and the prices often won't change either (unless perchance someone offers to share them).

Obviously, in markets there is a tendency for supply and demand to adjust to each other, however haphazardly that may occur, causing economists to extrapolate a "natural tendency of markets to reach equilibrium" provided there is no outside interference in market activity. Therefore, Menger's view has a certain plausibility; after all, markets are in good part driven by demand, and therefore by the choices and preferences of myriads of individuals. This reality was already noted in ancient Greece by the philosopher Aristotle, who therefore attributed the value of goods simply to the intensity of demand for them.[26]

It is just that the very meaning, scope and limits of these choices and preferences themselves is also determined by objective market forces over which individuals have no control, and with which they are confronted every day. They do not control the results of the fact that a mass of working hours has, or has not been worked. They have to adjust their behaviour to price-levels, like it or not ("market discipline"). This means that, mostly, the value of goods is set by a price-level which people normally cannot change, or change only within narrow limits, and the fact that people individually strongly or weakly prefer a good offered for sale does not normally change its basic supply price. The market does not change at all, simply because people have a desire for particular goods, but because they really buy or sell them (or not). If somebody strongly desires a candy bar that sells for $1, the $1 price for the candy does not spontaneously by itself change because of that desire. At most the seller of candy might say, that "if you get five bars, I will give you a discount".

Market freedom

Menger's theory leads to the result, that market effects can only be explained in terms of the subjective preferences of individuals and nothing else. If markets expanded, that must be because the intensity of desires increased, and if they shrank, it must be because appetites reduced, causing changes in the free choices people made to buy or sell. But for Marx, this sort of vulgar and naive theory (in his opinion) was itself a product of commodity fetishism, insofar as it completely disconnected market trade from the constraints placed on that trade by the labor efforts of people, by history and by the framework of social relations within which they co-existed, like it or not (see law of value).

"Market freedom" might only be a sort of illusion created by the ability of people to choose whether to buy and sell or not, and by the potential choices they could conceivably make, even if they had only very little money. They feel unconstrained in market activity only because they have internalized the constraints and agree to play by its rules. But people might not buy or sell out of free choice at all, but because they were forced to do so by circumstances, like it or not, at prices not to their liking. For example, in a food crisis food becomes scarce and expensive, but people still have to eat.

The theories which economists made up about markets were, in Marx's opinion, themselves ultimately a product of the way market trade itself functioned, and not the other way around. If markets involved a reified consciousness, which attributed an independent power to symbols imposed by "the many" on "the few", or by economic community on each of its members, this would also powerfully influence the economic theories created about markets - in ways which actually promoted the fetishization of economic phenomena. Ultimately this created the belief that "the economy" and "the market" were independent things which could act in their own right, even if few people could explain or define what "the economy" or "the market" means.[27] People might say, "the market does this" or "the market does that" but in reality people do these things, and the market results are merely the effects of what they do. Thus, ultimately, commodity fetishism contributed to a process of dumbing down.


Five criticisms have often been made of the concept of commodity fetishism:

  • Although there may be a cultural tendency to fetishize objects in human society, this has always existed and is not unique to capitalist society. People are normally very able to distinguish between commercial valuations and other sorts of evaluations, and they are not so misguided as Marx seems to think. If they attribute a normal value to objects, that is not a bad thing. If they did not, life would become very difficult because they would not be able to agree on what something is worth.
  • Modern economics is very much based on the idea that economic value is subjective, a matter of what people choose to value, which influences their choices. If economic value is said to be objectified, this is merely an illusion, and people know very well it is an illusion. It is wrong to think that price-levels force people around, because they always have a free choice. They can always change their behaviour to get what they want. The value of objects is just a matter of their practical utility for human purposes.
  • Marx's idea of commodity fetishism is therefore claimed to be an exaggeration, because in real life people simply do not fetishize objects to the extent that Marx thinks they do. They apply all sorts of valuations which guide their behaviour, quite aware of the differences between the characteristics of an object and the characteristics of human subjects; thus they can learn to control their desires, and judiciously manage money as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If one really believed that value relationships were beyond anyone's control, this would get in the way of freely determining one's life. Indeed, the use of fetishes could be regarded as a natural form of human play, a game that is only a game in which objects are cherished or loved.
  • The analogy drawn between commodity fetishism and religion is claimed to be mistaken, because people do not truly "worship" money and commodities in a spiritual sense, or attribute supernatural powers to them; it is argued that the development of capitalism has led to considerable secularization, i.e. to the abandonment of organized religion and superstitions in many areas of life, in favour of a scientifically based interpretation of the world (although science and religion might also combine). The human beliefs about value-relationships which are involved in commodity fetishism are, according to this argument, not "religious" beliefs at all, and do not have the same characteristics as real spiritual beliefs. The proof of this interpretation is said to be, that one could be a religious believer, even though one is extremely aware of commodity fetishism, and highly critical of its manifestations; indeed it might be an integral part of one's religion to tear down the golden calf, i.e. to oppose idolatry in all forms.[28]
  • Marxism is itself claimed (e.g. by the later Leszek Kolakowski) to be a sort of fetish, namely the fetishization of Marx and his ideas.[29] This is sometimes also interpreted as a spiritual substitute for "real" religion which Marxists regard as not credible.[30] Thus, it can be argued the concept of commodity fetishism is itself fetishized, and thereby endowed with a pervasive power and influence which it does not really have, leading to a distorted, stunted perception of social reality, in which subjective sympathies or dislikes are badly confused with objective realities.

How exactly Marx would have responded to such criticisms remains unclear, because he never explicitly defended his idea of commodity fetishism after he published it, and seemed to regard it as a rather obvious aspect of life. No doubt he would not have denied that people can be very self-aware; they can make choices and relativize matters, and few objectively given economic circumstances are so compelling that one cannot actively do anything about them at all. But probably he would have referred to the enormous power that money has over people's lives, and to the quasi-religious zeal with which the business world may pursue its aims.

Perhaps he would have pointed to what people in capitalist society actually do when the "crunch" comes, when there is a real economic crisis (as a "test case"). What do people do in the first instance? Do they for example try to secure their possessions, perhaps investing in gold or other assets that hold their value? Or do they spontaneously seek to cooperate with others to resolve the crisis?

It is evident from Marx's text that in drawing an analogy between the fetishes of a religious cult and the fetishes involved in commerce, he did not commit himself to the idea that commodity fetishism is a "religion of commerce", the same as a religious faith. "Having a fetish" (endowing something with powers it does not really have) need not involve a specifically religious belief at all. However, how people regard commercial phenomena could also be influenced by a mixture of religious, semi-religious and non-religious beliefs.

How Marx would have regarded Marxism is not known, because Marxism emerged as a significant political movement only after his death. Although very aware of the desire of human beings to remake the world after their own image, and immortalize themselves, Marx stayed an atheist and a humanist. He was rather skeptical and derisive when some French leftists began to call themselves "Marxists" in the early 1880s.[31] According to the testimony of Friedrich Engels, Marx quipped wrily, "what is certain is that, as for myself, I am no Marxist" (or, in another version, "All I know is that I am no Marxist") - the suggestion being that if this was "Marxism", he wanted no part of it.[32] Marx did seek influence for his ideas, but not for himself; he recommended that people should "think through" matters for themselves, using their own critical faculties, and his writings were intended only as an aid for this. Yet it could be argued that this contradicted with the intellectual authority he and Engels definitely did seek in the labour movement, which could after all hardly exist without followers; and it was not unreasonable that these followers would begin to call themselves "Marxists", to distinguish themselves from other trends. The old Engels, by then an intellectual mentor of the growing social-democratic movement, eventually accepted the label of "Marxism" - which he did not invent himself - to express the political tendency he and Marx represented, and for which he had written many popular pamphlets, articles and books.[33]

See also

Before Marx
Marx's argument
After Marx

Further reading

  • Debord, Guy (1983) The Society of the Spectacle, ????: Black and Red.
  • Lukács, Georg (1972) History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Marx, Karl (1992) Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin.
  • Mary Douglas who wrote The world of goods with Baron Isherwood.


  1. ^ In an influential commentary, Isaak Illich Rubin claims that "The theory of fetishism is, per se, the basis of Marx's entire economic system, and in particular of his theory of value." - I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx's theory of value. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990, p. 5.
  2. ^ See Marx, Capital, Volume I, chapter 2, Penguin ed., p. 187.
  3. ^ In chapter 24 of Capital, Volume III, Marx comments that "The relations of capital assume their most externalised and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital."
  4. ^ In chapter 2 of Capital, Volume I, Marx explains that commodity trade and commodity production precede capitalist exchange and capitalist commodity production by many centuries. "The appearance of products as commodities requires a level of development of the division of labour within society such that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, has already been completed. But such a degree of development is common to many economic formations of society, with the most diverse historical characteristics." - Marx, Capital, Volume I, Penguin ed. 1976, p. 273. Marx explains (loc. cit.) that commodity production and circulation can occur on a comparatively modest scale, even although most of society's production is non-commercial subsistence production.
  5. ^ Capital Vol I. Part I § 4 The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof p. 31 in the Great Books (Volume 50) First Edition.
  6. ^ The first edition included a special appendix on the value-form. Among other things, Marx there considers that the "fetish-character emerges more strikingly in the equivalent-form than in the relative value-form. The relative value-form of a commodity is mediated, namely by its relation to another commodity. Through this value-form the value of the commodity is expressed as something completely distinct from its own sensible existence." - Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867 [1].
  7. ^ "The various references in the "Wood Theft" articles to idols, animal masks, workship of animals, and fetishes reflect Marx's systematic study in 1841-42 of primitive religion. His notebooks from that time indicate that he was particularly interested in the concept of fetishism-its nature, its origins, and the difference between ancient and "modern" forms of fetishism (MEGA, Vol . 1, Part 2 p . 115ff)." - Erica Sherover, "The virtue of poverty: Marx's transformation of Hegel's concept of the poor". Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory/Revue canadienne de theorie politique et sociale, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter/Hiver, 1979), pp. 53-66. [2]
  8. ^ Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie (1760) [3]. A German translation was subsequently published: Uber den Dienst der fetischengotter oder Vergleichung der alten religion Egyptians mit den heutigen Religion Nigritiens. Ubersetzt von Christain Brandanus Hermann Pistorius. Berlin, Stralsund: Gottlieb August Lange, 1785. For an important study of the origin of the concept of fetishism, see: William Pietz, "The problem of the fetish, I", Res 9 (Spring 1985), pp. 5-17; "The problem of the fetish, II: The origin of the fetish", Res 13 (Spring 1987), pp. 23-45; "The problem of the fetish, III: Bosman's Guinea and the enlightenment theory of fetishism", Res 16 (Autumn 1988), pp. 105-123.
  9. ^ The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte 1830-1842).
  10. ^ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On religion. Atlanta: Scholars, 1982, p. 22.
  11. ^ Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress, 1975, p. 312 [4]).
  12. ^ Lawrence Krader (ed.), The ethnological notebooks of Karl Marx: studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972).
  13. ^ Karl Marx, Grundrisse, chapter 17 (1857)
  14. ^ Karl Marx,Results of the Immediate Process of Production, appendix in Capital Volume 1. Penguin edition, 1976, p. 983).
  15. ^ For more details, see: Roland Boer, "That Hideous Pagan Idol: Marx, Fetishism and Graven Images". Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Volume 38, Number 1, February 2010 , pp. 93-116.
  16. ^ See Ernest Mandel's 1967 dissertation at the École pratique des hautes études, published in English as The formation of the economic thought of Karl Marx: 1843 to 'Capital'. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, especially pp. 163-186.
  17. ^ David Ricardo, On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), Preface.
  18. ^ "Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man." - Georg Lukacs, History and Class-Consciousness. London: Merlin Press, 1971, p. 93.
  19. ^ Adorno wrote a very large amount but his best known works are Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), by M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, ed. G. S. Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002; Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, London: NLB, 1974; and Negative Dialectics (1966), trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
  20. ^ Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society. Introduced by Stuart Hall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
  21. ^ "Paying for pensions: affording old age", BBC News, 13 September 2010
  22. ^ "Global financial markets: entering a new era", McKinsey Global Institute, September 2009, p. 9.
  23. ^ See further e.g. Jan Toporowski's analysis
  24. ^ Marc Linder, Reification and the consciousness of the critics of political economy. Copenhagen: Rhodos, 1975 and subsequent works.
  25. ^ Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (1871), chapter 3
  26. ^ See Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, Chapter 5
  27. ^ Frank Roosevelt, "Cambridge Economics as Commodity Fetishism", in:Review of Radical Political Economics, vol. 7, no. 4, December 1975, pp.1-32. Reprinted in: Edward J. Nell, Growth, profits, and property: essays in the revival of political economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  28. ^ See e.g. Helena Sheehan, Portrait of a Marxist as a Young Nun.[5]
  29. ^ In his Marxist phase, Leszek Kolakowski published nine essays under the title Kultura i fetysze [Culture and fetishism] (Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwow Nakowe, 1967), English translations in: Kolakowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism, Marxism and Beyond, and A Leszek Kolakowski Reader. Later he distanced himself from Marxism; he drew many parallels between Marxism and a religious faith.
  30. ^ Significantly, Louis Proyect titles his blog "The unrepentant Marxist"[6].
  31. ^ See further Christophe Prochasson, Histoire des gauches en France. Paris: La Découverte, 2005; Leslie Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  32. ^ See Hal Draper, Karl Marx's theory of revolution, Volume II: the politics of social classes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978, pp. 5-11. Engels refers to Marx's quip in two letters: to Eduard Bernstein dated 2–3 November 1882 (MECW Volume 46, p. 353)[7] and to C. Schmidt dated August 5, 1890 [8]
  33. ^ In a foreword to his essay Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), dated February 21, 1888, Frederick Engels claimed confidently, "Inzwischen hat die Marxsche Weltanschauung Vertreter gefunden weit über Deutschlands und Europas Grenzen hinaus und in allen gebildeten Sprachen der Welt." This was translated as "In the meantime, the Marxist world outlook has found representatives far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of the world." Strictly speaking, the adjective "Marxsche" means "Marxian", but at the time already seems often to have been considered synonymous with "Marxist". In a note to Part 4 of this essay, Engels comments "Without [Marx] the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name."[9]

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