MARX TURNS TO FETISHISM to make sense of the apparently magical quality of the commodity: "A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (163). Fetishism in anthropology refers to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things (e.g., in totems). Marx borrows this concept to make sense of what he terms "commodity fetishism." As Marx explains, the commodity remains simple as long as it is tied to its use-value. When a piece of wood is turned into a table through human labor, its use-value is clear and, as product, the table remains tied to its material use. However, as soon as the table "emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness" (163). The connection to the actual hands of the laborer is severed as soon as the table is connected to money as the universal equivalent for exchange. People in a capitalist society thus begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labor expended to produce the object. As Marx explains, "The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things" (164-65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes "the fantastic form of a relation between things" (165).

This effect is caused by the fact that, in a capitalist society, the real producers of commodities remain largely invisible. We only approach their products "through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products" (165). We access the products of the proletariat through the exchange of money with those institutions that glean profit from the labor of the proletariat. Since we only ever relate to those products through the exchange of money, we forget the "secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities" (168); that is labor: "It is... precisely this finished form of the world of commoditiesthe money form—which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly" (168-69). In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become "the direct incarnation of all human labor" (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, "Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action" (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

The situation differed in feudal society: In such a society, "we find everyone dependent—serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clerics." Because "relations of personal dependence form the given social foundation, there is no need for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind" (170). Transactions in feudal society involve the particularity of labor rather than the abstract universal equivalent necessary for commodity production. Marx therefore concludes that "Whatever we may think... of the different roles in which men confront each other in such a society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labour" (170).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Marx: On Fetishism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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