TURNS TO FETISHISM
to make sense of the apparently magical quality of the 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
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"
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"
that is labor: "It is... precisely this finished form of the world
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"
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
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).