Click for a transcript of "Fetishism of Commodities" video.
On screen text: "A commodity is, therefore, a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor..." "..to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the production 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 labor..." -Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1]
There are a lot of people that are really powerful in the world. Presidents, CEOs, 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 an end in itself occupies many people's lives and is the driving force of economic growth. All over society money acts as the symbol, status prestige, and social power. The funny thing about money is that it is just an object. Nowadays it's not even a valuable object like gold. It's just pieces of paper or digits on a computer screen. It has all this power and influence and it needs no will, weapons, or words. This phenomenon where objects have social power in which things act as if they have a will for their own is what Marx sought to unravel with this notion the fetishism commodities.
When Marx talks 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 distributed magical powers to objects like idols or charms. If the Israelites of the Old Testament won a battle with the Philistines, they attributed their victory to the powers of the arc of the covenant that they carried around. If they lost, it was because they had pissed off the arc. 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 if 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, the family farm, whatever. Here the relations between different workers are direct. I make a widget and I hand it directly to the next person. If something needs to change about the labor process someone brings 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 take a 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, and so on. Farmers, electricians, and auto workers don't directly relate to each other as workers. Instead the products of their labor meet in the market and are exchanged with one another. The material relations between people become social relations between things. When we look at toasters, corn, and TV's we don't see the work that created them. We just see commodities standing in relation to one another as values. A TV's value is worth so many ears of corn. A car's value is worth so many jars of peanut butter. 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.
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's a network of social relations being coordinated to 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 former relations between things Marx calls reification. Reification helps explain why it is that in the capital society things appear to take on the characteristics of people. Inanimate objects spring to life endowed with the value that seems to come from the object itself. We say a book is worth twenty dollars, a sweater worth twenty five dollars, but this value doesn't come from the sweater itself. You can't cut open the sweater and find $25 dollars inside. This twenty-five dollars is an expression of the relation between this sweater and all of the other commodities in the market. And these commodities are just material forms have a social labor process coordinated through market exchange Its because people organize their labor through the market the value exists. The illusion that value comes from the commodity itself, 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 for 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 the 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 site. 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 power. There is not a real world of production existing below the surface in which the relations between producers are direct. Relations between people or only indirect, only coordinated to the mystifying world of commodities.
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's a theory of the way social relations between people take on material forms that then act back upon and shape these social relations. Labor takes the form of a value embodied in commodities. Money price becomes the universal expression of this value. The pursuit of money as an end in 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 for monopoly or the state always become immeshed in the social antagonisms of value.