Commodity Fetishism

In the marketplace, producers and consumers perceive each other by means of the money and goods that they exchange (commodity fetishism). Commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. As such, commodity fetishism transforms the subjective, abstract aspects of economic value into objective, real things that people believe have intrinsic value.

Hence, in a capitalist society, social relations between people— who makes what, who works for whom, the production time for a commodity, etcetera—are perceived as economic relations among objects, that is, how valuable a given commodity is when compared to another commodity. Therefore, the market exchange of commodities obscures the true economic character of the human relations of production, between the worker and the capitalist.

Marx explained the philosophic concepts underlying commodity fetishism thus:

"As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities."
The theory of commodity fetishism (German: Warenfetischismus) originated from Karl Marx's references to fetishes and fetishism in his analyses of religious superstition, and in the criticism of the beliefs of political economists. Marx said that fetishism is "the religion of sensuous appetites", and that the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an inanimate object will yield its natural character to gratify the desires of the worshipper. Therefore, the crude appetite of the fetish worshipper smashes the fetish when it ceases to be of service.

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 a 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.

In the critique of political economy, Marx proposed that in a society where independent, private producers trade their products with each other, of their own volition and initiative, and without much coordination of market exchange, the volumes of production and commercial activities are adjusted in accordance with the fluctuating values of the products (goods and services) as they are bought and sold, and in accordance with the fluctuations of supply and demand. Because their social coexistence, and its meaning, is expressed through market exchange (trade and transaction), people have no other relations with each other. Therefore, social relations are continually mediated and expressed with objects (commodities and money). How the traded commodities relate will depend upon the costs of production, which are reducible to quantities of human labour, although the worker has no control over what happens to the commodities that he or she produces. (See: Entfremdung, Marx's theory of alienation)

Domination of Things

The concept of the intrinsic value of commodities (goods and services) determines and dominates the economic (business) relationships among people, to the extent that buyers and sellers continually adjust their beliefs (financial expectations) about the value of things—either consciously or unconsciously—to the proportionate price changes (market-value) of the commodities over which buyers and sellers believe they have no true control. That psychological perception transforms the trading-value of a commodity into an independent entity (an object), to the degree that the social value of the goods and services appears to be a natural property of the commodity, itself. Thence objectified, the market appears as if self-regulated (by fluctuating supply and demand) because, in pursuit of profit, the consumers of the products cease to perceive the human co-operation among capitalists that is the true engine of the market where commodities are bought and sold; such is the domination of things in the market.

Objectified Value

The value of a commodity originates from the human being's intellectual and perceptual capacity to consciously (subjectively) ascribe a relative value (importance) to a commodity, the goods and services manufactured by the labour of a worker. Therefore, in the course of the economic transactions (buying and selling) that constitute market exchange, people ascribe subjective values to the commodities

(goods and services), which the buyers and the sellers then perceive as objective values, the market-exchange prices that people will pay for the commodities.

Naturalisation of Market Behaviour

In a capitalist society, the human perception that "the market" is an independent, sentient entity, is how buyers, sellers, and producers naturalize market exchange (the human choices and decisions that constitute commerce) as a series of "natural phenomena... that... happen of their own accord". Such were the political-economy arguments of the economists whom Karl Marx criticized when they spoke of the "natural equilibria" of markets, as if the price (value) of a commodity were independent of the volition and initiative of the capitalist producers, buyers, and sellers of commodities.

Character Mask

In a capitalist economy, a character mask (Charaktermaske) is the functional role with which a man or a woman relates and is related to in a society composed of stratified social classes, especially in relationships and market-exchange transactions; thus, in the course of buying and selling, the commodities (goods and services) usually appear other than they are, because they are masked (obscured) by the role-playing of the buyer and the seller. Moreover, because the capitalist economy of a class society is an intrinsically contradictory system, the masking of the true socio-economic character of the transaction is an integral feature of its function and operation as market exchange. In the course of business competition among themselves, buyers, sellers, and producers cannot do business (compete) without obscurity—confidentiality and secrecy—thus the necessity of the character masks that obscure true economic motive.

Central to the Marxist critique of political economy is the obscurantism of economic relationships. The juridical labor contract, between the worker and the capitalist, masks the true, exploitative nature of their economic relationship. The worker does not sell his or her labor but sells individual labor power, the human capacity to perform work and manufacture commodities that yield a profit to the producer. The work contract is the mask that obscures the economic exploitation of the difference between the wages paid for the labor of the worker and the new value created by the labor of the worker.

Marx established that in a capitalist society, the creation of wealth is based upon "the paid and unpaid portions of labor [that] are inseparably mixed up with each other, and the nature of the whole transaction is completely masked by the intervention of a contract, and the pay received at the end of the week." Vulgar economics actually does nothing more than to interpret, to systematize and turn into apologetics—in a doctrinaire way—the ideas of the agents who are trapped within bourgeois relations of production. So, it should not surprise us that, precisely within the estranged form of appearance of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and complete contradictions occur—and all science would be superfluous if the form of appearance of things directly coincided with their essence—that precisely here vulgar economics feels completely at home, and that these relationships appear all the more self-evident to it, the more their inner interconnection remains hidden to it, even though these relationships are comprehensible to the popular mind. (Capital, Volume III)

Opacity of Economic Relations

The primary valuation of the trading-value of goods and services (commodities) is expressed as money-prices. The buyers and the sellers determine and establish the economic and financial relationships; and afterwards compare the prices in and the price trends of the market. Moreover, because of the masking of true economic motive, neither the buyer, nor the seller, nor the producer perceive and understand every human labor-activity required to deliver the commodities (goods and services), nor do they perceive the workers whose labor facilitated the purchase of commodities. The economic results of such collective human labor are expressed as the values and the prices of the commodities; the value-relations between the amount of human labor and the value of the supplied commodity.

Sublimated Sexuality

The theory of sexual fetishism, which Alfred Binet presented in the essay Le fétichisme dans l'amour: la vie psychique des micro-organismes, l'intensité des images mentales, etc. (Fetishism in Love: the Psychic Life of Micro-organisms, the Intensity of Mental Images, etc., 1887), was applied to interpret commodity fetishism as types of sexually-charged economic relationships, between a person and a commodity (goods and services), as in the case of advertising, which is a commercial enterprise that ascribes human qualities (values) to a commodity, to persuade the buyer to purchase the advertised goods and services.

Social Prestige

In the 19th and in the 21st centuries, Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1899) and Alain de Botton (Status Anxiety, 2004) respectively developed the social status (prestige) relationship between the producer of consumer goods and the aspirations to prestige of the consumer. To avoid the status anxiety of not being of or belonging to "the right social class", the consumer establishes a personal identity (social, economic, cultural) that is defined and expressed by the commodities (goods and services) that he or she buys, owns, and uses; the domination of things that communicate the "correct signals" of social prestige, of belonging.

Commodity Narcissism

In the study From Commodity Fetishism to Commodity Narcissism (2012), the investigators applied the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism to psychologically analyze the economic behavior (buying and selling) of the contemporary consumer. With the concept of commodity narcissism, the psychologists Stephen Dunne and Robert Cluley proposed that consumers who claim to be ethically concerned about the manufacturing origin of commodities, nonetheless behave as if ignorant of the exploitative labor conditions under which the workers produced the goods and services, bought by the "concerned consumer"; that, within the culture of consumerism, narcissistic men and women have established shopping (economic consumption) as a socially acceptable way to express aggression. Researchers find no evidence that a greater manufacturing base can spur economic growth, while improving government effectiveness and regulation quality are more promising for facilitating economic growth.
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