What is commodity fetishism? The common response is to conceive it as a kind of marketing. Yet if we consult the opening passage of Capital Vol 1 Chapter 1 Part 4 The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof, it becomes clear that this understanding is off the mark; “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” These theological niceties are, however, not a kind of superstition; rather they have genuine substance, and only through understanding fetishism’s historical origins can commodity fetishism’s actual meaning be taken up.
The word fetish has its origins during the 16th to 17th century period of colonialism during the interactions of Europeans and African tribes, later codified in 18th century anthropology. During colonial exploration and subjugation, particular religious objects were dubbed fetishes, grounded in a general misunderstanding, both in part of cultural shock and (racist) concepts of primitiveness. For the colonizers, the objects meant that the natives lacked abstract thought, for they needed concrete objects in order to understand their gods. This concept, later developed in anthropology to mean objects, in primitive religions, that are imbued with godly powers that transcend its sensuous qualities.
In a moment of Nietzschean irony, our contemporary loss of religiosity in favor of reasonably has betrayed us. Our collective turning away from the old religions, which was also occurring in Marx’s time, gives the false security that we are free of these metaphysical thoughts. Here the reversal in the opening quote is essential to the fetish itself, for it is just this common sense view that occults its metaphysical being. As Marx says, “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to th
Structurally when we get to part four of the first chapter of capital we should have already taken up the abstract concept of the value form, which reaches its concrete life in the fetishism section. Every commodity possesses two forms under capitalism: its sensuous form and its value form. The value form is the commodity as an object of value, which here means the value of an item as stemming from labour in the context of exchange. In exchanging 20 yards of linen for 2lb of iron, the values of these objects are equivalent, even though the sensuous qualities are incommensurable. This contradiction of linen-iron, soft=hard, grey=tan, etc., is however productive in capitalism, i.e. the every flowing streams of products, and this moment of exchange abstracted and made universal to all things is commodity fetishism.em as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour.” Which is to say that objects, in being commodities, necessarily have the value form: everything is weighed, measured and stamped.
In our concrete lives, in their alienated character, we work to produce value, and engage with the object as sensuous things. But understanding every commodity as a fetish would have us see that our individual actions are made understandable in the social context of exchange. We however need not know this, for the act of labour is alienated from its products which in truth belong to the social force of the value form. As Marx says, “To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.” This is the fetish its full expression. The value form is the motor of capital as its productive contradiction, but it is only virtual until it is made actual as social practice. As actual, the strife and blights essential to capitalist production flow freely from this mark of Mammon: capital’s booms and busts, its destruction of nature, and its endless hunger all stem from the value form and its fetish.