what is that thing you bought?

These are three excerpts from the Marxists Internet Archive’s Encyclopaedia of Marxism that explore fetishism, and the reign of commodities. We found this to be a necessary appendage to The Story of Stuff at our SCREEN today.

Fetishism

Fetishism, in ancient religions, meant the belief that inanimate objects such as icons or trees, clouds, etc., possess human properties; in Marxism, the belief that commodities possess human properties.

Karl Marx

The Fetishism of commodities is explained in Section 4. of Chapter 1 of Capital:

“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. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. …

“Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions 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 labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. …”

In this formulation, Marx has captured the essential nature of all the ideological illusions of bourgeois society.

Fetishism is a form of reification.

Reification

Georg Lukács uses the concept of reification (from the Latin ‘res facere’, literally ‘to make a thing’) to describe that people’s ‘own activity, [their] own labour becomes something objective and independent of [them]’ (from his ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, sec. I.1). For him, this phenomenon has two sides: (1) people fail to see that certain social structures, ‘relation[s] between people’ (ibid.), are established and sustained only by their own actions (classical social constructionism focuses on this side); (2) thereby the bond between the product and the producer is broken, the social relations that are embodied into the product by virtue of the process of production now appear as if they were natural properties, in other words, something abstract, the implicit assumptions on which these relations are based, now appears as concrete (the older Frankfurt School focuses on this side). Lukács holds reification to be caused by commodity fetishism, a social pathology described by Marx in the Capital (vol. 1, sec. 1.4): Because commodities are not produced in order to serve a purpose, but to be exchanged on the market, there is no foreseeable connection between needs to be satisfied and the work done by an individual; put another way, the social division of labour is not subject to intentional deliberation, but rather seems to always already precede any individual act of work. Consequently, people regard the way in which this division is organised, by exchange, as a ‘self-evident necessity imposed by Nature’ (ibid.) and therefore treat exchange value as if it was a natural property, much like colour; that is, as if it (1) existed independently of their actions and (2) was something concrete, while, in truth, it’s neither.

Marx’ concept of commodity fetishism is commonly conjectured to further his earlier reflections on alienation (a Hegelian concept the young Marx adopts from the Left Hegelians), which also describes how people fail to recognise the products of their own labour as such. Presuming that this is a common theme in the thought of Hegel, the young as well as the late Marx, and Lukács (which is disputed by some, most notably Althusser; see below), the concept of alienation is important to reification as well, so that a short discussion seems in order. Hegel (at least on Marx’ account, cf. his ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General’) regards alienation as essential to cognition, since objects are established as such only because of alienation: (1) the consciousness forms an abstraction of what is to be cognised and thereby a norm according to which what appears in perception can be evaluated to be of this or that kind, (2) but is unaware that this abstraction originates in its own thought, to the effect that the resulting norm appears to be inherent to the object cognised and the consciousness hence alienated from the object. But that object did not exist prior to being cognised, the two steps of alienation correspond to the two criteria for being an object: (1) to be one, in terms of being countable (different sensuous impressions are grouped into units by comparing them to the aforementioned norm); (2) to appear as external to the consciousness (the norm appears to be itself objective). Put simply, Hegel regards alienation as part of the cognitive process and as such as more fundamental than objectivity. (Cf. his System of Ethical Lifechap. 1Phenomenology of Mindchap. 2.) Marx, by contrast, holds that there are norms that are more fundamental than the cognitive process and hence also more fundamental than alienation: where Hegel tries to explain contradictions as immanent to cognition, Marx holds them to flow – at least in part – from differences between the norms developed by virtue of the cognitive process and the objective norms that are that process’ condition of possibility; where Hegel analyses this process – thought, Marx analyses the process of bridging the gap between those two kinds of norms – work (cf. ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General’; Capital, vol. 1, chap. 1). Marx and Lukács are therefore able to criticise certain objects to have been reified (i.e., to have been ‘made into a thing’ illegitimately, so to speak), for being at odds with norms that are more fundamental than those established by cognition itself. Because the contradiction inherent to reification, between norms contingent on and relatively independent of cognition, cannot – as in Hegel – be understood as immanent to the cognitive process itself, but is – by Marx and Lukács – understood to be related to work, reification must be explained as effect by the way in which work, that is, the process of production, is organised; in other words, by the fetishism of commodities.

With these similarities in mind, Louis Althusser – in ‘Marxism and Humanism’ (note 7) – accuses the theory of reification to be a mere ‘projection of the theory of alienation found in [Marx’] early texts, particularly the 1844 Manuscripts, on to the theory of “fetishism” in Capital.’ Althusser considers this problematic, since something can only be described as alienated by being compared to some kind of more essential, unalienated state of affairs – and where should such a state be found? Speaking of alienation, or reification, hence presupposes some kind of human essence, which, however, seems to be an ahistorical and idealistic presumption. Correspondingly, Jürgen Habermas argues that criticising the reification of people presupposes an idealistic notion of subjectivity, because, put simply, only a subject that exists prior and independently of the objective world could be wronged by being made into a thing, that is, by being reified (cf. his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, chap. 4). Whether these criticisms hold has been the subject of much debate. Above all, they challenge not only the neo-Marxist proposition that bourgeois society is unable to live up to its own political ambitions – freedom and equality for all – because of subjecting workers to reification (cf. Lukács, ‘Class Consciousness’; ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’), but also the concept of class struggle, which is, among others, based on the epistemological claim that the proletariat is more able than the bourgeoisie to see through the illusions caused by reification (cf. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chap. 1; vol. 3, chap. 124849; ‘Results of the Direct Production Process’, 466; Lukács, op. cit.). Notable replies to these critiques include Christoph Demmerling’s ‘Language and Reification’ (1996) and Axel Honneth’s Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (2008).

Further Reading: Demmerling’s ‘Language and Reification’ is hosted by the Sammelpunkt repository and Honneth’s lecture ‘Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View’ (2005), on which his later book is based, by the Tanner Lecturesof the University of Utah. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction’ includes a brief discussion of social constructionism. For those fluent in German, Martin Birkner’s ‘Der schmale Grat’ (2001), published in the Grundrisse, explores the differences between classical (Hegelian) and structural (Althusserian) readings of Marx. See also this encyclopaedia’s entry on Althusser’s view on alienation.

Odin Kroeger

Objectification

The manifestation of human activity into a materially existing form. For example, when a person makes something, and the product of their labour thereby expresses their personality and the social relations in which the labour was carried out. In De-objectification, objectively existing, material things are incorporated into social relations and ‘humanised’ through the significance they take on for other human beings.

Both these processes are characteristic of human labour in all its historically developed forms and the concepts are central to Marx’s understanding of the relation between humanity and Nature and the individual to society. Objectification needs to be contrasted with Alienation, which refers to objectification under conditions when the product of a person’s labour not only becomes objective to them, but foreign, and Reification, which refers to the transformation of relations between people to relation between things which appear to exist independently of humanity, and is exhibited in Fetishism.

Objectification is also used in the sense of social relations which transform people into objects rather than subjects.

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