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"Cultural Theory: Commodity Fetishism" by Ron Strickland
In Marxist political economy, commodity fetishism is the peculiar character commodities adopt to subjects of capitalism, and the way in which the commodity form necessarily shapes productive relations. Productive relations end up being perceived as social relations between these material things, rather than social relations between producers and a mere material movement of the goods involved. A buyer does not directly perceive the social relations they create or perpetuate by buying a certain commodity, the particulars of it are largely invisible. All they see is the commodity itself, along with some understanding of its value. Similarly the seller only sees the money offered to them in exchange.
Although subjects may rationally understand that a simple materialist social relation is embedded within the commodity form, they are nonetheless forced into commodity fetishism by the way the market is structured. In fact, Marx begins his section on commodity fetishism by making the point that "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." According to Marx, fetishism shouldn't just be dismissed as a bourgeois mystification, but deserves thorough consideration of its own internal logic, which is largely synonymous with the logic of capital itself.
Slavoj Žižek provides an analysis of commodity fetishism in The Sublime Object of Ideology to elucidate Jacques Lacan's statement that "One has to look for the origins of the notion of symptom not in Hippocrates but in Marx, in the connection he was first to establish between capitalism and what? - the good old times, what we call the feudal times."
In a first approach, commodity fetishism is 'a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things'. The value of a certain commodity, which is effectively an insignia of a network of social relations between producers of diverse commodities, assumes the form of a quasi-'natural' property of another thing-commodity, money: we say that the value of a certain commodity is such-and-such amount of money. Consequently, the essential feature of commodity fetishism does not consist of the famous replacement of men with things ('a relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things'); rather, it consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belongs to it outside its relation with other elements.
This must be understood in analogy to feudalism, where the social relation between people was essentially fetishistic. Although the title of the feudal lord was only a product of the subservience of his serfs, this title functioned as an immediate property of the person themselves.
- Section on "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof" in Capital Volume 1 by Karl Marx
- Article on "Marx's Theory of Commodity Fetishism" by Isaak Rubin on Libcom.org
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1 Chapter 1 Section 4 "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof"
- Jacques Lacan, 'RSI', Ornicar? 4, p. 106.
- Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), p.19