Commodity Fetishism is not Branding

February 16, 2013

It’s an unfortunate truism in cultural studies and other disciplines that Marx’s term “commodity fetishism” has something to do with branding. Here is a recent example, though by no means the worst one.

Such an understanding of commodity fetishism has the advantage of making a somewhat complicated concept easy and intuitive, while also flattering the analyst/teacher, who is “too smart” to be tricked by flashy ads. It has the disadvantage of misrepresenting what Marx actually meant.

Fortunately Michael Heinrich’s recently translated An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital takes this up.

The term ‘commodity fetish’ has enjoyed a certain amount of propagation since Marx’s time, but is not always used and understood in a way referring to the phenomena dealt with by Marx. Marx did not use the term ‘commodity fetish’ to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. The term also does not refer to making a fetish of brand names. There is no ‘secret’ behind possessing expensive commodities as status symbols that needs to be deciphered.

It is often the case that the commodity fetish is characterized solely as a state of affairs in which the social relationships between people appear as social relationshops between things (the relationships of those engaged in exchange appear as a value relationship between the products being exchanged), so that social relationships become the property of things. But if we leave it at that, then fetishism appears to be merely a mistake: people ascribe false properties to the products of their labor and fail to see that ‘in reality’ as social relationship between people lies behind the relationship between things. Fetishism would therefore be a form of ‘false consciousness’ that merely conceals the ‘real conditions.’ If that were the case, then this false consciousness must disappear once the real conditions have been explained. In this reductionist conception of the commodity fetish, important points of Marx’s analysis are lost. 

In every social form of production characterized by a division of labor, people stand in a particular social relationship to one another. In commodity production, this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities [as exchange values]. People’s social relationships therefore appear to them as ‘socio-natural properties’ of the products of labor: what Marx means can be demonstrated using the example of value: on the one hand it is clear that ‘value’ is not a natural property of things like weight or color, but on the other, for the people in a commodity-producing society, it seems as if things in a social context automatically possess ‘value’ and therefore automatically follow their own objective laws to which humans must submit.

…under conditions of commodity production, producers do not relate to one another in a direct, social way; they first enter into a relationship with one another during the act of exchange — through the products of their labor. That their social relationship to one another appears as a social relationship between things is therefore not at all an illusion.


In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. 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.

Heinrich continues:

That things have social characteristics under the conditions of commodity production is no way wrong. What is wrong is the assumption that they possess these social characteristics automatically, in every social context. Fetishism does not consist of products of labor being regarded as objects of value — in bourgeois society, products of labor that are exchanged are in fact objects of value — but this objectivity of value is considered a “self-evident and nature-imposed necessity” (Capital, 1:175).

Commodity producers produce their social connection precisely not as a result of a particular awareness concerning the connection between value and labor, but independent of such awareness. It would therefore be completely wrong to understand Marx’s theory of value as claiming that people exchange their commodities according to their values because they know how much labor is contained within the individual products. It is Marx’s intent to show that humans act without being aware of the conditions of their action.

Whether my individually expended labor is recognized as a component of the total labor of society is not information provided to me directly by society, but by the value of my commodity in exchange. And my prosperity or misfortune depends upon this information. But the magnitudes of value of commodities “vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers. Their own movement within society had for them the form of a movement made by things, which far from being under their control, in fact control them” (Capital I: 169-70).

The value of commodities is an expression of an overwhelming social interaction that cannot be controlled by individuals. In a commodity-producing society, people (all of them!) are under the control of things, and the decisive relations of domination are not personal but ‘objective.’ This impersonal objective domination submission to inherent necessities,’ does no exist because things themselves possess characteristics that generate such domination, or because social activity necessitates this mediation through things, but only because people relate to things in a particular way — as commodities.

Heinrich then points out that, additionally, it is bourgeois political economy itself (Capital is a critique of political economy) which treats this objective domination as natural.

Commodity fetishism is not really about how brands trick people into thinking commodities are better than they “really” are. Such an analysis still leaves untouched what Marx means by fetishism, which refers to the way in which the exchange of commodities acquire an objective domination — a real, very real domination — over social production. The “Commodity Fetishism=Branding” argument is locked within the point of purchase, ignoring the total social production (“social relations between people”), and instead buying into the idea that commodities have a natural value, albeit in a “negative” way: commodities’ natural value has been obscured by the Nike Swoosh and the price tag that goes with it. The implication is that we must “see through” the fetishized branded commodity so we can see the true value underneath — maybe we would recognize those Nikes are worth a lot less. Sadly, this leaves intact commodity fetishism, because it assumes commodities have a natural value that has merely been altered by branding. This is what began to trouble me about this interpretation: could Marx have really intended for us to merely be better shoppers?

The same problem plagues almost all analyses that start from the point of sale, even putatively Marxist ones: they assume the terms of bourgeois ideology from the outset, and leave the social character of production to the side. As Heinrich states, “If the intentions of social actors (that which they ‘know’) are made the point of departure of analysis (as is the case in neoclassical economics and various sociological theories), then that which individuals ‘don’t know,’ the framework that preconditions their thought and activity, is blanked out of the analysis from the very start” (78). 

Fetishism means that relationships between people — the social relationships of commodity producers, owners, etc. — become naturalized (this is distinct from “objectified” — Marx wouldn’t deny that commodity exchange is an objective fact of capitalism) as commodity exchange, exchange of goods which seem to possess real values independent of social relationships. That you own the factory, and I must work there to earn a wage to purchase the goods I produce seems to be an objective natural fact because commodity production reigns supreme; in reality, this is a relationship that is political and historical, and therefore changeable. 

Media Studies vs. Marxism

November 8, 2011

…it is important to point out that however materialistic [Walter Benjamin’s] approach to history may seem, nothing is farther from Marxism than the stress on invention and technique as the primary cause of historical change. Indeed, it seems to me that such theories (of the kind which regard the steam engine as the cause of the Industrial Revolution, and which have recently have been rehearsed yet again, in streamlined modernistic form, in the works of Marshall McLuhan) function as a substitute for Marxist historiography in the way they offer a feeling of concreteness comparable to economic subject matter, at the same time that they dispense with any consideration of the human factors of classes and of the social organization of production.

–Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (1971)

McLuhan-esque media studies as a bad kind of historical materialism, one that precisely leaves out class struggle (in other words, real human beings) as the motor of history. Wish social media boosters and Twitter revolutionaries thought about this, but their bromides go down so well! Until they don’t:

The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters [i.e. workers] are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, future-of-news ideas would be a good place to start:

• Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.

• Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.

• Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.

• Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.

• Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.

• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too.

Bad historical materialism: great for crooks, too.

Precarity, 19th Century Style

September 6, 2011

If any single factor dominated the lives of nineteenth-century workers it was insecurity. They did not know at the beginning of the week how much they would bring home at the end. They did not know how long their present work would last or, if they lost it, when they would get another job or under what conditions. They did not know when accident or sickness would hit them, and though they knew that some time in middle age — perhaps in the forties for unskilled laborers, perhaps in the fifties for the more skilled — they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour, they did not know what would happen to them between then and death. Theirs was not the insecurity of peasants, at the mercy of periodic — and to be honest, often more murderous — catastrophes such as drought or famine, but capable of predicting with some accuracy how a poor man or woman would spend most days of their lives from birth to the graveyard. It was a more profound unpredictability, in spite of the fact that probably a good proportion of workers were employed for long periods of their lives by a single employer. There was no certainty of work even for the most skilled: during the slump of 1857-8 the number of workers in the Berlin engineering industry fell by almost a third.


For the world of liberalism insecurity was the price paid for both progress and freedom, not to mention wealth, and was made tolerable by continuous economic expansion. Security was to be bought — at least sometimes — but not for free men and women but, as the English terminology put it clearly, for “servants” — whose liberty was strictly constrained: domestic servants, “railway servants,” even “civil servants” (or public officials).

–Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital (1848-1875)

Piracy is Looting — And That’s OK

August 29, 2011

If you support piracy, you should support looting.

I say this as a supporter of piracy, one trying to come to a consistent position on property as a whole. Plenty of people defend piracy, plenty more pirate secretly, and usually they will have an excuse, like “Pirates buy more music” or “I’m going to the show, so I’m supporting the artist” or “I don’t have money, so the company wouldn’t have gotten me to pay anyway.” They draw boundaries between the good or neutral piracy that they practice, and the bad piracy and theft that others practice. Instead of creating a preserve where the things that I and my friends do is ok, I’m more interested in expanding categories so we can see how what we do is aligned with what others do too.

So what is piracy? It is the deliberate violation of the current system property rights. Our system states that corporations can buy, sell, and own the exclusive right to copy music recordings, films, and books. Anyone else who does so is a criminal. Even though many people possess the means to easily copy and distribute intellectual property, they aren’t allowed. So what happens? We do it anyway. We torrent, we join password-protected communities, we Google music blogs, we upload to YouTube under disguised names, we rip and burn, we violate the laws of property willingly, continuously. We do this because we can. Because it’s easy. Because we know the media companies are greedy exploitative bastards. And because many of us don’t have the disposable income to blow indiscriminately on records, movie tickets, DVDs, and books.

And pay is indeed an important, if neglected, component of piracy. As the SSRC report “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” states,

Media piracy has been called “a global scourge,” “an international plague,” and “nirvana for criminals,”1 but it is probably better described as a global pricing problem. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. If piracy is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, it is because these conditions are ubiquitous. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the price of a CD, DVD, or copy of Microsoft Office is five to ten times higher than in the United States or Europe. Licit media goods are luxury items in most parts of the world, and licit media markets are correspondingly tiny.

It’s piracy or nothing. Or to appropriate someone else’s words, Share or Die.

So what about looting? Looting is the widespread theft of goods on a mass scale. Looters violate property laws, but many people, including pro-piracy people, will tell you it’s different, that taking a pair of sneakers isn’t the same as downloading an mp3. That seems true on the face of it, but it relies on some faulty claims.

First of all, shoes cannot be shared the way I share an mp3 — it benefits only the person who possesses it at the time. In economic jargon, shoes are “rivalrous.” Now, while it may be true in a limited metaphysical sense that shoes are rivalrous, in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced. In fact, if you had $100 to spend, you could go to the store right now and pick out one pair of shoes among many. Very few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase. However, we might not be able to afford shoes at any given time. I myself have had to put off replacing worn-out shoes until I could amass enough money to get new ones. I knew that once I had the money, I would have no trouble buying the shoes. Even if other people bought shoes, it wouldn’t prevent me from getting the exact same, or a nearly identical, type of shoe. So this kind of overproduction of mass-produced goods, combined with the widespread inability for many people to pay for these goods, renders the point about rivalrous goods moot.

Now to get that shoe for free, to steal it, would require committing a crime that seems very different from downloading an mp3. In the eyes of the law, in both cases you have violated someone else’s private property rights. But stealing a pair of shoes requires a different kind of physical activity to pull off. Illegally downloading an mp3 just means I sit behind a computer and type, the same way I check my email or do my taxes. I could do it in a cafe without disturbing a single person’s enjoyment of their latte. But looting will probably entail damaging some property — broken locks, smashed windows, and the like. Some people will find this a tad impolite. They think someone who entertains thoughts of violating property laws — laws governing physical property, they have no problem burning a CD for a friend — morally flawed. It creates a mess. In fact, Rudy Giuliani gentrified New York City using the belief that messes were worse than other types of crimes. People who think this way would prefer that you and I walk around unshod rather than make a mess. In fact, as long as you don’t make a mess, they don’t really care about whether you have shoes, food, healthcare, or anything else you need to survive. That, in my book, is some fucked up priorities, revealing, for all their peaceful coffee-sipping, a profound flaw in moral thinking.

So looting says the same thing that piracy says: we can take it and, by coordinating masses of others, we will. If we could torrent clothes and food using Starbucks WiFi, we would, but until then, we can loot from the vast stores of stuff that’s already been produced. Either way, we damage the industries we take from. And that is good, because these industries are terrible, greedy, inhuman industries that exploit their workers and cheat their customers. You could ask Steve Albini, or you could ask any of these women in a Nike sweatshop.

In the London riots, a warehouse owned by Sony housing materials to be distributed by Pias was burned down. Thousands of DVDs and CDs were lost. My first thought was, “Oh no, independent artists will be hurt!” My second thought was “Who was going to buy all that shit?” In fact, the fire could be a boon to some of the affected parties, since they’ll get insurance payout on stock that a decent internet connection renders worthless, unsaleable. Just a bunch of flat shiny discs that fewer and fewer people want, that fewer and fewer people can pay for. Isn’t this the world of pirates, the world where art doesn’t need factories and warehouses and sweatshops, where everyone can pay according to their ability, where the giant corporations who suck income from us at every turn end up looking like this? This is what our piracy, our looting can do.

Holding up the “indie labels” was a way to try and make us feel bad, to think that looters were hurting nice little companies run by nice indie people. It functions the same as this picture:

A nice old man, rummages through the wreckage of his shop. “I’ll probably have to close because I haven’t got insurance,” and we are supposed to imagine the terrible looters who took “a number of small items, including his kettle and cotton wool” from this poor old man. How could they do this? And we forget that the reason people rioted was not that they hated this old man, but because the police murdered yet another one of them, and then roughed up a teenager at a peaceful demonstration against the killing.

While we don’t know what this man’s relationship was to the people who stole his kettle, we should be aware that looting, like piracy, can harm people who we don’t think deserve it. We can pirate independent art and loot independent businesses as easily as the big name stuff, even more easily. Some music fans adopt an ethical stance, saying they support artists they like in various ways — promising to buy the CD, paying for a ticket, purchasing a T-shirt. There’s no reason looters can’t have the same ethics, against hurting people and against destroying the property of those who contribute to the community. I suspect many already do.

An NPR story about looting (related to Katrina hysteria, where we discovered that white people never loot), argues there can be ethics of looting. “Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one’s own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?” Anita Allen asks. These silly conditionals are a middle class affectation, designed to obscure the fact that it doesn’t take a catastrophic emergency for needs to go unmet. Take that part out. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

The people that say information wants to be free don’t say that shoes want to be free. Or that iPhones want to be free. Or that food wants to be free. Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. To say so is to disavow the truth: we want information to be free, because we know that is the way it should be. That art, knowledge, and formulas to life-saving medicines shouldn’t be commodities, but should be available on different terms, not exclusively on something as capricious as our ability pay. This is not some special preserve of art. This is true of clothing, of food, and of gadgets. It is true of survival, and of pleasure too.

Pirate Capitalists will tell you there are new business models out there, that piracy can reinvigorate a moribund media production and distribution system. I think they are wrong, that they are mostly hucksters, and that very few people will end up profiting much from a pirate media economy. But very few people benefit from capitalism at all, though for a while we fooled ourselves into thinking that plenty of people would do just fine under it. Our task is not to find new business models for the current system. What we need to do is realize that the art and social relations we want cannot be supported by the current system, and that the current system needs radical change. This change will come from the gravediggers that the current system of private property produces, the people who don’t benefit from it and have the power to destroy it. Pirates. Looters. Us.

Engels on Gentrification

August 11, 2011

In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion-that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is called “Haussmann.”

By the term “Haussmann” I do not mean merely the specifically Bonapartist manner of the Parisian Haussmann – breaking long, straight and broad streets through the closely-built workers’ quarters and erecting big luxurious buildings on both sides of them, the intention thereby, apart from the strategic aim of making barricade fighting more difficult, being also to develop a specifically Bonapartist building trades’ proletariat dependent on the government and to turn the city into a pure luxury city. By “Haussmann” I mean the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in those which are centrally situated, quite apart from whether this is done from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises, or owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets, etc.

No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighborhood.

This is a striking example of how the bourgeoisie solves the housing question in practice. The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere!

–Engels, “The Housing Question” (1872)

More: Gentrification and The London Riot Clean-up

We Have It Worse

July 7, 2011

In the 1970s there was much talk of a ‘leisure age’ in which, thanks to automation, we would scarcely work at all — and a spate of books brooding earnestly on how we would fill our new spare time without becoming hopelessly lethargic. Anybody spotting one of these forgotten tracts in a second-hand bookshop today would laugh incredulously. The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 in 1981. Far from losing the work ethic, we seem ever more enslaved by it. The new vogue is for books that ask anxiously how we can achieve ‘work-life balance’ in an age where many people have no time for anything beyond labour and sleep.

Francis Wheen, Das Kapital: A Biography (2006)

Rather than the pathetic equivocation of “work-life balance,” I propose a shift to older terms — working conditions. Don’t let some scowling supplicant to Capital from a previous generation tell you that you don’t know how good you have it; by every objective measure we have it worse.

(“Chained to your job” is less a metaphor than you might think, as unpaid prison slave labor proves so much cheaper than decent union jobs… but prisoners are often prone to radicalization…)

Capitalist Realism of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

July 5, 2011

You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there — as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done — they made it a pious wwarehouse of red brick, with sometimes *but this only in highly ornamented examples) a bell in a bird-cage on top of it. … All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspects of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial…. Everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not and never should be, world without end, amen.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)

The town realises in a measure the utopia of Bentham. Everything is measured in its results by the standards of utility; and if the BEAUTIFUL, the GREAT, and the NOBLE ever take root in Manchester, they will be developed in accordance with this standard.

Léon Faucher, Manchester in 1844 (1844)