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. 

Excerpts from “Reading Capital Politically”

June 7, 2012

I’m reading Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically, available for free from the lovable scallawags at I’m only halfway through, but I wanted to post some useful excerpts.

On what “working class” means beyond wage labor:

When we study the commodity-form that is imposed on the working class, it is important not to equate that imposition with the imposition of the money wage. This is the error of those who read Marx too narrowly and define the working class only as wage labor. To say that the working class sells its labor-power to capital must be understood broadly: the working class includes those who work for capital in various ways in exchange for a portion of the total social wealth they produce. As Marx pointed out in his discussion of wages in Part VI of Capital, and as the Wages for Housework Movement has emphasized, the money wage represents payment only for a part of that work. In the factory the unpaid and unwaged part counts as surplus value; the development of the analysis of the social factory (see Introduction) has brought out how capital is able to force the working class to do unwaged work for it in many other ways. The most closely analyzed aspect of this is the work involved in the training and upkeep of labor-power itself — work performed by the wage worker but also by unwaged household workers — mainly wives and children. Other formally unwaged work includes such things as travel to and from the job, shopping, and those parts of schoolwork, community work, and church work that serve to reproduce labor-power for capital. Unwaged work is not unpaid; rather it is at least partially sold to capital in return for nonwage income. The important point here is that the analysis of the commodity-form in the class relation must include this kind of exchange as well as the direct exchange of wages for labor-power.

On machines, wages, the working day, and productivity – automation increases the power of capital, but in contradictory ways:

The success of the working class in reducing work historically created a profound crisis for capital and forced it to seek new strategies. One response to a decrease of unpaid work in the factory was to extend the unwaged workday outside the factory. The analysis of the social factory has brought out how the shortening of hours and the exclusion of women and children from factory labor — a tendency which began after Marx wrote Capital — was partly offset for capital by an increase in work done in the home and in the school to maintain or improve the quality of labor-power. But given that these increases could not completely offset the decline in factory hours, a different kind of shift was needed. The other major way that capital found to maintain, reproduce, and expand its control was, as we have just seen, to substitute machinery for labor, so that less human labor would still produce as much or more than before. It is important to see that the attempt to raise productivity was not simply another aspect of capitalist exploitation but was a shift in capital’s strategic plan forced on it by the growth of workers’ power. For Marx there was no doubt about this: “So soon as the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labor, and to begin by imposing a normal working-day on factories proper, so soon consequently as an increased production of [absolute] surplus value by the prolongation of the working-day was once for all put a stop to, from that moment capital threw itself with all its might into the production of relative surplus value, by hastening on the further improvement of machinery.”

At that point the struggle passed over from being one primarily concerned with how much the commodity-form will be imposed to one primarily concerned with at what price it will be imposed. The working class puts up with the commodity-form but demands a larger share of social wealth, that is, a higher price for its commodity, labor-power. Unable to offset a secular increase in the price of labor-power by an increase in the working day, capital turns to increased productivity as the only means both to pay the higher price and to maintain and increase profits.

On “political demands” vs. “economic demands”: demands for increased pay and better working conditions are NOT some kind of “capitulation” to capitalism, but actually existing class struggle. Fighting capitalism means attacking its ability to extract surplus value.

This analysis of the dialectic of qualitative and quantitative in the class struggle helps clarify the political nature of the working-class attack on capital which produced the crisis. One way in which the old dichotomy between politics and economics has often been posed has been to label as “economism” struggles by workers which are deemed solely quantitative, for example, more wages, shorter workday, and so on. These struggles are said to be within capital, which is itself essentially quantitative. “Political” struggles are only those that challenge the “quality” of capital itself, that is, that threaten the “revolutionary” overthrow of capital via the seizure of state power. From what we have seen already, it should be apparent that struggles over the length and intensity of the workday (how much the commodity-form is imposed) are at once quantitative and qualitative: quantitative because they concern the amount of work that will be done for capital, qualitative because they put into question the realization of enough surplus value to maintain capital’s control. The “quantitative” struggle over income also raises the question of the realization of surplus value and capital’s survival.

On the materialist basis for divisions among the working class (for example, between men and women, whites and non-whites): it is not merely ideological but also reflects material benefits privileged groups within the working accrue from their position. Destroying these privileges in the interest of working class unity necessarily means leadership by those in dominated groups:

Because the divisions are hierarchical ones, there are always dominant and dominated sides. In these circumstances the divisions have worked where capital has been able to play on the dominant side’s profiting from the division. The divisions are not imaginary or simply ideological ones that can be overcome with “class consciousness.” Men do benefit from women’s work; whites do benefit from blacks’ lower status; local workers do benefit from immigrant workers’ taking the worst jobs. Therefore, the struggle to destroy the divisions generally finds its initiative in the dominated group, since the other side cannot be expected to always work to destroy its privileges. The efforts to overcome racism, sexism, imperialism, or the exploitation of students in the 1960s were led by the struggles of blacks not whites, women not men, peasants not Americans, students not professors or administrators. It was on the basis of these autonomous efforts that the struggles circulated to other sectors of the class, recomposing the structure of power. To subvert the autonomy of such sectors, as the Left and the unions generally try to do by dissolving them into their own hierarchical organizations, can only act to perpetuate the divisions useful to capital. The actuality of autonomy complicates the meaning of working-class homogeneity against capital. It suggests that working-class unity must be understood as being indirect like the homogeneity of capital (malleability through division). In other words, working-class unity is often achieved only indirectly through complementarity in the exercise of power against capital by different sectors of the class involved in the struggle, not in terms of the illusory kind of direct homogeneity of Leninist institutions.

Cleaver’s got a bee in his bonnet about “Leninists,” probably due to his experiences in the New Left in the 1960s. I’d add that Lenin’s success was based on his ability to incorporate the demands of many heterogeneous and autonomous groups, which aligns with Cleaver’s pertinent observations. But I am not the guy who wants to have That Lenin Debate, not right now anyway.

Among the book’s virtues is its excellent assortment of footnotes. If TELOS ever gets its subscriber access worked out, I’ll have a field day. Of course there are many useful references to old Karl himself, such as this letter in which he discusses how capitalists divide workers according to race and ethnicity:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.