And so we come now to the famous mysterious puzzling section entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.” A word about Marx’s use of the term “fetishism.” The term derives from the Portuguese and was first used by 17th-century sailors who encountered peoples on the West Coast of Africa. A fet\ish is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “material image of a religious idea …; a material object in which force is supposed to be concentrated …; a material object, or a class of material objects, plants, or animals, which is regarded by man with superstitious respect, and between whom and man there is supposed to exist an invisible but effective force.”
Marx writes, “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 quâ 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.” inseparable from the production of commodities.”
Marx is here asserting something astonishing, something that flatly contradicts everything that had been written about political economy before and virtually everything that has been written since. This is, in a way, the most important claim Marx makes and we need to understand it before we can move on to the theory he sets forth in later chapters.
Several pages later he asserts, “When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form. …The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.”
It was a commonplace with Marx and Engels, so often repeated as to become a cliché, that the Germans were essentially philosophical (which was to say, religious), the French political, and the English practical (or economic). The first of these three great realms of thought and practice – the philosophical or religious – had been dramatically demystified by Kant’s refutations of the claims of rational theology, by David Strauss’s assault on the historicity of the Gospels in his influential Life of Jesus, and above all by Ludwig Feuerbach’s thoroughgoing secularisation of God in The Essence of Christianity. The effect, Wizard-of-Oz-like, had been to blow away the clouds of incense, revealing the church in its true nature as a secular institution, created by man as an instrument of domination.
The second realm, the political, had been washed clean of its especial and peculiar mystery by the bloodbath of the French Revolution. When the head of Europe’s most glorious king fell into a basket and the heavens did not open, the aura of monarchy was forever dissipated. There were attempts, of course, to revive the corpse, most notably Hegel’s desperate defence of the majesty of the ruler. Indeed, one of Marx’s most serious early efforts at philosophical criticism is aimed at that defence. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, despite its almost impenetrable obscurity, is a shrewd and focused attack on the first premise of the mystified state, namely the claim that the existence of the state is logically and ontologically prior to that of its subjects, and hence that the state takes moral and political precedence over them as well.
Needless to say, new mystifications of the state were readied to replace the old. As the divine right of kings retreated to the nursery, there to take up residence in fairy tales of peasant maids and frog princes, the doctrine of popular sovereignty stepped forward as the new sophistry by which power misrepresented itself as authority. With the hindsight of yet another century, we are forced to acknowledge the tenacity of these myths of the state. As the churches empty, the public squares fill up with deluded citizens ready to cheer the latest pretender to state authority.
By the time Marx was a young man, several centuries of effort by Enlightenment thinkers had prepared the way for dispelling the clouds obscuring the truth about the altar and the throne. And, the young Marx believed, the bourgeoisie had completed the process with rergarfd to the market. Here is what he and Engels have to say near the beginning of the Manifesto:
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
In 1848, it appeared to Marx, Engels, and many others that Europe was on the edge of revolutionary change. But the failure of the revolutionary efforts of 1848 fundamentally altered Marx’s understanding of the nature of bourgeois capitalism. (This is speculation on my part, but it appears to me to make sense.) Marx seems to have come to the conclusion that bourgeois capitalism was as mystified as medieval feudalism had ever been, and that this is what explains the tone, language, and deliberate mystification of the early chapters of Capital.
However, in attempting to demystify the marketplace, as his predecessors had the altar and the throne, Marx encountered a special problem, reminiscent of that with which Socrates had wrestled two thousand years earlier. For the marketplace did not seem to call for demystification. Mysteries there might be in the throne room or the sacristy, but what mysteries could lurk in the marketplace? There all was plain as day. Men came to trade, to bargain, to advance their individual interest as shrewdly as they might. They wore everyday clothes, not ritual garments tricked out with precious gems in iconic patterns. They spoke the demotic tongue, priding themselves on being simple, straightforward, no-nonsense men. The political economists who recorded and anatomized the doings of the marketplace reflected this simplicity, this absence of pendulous transcendent significance, of shadow and echo. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, all wrote a transparent, serviceable prose – clear, efficient, devoid of the metaphor and metaphysics that clouded the great rationalisations of church and state. Land, labour, and capital. Equals exchanged for equals in a sunlit market where every interaction was a contract, every contract a quid pro quo and the law enforced all contracts with blind impartiality. The English had no head for theological subtleties, and their Reformation, unlike Germany’s, had arisen more from the concerns of the flesh than from those of the spirit. Their brutal truncation of monarchy had been softened by the compromises of the Glorious Revolution. Where better than in England to observe the plain dealings of the market, free of the lingering wisps of religion or monarchy?
Or so it seemed. For Marx was persuaded that the market was more deeply mystified than ever the altar or the throne had been. The market was a strange and ghostly place, inhabited by things that behaved like people, and people who were treated, and came to treat themselves, as things. Marx’s predecessors had failed to discern any mystery in the exchange of commodities on the market. There were puzzles, to be sure; theoretical problems, such as the nature of rent, or the consequences of taxation; but not mysteries. The market, they supposed, was a realm of scientific investigation from which the last ghostly shreds of mystification had been blown away by the clean air of secular reason.
But Marx thought that the “scientific” explanations of the classical economists, apparently so straightforward and empirical, were in fact wildly metaphysical. Why then take up the language and concepts of so unsatisfactory a theory? Why not simply brush the theory aside and put in its place a new and better account of capitalism? Or, at the very least, why not quickly and effectively expose the mystifications to an audience already attuned to the secular?
Alas, demystification presupposes the acknowledgement of mystery, and the classical political economists were unaware of any mystery in the marketplace. The communicant, in the presence of the Host, experiences a tremulous awe that cries out to the secular mind to be explained – or explained away. But the political economist, confronted by a commodity, feels no tingle of divinity, no sense of things unsaid and unseen. Marx’s first problem is thus like Socrates’: He must lead his audience to the recognition that they are in need of enlightenment before he can even begin to provide it. Marx undertakes, in a theoretical tour de force, to extract his own doctrine of exploitation and accumulation from the bowels of classical political economy by demonstrating that the Ricardian theory of value is incapable of accounting for the central phenomenon of capitalism, namely profit. He must therefore begin with the mystified premises of value theory in order simultaneously to expose and transcend them.
More subtly, Marx wishes to assert, as an indispensable tenet of his analysis of capitalism, that the particular obfuscations exhibited in classical political economy are the necessary and characteristic mode in which capitalist social relations misrepresent themselves. Consider what he says in the next paragraph after the passage I quoted earlier: “the categories of bourgeois economy consist of … forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.”
They are socially valid, HENCE objective. In this phrase is encapsulated Marx’s revolutionary theory of the objectively crazy (or contradictory) nature of capitalist social reality, and the radically new epistemological and literary standpoint following therefrom. What does it mean to say that crazy forms of thought are socially valid, and hence are the objective forms of thought for commodity production?
Consider the concept of the commodity with which Marx begins Capital. As natural being, a commodity is a material object with a variety of physical, chemical, and other properties which make it more or less useful in the satisfaction of human needs. But a commodity is not, qua commodity, a natural object. A commodity is a quantum of value. Its natural properties are accidental and irrelevant to its true inner essence, which is the crystal of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labour that lies concealed within it.
This is an absurd notion, as should by now be obvious. But Marx insists that it is nevertheless a socially valid notion, and hence an objective form of thought for those participating in and theorising about the particular social relations of production and exchange characteristic of capitalism. Let us see exactly what this means.
Economic efficiency demands that both entrepreneurs and merchants abstract entirely from the natural properties of the commodities they produce and sell, attending only to their exchange value. The prudent capitalist cannot allow his economic decisions to be influenced by his normal human responses to the accidents of his wares. The tailor in love with his worsteds is no better than a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine. A sensuous affection for fine cloth, lingering on from a pre-capitalist craft pride, may incline him to a more costly suiting than the market demand justifies. Soon he will find himself driven to the wall by rational tailors whose fingers are numb to the feel of good wool, but whose metaphysical consciousness can discern the exact quantum of value in each yard of goods. The senses are too coarse to apprehend the miracle of self-expanding value. No mechanic, however keen his eye, can perceive in the bustle of an automatic assembly line the measure of its profitability. Only the accountants, those eremites of capitalism for whom all sensory qualities fall away to reveal the transcendent crystals of value, can discern whether a firm is earning an appropriate rate of return on the value of its invested capital. Romantic entrepreneurs, enticed by the stench and heat and fire of the blast furnaces, will soon yield place to the Pythagoreans of the market, for whom only numbers are real.
Competition standardises commodities, substitutes abstract calculation for concrete technical judgment, stifles passions and affections that are inappropriately aroused by the natural properties of goods, and breeds up by ruthless selection a new capitalist man for whom only exchange value is real. The same historical process of development produces a mass of workers who, in the homogeneity of their culture, their mobility, and their lack of particularised skills, approximate ever closer to the inverted ideal of abstract labour. As the rational becomes real, the real becomes ever more irrational. These absurd forms of thought – the commodity as quantum of crystallised value, the worker as petty commodity producer of abstract labour – acquire social validity and hence objectivity, which is to say that successful day-today interaction with the world of work and consumption, of production and circulation, requires workers and capitalists to apprehend their environment, interpret their experience, and guide their actions by means of them.
But if socially valid, which is to say effective in operation and confirmed in experience, then how absurd? We have already examined Marx’s mocking logical analysis of the concept of a commodity as a quantum of value, in order to demonstrate the inner logical inversions on which such a notion rests. Now he must present an historical and social account of the actual human and social damage that results from the instantiation, or social validation, of the concept. The story is twofold, on the side of the worker and on the side of the capitalist. Subjectively, the worker as purveyor of abstract, averagely efficient labour is torn between her natural human needs and the needs of capital. Her mind and body require a graceful, rational, integrated development if she is to achieve a healthy fulfilment of her nature. But the exigencies of profitability demand the services of a neutral, adaptable labour power unencumbered by such obstructive predispositions as natural body rhythms, craft traditions, or a preference for participation in the planning, direction, and evaluation of the activity of production.
The concept of abstract labour is socially valid because the more fully the worker construes his actual work situation in its terms, the more successful he is, as measured by the criteria implicit in the concept itself – criteria endlessly reconfirmed by employers, fellow-workers, ministers, teachers, and even by the members of his own family. The more completely he remakes himself in the image of abstract labour, the more likely he is to get and hold a job, win the praise of those around him, and weather the periodic economic storms. This repeated social confirmation confers objective validity on the concept, so that finally it comes to seem that resistance to the regime of the machine is mulish stubbornness, rejection of the authority of the bosses is sinful rebelliousness, and dissatisfaction with a subsistence wage is self-indulgence.
The absurdity, the crackbrainedness of the concept of the commodity, Marx holds, is, on the subjective side, made manifest in the increasing misery of the increasingly productive, increasingly twisted and thwarted, ever more alienated workers. On the objective side, on the side of capital, the immediate and irrefutable evidences of the absurdity of the categories of bourgeois political economy are the periodic crises that threaten to bring to a disastrous halt the processes of reproduction and accumulation. Economic crises, Marx argues, are the direct consequence of the attempt by capitalists to conform their economic decisions to the tenets of rationality enshrined in the socially valid, and hence objective, categories of bourgeois political economy. It is the social relations of production and circulation, not the technology of capitalism, that produce crises. The self-destructiveness of capitalism results naturally from the capitalists’ reduction of all economic decisions to profitability, to the quantitative measurement of self-expanding value. The concepts of value, money, and capital achieve social validity through their short-term success. Capitalists unable or unwilling to live by the ascetic rule of profit-maximisation are driven to the wall in the competition of the market. The craziness of these concepts is manifested in the crises that periodically destroy even the most economically rational of entrepreneurs.
Every mode of production, Marx argues, rationalises and justifies its social relationships of production in a distinctive manner. Capitalism’s strategy of justification is to present a surface appearance of justice and equal exchange, so concealing its fundamental exploitative nature as to appear to have nothing to hide. Marx must find a language that will permit him to do three things at once. First, his language must express the mysteriousness of our daily experience of commodity production and exchange; Second, it must lead us to confront that mysteriousness; and Third, it must help us to dispel the illusion so that we may apprehend the real nature of capitalist social relations and move beyond the false clarity of classical political economy to a true understanding of exploitation, accumulation, and crisis. Marx seeks, furthermore, a discourse that will permit him, while accomplishing this complex effort of demystification, still to capture and express the extent to which he, and we, as participants in the mystified social order of capitalism, preserve its illusions, fetishisms, and mysteries even as we expose them and strive to overcome them. Marx’s language in the opening chapters of Capital is artfully devised for these purposes, while permitting the expression of complex moral sentiments in a fashion that would be prohibited by the style of Value, Price, and Profit. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that Capital is a work of high literary art whose dominant metaphors, ironic structure, and authorial voice subserve a deliberate philosophical purpose.