08 Apr

Karl Marx, “Capitalist Production” in Capital (1867)

“Capitalist Production” defines commodity and commodity fetishism. These are important categories for the analysis of things because Marx used these categories to criticize materialism, and objects exchanged and produced in capitalist societies. Marx wrote Capital while living in London and working as a journalist for the New York Daily Tribune. Capital was a critique of political economy, more specifically labor exploitation in capitalism and a bourgeois society that relied on things exchanged.


Marx defined “commodity” as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 41). Commodities have a use-value and an exchange-value.

The use-value of a commodity is determined by the desires of humans, or how useful a thing is. Use-value is qualitative. The commodity is the use-value. The use-value cannot be measured until the thing is exchanged, or in use and consumption.

A commodity has an exchange-value that is determined by the quantity of other commodities for which one commodities is exchanged. The exchange-value of a commodity cannot be determined by its physical characteristics or properties. The material nature of the commodity has nothing to do with its exchange value. Exchange-value is quantitative and is set by humans, not the commodity. Exchange-value is an expression of the value of a commodity.

Value connects all commodities so they may be exchanged with one another. Value is set by the social necessary labor time of a commodity. This value is tied to use-value because if no one wants the commodity the labor has no value. Commodities only have value when they have use-value for others, or social use value. Use-value, exchange-value, and value are all separate, but related.

Socially necessary labor has a direct correlation with the value of a commodity. As labor increases or decreases so does the value of a commodity. Different types of socially necessary labor are abstracted so that labor of different commodities can be compared. Commodities hide their individual labor histories. The concealment of labor history is what Marx explains via “the fetishism of the commodity.”

The Fetishism of the Commodity

Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.

The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to W.T. Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Bill Pietz has chronicled this history and the encounter of European traders with West Africans. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.” The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 196).

The commodity fetish like the West African fetish had roots in religious behavior. Marx linked the commodity fetishism to Christianity, and particularly Protestants and Puritans. Marx argued that for a society that reduces “individual private labor to the standard of homogenous labor…Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 91). Marx continued, “in so far as the hoarder of money combines asceticism with assiduous diligence he is intrinsically a Protestant by religion and still more a Puritan” (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, 130). Protestantism was the religion of capitalism. Protestants abstracted man in Christianity just as capitalists abstracted human labor. Both elevated things (man and commodity) to the magical statuses and then denied it through words and ideas.

31 Mar

Jeanne Boydston, Home & Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (1990)

Jeanne Boydston traces the history of unpaid domestic labor among white working- and middle-class women in the northeast in colonial and antebellum America. Home & Work sets housework within a Marxist framework to understand “the intimate relationship between the gender and labor systems that characterized industrializing America” (xii). Boydston argues that in the antebellum period the “growing social invisibility of labor women performed for their own families made housework in many ways the prototype for the restructuring of the social relations of labor under conditions of early industrialization” (xx). Boydston terms the invisibility of women’s labor “the pastoralization of housework.” By the 1820s and 1830s, economic life and labor were “spherized” such that women’s labor was ideologically separated from the “productive” labor of men. This notion was cemented in Americans’ imagination although housework was physically taxing, time-consuming, and supported family life and economy.

This book is an important contribution to the study of women’s labor in American history. Boydston’s book challenges other scholars’ definition of labor, and its relation to industrialization, capitalism, and Marxism. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels argues that domestic work enslaved women and prevented them from participating in industrialization and the larger economy (199). In this traditional capitalist narrative, women’s domestic labor is separated from industrial labor that takes place in public, male spaces. Women’s housework is viewed as private, unproductive labor that is ancillary to the progress of the economy and society. The legacy of Engel’s narrative can be traced to Herbert G. Gutman’s Work, Culture & Society. Gutman’s work moves the study of labor history beyond a “narrow ‘economic’ analysis” that isolates labor from “American cultural and social history” (10). This “new” labor history emphasizes “the frequent tension between different groups of men and women new to the machine and a changing American society” (12). Yet, like Engels, Gutman defines labor in terms of production, public space, and profit.

Boydston’s revolutionizes the ways that scholars should think about labor. Labor does not only occur in public, male spaces. Labor also takes place in homes and is carried out by unpaid women. Thus, Boydston challenges traditional Marxist notions of labor that are defined in terms of profit, public spaces, and mechanical production of goods. Boydston goes further in her analysis to suggest that scholars must recognize the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. With the war of 1812, Boydston suggests that Americans began to believe that their “household economies and their identity as a nation depended on growing cash markets and capitalized manufacturing” (54). This notion contributed to an understanding not only that there was “a gendered division of labor,” but that there was “a gendered definition of labor” (55) in the early American Republic. Boydston urges scholars to recognize that the processes of early industrialization and emerging capitalism transformed perceptions about women’s labor in the household. This is made clear when Boydston describes the innovations in household technologies that were influenced by industrialization and notions of material consumption.

Recognizing the relationship between labor and industrialization allows Boydston to historicize and challenge notions about the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America. Other scholars, like Kathryn K. Sklar, have recognized the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. In Catharine Beecher, Sklar argues: “the ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Yet, Sklar does not challenge scholarly notions about sphere ideology. Rather, Sklar reinforces the notions that sphere ideology was an accepted antebellum reality. The parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families’] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). Thus, nineteenth-century New England homes remain private, domestic spaces in antebellum reality. Homes are free of strenuous domestic labor, and are the realms of spiritual mothers basking in cultural and social leisure.

Boydston, following Linda K. Kerber, challenges the reality of sphere ideology in an effort to explain the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Boydston notes, “the ideology of gender spheres was partly a response to the chaos of a changing society—an intellectually and emotionally comforting way of setting limits to the uncertainties of early industrialization” (143). The mother and home were perceived as shelters from the dangers of an industrial society. Thus, “Woman-in-the-abstract” was “defined as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). Eventually, the metaphors of sphere ideology were accepted as women’s actual behaviors. The conflation of “ideology and behavior was to obscure both the nature and the economic importance of women’s domestic labor” (146). This culminated in what Boydston terms the “pastoralization of housework” (161). Women, like Harriett Beecher, could detail their strenuous domestic labors—cooking, cleaning, caring for children, varnishing furniture, mending clothes, making household items, dealing with tradespeople, visiting neighbors, writing, and managing landlords—and still suggest that “I don’t do anything” (163). The sphere ideology masked the reality of women’s works such that women themselves understood their work as dissociated from “productive,” industrialized labor. Separate sphere ideology began as a metaphor and was then accepted as reality.

While Boydston’s work provides notable insights into the relationships between domestic labor and industrialization, the relationships between labor, capitalism, and Protestantism could have been complicated to better understand the history of the invisibility of women’s work. Boydston argues that women’s domestic labor was not always invisible in American society. Women’s labor was recognized by colonial Americans, particularly early Protestants, as significant to the family’s economy and well-being in the community. Boydston suggests that the Puritan “calling” infused “secular work with an ethical dimension: the goal of labor was to be useful to the larger purposes of creation, as expressed in the commonweal of society” (20).  This analysis is important for understanding the relationship between religion, labor, and industrialization.

Yet, this analysis is problematic on several levels. First, Boydston relies on the notion that there is a division between the sacred and “secular work.” Thus, Boydston’s history of labor assumes a secularization framework where the progress of capitalism and labor are evidence of the absence of religion. Religious studies historians have discounted the secularization thesis that proliferated through the 1980s. Second, Boydston assumes that when Puritans’ notion of “the calling” was deemphasized, later Protestantism had little impact on conceptions of labor and capitalism. In fact, Protestantism vanishes from Boydston’s history after the 1640s even though evangelicalism proliferated through the antebellum period and influenced notions of labor and labor reform through “the benevolent empire.” Gutman refers to some of these influences in Work, Culture & Society in his discussion of pre- and post-millennialism Protestant labor reform movements (79-118). Finally, Protestantism does not figure into Boydston’s analysis of the ideology of gender spheres. This is deeply problematic because, as Sklar notes in Catharine Beecher, this ideology can be traced to Calvinist beliefs about gender roles. Moreover by the mid-nineteenth century, sphere language promoted the home as the center for children’s religious formation, and mothers in homes as the arbiters of religious life. This is especially seen in Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy, which Boydston’s quotes extensively without mentioning its Protestant leanings. Beecher urged women to teach their children Christian values, and to literally construct a Christian home by modeling the architecture of the home on nineteenth-century church plans. The domestic economy for Beecher, and other women who promoted or misrecognized the ideology of the gender spheres, mirrored the divine, Protestant economy. Future analysis of women’s labor must also analyze Protestantism in relation to nineteenth-century ideas about gender, capitalism, and industrialization.


Protestants notions about labor, gender, and capitalism are important because nineteenth-century American aligned middle-class respectability with Protestant parlor piety and the marketplace. This is important because Boydston assumes that separate sphere ideology defined womanhood and motherhood “as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). But, this is not true. Protestant women brought the marketplace into the home in very specific ways. Protestant advice literature advised women to buy mass-produced products for display in their homes. These things were religious objects and images that reflected the families’ wealth, religiosity, participation in the marketplace, and class. Class and social status were central to nineteenth-century Protestants conceptions of home and work. Boydston mentions class in her analysis of home and work. “It was, after all, in the middle classes that women had presumably been freed from the necessity of labor that had characterized the colonial helpmate….Indeed, in the celebrations of middle-class ‘Motherhood’ lay the fullest embodiments of the marginalization of housewives as workers” (158). But, class was not only defined by motherhood in terms of nurturing children. It was defined by the marketplace and things. Mothers were to educate their children and decorate their homes with Christian things. But decorating homes cost money that many American families did not have. Women were instructed to work to decorate homes so they would appear to be upper-middle class, white Protestants. The appearance of class through display and home decoration contributed to the invisibility of women’s labor. Women were supposed to present themselves and their homes as if they could afford things and servants. White, middle-class Protestant aspirations contributed to the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Protestant things and the marketplace were essential to “the pastoralization of housework.”


Despite Boydston neglect of religion and the marketplace in the home, Home & Work revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about women’s domestic labor. Women’s domestic work and its dissociation from “real” labor, economy, and capitalism cannot be understood without recognizing how housework was transformed in its relationship to industrialization and separate sphere ideology in the nineteenth-century.