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.