Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Tim's Holiday Guide to Commodity Fetishism

I just wrote this on a very gifted undergrad student's final paper and thought, hey, this is news we can use, so, here we go...and because it's Xmas haha and because Santa is a big old Coca Cola bottle or whatever, here is my paradoxical Yuletide gift to you! I think it's quite nice.

This is a really great essay that says a lot of important things in a good way. The only quibble is with the very commonly held assumption that commodity fetishism is somehow a block on knowing that human workers make stuff. If that were true, how could one even know, if the fetishism were effective? But we all know humans make stuff. And knowing that doesn’t dissolve capitalism. So what is it? I teach Marx a lot.

Capitalist economic theory rests on a labor theory of value! The whole idea is that we all know very well that humans make stuff. It's kind of amazing that people keep snapping back to this assumption about Marx, and one could write a whole book on that topic alone.

The key point is that fetishism in this case isn’t a belief. It’s a state of affairs in which commodities seem to behave as if they are agents, really powerful godlike ones, that determine the value of human labour. Sorry man, but the price of oil today means we have to fire you…that sort of thing.
Why do commodities have this power? Because there’s one commodity that has to under-sell itself all the time and that has to make more of itself all the time for the whole thing to work, and that’s the human being. What is being extracted by the system is the value of surplus labor time. I own a factory and I ask you to work an extra five seconds for the same pay. Or you do a tiny extra bit of a job in the same time as you do your regular job. You may not even notice and the factory owner might be a very committed socialist, doesn’t matter. Millions of their employees doing this will make the owner a huge lot of money.

Leisure time is a big old waste of money, so social media fixed that by making us watch ads all the time and more important allow corporations to harvest our data to hone those ads more and more—literally like Capital says, extracting value while we aren’t conscious of that, as if capitalism were a vampire.

Commodity fetishism isn’t a belief that commodities appear out of nowhere. It’s the fact that in capitalism, unlike in feudalism, it doesn’t matter one tiny bit what you believe at all.

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