“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

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.


John T. Maher said...

Reanarkably insightful. Of late there has been a great deal of edgelord discussion on theory sites concerning Marx's vampire allusions: the lack of awareness of extraction by the subject, the Fleeing the Castle publication, etc.

What is remarkable to me is the timelessness of Marx's discourse on he vampire's spell such that workers are seemingly not able to even form a question in their minds concerning the primacy of capital and its agential oversight and control over their working and living conditions. To flee the Castle, or Plato's blah blah Cave retreat, or the Plantationocene one must first realize that one is objectified as a victim of class warfare. Here in the neoliberal world we all seem to be POWs and not active combatants. It is as if capitalism took a CRISPR to the DNA of the workers to remove any sentience which would notice a painful stimulus and revolt. Is it as bad as i imagine or just plain hopelessness and despair based upon labour being viewed on a depreciating timeline?

Was rather hoping you might post on the March of the Ents, or even better real critters such as viruses, as ecological revolt by nonhuman actors (for the festive period) but perhaps another time.

Peter Weise said...

Really helpful post. I'm teaching commodity-form and fetishism now. And the students and I keep snapping back to what the individual chooses, believes, sees, and so on. It's hard to think a state of affairs. I'll share this . . .