“What I have to examine in this work is the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and forms of intercourse that correspond to it.” From the first Preface to Capital by Marx.
So this is not intended to be a standard economics textbook that just talks about the market. It is intended to include how capitalism controls our social relations. And it is doing this with the purpose of letting people see how they themselves can take control of their own social relations by abolishing capitalism, and creating an economy that we control so that it operates in everyone’s interests.
But commodity fetishism hides this possibility from us.
Here is Marx’s description of commodity fetishism:
“The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves as the socio-natural properties of these things.”
And he adds this formulation: “To the producers, therefore, the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appears, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”
In other words, in the capitalist society Marx has imagined so far, which is an early stage of capitalism, we are all private producers. We all relate to one another, outside the family, through money. Nobody fixes our car for free, except as a rare exception. Nobody tutors for free except, as a rare exception. We do not consult with one another with respect to what we are going to produce or how many of them we will produce. There is no social plan regulating the capitalist economy. It is simply millions of private producers acting on their own. Yet in a very inaccurate and rough way, and leaving aside huge crises, we manage to more or less meet people’s needs, at least from the point of view of capitalism. This process works by means of supply and demand.
For example, if too many individuals decide to produce a particular commodity so that this commodity is overproduced, then the supply will exceed demand. It will be hard for producers to find buyers, and the exchange value will drop below the labor time required to produce the commodity. Many producers of this commodity will then switch to producing some other commodity to get a better rate of return.
If too few individuals decide to produce a particular commodity, then there will not be enough of this commodity for everyone who wants one. In this case, its exchange value will rise above the labor time required to produce it. Then, more people will decide to start producing this commodity to take advantage of the extra exchange value they will get.
This is how we very crudely make production line up with people’s needs – through the highly inefficient process of supply and demand where the exchange value of the commodity rises above and below the labor time required to produce it. Or, put differently, it is the rate at which commodities exchange with each other that dictates whether we producers leave a particular line of production or join another line of production. So the amount in which commodities exchange for one another dictates to us that we need to either produce more of a commodity or less of it.
Of course, all these wild fluctuations could be avoided if we came together, calculated how much our society needs of each commodity and assigned the right number of people to produce a specific amount in order to exactly meet those needs.
But not only do we not do this, the fetishism of commodities gives people the impression that we CAN’T do this. The fetishism of commodities leads us to believe that we cannot control our economy. It gives the impression that commodities have value because of something entirely intrinsic to them that has nothing to do with us and the total social labor time we spend producing them. It gives the impression that the economy is something objective that cannot be controlled by us. And, of course, a major reason why people think this way is because we are all looking at the economy from the perspective of an isolated, powerless, private individual where our major way of relating to one another is through the exchange of commodities (or money). From that perspective the economy seems objective and overpowering.
Commodity fetishism, therefore, arises with the establishment of social relations, where people do not discuss and plan out how much of each commodity to produce, but of people relating to objects, or things, which in turn relate to people. And so it appears to everyday consciousness that people are naturally related only through things, but in essence this manner of social organization is not a natural occurrence but is itself a collective social product, produced by humans. For this reason it can be changed by humans.
So we have unconsciously and without any planning produced a commodity economy that now rules over us. Marx uses the analogy of religion: “As in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalistic production he is governed by the products of his own hand.” In other words, we create gods and then bow down to them and let them rule over us. Similarly, with the world of commodities. We created this capitalist economy but now it rules over us.
As long as the exchange of commodities governs how much we produce, argues Marx, the process of production has the mastery over humans, instead of being controlled by them. That is, the operation of the law of value inevitably involves the subjection of humans to things, and economic activity is controlled by the blind laws of the market.
We have all sorts of ways of revealing that we don’t see the economy as something that we can collectively control. We talk about the market as if it has a life independent of us. For example, we hear said: “We will see what the market will tolerate,” as if the market has a will of its own. Or, “The market crashed,” as if humans had nothing to do with it.
Marx’s goal is to unmask the phenomenon of commodity fetishism and emphasize that this entire system was collectively created by humans, although it was not consciously planned out and then created. But by becoming conscious of this entire process, we are then in a position to take control. But this must be done collectively and democratically. Otherwise we will be fighting among ourselves over who controls the decisions and who controls the products of labor, and we will not have real control over the economy.
One final point on the fetishism of commodities before we conclude: Above we quoted Marx as saying: “To the producers, therefore, the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appears, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, [my emphasis] material relations between persons and social relations between things.”
What Marx is saying here is that commodity fetishism is not entirely a false perception. Under capitalism, the exchange of commodities really does rule our lives. We do not control them; they control us. The point, then, is to understand that things could be organized in an entirely different way. This is the essence Marx wants us to grasp.
So this is an example where Marx depicts appearance and essence as being connected or related concepts as opposed to being opposites – one true and the other false. This is where appearance does correspond with reality in a sense, because in capitalism social relations really are mediated by things, commodities.
Appearance and essence are then part of the same reality. Commodity fetishism for Marx amounts to reality, but on the level of appearance, yet appearances are not all of what reality consists of.
I want to conclude with this long quote from the Fetishism section where Marx imagines an entirely different society, one that we would call socialism:
“Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single social labor force. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labor are repeated here, but with the difference that they are social instead of individual. All Robinson’s products were exclusively the result of his own personal labor and they were therefore directly objects of utility for him personally. The total product of our imagined association is a social product. One part of this product serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another part is consumed by the members of the association as means of subsistence. This part must therefore be divided amongst them. The way this division is made will vary with the particular kind of social organization of production and the corresponding level of social development attained by the producers. We shall assume, but only for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labor-time. Labor-time would in that case play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the correct proportion between the different functions of labor and the various needs of the associations. On the other hand, labor-time also serves as a measure of the part taken by each individual in the common labor, and of his share in the part of the total produce destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, both towards their labor and the products of their labor, are here transparent in their simplicity in production as well as in distribution.”
This is a society in which people collectively take control and democratically decide what will be produced, who will produce it, and how much will be produced. This represents real freedom, not the worthless isolated individual freedom that the capitalists embrace where the isolated individual is truly powerless. Rather, it is the freedom of coming together, listening to one another’s arguments, and then proceeding along the course that attracted the most support. Here, people can be as powerful as their arguments. This is real freedom.