- image found here.
The second of three installments from Étienne Balibar’s The Philosophy of Marx; the next section will be the last and will be shorter:
The theory of fetishism is mainly expounded in Part One of Volume I of Capital. It is not merely a high point of Marx’s philosophical work, entirely integrated into his ‘critical’ and ‘scientific’ work, but one of the great theoretical constructions of modern philosophy. It is notoriously difficult, even though the general idea is relatively simple.
I shall not linger here over the origins of the term ‘fetishism’, its relationship with theories of religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the place which, by taking up this term again, Marx occupies within the history of the question of fetishism in general. Nor, for want of space, shall I discuss the function this argument performs in the overall architecture of Capital, a function it fulfills particularly by its explanation of the ‘inverted’ form which, as Marx tells us, the structural phenomena of the capitalist mode of production (which all relate back to the way expansion in the value of capital feeds on ‘living labour’) are perceived at the ‘surface’ of economic relations (in the world of competition between different forms of capital, profit, rent, interest and their respective rates). I shall, however, attempt to explain the connection with Marx’s text of the dual legacy we can recognize as his today: on the one hand, the idea of the reification of the bourgeois world in the forms of the generalized ‘commodification’ of social activities; on the other, the programme of an analysis of the mode of subjection implied in the process of exchange, which finds its ultimate expression in structural Marxism.
‘The fetishism of the commodity,’ Marx tells us, is the fact that a ‘definite social relation between men themselves… assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.’ Or, alternatively, ‘to the producers… the social relations between their private labours appear… as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things.’
Commodities, produced and exchanged, which are useful material objects and which, as such, correspond to individual or collective needs, also possess another quality, which is immaterial but no less objective: their exchange-value (generally expressed in the form of a price, i.e, as a certain sum of money). That quality, which is attached to them individually, is therefore immediately quantifiable: just as a car weighs 500kg;, so it is worth £10,000. Naturally, for a given commodity, this quantity varies according to time and place, as a function of competition and other more or less long-term fluctuations. However, far from such variations dissipating the appearance of an intrinsic relation between the commodity and its value, they in fact confer on it an added objectivity: individuals go to the marketplace of their own free will, but it is not as a result of their decisions that the values (or prices) of commodities on the market fluctuate. It is, rather, the fluctuation of values which determines the conditions in which individuals have access to commodities. It is, therefore, in the ‘objective laws’ of the circulation of commodities, governed by changes in value, that human beings must seek the means of satisfying their needs and regulating the relations which are mediated by economic relationships or dependent on them. Marx presents this elementary objectivity, which appears as soon as a simple relationship with commodities on the market exists, as the starting point and model of objectivity of economic phenomena in general and their laws; it is these laws which are studied by political economy, which ceaselessly compares them – either explicitly, by the use of mechanical or dynamic concepts, or implicitly, by the mathematical methods it employs – with the objectivity of the laws of nature.
There is obviously an immediate relation between this phenomenon (in the sense that things ‘present themselves’ in this way) and the function of money. It is as a price, and therefore as an at least potential relation of exchange with a quantity of money, that exchange-value presents itself. At bottom, that relationship is not dependent on money actually being spent or received or even merely being represented by a sign (credit money, bank notes ‘given forced currency’ etc.): in the last analysis, especially on the world (or universal) market which Marx tells us is the true space in which the commodity relation is realized, the monetary reference must exist and must be ‘verifiable’. The presence of money over against commodities, as a precondition for their circulation, adds an element to the fetishism and allows us to understand why this term is used. If commodities (food, clothing, machines, raw materials, luxury objects, cultural goods, and even the bodies of prostitutes – in short the whole world of human objects produced and consumed) seem to have an exchange-value, money, for its part, seems to be exchange-value itself, and by the same token intrinsically to possess the power to communicate to commodities which ‘enter into relation with it’ that virtue or power which characterizes it. That is why it is sought for its own sake, hoarded, regarded as the object of a universal need attended by fear and respect, desire and disgust (auri sacra fames: ‘the accursed thirst for gold’, wrote the Latin poet Virgil in a famous line quoted by Marx, and in Revelation money is clearly identified with the Beast, i.e., with the devil).
This relation of money to commodities, which ‘gives material form to’ their value on the market, is, of course, supported by individual acts of sale and purchase, but the personalities of the individuals who carry out those acts are quite irrelevant to it; in this connection, they are entirely interchangeable. One may therefore construe this relation either as the effect of a ‘supernatural’ power of money, which creates and animates the movement of commodities, embodying its own imperishable value in the perishable bodies of commodities; or, on the other hand, as a ‘natural’ effect of the relation between commodities, which establishes an expression of their values and the proportions in which they can be exchanged by way of social institutions.
In reality, these two conceptions are symmetrical and interdependent: they develop together and represent two moments of the experience which individuals, as ‘producer-exchangers’, have of the phenomena of circulation and the market which constitute the general form of the whole of economic life. This is what Marx has in mind when he describes the perception of the world of commodities as a perception of ‘sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible’, in which aspects of the natural and the supernatural coexist uncannily, and when he declares the commodity a ‘mystical’ object, full of ‘theological niceties’ (directly suggesting the comparison of economic language with religious discourse). Contrary to what Max Weber would later assert, the modern world is not ‘disenchanted’, but enchanted, precisely insofar as it is the world of objects of value and objectified values.
The necessity of appearances
What, then, is Marx’s objective in describing the phenomenon in this way? It is twofold. On the one hand, by a movement akin to a demystification or demythification, he is concerned to dissolve that phenomenon, to show that it is an appearance based, in the last instance, on a ‘misunderstanding’. The phenomena just mentioned (exchange-value considered as a property of objects, the autonomous movement of commodities and prices) will have to be traced back to a real cause which has been masked and the effect of which has been inverted (as in camera obscura). This analysis really clears the way for a critique of political economy. For at the very point when that discipline, driven by a desire to provide scientific explanation (Marx is of course thinking here of the representatives of classical political economy: Smith and particularly Ricardo, whom he is always careful to distinguish from the ‘apologists’ of capital), is setting out to solve the enigma of the fluctuations of value by pinning value down to an ‘invariant measure’ – the labour-time necessary to produce each commodity – it actually deepens the mystery by regarding this relation as a natural (and, consequently, eternal) phenomenon. This is explained by the fact that economic science – which, in accord with the research programme of the Enlightenment, seeks the objectivity of phenomena – conceives the appearance as an error or illusion , a representational defect which could be eliminated by observation (chiefly, in this case, by statistics) and deduction. By explaining economic phenomena in terms of laws, the power of fascination they exert should be dissipated. In the same way, half a century later, Durkheim was to speak of ‘treating social facts as things.’
Now fetishism is not a subjective phenomenon or a false perception of reality, as an optical illusion or a superstitious belief would be. It constitutes, rather, the way in which reality (a certain form or social structure) cannot but appear. And that active ‘appearing’ (both Schein and Erscheinung, i.e. both illusion and phenomenon) constitutes a mediation or necessary function without which, in given historical conditions, the life of society would be quite simply impossible. To suppress the appearance would be to abolish social relations. This is why Marx attaches particular importance to refuting the utopian notion, widespread among French and British socialists in the early nineteenth century (and which would often be seen again elsewhere), that money could be abolished, giving way to work credits or other forms of social redistribution, without any attendant transformation of the principle of exchange between private production units. This structure of production and circulation which confers an exchange-value on the products of labour forms a single whole, and the existence of money, a ‘developed’ form of the general equivalent of commodities, is one of the necessary functions of that structure.
To the first stage of the critique, which consists in dissolving the appearance of objectivity, there must be added, then, another which is, in actuality, the precondition for it, and demonstrates the constitution of the appearance in objectivity. What presents itself as a given quantitative relation is, in reality, the expression of a social relation: units which are independent of one another can only determine the necessity of their labour, the proportion of social labour which has to be devoted to each type of useful object a posteriori, by adjusting their production to ‘demand’. It is the practice of exchange which determines the proportions, but it is the exchange-values of the commodities which, in the view of each producer, represent in inverted fashion – as though it were a property of ‘things’ – the relationship between their own labour and that of all the other producers. Given this state of affairs, it is inevitable that, to the individuals, their labour appears to be ‘socialized’ by the ‘value form’, instead of this latter showing up as the expression of a social division of labour. Hence the formula I quoted above: ‘To the producers… the social relations between their private labors appear… as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things.’
Marx refutes this by undertaking a thought-experiment which consists in comparing the way socially necessary labour time is apportioned in various different ‘modes of production’, some of them historical (primitive societies based on subsistence economies, for example, or medieval societies based on serfdom), others imaginary (the domestic ‘economy’ of Robinson Crusoe on his island), or hypothetical (a future communist society where the apportioning of labor is consciously planned). It then appears that these relations of production are either free and egalitarian, or oppressive and based on force, but ‘the social relations between the individuals and in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labour.’ In other words, these societies are, first and foremost, societies of human beings, whether equal or unequal, and not commodity (or ‘market’) societies where human beings serve only as intermediaries.