Karl Marx’s Commodity fetishism – Explained with Example

Karl Marx is one of the most influential social thinkers of the 19th century and he is known as the architect of socialism and the champion of communism. Commodity Fetishism in Marx’s application of his analysis of the relationship between a commodity and society as a whole. Fetish was popularly used in the good old days of colonialism; it is used to describe inanimate objects that possess’ fantastical powers in indigenous cultures.

Karl Marx’s interpretation of a commodity is that a commodity exists in a dual state: i) physical and every way tangible ii) holds together social and material relations. He also claims that a commodity has a peculiar nature and that it possesses a mysterious ability to create or renew social relations being both an ordinary physical object and a generator of social relations.

Generally, commodities are nothing more than articles of utility and they are created by private labours. The sum total of the labour of institutions forms an amassed labour community in the society, who do not come in social contact with their consumers until they exchange their products hence the labour’s social character is not seen until the act of exchange.

For example, When we look at a commodity, we might be able to tell a number of things about it, we can describe it physically, for instance, we may observe that a shirt is made out of cotton and we know its use as it is intended for wearing on bodies but do we really know about who made it, where and how it was made? The process of creation of a shirt is an important part too as it involves many social relations in the ongoing process like a farmer, a tailor, buyer, distributor, a seller, consumers etc., thus in this process created or renewed many more social relation between the people involved.

In a capitalist society, social relations are relations between commodities and not between people as the real producers of commodities remain largely invisible. We only approach their produces “through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products”. In this process, we use the products that are made by several proletariats through the exchange of cash with those institutions which extract labour from them and thus we relate to these products only after having bought the same. “Secret is hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities; that is labour: It is precisely finished in the form of the world of commodities – the money form which conceals the character and hardship of private labour and social relations between the workforce by making these relations appear plainly just as material objects.

We the consumers are not aware of various aspects that these workers are much in need like wages, working conditions, their emotional and physical constraints. So much is concealed in a capitalist society dominated by commodities and paper money is seen as the direct embodiment of all human labour. Men are thus alienated because of their own relations of production assume a material shape as they are related to each other in their social process of production in an atomistic way. People in this society are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

The labour society establishes itself only when there is an exchange of the products and therefore, the relations connecting the labour with individuals are material relations between persons and social relations between things. The concept of Commodity Fetishism conceals private labours as these workers are only social at the point of exchange.

For Marx, the social arrangements which form the context of work in a capitalist society alienated the worker. They failed to provide him with opportunities for a meaningful and creative existence. Neither he receives satisfaction from his work nor receives the dill credit for creating a product of his labour. An important source of this mishap in his view is the extreme division of labour in modern societies. Each worker has a specific, restricted, and only a limited role. This idea gets its expression from “Das Kapital”.



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Mahima Shankar, currently pursuing 3rd year in Sociology from M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women, Chennai.