Okay. I want to stop here for a moment, catch my breath, and emphasise a couple of things about how I’m interpreting the argument on the fetish, before moving back into the text in greater detail. Note that this post might not make sense unless you’ve read at least the post immediately prior, on Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions.
As I have presented it here, “commodity fetishism” is a form of perception or thought that perceives material objects and human beings to possess supersensible essences that are distinct from their overtly-observable, sensuous properties. These essences are understood to be governed by impersonal laws. The existence of such laws can be inferred or deduced from empirical observation and manipulated instrumentally for human ends, but the laws (and the essences) are not understood to derive from contingent human practice.
Marx will not deny that such “essences” and “laws” exist – he is not undertaking an “abstract negation” that sees political economy as a simple error in thinking. His critical argument is that he can reach beyond the political economists to show how such “essences” and “laws” are brought into being, why it is plausible to perceive such essences and laws as “natural”, and yet why it has also become possible, over time, to understand the practical basis for these fetishised forms of thought – and thereby to open the possibility for transformation.
In the previous posts in this series, I have suggested that this line of argument opens up some very interesting potentials for understanding dimensions of modernity that reach well beyond the discourse of political economy: our sensitivity, for example, to a particular kind of dichotomy between “society” and “nature”, in which both poles of this dichotomy possess a very distinctive qualitative form; our sensitivity to the possibility for something like “matter” (understood as secularised “stuff” whose intrinsic nature is devoid of anthropological determinations); our sensitivity to the notion of an essential “human nature” lurking beneath the diverse overlays of culture (I’ll poke Wildly Parenthetical here, although I think she’s away at the moment – readers should note I’m not trying to hold her responsible for what I’m saying, but just flagging something I suspect she’ll be interested in – her work on experiences of an inner self is much more extensive than mine, so this is just a quick nod and a wave as I stumble across her terrain…). I could add other examples – and none of the examples I list here have been unfolded in a persuasive way in the writings I’ve undertaken so far. I list these points as placeholders for future development, as partial explanations for why I’m spending so much time lately on Marx, and as suggestions that Marx offers something vastly more powerful than a “critical economics” – that his work carries implications for a critical social theory of modernity that does something much more wide-reaching than it might initially seem.
A few further asides, on other interpretations of the fetish. The argument on the fetish is very often understood – or, at least, very often used – in quite different ways from what I’m outlining here. It is often used, for example, as a kind of anti-consumerist critique: we value money or material wealth so highly that we forget that it’s just an object, just a thing, of importance socially only because we make it important. It is often used as a kind of critique of individualism or private property: because we produce goods privately, rather than planning production collectively, we don’t become aware that, in reality, we are collectively engaged in a single, unified process of social production. It is often used as a critique of class domination: because the circulation of goods appears to involve only the exchange of equivalents, the reality of inequality and class domination is masked. It is often used as a critique of market distribution: markets abstract from the concrete conditions in which goods and services are produced, and thus veil the network of concrete social relations in which material reproduction actually unfolds. It is often used as a critique of “reification” or the domination of instrumental reason: because we perceive the natural world, and our fellow human beings, as “things” – as objects – we therefore treat them instrumentally, as nothing more than objects to be manipulated for our own gain. Etc.
I need to be very, very, very careful here: I am making a small and quite specific point, which is that none of these arguments captures what Marx is trying to say in the section on the fetish. I am not saying that Marx never makes points like those above – in places, even during the argument about the fetish, he will. And I am not dismissive of the potential importance of such arguments as important issues for critical analysis and as pivotal rallying-cries for political mobilisation.
I am saying that these arguments as attempts to articulate the notion of commodity fetishism are missing some of the strategic intent of this section of Marx’s text. The reading I am offering here is intended to drill in on a sometimes overlooked arc in this first chapter, to draw attention to how the entire chapter revolves around a series of reflections on forms of perception that attribute supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people. Such forms of perception, I am suggesting, are the “target” that the term “commodity fetishism” is trying to hit.
Understanding the argument in this way clarifies what was going on in the earlier sections of this chapter – in which Marx was deploying forms of thought that attribute supersensible essences to things and people, and then claiming to deduce laws from this starting point, in order to set the stage (hat tip john hutnyk) for the critique of such forms of thought. This interpretation makes sense of the first chapter as a reasonably unified argument, driving all along toward the critique of commodity fetishism. At the same time, this reading begins to suggest the power of Marx’s critique as a theory of modernity, and as a critical social theory that reaches far beyond a critical analysis of an “economic dimension” of modern society.
I have to plunge into marking first-year economics essays now – something that I suspect will see me longing for a bit of “critical economics” by the time I’m done. I’ll try to come back to this arc later in the week – I have to decide whether to plunge back into the minutiae of the sections of the chapter I’ve skipped across, or whether I’ve said as much as I have to say on this chapter for now, and should move forward in the text…
The previous posts in this series are:
Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital
Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”
Nature and Society
Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions