The entire long series on the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, was written as an exercise in unpacking Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. En route, the series has done much more than that – but it has also done a bit less. Among other things, I’ve never gotten around to detailed textual analysis of the passages in which the argument about commodity fetishism is immediately presented. One of the things that I’ve been noticing, as I read other commentaries that attempt to interpret these same passages, is that certain specific “moves” in Marx’s argument tend not to be mentioned, or tend to be glossed in ways that, from the standpoint of my own reading, seem fundamentally to alter the thrust of the argument. What I want to do in this post – and this likely won’t make for entertaining reading – is to move through the first several paragraphs of the text somewhat closely, to gather together some notes on how I read this argument.
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.
I have suggested in earlier posts in this series that the “empiricist” voice that opens Capital sees the commodity this way: as a “given” – an irreducible “elementary form” whose characteristics can easily be perceived. The “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices introduced as the chapter unfolds call into question the apparent self-evidence of the commodity, enabling Marx to say, at this point in the text:
Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
Why does the commodity possess such “metaphysical” properties? Almost all commentaries get the first step in Marx’s argument, which is that the use values of commodities cannot account for the strange properties Marx has discussed through his exposition of the “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices:
So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.
The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.
Many commentaries, however, want to interpret this statement in terms of a dichotomy between use value and exchange value – to assume that Marx is setting up here for an argument that use value is not mysterious, but exchange on the market introduces some sort of mystification. Where commentaries put forward this line of analysis, they often overlook or else interpret away the next move of Marx’s argument, which discusses how there is also nothing mysterious about the component parts that make up value:
Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.
So the “parts” of the commodity, as these have been determined at this point in the argument, do not – as parts – account for the genesis of the mystification Marx has associated with the commodity-form. So where does the mystification come from? From the unique relation in which these parts have come to be brought together and connected to one another, in a situation of generalised commodity production:
Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.
The strong assumption that Marx is primarily concerned with opposing use value to exchange value, in order to make exchange value the primary target of his critique, tends to make it very difficult for commentators to grasp what the text is doing here. Marx is not distinguishing use value at the beginning of this section, in order to praise use value for its demystified character. He is trying to distinguish use value along with other parts of the commodity-form – the parts associated with value, as parts, are treated as no more mysterious here than the part that is marked out by the term “use value”. The argument here is not that we need to find a privileged “part” to serve as our standpoint of critique – it is, instead, that, if all we do, in analysing the commodity-form, is break it down into parts and examine those, then we will never be able to understand the genesis of certain “metaphysical” qualitative properties that Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter. This argument, in other words, is a further development of Marx’s critique of naive empiricism: he is arguing here that no amount of breaking things down into their components will ever answer the question he is trying to pose – proceeding in that manner will only lead to a point where the analysis must naturalise or treat as given the qualities Marx is trying to grasp.
Those qualities, Marx is arguing, do not arise from some “part” of the commodity-form – but from this form itself – from what happens, in other words, when these particular parts are brought together into a relation of a particular sort. The strategic thrust of this moment of the text is not to direct our attention to the mystifications of market exchange, but instead to direct our attention to the need to analyse parts only in and through an understanding of the relationships within which those parts are suspended.
(For those who have been reading regularly, my point here is similar to the one I expressed in developing the distinctions between Lukács and Marx: Lukács treats the commodity-form as a category that expresses exchange on the market – a form of practice with a very long historical provenance – and therefore views what is historically new in capitalism as the product of the quantitative expansive of this very old practice; Marx, by contrast, treats the commodity-form as a category specific to capitalism, expressive of a new social relation in which market exchange and other sorts of practices have recently come to be embedded, therefore fundamentally transforming the qualitative characteristics of these older forms of practice, by placing these practices into new relations. The relations, as well as the parts, have qualitative characteristics – and the argument about the fetish, in part, is an argument about how the qualitative characteristics of the relationship have come to be read off onto the parts, so that certain qualitative characteristics are read as intrinsic attributes, when these characteristics are instead, according to Marx, the contingent products of the suspension of the parts into a particular whole.)
The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:
The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.
Many commentaries see these sentences, again, as a reference to market exchange – to the abstraction from qualitative specificity and therefore the equation of goods and people that occurs when these are exchanged on the market for money. I see the argument here as much more complex than this – the Lukács piece cited above, particularly the discussion of equality in the final section, begins to outline how I see this argument, as does my earlier discussion of Diane Elson’s work. I won’t replicate that content in this post. The short version is that – at this particular moment in the text – I don’t take Marx to be talking about the reduction of everything, through market exchange, to the common denominator of money. I take Marx to be talking instead – again remembering this is an extended critique of naive empiricism – about how social actors have no way of knowing how much of the labour they empirically expend in production, will get to “count” as part of “social labour”, until market exchange reveals this result. Marx argues that this structuration of collective practice – in which social actors only find out after the fact whether, and to what extent, their activities get to “count” as part of social labour – can be seen as social actors enacting a distinction between empirical labouring activities (which can be directly perceived by the senses), and some subset of those activities whose empirical extent will only be known after market exchange takes place. This process of culling activities empirically undertaken, down to activities that get to “count”, Marx argues is tantamount to collectively treating certain activities as though they possess a “supersensible” essence – which Marx names “value” – thus enacting “value” as an intangible social reality.
Marx will later talk about the creation of value (and surplus value) as a process that takes place both inside and outside of circulation: the market isn’t the only institution relevant to the social process being shorthanded here. At this point in the text, Marx hasn’t yet introduced the categories he will need, to make the nature of his argument more overt, and so it is easier to “hear” the text as an argument about circulation. It is particularly important to remember that Marx is gradually unspooling further determinations of his initial categories all the way through the text, such that the argument at any particular moment, is expressed only in terms of the categories he has derived to that point: he adopts this strategy because he thinks it’s the only way to reveal the relationships that connect the categories to one another, in the context of an argument whose primary objective is to disentangle the qualitative characteristics and potentials of that relationship, from the qualitative characteristics and potentials of various moments. This makes the strategic thrust of the early moments of Capital difficult to appreciate, until further along in the text. Unfortunately, the received impression that Marx is trying to make an argument about “the market”, combined with the focus on circulation in the opening chapters of Capital, can occlude the strategic thrust of the text overall.
Marx then moves to a set of analogies. First, from the physical sciences:
In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.
What Marx is reaching for here, I would suggest, is an example that involves a relation that comes to be misperceived as an object – where the emphasis is on the relationality of the example – on the need to grasp the relation, in order to grasp the process. Marx seems to realise the risk of this analogy, in the course of an argument against the tendency to treat the qualitative characteristics of social relations as the intrinsic properties of natural objects, and so reaches immediately for a more social analogy. Here he turns to religion:
But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.
Here Marx tries to drill in that he is not trying to talk about some natural property, which comes to be filtered through socialised perception into some particular form. He is trying to talk about a distinctive sort of social entity – something entirely enacted in collective practice. He thinks his readers will find it intuitive to think of religion in this way – as a collective practice in which social actors behave as though intangible, supersensible creatures exist. This analogy has its limits as well, however: Marx worries that his readers will think that the supersensible entities of religious practice are the products of shared belief – “products of the human brain”, as Marx puts it. This also isn’t quite what Marx is reaching for: social actors (aside from the occasional political economist or philosopher) don’t need to “believe” in the existence of supersensible entities like “value”, in order to organise their collective practice to behave as though such entities exist. This is what Marx is trying to capture with his next sentence:
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.
So it is this collective enactment of supersensible entities like value, which social actors effect unintentionally, that suspends the “parts” of the commodity-form into the distinctive relation that produces the “metaphysical” traits Marx has been analysing in this chapter. It is here that Marx finally gives this process a name:
This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.