commodity fetishism

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commodity fetishism

(MARXISM) the conferment of a ‘naturalness’ on material objects produced by human labour in capitalism when their character is really the result of social processes. Since commodities are the main form in which social relationships appear in capitalist society, this tendency to fetishism, according to Marx, is not surprising. However, it means that the real social processes in terms of LABOUR POWER and the EXPLOITATION of labour are hidden from view. Marx's analysis appears in the final section of chapter one of Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1976). Commodity fetishism is indicative of the more general perception, and hence misunderstanding, of economic and social relations that comes from regarding these as part of a ‘natural’ order. Marx regarded much POLITICAL ECONOMY as guilty of fetishizing the economy, thereby concealing underlying relationships. See also LABOUR THEORY OF VALUE, REIFICATION, CAPITAL.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Commodity Fetishism


the objectification of production relations between people under the conditions of commodity production based on private ownership. In essence, commodity fetishism is seen when the element of social relations dominating people appears outwardly as domination by certain things. Hence, there is a mystical attitude toward commodities as toward a supernatural force; the attitude is engendered by the commodity form, which conceals the dependence of the commodity producers on the market.

Commodity fetishism is a historical phenomenon and is objective in nature. It reaches its highest development under capitalism, where commodity-money relations have become the absolute and universal form of economic activity. The objectification of economic relations between people is determined by the organizational features of social production and not by the natural properties of the things themselves. K. Marx noted that “this fetishism of commodities has its origin ... in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 82).

In a commodity economy based on private ownership of property, producers operate independently of one another amid circumstances of anarchy and fierce competition. The products of their labor appear as “products of the labor of private individuals who carry on their work independently of each other” (Marx, ibid.). Nevertheless, the social division of labor presupposes an interdependence between the various agents of commodity production. The link between the agents is to be found in the market, where the transformation of the products of labor into commodities occurs. Under these conditions, the recognition of the social character of the labor expenses of the separate producers occurs through the exchange of one commodity for another. Only through the exchange of commodities on the basis of the law of value does a societal evaluation of the results of the economic activity of separate commodity producers become possible. Thus, the economic relations between people under conditions of commodity production based on private ownership are necessarily clothed in the form of social relations between things. An objectification of production relations occurs.

Commodity fetishism signifies the personification of things and economic categories. Capital as a production relation is personified in the capitalist, while hired labor is embodied in the worker. Through the personification of economic relations, the laws of capitalist production are manifested in the actions and the wills of individual people and groups.

Fetishism permeates all the economic categories of capitalist society. The exploitation of man by man is masked by the payment of wages. The power that compels a worker to perform excessive labor is conceived to be the means of production, that is, things, rather than the class of capitalists. Profit, interest, and rent, which are the product of the exploitation of hired labor, appear externally as something engendered by things themselves: profit as a product of the means of production, interest as the product of money, and rent as the product of land. The highest manifestation of commodity fetishism is the cult of money, which emerges under capitalism as the universal form of wealth.

In order to overcome commodity fetishism, it is necessary to effect a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society, which is based on private ownership of the means of production. Under socialism, amid conditions where there is a predominance of public ownership of the means of production, relations between people are not veiled by relations between things; instead, they have a planned nature, and so commodity fetishism disappears.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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While Marx addressed the problem of form with his commodity fetishism by stating: "It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility", (35) the exchange process does not posit the above schema in appearance as a whole; it leaves some to surface, still others remain fetish-like concealed.
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