It has often been stated by various writers, sociologists and the like that Marx’s discussion of fetishism is at the centre of his whole theory and what I have attempted to do here is provide a very basic and broad understanding of consumption and commodity fetishism for those who haven’t yet had the chance to look into it. Please don’t be expecting an in-depth theoretical piece as you will be disappointed, I refer to Marx but also look at contemporary consumerism from a more general perspective.
A ‘fetish’ is defined in a couple of different ways. It is generally regarded as any object of obsessive devotion and interest especially those linked with the body, such as clothing (shoe fetishists) and in opposition to what is commonly believed, non-errogenous parts of the body (so foot fetishists). There was a documentary televised some years back called ‘Beckham’s Body Parts’ which is not only an example of fetishism in terms of the body but also illustrates how in today’s society we fetishise ‘the celebrity’ – a similar example would be ‘Air Jordan’ trainers and there are thousands more examples such as the myriad of perfumes named from A-Z listers, just pick up any mainstream magazine! However, in terms of religious beliefs and/or magic a fetish relates to any object in which a spirit is seen as embodied, such as a totem or even the Madonna and the crucifix. The worship of these objects, where people endow them with an imaginary power is of course ‘fetishism’.
Indeed, Marx does take the notion of fetishism from religion. For him fetishism is where things are perhaps not so much worshipped, but accepted as though they have real causal powers in the world, and as a result they become a means of control over our own actions as we either succumb to their power or manipulate them in order to benefit ourselves. He argues that to find an analogy of the social relations between men we must look to what he describes as 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. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.’ This is what Marx calls the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they become commodities, and is therefore inseparable from commodity production … in short, this is ‘commodity fetishism’.
We can understand commodity fetishism then as the conferment of an imaginary ‘naturalness’ onto material objects which have been produced under capitalism by human labour, when in reality their character is actually the result not of Mother Nature, but rather, it is the result of social processes, a ‘definite social relation between men, that assumes in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (Marx: 1867). Because commodities are the main form in which social relationships appear in our society the real social processes and exploitation of the workers are hidden from sight. When we treat commodities as things we fetishise them, missing the fact that by doing this we naturalise the unequal relations of power and domination that are embodied in these things. Like the general belief of many workers in terms of the social class structure this exploitation is wrongly assumed to be inevitable!
Commodity fetishism remains relevant as it can be seen as a way of thinking about how we relate to our objects in an increasingly materialistic world where everything we buy is laden with meaning concerning status and how fashionable we are, and in addition Marx’s account makes us rethink how we understand our possessions in relation to ourselves and other people. Status and peer pressure are heavily linked to consumerism. We can use the film ‘Fight Club’ as a contemporary example of Marxist thought as it illustrates how what we own comes to define us – we are shown the shock and misery that one of the characters feels when all his possessions go up in smoke, these possessions were his life, they had become more of a part of himself than he himself was. Examples of the importance of commodities in our lives are rife in contemporary advertising. I remember a slogan for a particular brand of jeans was ‘We Are You’. What we own is not only a part of us, it constructs our identities and personalities.
Therefore, commodity fetishism expresses the alienation, objectification and estrangement of human beings from their work, from others and from themselves. For Marx the very essence of who we are, our very humanity is established through our work, through our labour power. The very essence of what it is to be human is, Marx believes, our creativity. In factories man becomes alienated from his own work and in effect his whole self – work becomes external to the worker, he is working for somebody else in capitalism, estranging himself from his own work and becoming exploited. ‘[his work] is not a part of his nature, consequently he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery, not of well-being, does not develop freely a physical and mental energy, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased’ (Marx: 1844). His work no longer satisfies him because it is no longer for his own satisfaction; it is given to the factory owner, in effect to the owners of the means of production. Our work takes over our own selves, it saps us and we find ourselves working for no other reason than to be able to afford commodities, those worthless trophies that come to take over and eventually become our lives. The objects act against the very people who made them serving to keep them trapped in an unfulfilling job and creating profit for the ruling minority.
We are objectified. Objectification (Vergegenstandlichung) refers to the embodiment of our very essence or being in what we are making. There is an ‘objectification of labour’ where humans come to be dehumanised and are treated like objects or numbers, eg. in factories where the products of the workers labour are objectified as means of control of that labour. Workers producing commodities containing added value enable the owner of the means of production to accumulate even more capital as a means to control even more paid wage labour. Yet at the same time objects become humanised, they take on human qualities and therefore a paradox exists. Below I have used an example that I found in a magazine for pub licensees:
‘Kitsch’ is a new pear and apple perry that is being sold with 18-35 year old women as its target. It is described as a female-friendly perry with retro appeal. ‘The typical Kitsch drinker is independent, single and is the first to discover new looks and brands, and she’ll regularly buy things on impulse … we are tapping into a latent desire amongst female drinkers for something different’ (Karen Salters, marketing director). The typical ‘Kitsch’ drinker is no longer a person. The product was assigned a personality before she was! She is the product, her personality is embodied in the commodity and is constructed around the status/attributes the marketing people have assigned to her. The idea of this is how the product will make you feel and appear. As a result she (the consumer) is identified through and with the ‘Kitsch’ product – it has been given the very essence of humanity and nature, while she was anonymous before becoming a vibrant and sexually available ‘Kitsch’ drinker.
There is also ‘Happy’ perfume where once again the commodity takes on human powers. It has an agency and we believe it, not on a surface level but there is an idea that commodities will make us happier = ‘consumer/retail therapy’. So we can see how commodities act upon us, providing us with a social relationship that alienates us from our true selves. Consumerism sells us back exactly what we have lost, which means that we are made to pay for what we made in the first place. Commodities start to stand in as social relationships, for example, a boy buys a girl a bracelet. The bracelet comes to symbolise his relationship with that person and what it cost to buy also has a meaning to that relationship. This sort of relationship Marx argued, is an unhealthy one. The only real value a commodity has is the human labour that was put into making it. In a pair of trainers the maker’s life is embodied, whether it was a result of child labour, etc.
Marx argued that with the objectification of labour the more the worker expends himself in work, the world of objects he creates becomes more powerful while he becomes poorer in his inner life, belonging less to himself. He puts his life into the object, only to find that his life doesn’t belong to himself anymore but rather to that object. His labour ‘exists outside him, independently, and alien to him … stands opposed to him as an autonomous power. The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force’ (Marx:1844). Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the worker has created a monster that is beyond his control and able to control him! These ‘things’ ‘rule the producers instead of being ruled by them!’
To reiterate, commodity fetishism embodies a particular ideal hiding the nature of production because we don’t know who made it or where they came from. We are ignorant of its human history. In addition commodity fetishism is made to embody social values such as happiness and individuality. Although commodity relations are presented to us as real they are actually an alienation from ourselves, from our social relations and from the people who made them. We are then sold back false, alienated identities such as the recent advertisement frenzy of promoting goods as giving you individuality, which of course is preposterous because these things are mass commodities that everybody buys. Consumer capitalism encourages us to think about our individuality as a small consuming unit and discourages us from larger social relations or groups, serving to prevent unity and to make any notion of revolution near impossible. Commodities do not make us unique, what they give us is a Pseudo-Individuality, we are making the same statement as everybody else, which is really no statement at all.