Capitalism through the lens of commodity fetishism
The introduction of commodity fetishism was based on Karl Marx’s labour theory of value which explains how every commodity has a particular value and that the understanding of value is not static, and has changed over time. He further explains that the value of a commodity can be understood as the labour time invested in objects that get converted into commodities during the exchange process. This can be viewed as use value and exchange value, which are determined by the physical attributes and the value expressed by exchange for the commodity measured by abstract labour.
A commodity is valuable if it can fulfill human needs, and only then can it be exchanged. The value is the total amount of work – if one works for 8 hours, they need to have a certain amount of food to sustain themselves. If they get nothing in return for working then labour power will not survive. Labour’s health needs to be taken care of and there is a need for essential commodities like clothing, food and shelter, and all of these commodities also have some labour embodied in them. An example of this can be the diamond and water paradox- a diamond not being an essential item (a luxury item) has way more money value than water. (An essential commodity) the reason being: the labour time embodied in diamond is way more than that of water.
Marx’s Commodity fetishism is a perception of the market which puts light on the system of the mainstream economy thereby highlighting the fact that the economy and the society believes in the exchange of “commodities”- Marx calls it a fetish as the emphasis of the society is on a particular idea i.e. “the commodity”. He further says that we look at the market as the “sphere of exchange” however, it is the “sphere of production” because underneath the exchange of commodity there is an exchange of labour-power which we do not realize as an observer. The commodities we exchange or sell are the product of labour, the labour puts in skill, effort, and time which results in us having a particular commodity which is then brought to the market for exchange. This perception of the economy keeps us from unraveling the social relations of labour and production which are essential in distinguishing Marx’s economy from other economies. Marx says that social relations define the modes of production, the process and also organizes the capitalist system as it considers the conditions of production in social relations, and are the basis that allows the exchange of commodities to take place in the market. These social relations are formed when the exchange happens and are defined not by things (commodities) but by the people involved in the production as well as the exchange.
Under capitalism, labour is bound by a said contract whereby they agree to a particular price, wage, and working conditions. Here Marx says that labour is free and is not selling themselves to the capitalists but providing them with labour time. The labour we observe is concrete labour and not abstract labour. We are unaware of the labour congealed in the production of a commodity that is considered for exchange of that commodity, the fact that there is no way to measure abstract labour led to money being the universal medium of exchange. Measurement of a commodity’s value is done in terms of money price as Marx says that the embodiment of abstract labour leads to money value, and many perceive money as another commodity as now we exchange money for commodities. Here we can see how value evolved- earlier other commodities were the medium under the barter system of exchange or gold and now it’s money.
However the embodiment of abstract labour for deciding money value had its limitations, for example, a particular commodity we have various producers and every producer might use different time, abstract labour or capital, which then raised concerns of- on what basis will we then reach a common price for a commodity which is being produced by different producers in their unique way? For example, X potter takes 10 hours to make a single bowl whereas Y potter takes 8 hours to make the same bowl, this wouldn’t affect the value of the bowls but would affect the number of bowls they produce, and thus potter Y will have to sell more and have more profit. To eradicate this problem Marx suggested a social evolution “socially necessary labour time” under which the same process and time was to be followed in the production of that particular commodity. This would not only create uniformity in the production process but it would also restore order in the market in the production process. Which supported the capitalists who then decided how labour power should be divided, for which they paid full value to earn profits.
Marx said labour power produces more value than their value, capitalists strived to decrease costs and increase profit which they could do by the division of working hours, the labour works more hours than what covers their wages to complete their working hours- thus they work for surplus hours, resulting in an increase in production and yielding profits for the capitalists. This circles back to social relations where information about labour was private as we are unaware of who produces what- which gave the capitalists an upper hand over working hours and conditions that might even have been exploitation of labour. For instance, if we see the ongoing pandemic, people started stocking up essential commodities, leading to an increase in demand, however, there was a decrease in supply, due to the shutting down of factories. Then it was important for the producers to produce more to meet the high demand in the market, maybe the workers were called into work against their will, considering the circumstances of the given situation. The online shopping and food apps experienced a boom during this time, and the delivery personals were working this whole time. The question that comes up here is- was there an increment in their wages? And was their work environment safe? Not just that but the labour time they embody in the production process comes with an opportunity cost- supposedly their leisure time.
This helps us to get an insight into the capitalist world as of how the wealthy have control over the economy and have a bigger say in it, this is the idea behind the social relation and the labour time we are missing out on as we aren’t aware of the what goes under the production of commodities because we look at the final product that we exchange for money.
Capitalist exchange starts with money and revolves around it, which springs when money is invested into buying commodities to make money- money has an exchange value that is spent on raw materials, and raw materials are then used in production and ultimately sold when the exchange of the final commodity is realized, again creating money. At both ends of the circuit, we have the same thing- money is invested to ultimately make money (profit). The production process is important and the other characteristic of it is that money at the two ends has a different value- let’s say M (the money invested in the first place) and M’ (the money earned at the end of this circuit) which has to have more value than M to make the production process worth for the capitalists. The surplus-value is the difference between M’ and M (M’ – M). Then the money gained (the surplus/profit) should be reinvested into the production process and not be consumed, therefore this circuit doesn’t come to an end. M’ is not just used value but has to be invested as long as the process continues for a capitalist to remain a capitalist and have control over the market.
Marx also draws a parallel between commodity fetishism and feudal religious devotion. He says God is humanity’s creation. Under feudalism, human relationships with God conceal and justify relationships with beings in the society, however, capitalism works differently as according to it the relationship of exchange between things is created by people which then covers the exploitation which goes under the production process. God is a creation of religion but commodities do exist and so does the price system and facilitating the economic and social system, which does not provide transparency, specifically when it comes to the exchange of commodities with money- the circumstances or exploitation through which commodities have reached the market are kept under the veil by the capitalist class. Similarly, commodity fetishism helps bring light on Marx’s theory of alienation, which is where the workers are made to feel foreign to their work, the people they work with even the product of their labour, and finally, them being foreign to their work themselves. Marx says a devastating effect of capitalist productions (driven on profitability) on human beings, not only on their physical state but on their mental state and on the social processes of which they are a part.
Marx, through commodity fetishism, tries to bring light on how capitalism is exploitative, profit-driven and that unemployment, vast inequalities, economic and societal crises are pushed under the veil of the so-called exchange between commodities. Capitalism even assembles production into social relationships between the capitalists and workers as the relation between commodities. Then these relations are confused further with the introduction of money as the medium of exchange when everything is analyzed in terms of price. This perception and thought on capitalist society is what Marx calls “commodity fetishism”- the obsession of revolving everything around commodities, which then leads to alienation, and labour power and labour time being used as just another raw material in the production process and the final good being the commodity. Capitalists look at everything as inputs and emphasize the outputs as if the profit is directly being yielded and produced by the machinery itself and not by the people in societies existing together, who are an important part of the proces. To explain the part played by labour Marx explains how the relations which capitalists believe are between commodities are social relationships between people as commodities are produced by the embodiment of labour power. He also says commodities are what we generally observe because they can satisfy our needs and thus are produced and sold in the market and hold some “value”. This is why we are unable to unravel and think about what happens behind the production process- who produces what? Are the goods we consumed produced fairly or are they the product of exploitation/ child labour, etc.
Capitalists believe in an external perspective of things and spread that ideology further through advertising, marketing thus making a brand and brand value among people if not by quality but by its popularity. The movie Fight Club highlights this fact and states that how capitalism changes a person’s personality- it can make someone feel insecure just because certain things in society are so popular that they define a person’s standard of living, and the lack of them makes them insecure. However later in the movie, it’s shown how the same person who was insecure and believed the perception of things holding value feels much more comfortable when he’s without them and leads a simple life without those luxuries. Marx tries to put forth that if commodities define social relations in societies then in reality neither the capitalists nor the worker has any part to play, and that we live by our labour or by the labour of others, therefore if we stop working, then the society won’t survive.
Mansi Kushwaha, a final year B.A. Economics Hons student at B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. (The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Policy Observer or our members.)
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