Marx: A Summary of “The Fetishism of Commodities”

Karl Marx
Karl Marx | Source

How does Marx explain “the fetishism of commodities” ?

Marx, using a “materialist” approach, argues that real social relations of production are masked by the presence of commodities within a capitalist society. Commodities, instead of human labour, are seen as the lynch-pin of capitalist society. This view, ultimately, brings about the mystification of real social realities. Is a commodity valuable because human labour was expended to produce it or because it is intrinsically valuable? Marx posits that values “appear to result from the nature of the products” (McIntosh, 70); yet, it is labour, specifically human labour, that gives the product its value. People in the capitalist society treat commodities as if the objects themselves contained intrinsic value, rather than regarding value as the amount of real labor expended to produce the object. If human labour is treated as value-less, if “value by labour time is … a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities” (71), then the world can be erroneously described as though market exchange occurs independently of human agency.

Through his analysis of commodities, Marx gives his readers insight into the alienated worker. Within the social process of production, workers interact and relate in an atomistic manner- the worker is disconnected from his or her own labour- he/she has no control nor agency (conscious individual action) over the material product of the work of his/her own hands. If it is human labour that gives value to a product, but the labour is void of conscious individual action, then workers will be apathetic to what they produce.

If, as Marx posits, the social relations within capitalist society exist between commodities and not between workers, then do workers even have social relations at all? If so, in what context? Are workers able to exercise conscious individual action (agency)?

In his Communist Manifesto, Marx answers this question by locating real social relations between workers as a precursor to the great proletariat revolution. This precursor is what Marx calls "class consciousness", where real social relations and agency are born. Before a revolution can occur, workers must first acquire "class consciousness", then they must unite. This will enable them to overthrow the capitalist class, creating the conditions for a communist society.

Works Cited:

Marx, K. (1997). The fetishism of commodities. In I. McIntosh (Ed.), Classical sociology theory (pp. 68-71). New York: New York University Press.

Commodity Fetishism according to Karl Marx

"A commodity, therefore, is 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.

... 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. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor."

~ Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1

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Cartoon Explainer: The Fetishism of Commodities

This phenomenon where objects have social power, in which things act as if they have a will of their own, is what Marx sought to unravel with his notion of "the fetishism of commodities."

Marx and the Idea of Commodity

If you're up for more reading, check out this in-depth explanation of the fetishism of commodities

The Communist Manifesto Illustrated by Cartoons


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