Marx: A Summary of “The Fetishism of Commodities” - Owlcation - Education
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Marx: A Summary of “The Fetishism of Commodities”

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

QUIZ: Do you understand "the fetishism of commodities" ?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What is a fetish?
    • A type of society
    • A type of magic
    • An object worshipped for its apparent magical powers; an irrational commitment to something
    • An object worshipped for its ability to make reality disappear momentarily
  2. What is a "commodity," according to Marx?
    • Anything that people deem to have value
    • Something we all take forgranted
    • Anything people deem to have no value whatsoever
    • Another word for "society"
  3. What does Marx believe capitalist society is obsessed with?
    • Gold coins
    • Money (any type)
    • Rewarding the labourer
    • Things (commodities)
  4. According to Marx, what is wrong with capitalist society?
    • The fact that money makes the world go 'round
    • Labour
    • The fact that commodities, or "things," have apparent value but the human labour that made them is ignored
    • The proletariat doesn't get paid enough
  5. Why does Marx compare people's relationship to things/commodities as a "fetish"?
    • Because people truly believe all commodities have magical powers
    • Because people obsess over commodities for their apparent value when really the labour behind the thing is what counts
    • Because people in capitalist society believe value comes from the hands/labour that went into producing the commodity
    • Because people in capitalist society need an escape from reality
  6. According to Marx, human labour is embodied in all commodities
    • False
    • I don't know
    • True
    • It depends on whether the proletariat or the bourgeois made the commodity
  7. Marx would want everyone to remember this one thing:
    • A commodity is first a product of the worker
    • A commodity has value in society no matter what
    • A commodity is almost always meaningless
    • A commodity is a fetish
  8. How does commodity fetishism affect society, in Marx' opinion?
    • Society becomes magical instead of realistic
    • Social relations exist between commodities instead of between people (producers of the commodities)
    • People in society forget how commodities are actually produced
    • People's irrational commitment to a thing trumps their commitment to their work
  9. What would Marx say gives a "thing" or a "commodity" value?
    • Human labour power
    • The price tag
    • The demand vs. supply
    • Any labour power
  10. For Marx, why is it irrational to obsess over or fetishize commodities
    • Because magic isn't real
    • Because society can't function without commodities
    • Because real social relations are between people, not between things
    • Because commodities can't offer satisfaction

Answer Key

  1. An object worshipped for its apparent magical powers; an irrational commitment to something
  2. Anything that people deem to have value
  3. Things (commodities)
  4. The fact that commodities, or "things," have apparent value but the human labour that made them is ignored
  5. Because people obsess over commodities for their apparent value when really the labour behind the thing is what counts
  6. True
  7. A commodity is first a product of the worker
  8. Social relations exist between commodities instead of between people (producers of the commodities)
  9. Human labour power
  10. Because real social relations are between people, not between things

Interpreting Your Score

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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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