The Confusions of Commodity-Fetishism

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Sidorna 108-119 i Howard Rouse & Sonia Arribas Egocracy. Marx, Freud and Lacan' (2011).



The Confusions of Commodity-Fetishism…

In the (proletarian) subject of capitalism, then, the real is continually and practically, that is, socially and symbolically, knotted and bound up with its imaginary appearances (which are much more, of course, as the product of social reality, than mere »appearances«). As a particular social or symbolic order, or mode of production, capitalism continuously constitutes and reconstitutes a (proletarian) subject folded across these two opposing registers. We can further develop our comprehension of this peculiar logic of knotting and folding by turning our attention to Marx’s extremely famous, but also extremely misleading, section »The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret« (C1: 163–77).

The first thing that strikes us about this section of Das Kapital is that it is situated before Marx’s uncovering of the very specific characteristics of the circulation of capital; before, that is, his demonstration of the fact that capitalism is constituted, as a particular mode of production, by the inclusion (and production) of the (proletarian) subject, by the availability on the market of the particular commodity of the subject’s labor-power. As a consequence of this, Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism is only and exclusively concerned with commodities as objects. The well-known example that he provides is that of a »table«, »an extremely obvious, trivial thing« (C1: 163) (»[c]ommodities are things« (C1: 178), Marx tells us a little later). There is »nothing mysterious«, he claims, about this table’s use-value; it »satisfies human needs« (C1: 178), we eat at it, drink at it, talk at it, whatever. Once the same table possesses an exchange-value, however, its character is absolutely transformed: »as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will« (C1: 163–4)

It should be obvious – on the terms of our reconstruction so far – that these comments cannot be simply transferred to the commodity insofar as it is a subject. Firstly, of course, because Marx would not have to resort to prosopopoeia; the brains of subjects can evolve »grotesque ideas« all by themselves. But secondly, and much more importantly, because there undoubtedly is something »mysterious« about the use-value of the (proletarian) subject. As we have seen, this particular use-value creates surplus-value for the capitalist, as long as it has already been counted (as labor-power) by the exchange-value of the commodity-form. This »mystery« (this crisscrossing intersection of use-value, value and exchange-value) should already alert us to the fact that commodity-fetishism is going to be something very different when it concerns the subject than it is when it only concerns objects. And the whole problem with Marx’s analysis is that it stops seriously short of any explication, or even awareness, of this fundamental difference. Indeed – in complete indifference to what he will later point out about the subjective specificity of capitalism – Marx actually defines the logic of commodity-fetishism as a simple inversion of the subjective (or social) and the objective, the human and the thing-like:

»The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists […] simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.« (C1: 164–5)38

The fetishism of the commodity is conceived here in terms of the »objective« or »thing-like« aspect that »subjective« or »social« relations between people (»men«, »the human race«) acquire in any commodity-producing society. Marx is saying nothing specific, that is, about capitalist society (for such a society, as we have seen, is not constituted by the simple production of commodities, something which is common to many social forms, but instead by the inclusion (and simultaneous exclusion) of the subject within (and from) the logic of the commodity-form). We do not want to criticize Marx, then, by saying that his analysis of commodity-fetishism is false. As far as it goes, it is correct; it applies to every mode of production in which commodities are produced. But, to repeat, it tells us nothing about the particularity of capitalism, and in the context of Marx’s whole work – and, even more, of the reconstruction of it that we are advancing here – this certainly has to be considered to constitute a serious problem.

Why? Because in the specifically capitalist mode of production it is impossible to speak of any simple inversion of the »subjective« or »social« and the »objective«, of the »human« or »personal« and the »thing-like«. Capitalism is constituted, as a particular social form, by the inclusion of the »subject« within the »objective« logic of the commodity-form, by the reduction of the supposed »humanity« or »personality« of this subject to the »thing-like« status of an exchange-value (the exchange-value of labor-power). This inclusion or reduction is not, of course, the whole story, because it can only produce surplus-value for the capitalist when something (labor) resists it – obviously, at the very same time as it succumbs to it (as labor-power). Capitalist »society« divides, folds and knots the (proletarian) subject, we might say, between and across an »objective« and »thing-like« aspect (the exchange-value of the commodity of labor-power) and a properly »subjective«, but hardly simply »human« or »personal«, quality or activity (the actual labor that it performs for the capitalist). Marx’s logic of commodity-fetishism, a simple inversion of the »subjective« and the »objective«, the »human« and the »thing-like«, is redoubled, that is, within the (proletarian) subject itself. The (proletarian) subject is produced by capitalism as an inextricably knotted subject-object. There is a kind of »objectivity« inherent and inextirpable in the »subjectivity« of this subject. And the profound problem with this mode of production, as we have shown (and for the proletarians, of course, not for the capitalists), is that the real social activity of this subject (its labor) tends to be representatively swallowed up by its imaginary, but at the same time very practically »real«, »objectivity« (the commodity of its labor-power). If Marx defines capital as a »social relation between persons which is mediated through things« (C1: 932), we can add the crucial qualification, and there lies here a world of difference: »a social relation between persons [somehow produced as things] which is [itself] mediated through things.«


…and their Contradictory Consequences

There is an ambiguity, then, not to say a potentially very serious lack and inadequacy, in Marx’s conceptualization of the logic of commodity-fetishism. The idea of a simple inversion of the »subjective« (or »social«) and the »objective«, the »human« and the »thing-like«, because it applies to every mode of production in which commodities are produced, fails to take account of that specific »objective« knotting of the subject that uniquely characterizes capitalism. Throughout Das Kapital, we want to claim in these concluding pages, this ambiguity, and possible inadequacy, has to be seen to give rise to a series of ambivalences and contradictions in Marx’s numerous thematizations of the nature of the proletarian subject. (Ambivalences, we ought to stress, which Marx never displays in his depictions of the capitalist. The capitalist subject is always, for Marx, nothing more than the »personification« (C1: 254), the »bearer« (Träger), of the relentless desire to produce and accumulate his own raison d’être, surplus-value; even if he is also, in a manner somewhat analogous to the proletarian, irredeemably divided from himself in his fetishistic failure or, more properly perhaps, self-interested refusal (and here he would somewhat differ from the worker), to comprehend and articulate the actual basis of this production.) More specifically, we can say that to the extent that Marx does not reflect upon the particularly capitalist characteristics of commodity-fetishism, the redoubling of its logic within the (proletarian) subject, he experiences the temptation to revert to some of the theoretical incoherencies that we have already seen to afflict his early and middle periods. When Marx fails to problematize the specifically capitalist knotting of the (proletarian) subject, he again starts to resort, that is, to the humanistic language of alienation or to the idea of a simple conflict and contradiction between the relations and forces of production.

On the occasions that Marx conceives of commodity-fetishism in terms of a language of alienation, he tends to veer – as in his early writings, in fact – between granting to this term a purely technical meaning and, in addition, apportioning to it a whole host of stronger connotations. According to the technical meaning, which is indisputably correct, the (proletarian) subject alienates his labor to the capitalist; this labor, and its product, are the sole property of the latter. The problem – already hinted at in the long quotation on commodity-fetishism above – is that, a lot of the time, this purely technical meaning of the word gets inextricably entangled with its other, less philosophically innocent, associations; as, for instance, in the following passage from the »Results of the Immediate Process of Production«:

»the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer […] Thus at the level of material production […] we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely the inversion of subject into object and vice versa […] What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.« (RIPP: 990)

It is hard to separate here the unobjectionable technical meaning of alienation – the rule of »the product over the producer«, »the alienation of man from his own labor« – from its theoretically unsustainable, Feuerbachian-humanist inflection (something that we have already subjected to criticism in section 1). According to this inflection, what the inversion of commodity-fetishism alienates is »man« himself, a »living« being, an implicitly purely human (proletarian) subject who, precisely because he essentially exists outside, »on a higher plane« than, capital, can clearly and directly confront the simple »enslavement« that it imposes on him as a »victim« and a »rebel«.

Marx most notably flirts with the notion of a straightforward contradiction between forces and relations of production in a very short and, perhaps because of its exceptionality, almost freestanding chapter of Das Kapital entitled »The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation« (C1: 927–30).39 We find here the following famous claims and predictions, actually quite rare in Marx, about the inevitably approaching end of the capitalist mode of production:

»This […] is accomplished through the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, through the centralization of capitals. One capitalist always strikes down many others. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by a few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime. Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.« (C1: 929)

The »revolt of the working class« is blithely equated here – in a strange return to those teleological assumptions that we have already shown to be indefensible in section 2 – with a virtually logical »incompatibility« between the »centralized« and, relatedly but much more importantly, »socialized« forces of production and the »private« capitalist relations of production that act as their fettering integument.

We do not want to dwell here on the radically unsatisfactory character of these two re-appearing motifs; for we have already done this in our previous analyses. Instead, what we want to argue is that, at a number of other points in Das Kapital (and related works), Marx starts to call into question and, in fact, effectively demolishes, the presuppositions that support them both. At a more general level, Marx starts to interrogate the first motif when he suggests that the capitalist mode of production does not alienate the proletarian subject – at least not in anything more than a technical sense – but instead constitutes and produces it in what can only be described as a degraded form. (Marx’s various descriptions of this degradation, both mental and physical, are virtually omnipresent throughout his magnum opus, and they are well-known enough not to require here any detailed repetition.) He starts to interrogate the second motif when he suggests that collectivization and co-operation – the »centralization« and »socialization« of the passage quoted above – are not revolutionary forces of production that resist the capitalist relations of production, but instead characteristics that irrecusably pertain to nothing less than these relations of production themselves. »Being independent of each other«, Marx tells us, »the workers are isolated. They enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with each other.

Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions« (C1: 451).

Marx’s words become even more pointed when he really begins to draw out the consequences of the specifically capitalist logic of commodity-fetishism, that is, following everything that we have already said in this section, of the specifically capitalist division of the (proletarian) subject. We can group these consequences, to conclude, under four main headings (and the relative brevity of our remarks will be justified by the re-elaboration that they receive in the ensuing sections).

In the first place Marx shows how the division of the proletarian subject between its labor and the commodity of its labor-power, a division that tends to produce and reproduce itself – at least from the perspective of this subject – in the form of the disappearance of the former term under the ministrations of the latter, also corresponds, and once again from the point of view of this subject, to an elision of the fundamental difference between paid and unpaid, necessary and surplus labor. Indeed, Marx refers to these two things as the »double [zweierlei] consequence« of the specifically capitalist division of the subject. For if, on the one hand, »[t]he value or price of the labouring power takes the semblance of the price or value of labour itself, although, strictly speaking, value and price of labour are senseless terms«, then, on the other hand:

»although one part of the workman’s daily labour is paid, while the other part is unpaid, and while that unpaid or surplus labour constitutes exactly the fund out of which surplus value or profit is formed, it seems as if the aggregate labour was paid labour […] This false appearance distinguishes wages labour from other historical forms of labour. On the basis of the wages system even the unpaid labour seems to be paid labour. With the slave, on the contrary, even that part of his labour which is paid appears to be unpaid. Of course, in order to work the slave must live, and one part of his working day goes to replace the value of his own maintenance. But since no bargain is struck between him and his master, and no acts of selling and buying are going on between the two parties, all his labour seems to be given away for nothing […] Take, on the other hand, the peasant serf, such as he, I might say, until yesterday existed in the whole East of Europe. This peasant worked, for example, three days for himself on his own field or the field allotted to him, and the three subsequent days he performed compulsory and gratuitous labour on the estate of his lord. Here, then, the paid and unpaid parts of labour were sensibly separated, separated in time and space; and our Liberals overflowed with moral indignation at the preposterous notion of making a man work for nothing […] In point of fact, however, whether a man works three days of the week for himself on his own field and three days for nothing on the estate of his lord, or whether he works on the factory or the workshop six hours daily for himself and six for his employer, comes to the same, although in the latter case the paid and unpaid portions of labour are inseparably mixed up with each other, and the nature of the whole transaction is completely masked by the intervention of a contract and the pay received at the end of the week. The gratuitous labour appears to be voluntarily given in the one instance, and to be compulsory in the other. That makes all the difference.« (WPP: 98–9)

In the final part of the following chapter, we will return to this essential demarcation between capitalist and pre-capitalist modes of production (and especially to the example that Marx provides here of the east European corvée), in order to show how it really is a demarcation that makes, in terms of the theorizations of the subject that it implies, »all the difference«. For the moment, however, it perhaps suffices to say – for this is also an issue that we will be returning to later on – that this elision of the distinction between paid and unpaid, necessary and surplus labor is effectively redoubled in capitalism by the further elision of the distinction between productive and individual consumption. (Productive consumption, Marx informs us, refers both to the means of production that are consumed by proletarian labor in order to produce surplus-value and to the consumption of this labor by the capitalist; individual consumption refers to those means of subsistence that the proletarian consumes with the money that he receives for the sale of the commodity of his labor-power (C1: 717–8).) In a nutshell, then, if the work of the proletarian subject is inevitably made up a combination and intermixture of the two inseparable »moments« of necessary and surplus labor, then so too are the commodities that are finally produced by this work. And, crucially – and speaking of course, as Marx reminds us, of the full »social scale« (C1: 717) of the capitalist mode of production – it is precisely these commodities that the proletariat consumes at the same time as it produces them or, in Marx’s own terms, that it individually consumes at the same time as it produces them through its productive consumption. The proletarian subject consumes, we might say – in an equally undifferentiated form – the very conditions of its own production.

Secondly, Marx links the »appearance« of »voluntariness« described above to what it is only appropriate to call the »free« implication of the proletarian subject in the perpetuation of the conditions of its own subordination. Now, Marx of course famously defines this subject as being »free« in a »double sense [in dem Doppelsinn]«. That is, if, on the one hand, it is »free« to sell the commodity of its own laborpower, then, on the other hand, it is only »free« to do this because it has already been »freed« from the ownership of the means of production (C1: 271–3), rendered, in Marx’s shorthand designation, »vogelfrei« (C1: 896). This latter »freedom« – which is naturally nothing more than a form of unfreedom – does nothing to override, however, the characteristics that are attached to the former (and which are certainly more difficult to describe in purely negative terms). For if we quickly run through the long list of attributes that Marx provides in Das Kapital, and also – and especially – in the »Results of the Immediate Process of Production«, we can see that this former sense effectively determines »the free worker« as »individual«, »independent«, »intensive« and »energetic«; as »self-controlled«, »responsible«, »diligent« and »skilled«; and as »talented«, »competitive«, »flexible« and »versatile« (the »fluidity« of the proletarian subject makes it fundamentally »indifferent«, Marx claims, to the »particular content« of its labor). All of these characteristics are essentially reinforced, moreover, by local and specific variations in the market price of laborpower – variations that can increase, within strictly defined limits, of course, the worker’s ability to do with his money what he sees fit – and by the fact that he is also »free«, as Marx succinctly puts it, to periodically »change masters« (C1: 697; 723–4; RIPP: 1013–4; 1031–4).

Thirdly – and emphasizing now the inescapable inverse of all of these attributes; emphasizing, that is, the determination of the proletarian subject as »vogelfrei« – Marx also shows how the »freeing« of this subject from the ownership of the means of production must also be seen to imply what we can only refer to as a deprivation of its knowledge:

»The knowledge, judgement and will which, even though to a small extent, are exercised by the independent peasant or handicraftsman, in the same way as the savage makes the whole art of war consist in the exercise of his personal cunning, are faculties now required only for the workshop as a whole. The possibility of an intelligent direction of production expands in one direction, because it vanishes in many others. What is lost by the specialized workers is concentrated in the capital which confronts them. It is a result of the division of labour in manufacture that the worker is brought face to face with the intellectual potentialities [geistige Potenzen] of the material process of production as the property of another and as a power which rules over him. This process of separation starts in simple co-operation, where the capitalist represents to the individual workers the unity and the will of the whole body of social labour. It is developed in manufacture, which mutilates the worker, turning him into a fragment of himself. It is complemented in large-scale industry, which makes science a potentiality for production which is distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital.« (C1: 482)

The paradox, of course, is that this deprivation appears alongside all of those apparently contradictory definitions that we have given above.

Fourthly and finally, we can effectively summarize everything that we have been saying here by pointing out – both following Marx’s own terms and introducing a new significance into them – that capitalism ultimately implies not only a »formal subsumption« of the working subject’s capacities, but also, and much more radically, their »real subsumption« (with this »real subsumption« entailing, moreover, nothing less than a subsumption of the real). Marx defines the »formal subsumption of labour under capital« in terms of the harnessing or appropriation by capitalism of the modes and methods of an essentially pre-capitalist kind of work; and he defines the »real subsumption of labour under capital« in terms of the penetration by capitalism into the very inner core of the processes of work. (The first phase corresponds roughly to the period of manufacture; the second to the permanent revolutionizing of production in the modern factory.) (RIPP: 1019–38) If we inflect Marx’s terms a little, however, then it is not too difficult to suggest that the first form of subsumption involves a harnessing or appropriation by capitalism of precisely that real knowledge that is still attached to the worker as a lingering consequence of his previous ownership of the means of production; and that the second kind of subsumption involves a deprivation – and, in fact, as we have been arguing throughout this section, a tendential imaginarization – of this knowledge as the result of the coterminous deprivation of the ownership of the means of production, and of the thoroughgoing organization of the labor process according to the terms of this deprivation. It is exactly this real deprivation, then, we can conclude – or, more precisely perhaps, and as we will see more clearly in some of the sections that follow, this tendential deprivation of the real – that gets returned to the proletarian subject in his imaginary (but also, in its effects, also very real) sense of »freedom«. Or, as Marx himself puts it, »the isolated worker, the worker as ›free‹ seller of his labour-power, succumbs without resistance once capitalist production has reached a certain state of maturity« (C1: 412).40




38 It is not, of course, a coincidence that Marx returns here to the Feuerbachian logic of the critique of religious alienation.

39 And it is certainly not a coincidence that Marx also flirts here, much more than in other parts of his text, with an unequivocally Hegelian language, the language of »antithesis«, »negation« and the »negation of the negation«.

40 Once one recognizes this, it becomes easier to understand why it is that perhaps the greatest study of worker’s resistance, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, essentially corresponds to the period of »formal subsumption«. See Thompson (1991). For a fascinating discussion of this question, see also the short essay on Thompson in Anderson (2005), 177–87.