Marxism 101: Commodity Fetishism

To understand Commodity Fetishism, it is best to explain what makes something a commodity. A commodity is anything that is exchangeable on the market. Take air for instance. Air is not a commodity since it is not exchangeable. If you offered someone a bag of air in exchange for, well anything, you would be met with laughter. Whereas, produce is a commodity since it can be exchange for other things deemed to be of similar value.

Fetishism in the Marxist sense, is not implying any sexual gratification regarding commodities. Fetishism regarding commodities is viewing the world and its value through the lens of its value as commodities. Marx makes this clear by drawing a distinction between use-value and exchange-value. Use-value is the value deemed by society based on how useful it is. A jacket has a use-value based on its ability to keep warm during the winter. However, it also has an exchange-value. It could be exchanged for some fruit someone else possesses.

The example above expresses something similar to a barter system. Money in capitalist society is the main source of exchange. And money as representative of value, is only of exchange-value, not use-value. You cannot eat or wear money. One of the interesting contradictions Marx observed in Capitalism is that the exchange-value items possess, in terms of money, in many cases do not match their use-value. For example, say 10x bottles of soda cost $30. This would cost the same as a decent novel. Is the use-value of 10 bottles of soda the same as good novel? If we deem exchange-value to be also an expression of use-value, then we would have to say yes.

Commodity Fetishism sees the world as though the exchange-value of commodities holds a special power to represent the real value of the world. From this, everything we do and how we relate to the world is driven by how things are valued as commodities. This is why Commodity Fetishism holds an influencing role on alienation, which was discussed in the previous tutorial. The value people are viewed in society is heavily determined by what kind of ‘work’ they do. And the value of the work is determined by how much their salary is. This one example of Commodity Fetishism conflating the distinction between use and exchange value. On one episode of the Simpsons they made a point about this when Marge had her CV/Resume rejected because she put ‘homemaker’ in previous employment where the employers replied “homemaker isn’t a real job that’s why you don’t get paid for it”.

Commodity Fetishism also influences how we treat social goods and the environment. The question of whether to protect natural habitats and Indigenous land is determined by how profitable or costly it is to do so, if we only value things by their exchange value.

So, if you witness people deciding on the innate value of things based solely on their exchange value or as commodities, this is Commodity Fetishism in practice.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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