The capitalist market has produced some good fruit for some human beings and much bad fruit for the much of the world’s population across history. There is a deeper problem than this fruit. It is the way at its center it is based on a principle that hides human responsibility in the functioning of economics. We can say it has no heart, because it has no values other than the value of the commodity. It is pretended that a “neutral” “quasi-natural” principle guides human living. Karl Marx saw through this facade to name this reality as a pseudo-religious idol that is worshiped. In Capital, Marx called this “the fetishism of commodities.”
The young Marx in an essay entitled “Alienated Labor” found in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) offers an analysis of human alienation in four steps as a building block of the market system. Workers are alienated
from the products they produce;
from their own labor;
from their own consciousness as human beings and
from other human beings as competitors dominated by the exchange of commodities Alienation points to the divisions created by a class society.
The whole process of alienation is linked to the inner working of capitalism. Essential in this analysis is the fetishism of commodities, which in capitalist society distorts the social relations of the whole society. Fundamental to Marx’s work in his magnum opus Capital, the fetishism of commodities describes the human world turned upside down as the economic process takes over responsibility for human interactions. In Chapter One of Capital, Marx explains how this comes about, and then offers an answer of how to put people before profits.
First, an object is produced by human labor because it satisfies a human need (or want). This object is useful. It is a use-value. It is transferred to another who desires its use-value. It becomes important to the seller and buyer for its exchange-value. This exchange turns the humanly produced product into a commodity. A product of labor may be useful, but the reason sufficient to produce it is not its use-value. Rather it is the exchange-value, its nature as a commodity that determines its production. The value of exchange then becomes a quantity in relation to other commodities, which ultimately becomes most clearly measured in terms of money, “the universal equivalent.”
Put in ordinary language commodity fetishism creates “material relations between persons and social relations between things.” (Marx, Capital, p. 73) People don’t relate to one another directly, but indirectly through their products. When prices rise or workers are laid off, business people tell us that the market did it. The market takes on the appearance of immutable natural law and business people deny the responsibility their decisions have made. Instead responsibility, a human quality, is attributed to the market.
Even worse than attributing responsibility to the market is asserting that conditions are a fact of nature, as if they are God-given. We tell poor people we are sorry they cannot afford to live, we can’t help it because the market dictates that there must be poor people. In our rich nation we act as if the market matters more than people do. This is seen quite clearly in the area of basic human needs such as food, shelter, education, work and especially health care. When responsibility for human beings is given over to an inanimate object like the market, it is as foolish as worshiping any statue. Thus, Marx follows in the tradition of the prophets to attack idolatry because it harms human beings both materially and in the form of alienation from their true interests.
The overcoming of this problem begins by questioning the market. The rich and powerful in our society make decisions that effect people and they need to be held accountable. They seek to cloak their private interests under the cover of the “free market.” We need to make these power relations transparent and change the system that allows them to decide who lives and who dies. Marx sees that fetishism can be overcome in the association of free people. We need to see that the market depends on the relations between the activities and decisions of the owners, managers, and the workers “and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour,” (Marx, p. 77). Only then can we begin to move away from the idolatry of the market and take responsibility for the economic structures of our society to organize labor socially and hold the means of production in common.
Marx’s analysis of relationships not fetishized by commodification both points ahead to the association of free people and helps us to better understand the nature of fetishization. He looks at it in three ways. The first way is philosopher’s favorite of Robinson Crusoe alone on an island. He does not exchange with anyone, the different necessary tasks he carries out are just different forms of his own labor and he does not suffer from alienation. The second way looks at feudalism in the middle ages, where the power relations that determined personal relationships were clear in the social hierarchy and not hidden behind economic relationships. With the third way, we see the clearest step toward the association of free people. Marx lifts up the example of a self-sufficient peasant family. They work to produce for the family’s needs and they still have direct social relations because no commodity exchange steps between them. They see their own labor as part of the social labor of the whole family. (Marx, pp. 76–78) Marx describes the community of free individuals as a social Robinson Crusoe. In the family we see an even better example. The individual’s labor as a portion of the social labor of the whole family, becomes in the association of free people — the whole labor power of society.
Marx shows the fetishism of commodities in its central distorting role that replaces human activity to rationally organize society with the exchange of commodities. From this insight, we can begin to move toward seeing the production of the economy as something that should benefit all of us and not for a few. It will work better for all of society, if its members are part of democratic decision making. True democracy will only come with economic democracy. This is the aim of democratic socialism!
Marx, Karl (1967) Capital, Vol. 1, International Publishers: New York: International Publishers