Commodity fetishism

Posted: 1 October 2014 in Uncategorized
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It just so happens that, in class yesterday (actually, in both courses I’m teaching), I presented Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. I explained that the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital begins with the common sense of the commodity (common sense, that is, for mainstream economists and for those of who live in a commodity-producing society) and ends with making the commodity strange, by denaturalizing it.

I explained, in particular, that Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities—that economic agents need to be characterized by certain notions of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham” in order for commodity exchange to exist—represented a critique of both mainstream economists (for whom commodity exchange is natural, transcultural and transhistorical) and of Ludwig Feuerbach (for whom commodity fetishism was a false or distorted consciousness). In other words, Marx developed a notion of economic subjectivity that is endogenous, both historical and social, as against notions of a given human nature.

Then, after class, a couple of students stayed behind to talk about they and their classmates felt the pressure to fill out their resumés and craft themselves in order to secure advancement (e.g., in the job market) and not to take risks that might raise questions (e.g., on the part of prospective employers). I felt bad for them.

As it turns out, Paul Verhaeghe [ht: sk] confirms both Marx and the students: the current economic situation is bringing out the worst in us.

the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.

More important, though, is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other, as thinkers from Hegel to Lacan have shown. Sennett comes to a similar conclusion when he sees the main question for employees these days as being “Who needs me?” For a growing group of people, the answer is: no one.

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age. . .

Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.

  1. Great contribution! I have long been influenced by Fredy Perlman’s wonderful essays on commodity fetishism and his efforts to make the work of Soviet economic theorist, I.I. Rubin available to us in the west (ESSAYS ON MARX’S THEORY OF VALUE). I am currently reading Piketty because of its popularity. Among many criticisms one might make (while appreciating the degree of grassroots concern with inequality its popularity suggests) is its utter flatness, its blindness to the ways that alienated labor and commodity fetishism are foundational to the everyday workings of capitalism.

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