Sunday, April 15, 2007

Commodity Fetish a Definition

I like to find short sharp clear (humorous) definitions of Marx's ideas to share with my readers. This is another one: Commodity Fetish. LOL this ones got that JimBobbySez kinda of style....

One of the most charming witticisms of Marx is the term "commodity fetishism". "Fetishism" spoofed Hegel, who had concocted a famous lengthy, crackpot, faux-learned justification for racialised subjection, imperialism and slavery in the Philosophy of History founded on the infantile, primitive nature of neeeegrows as evidenced by their relations to fetishes. Fetish=degradation. To Hegel's mystical ecstasy of yerupeen triumph over fetishes and fetishists, Marx replied; And who are you, my fine fellow, to sneer at fetishes? At least those guys utilise their fetishes and create them in moderation. Your fetishes proliferate like fungus, lord it over you like gods; you grovel before them in every minute of life.

I came across it after coming across a critique of Hegel's view of Africa showing the author knew where of he spoke.

Hegel’s Europe (Spirit) Hegel’s Africa (Nature)

For Hegel, Africans fail at achieving substantial notions of the universal. Hegel
says that, “in Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet
attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence—as for example, God, or
Law—in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his
own being.”xxiv African religion is, for Hegel, actually magic and fetishism. Law is
nothing but unruly despotic control. African social organization is the slavery of Africans
by each other, resulting in cannibalism, violence, and chaos in the interior of Africa.
Specifically, in Africa, Hegel finds “the most reckless inhumanity and disgusting
barbarism” be displayed by the people of the continent.

In reference to the African, according to Hegel, “we must put aside all thought of
reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him;
there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.”xxvi For
Hegel, a sense of humanity, as cultivated from a conception of the universal, is lacking in
Africans. The African lacks the ability to see beyond himself, in the humanity of another,
or in the necessity of the community. The African tries to organize socially, but fails.
Hegel says, “the political bond can therefore not possess such a character as that free laws
should unite the community.”xxvii They try to express themselves religiously, but exist in
fetishism. Hegel refers to Africans as believers in “sorcery” in which they have no “idea
of a God, or a moral faith.”

For Hegel, it is impossible for the African to actualize concepts of religion, law,
or society due to their own sensuousness. Hegel manipulates the ways in which the text
displays the manner in which the African character expresses itself in terms of religion,
law, and social organization.”xxix For Bernasconi, “An examination of Hegel’s sources
shows that they were more accurate than he was and that he cannot be so readily excused
for using them as he did.”xxx Myth creation and African esoticization occur in Hegel.
Hegel is constructing an archetype of what and where the unhistorical would be in Space
and History. As the archetype of the unhistorical, Bernasconi says that in Hegel, “Africa
served as a null-point or base-point.”

Why would Hegel proceed to have these declarative statements about a people
that he claims he does not understand? Hegel says that Africa is unknown only to proceed
in explaining the intricacies of its identity. Is this a problem of inherent duplicity? Hegel
makes the African an incomprehensible element to compliment the comprehensible. In
Hegel, “awakening consciousness takes its rise surrounded by natural influences alone,
and every development of it is the reflection of Spirit back upon itself in opposition to the
immediate, unreflected character of mere nature. Nature is therefore one element in this
antithetic abstracting process.”

The development of Spirit out of Nature requires Nature to antithetically reflect
Spirit’s identity and see this reflection, and movement away, as an antithesis in all aspects
to its stagnated self. For this reason, Hegel must construct Africa as an incomprehensible,
irrational, unreasoned, and unhistorical entity. Hence, Europe blossoms historically out of
Africa as an opposite posed specifically for Europe’s ascension. This incomprehensibility
forces Africa to remain outside the realm of logical, historical development. The African
has no hopes of cohabiting the same conceptual space as the rest of humanity. They fail
to rise out of Nature for they lack the mechanism of the threshold and antithesis that they
exist as for Europe, against which this rising can occur. Rising above the threshold is
impossible when a culture is that threshold. Africa does not have the capability of rising
because this rising has to occur over and against Africa.
And here are a couple of more definitions of Commodity Fetish

A commodity, for Marx, is an object which is
the product of human, creative labor, that is, human labor manifested in an object and 2.) an object of human labor which is put in relation to other objects of human labor, that is, it is an object which is circulated.

If you sat down and build a bird-house for yourself, you have produced an object, but not a commodity. If you sit down and build a bird-house and sell it to someone else, you have produced both an object and a commodity. Marx's central argument here is that the world of commodities, of objects which circulate in an economy, takes on a life of its own. When you go to the store and see a bird-house for sale on a shelf, you see only the object, not the labor that went into it.

The commodity seems to you to have magically appeared on the shelf for you consumption. That sense that commodities have a life of their own, that they magically appear for people to purchase or exchange, is what Marx means by the fetishism of commodities.

The Reality behind Commodity Fetishism

After having clarified Marx’s methodological point of departure I shall now carefully discuss his laying out of what the "mystical character", the "metaphysical subtleties", "the sensory supernatural character” and the "theological manners" of the commodity specifically consist in.

The term fetish or to fetishize which originally derives from religious discourse means to invest something with powers it does not intrinsically possess. But while the religious fetish, if my picture of the world is not totally mistaken, does not through an act of being thought about or believed in acquire powers which previously were foreign to it, the situation is different in the case of the kind of fetish Marx is concerned with. ( The commodity fetish is being realized, not created by the minds of the individual actors and thus needs to be sharply distinguished from allusions to hallucinations, false illusions and the like. The kind of fetishism Marx is describing, can neither be understood as a mere individual misrepresentation nor as an abstract phenomenon of social consciousness. It has to be seen in light of the society as a whole. Fetishism is not merely an ideological category. While ideology in Marx understanding of it as "necessary false consciousness" is not confined to capitalist societies, but is closely linked to all societies that are divided into classes, the notion of commodity fetishism is a historical distinct phenomenon of capitalism. Marx goes as far as claiming that commodity fetishism is inseparably linked to Capitalist modes of production. He writes:

[In capitalist societies] it is o­nly the definite social relationships of men themselves, which in their eyes takes o­n the phantasmagorial form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the products of the human mind appear as independent beings endowed with life, as entering into independent relations both with o­ne another and the human race. The same way are in the world of commodities the products of men’s hands. This I call the fetishism which is attached to the products of labor, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which therefore is inseparable from the production of commodities.

And a more sinister meaning of it as an aspect of Gothic Capitalism.

The Ends of the Body--Commodity Fetishism and the Global Traffic in Organs

SAIS Review - Volume 22, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2002, pp. 61-80

Amidst the neoliberal readjustments of the new global economy, there has been a rapid growth of "medical tourism" for transplant surgery and other advanced biomedical and surgical procedures. A grotesque niche market for sold organs, tissues, and other body parts has exacerbated older divisions between North and South, haves and have-nots, organ donors and organ recipients. Indeed, a kind of medical apartheid has also emerged that has separated the world into two populations--organ givers and organ receivers. Over the past 30 years, organ transplantation--especially kidney transplantation--has become a common procedure in hospitals and clinics throughout the world. The spread of transplant technologies has created a global scarcity of viable organs. At the same time the spirit of a triumphant global and "democratic" capitalism has released a voracious appetite for "fresh" bodies from which organs can be procured. The confluence in the flows of immigrant workers and itinerant kidney sellers who fall prey to sophisticated but unscrupulous transnational organ brokers is a subtext in the recent history of globalization. Today's organ procurement transactions are a blend of altruism and commerce; of science and superstition; of gifting, barter, and theft; and of voluntarism and coercion. International Organ Markets, Bioethics, and Social Justice The problem with markets is that they reduce everything--including human beings, their labor, and their reproductive capacity--to the status of commodities that can be bought, sold, traded, and stolen.

But not to anticipate, we will content ourselves with yet another
example relating to the commodity-form.
Could commodities themselves
speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men.
It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as
objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it.
In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values. Now listen
how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist. "Value"
(i.e., exchange-value) "is a property of things, riches" (i.e., use-
value) "of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges,
riches do not."(35) "Riches" (use-value) "are the attribute of men,
value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a
pearl or a diamond is valuable... A pearl or a diamond is valuable" as a
pearl or a diamond.(36) So far no chemist has ever discovered
exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers
of this chemical element, who by-the-by lay special claim to critical
acumen, find however that the use-value of objects belongs to them
independently of their material properties, while their value, on the
other hand, forms a part of them as objects. What confirms them in this
view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use-value of objects is
realised without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the
objects and man, while, on the other hand, their value is realised only
by exchange, that is, by means of a social process. Who fails here to
call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal,
that, "To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and
writing comes by Nature."

The Fetish Speaks

Fredy Perlman's graphic rendition of Karl Marx's "Commodity Fetishism"

Rather, fetishism or animism is a set of ritual practices, stances, and attunements to the world, constituting the way we participate in capitalist existence. Commodities actually are alive: more alive, perhaps, than we ourselves are. They “appear,” or stand forth, or “shine” (the word Marx uses is scheinen) as autonomous beings. Commodities don’t just “believe” for us; much more, they usurp our day-to-day lives, and act pragmatically in our place. The “naive” consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is therefore not mystified or deluded. He or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life. Under the reign of commodities, we live — as William Burroughs said we did — in a “magical universe.”

And so, our encounter with commodities and brands is an affective experience, before it is a cognitive one. It’s not belief that is at stake here, but attraction and revulsion, euphoria and disgust, a warm sense of belonging, nostalgia, panic, and loss….

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Dr.Dawg said...

Good Piece--from Hegel's "people without history" to a decent explanation of "commodity fetishism," a concept I've always found difficult to grasp.

Marx, of course, wasn't entirely without stain on the colonial front: see, for example, "The British Rule in India," classic racist Eurocentrism.

eugene plawiuk said...

Thanks Doc but I cannot agree with you about Marx on India au contraire I have used his article on the East India company several times here and its relevance to the need for capitalism in Africa see my Free Trade Not Aid

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