Because it is so unstable, for the capitalist system to continue to function, it needs to be constantly moving, constantly adapting, and constantly justifying. Thus, it requires systems of justification, which are these instruments of social production. In Capital, Karl Marx describes a component of this system as commodity fetishism. Louis Althusser builds Marx’s ideas, forming a theory of ideology that expands on this explanation of the system. A cornerstone of Marxist theory is the requirement of explanation of how ruling ideas are understood in the capitalist system. Marx’s idea of fetishism and Althusser’s idea of ideology are clearly interrelated, but there are important differences between the two concepts.
In the section of Karl Marx’s Capital, entitled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret,” Marx develops his idea of the fetishism of the commodity in capitalism. As soon as a commodity is produced, “fetishism” attaches itself to the products of labor, which “arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them.” Fetishism is a characteristic of the commodity which comes from the social relations of the labor that produces it. It “transcends sensuousness” and hides the true nature of the commodity, which is its social production. It describes the mystification of human relations when social relations are changed into relations between products of labor. The social aspect of the commodity cannot be expressed because the human labor gone into making the product is obscured while the monetary price of the product is emphasized. “They do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.” Thus, the worker who created the product is alienated from his own product, as well as from other workers. Fetishism illustrates a process of abstraction. All diverse forms of human labor are equalized as quantities of labor time, and thus abstracted. It is a mystical stand-in for the social labor that goes into making a commodity, turning products of labor into “social hieroglyphics” and changing the way value is understood in purchased commodities In this system, people undergo a phenomenon in which, “by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labor.” Essentially, social relationships then express themselves as object relationships. In capitalism, this is necessary to hide the exploitation of wage labor.