Explain commodity fetishism. Do you believe we fetishize commodities in society today? Why or why not?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Karl Marx, commodity fetishism occurs when an object holds significance or social power beyond its utility. An object becomes a commodity when it carries some social significance beyond its use-value, and the fetishism of these commodities is a reflection of the social relations surrounding the production and consumption...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

According to Karl Marx, commodity fetishism occurs when an object holds significance or social power beyond its utility. An object becomes a commodity when it carries some social significance beyond its use-value, and the fetishism of these commodities is a reflection of the social relations surrounding the production and consumption of that object. The term fetishism is borrowed from anthropology and describes an otherwise mundane object which is perceived to have some special, even supernatural, quality about it. Through commodity fetishism, members of an economic unit (the producers and consumers) come to understand each other in relation to the money and goods exchanged. 

Consider the following: many people in modern society define themselves in relation to the goods they interact with, or use goods to assert their identity. Consumers aren't just purchasing a table, a pair of shoes, or a set of dinner plates. Through their purchase, they are engaging in self-narrative; they become the sort of person who buys this table, or those shoes, or these plates. Here, decisions of consumption are not made on the basis of use-value or utilitarianism, but on the extraneous perceived qualities these goods carry. Similarly, producers have the opportunity to create a narrative about what kind of company they are and attract consumers on that basis. 

Marx argues that the social value of labor is directly tied to the fetishization of commodities. Not only does human labor transform raw materials into usable goods, the amount of human labor necessary for production is indicative of its commodity value. Though it may not be visible with our own eyes, we have an understanding that more labor time in production means an object is inherently more valuable. 

Marx uses the example of the table in Capital, so let's work with this same idea. What really goes into the production of a table, and how does that make one table more valuable than another? Imagine two identical wooden tables, entirely the same in utility and visual appearance. Now imagine one has been produced on a factory line in a mere matter of hours, with only minimal human labor. Imagine the other table was painstakingly hand-carved and assembled over many months by a woodworker. Wouldn't you feel that the table which required more human labor was essentially more valuable? Wouldn't it seem more socially impressive to have the table which required more human labor? In this way, even though both tables are comparable in use-value and visual appearance, we have fetishized the hand-made table on the basis of human labor.

I believe that many societies today absolutely do fetishize commodities. Especially in capitalist societies, consumers have the opportunity to construct self-narrative through the perceived qualities of goods. In a capitalist society, workers are alienated from the goods they produce and so cannot truly define themselves in relation to their labor. Through consumption of goods which are produced in an equally alienated context, capitalists can employ the social value of goods they do not receive from their own labor. An example from recent years in the United States is the production of "green" goods. Many companies which produce personal and household care items have caught onto the trend of offering more eco-friendly and sustainable goods at reasonable prices. A number of these companies have not made any real efforts to ensure the sustainability, environmental health, or ingredient quality of their products, though, but label these goods as green, simple, and natural because they understand the social value of such terms. For example, the textile Lyocell, while biodegradable and made from fast-growing trees, has been criticized because the production process requires lots of energy as well as chemicals to break down and reorder the cellulose it is made from. This "green" fiber may not actually have a positive environmental impact, but nonetheless it carries social value (and is fetishized) based on the myth that it is more environmentally friendly than fabrics like cotton.

A lot of commodity fetishism in the modern world has to do with money. In a society which employs money, the paper or metal does not hold any real value in itself, but members of the group have agreed upon the representative value it holds. People who have a lot of money aren't necessarily in control of a lot of value, just a lot of paper, metal, or numbers. Because we have agreed that the paper, metal, and numbers are representative of a real-world value, money holds social value and translates to social power. Brand names and logos hold a lot of social value in conspicuous consumption and the illusion of power. Someone who owns a Chanel purse—which is notoriously expensive—may be perceived as having more social power than someone who buys a handbag without any logos or designer-names on it. Here, the purpose of a logo is to imply that someone has a lot of money and therefore a lot of social power. Of course, the power of logos only really works if a group collectively fetishizes the brand name or representative symbol as holding special power beyond use-value.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team