Introduced in the first chapter of Karl Marx’s most ambitious project, Das Kapital, or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx applied his analysis of commodities in capitalism to society as a whole through the concept of commodity fetishism. The term describes how the social relationships of production and exchange among people take the form of relationships between things (money and commodities) under capitalism.
The term fetishism in anthropology refers to the belief among indigenous cultures of inanimate objects (such as totems) possessing godly or mystical powers. Marx separates the religious connotation of the term and uses it to understand how commodities possess mystical powers once in the market as it severs ties with the production process.
The concept explains that a commodity has different values. In its physical state, an object has a purpose or utility which Marx describes as the use value. Since the production of an object requires the labour of producers, the value of the labour adds to the value of the object. Finally, when the object reaches the market, it has an exchange value which is the monetary value attached to the product. As long as an object is attached to its use-value, it remains an ordinary thing. But when it comes to the market as a commodity, it attains fantastical powers and mystical features.
Marx explains that the production and distribution of an object build or renew social relations — the relation between an employer who hires employees who work to create the object, the distributor who supplies raw materials for the production, the transport facility that takes raw materials to the factories and brings the finished product to the market and finally the relation between the consumer and the seller of the product.
Under capitalism, these social relations and the production process become invisible to the consumer as it is a private process. And though an object’s potential is only realised when it is exchanged as a commodity in the market (a place where it becomes social), the interaction between individuals is replaced by the interaction between commodity and money, (which is also a product of sold labour) which is the universal equivalent for exchange. Thus, the commodity is devoid of any signs of labour put into its creation. This is unique to capitalism.
According to Marx, such a system did not exist before as the foundation of a feudal society was based on the relations of personal dependence. He explains that the serfs and the lords, the laymen and the clerics, were all dependent on each other and this was visible in the exchange between them. It was labour and not an abstract universal equivalent that was transacted. Individuals with various roles confronted each other and the performance of their labour were visible in all events and not disguised as social relations between things, which were the products of labour.
So, if not the labour and time put into its production, what exactly does the consumer or the potential buyer equate the commodity to?
While monetary value is attached to each and every product, one must also look at how the exchange value or the price of a product depends on brand names and price tags rather than the quality or the use-value of the product. In modern society, as consumption becomes a status symbol, lesser and lesser significance is attached to the use-value of the commodity. The products sell an image of the consumer to others. So, the higher the exchange value of the product, the more attractive it seems to the potential buyer. Luxury and sophistication are associated with a commodity and through brand endorsements, products seem to attain luxurious, magical characteristics. Commodities are associated with Godly figures or celebrities, removing any trace of social relations of labour attached to them, making them desirable as an object of envy among consumers.
Take the example of perfume. Though a luxury product even in feudal society, the interaction between the customers and artisans was direct. It was an ancestral occupation and artisans took pride in the intrinsic work put into the making of these fragrant products.
But in a consumerist society, the process of production and the exploitation of labour and labourers are forgotten and replaced by the brand and the price tag of the product. And sadly, the workers cannot take pride in their products as they become invisible and are alienated from the commodity to the extent that in most cases they cannot even afford it.
When one thinks of a Chanel No.5 perfume, for instance, one does not associate the perfume with the flower pickers and the people who extracted, pressed, steamed and burned the oil or the people who preserved and helped in the ageing process of the scent. It is also not linked to the employer who hired these workers and the time and effort involved in the labour process. Furthermore, it is neither associated with the perfume bottle manufacturers who pack the timeless scent into tiny pretty bottles nor the transporters who distribute the raw materials to the factory and take finished products to luxury shops or malls (market). Finally, the salesperson who markets the product as a precious commodity is also not affiliated with the product.
What comes to mind when one thinks of the Chanel No.5 perfume is either the image of the Chanel brand symbol, the image of Marilyn Monroe, the face of Chanel who in an interview with Life Magazine in April 1952, said that she only wears the perfume to bed, or the extravagant lifestyle one associates with the expensive scent. In capitalist society, though the value of a product is dependent on the exploitation of human labour, market forces gain precedence and consumers are made to believe that commodities exist independent of individuals. Consequently, consumers are oblivious to the concept of wage theft and exploitation of labour, or the physical and psychological hardship of the people involved in the production process.