Commodity fetishism

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Mapping Ideology

Book by Slavoj Žižek; Verso, 1994

Commodity Fetishism

In his attribution of the discovery of symptom to Marx, Lacan is, however, more distinct: he locates this discovery in the way Marx conceived the passage from feudalism to capitalism: 'One has to look for the origins of the notion of symptom not in Hippocrates but in Marx, in the connection he was first to establish between capitalism and what? -- the good old times, what we call the feudal times.' 13 To grasp the logic of this passage from feudalism to capitalism we have first to elucidate its theoretical background, the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism.

In a first approach, commodity fetishism is 'a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things'. 14 The value of a certain commodity, which is effectively an insignia of a network of social relations between producers of diverse commodities, assumes the form of a quasi'natural' property of another thing-commodity, money: we say that the value of a certain commodity is such-and-such amount of money. Consequently, the essential feature of commodity fetishism does not consist of the famous replacement of men with things ('a relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things'); rather, it consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belongs to it outside its relation with other elements.

Such a misrecognition can take place in a 'relation between things' as well as in a 'relation between men' -- Marx states this explicitly apropos of the simple form of the value-expression. Commodity A can express its value only by referring itself to another commodity, B, which thus becomes its equivalent: in the value relationship, the natural form of commodity B (its use value, its positive, empirical properties) functions as a form of value of commodity A; in other words, the body of B becomes for A the mirror of its value. To these reflections, Marx added the following note:

In a sort of way, it is with man as with commodities. Since he comes into the world neither with a looking-glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtian philosopher, to whom 'I am I' is sufficient, man first sees and recognizes himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of the genus homo. 15

This short note anticipates in a way the Lacanian theory of the mirror-phase: only by being reflected in another man -- that is, in so far as this other man offers it an image of its unity -- can the ego arrive at its self-identity; identity and alienation are thus strictly correlative. Marx pursues this homology: the other commodity (B) is an equivalent only in so far as A relates to it as to the form-of-appearance of its own value, only within this relationship. But the appearance -- and herein lies the effect of inversion proper to fetishism -- the appearance is exactly opposite: A seems to relate to B as if, for B, to be an equivalent of A would not be a 'reflexive determination' ( Marx) of A -- that is as if B would already in itself be the equivalent of A; the property of 'being-anequivalent' appears to belong to it even outside its relation to A, on the same level as its other 'natural' effective properties constituting its use value. To these reflections, Marx again added a very interesting note:

Such expressions of relations in general, called by Hegel reflex-categories, form a very curious class. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king.[1]

'Being-a-king' is an effect of the network of social relations between a 'king' and his' subjects'; but -- and here is the fetishistic misrecognition -to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: they think that they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to his subjects, a king; as if the determination of 'being-a-king' were a 'natural' property of the person of a king. How can one not remind oneself here of the famous Lacanian affirmation that a madman who believes himself to be a king is no more mad than a king who believes himself to be a king -- who, that is, identifies immediately with the mandate 'king'?

What we have here is thus a parallel between two modes of fetishism, and the crucial question concerns the exact relationship between these two levels. That is to say, this relationship is by no means a simple homology: we cannot say that in societies in which production for the market predominates -- ultimately, that is, in capitalist societies -- 'it is with man as with commodities'. Precisely the opposite is true: commodity fetishism occurs in capitalist societies, but in capitalism relations between men are definitely not 'fetishized'; what we have here are relations between 'free' people, each following his or her proper egoistic interest. The predominant and determining form of their interrelations is not domination and servitude but a contract between free people who are equal in the eyes of the law. Its model is the market exchange: here, two subjects meet, their relation is free of all the lumber of veneration of the Master, of the Master's patronage and care for his subjects; they meet as two persons whose activity is thoroughly determined by their egoistic interest; every one of them proceeds as a good utilitarian; the other person is for him wholly delivered of all mystical aura; all he sees in his partner is another subject who follows his interest and interests him only in so far as he possesses something -a commodity -- that could satisfy some of his needs.

The two forms of fetishism are thus incompatible: in societies in which commodity fetishism reigns, the 'relations between men' are totally de-fetishized, while in societies in which there is fetishism in 'relations between men' -- in pre-capitalist societies -- commodity fetishism is not yet developed, because it is 'natural' production, not production for the market, which predominates. This fetishism in relations between men has to be called by its proper name: what we have here are, as Marx points out, 'relations of domination and servitude' -- that is to say, precisely the relation of Lordship and Bondage in a Hegelian sense; 17 and it is as if the retreat of the Master in capitalism was only a displacement: as if the de-fetishization in the 'relations between men' was paid for by the emergence of fetishism in the 'relations between things' -- by commodity fetishism. The place of fetishism has just shifted from intersubjective relations to relations 'between things': the crucial social relations, those of production, are no longer immediately transparent in the form of the interpersonal relations of domination and servitude (of the Lord and his serfs, and so on); they disguise themselves -- to use Marx's accurate formula -- 'under the shape of social relations between things, between the products of labour'.

This is why one has to look for the discovery of the symptom in the way Marx conceived the passage from feudalism to capitalism. With the establishment of bourgeois society, the relations of domination and servitude are repressed: formally, we are apparently concerned with free subjects whose interpersonal relations are discharged of all fetishism; the repressed truth -- that of the persistence of domination and servitude -- emerges in a symptom which subverts the ideological appearance of equality, freedom, and so on. This symptom, the point of emergence of the truth about social relations, is precisely the 'social relations between things'. 'Instead of appearing at all events as their own mutual relations, the social relations between individuals are disguised under the shape of social relations between things' -- here we have a precise definition of the hysterical symptom, of the 'hysteria of conversion' proper to capitalism.

  1. Marx, Capital, p. 77.