Outline of Marx's
"The fetishism of commodities"

[This passage is part of the introduction to volume I of Das Kapital, which Marx subtitles "a critique of political economy". It is, among other things, a critique of the ways "bourgeois economists" think about economics. Marx is trying to show how these economists misunderstand the capitalist economy, and why they misunderstand it in the way they do. "Fetishism" refers to the (purported) religious practice of attributing human powers to material objects. Page references are to Karl Marx: Selected Writings edited by David McLellan.]

  1. Commodities—-[the key distinguishing feature of the capitalist economy]—-are strange things.
    1. Their nature as commodities does not arise from the fact that people produce them. People in all societies produce useful goods—-but not all these goods are commodities. [435]
    2. Commodities gain their peculiar nature through market exchange.
      1. When people produce goods for the market, the value of those goods is set not by their usefulness, but by their ability to be exchanged for other things. [436]
      2. The labor embodied in these goods thus likewise becomes valued not for its usefulness, but for its ability to generate exchange. [436-7]
      3. People's labor—-an aspect of their humanity—-thus itself becomes a commodity, to be bought and sold. Different kinds of labor come to be equated, because they can be exchanged for the same amount of goods. The social character of this labor thus comes to be seen as a material relationship between things. [437-8]
    3. Thus when we look at the economy, instead of seeing a set of relationships between people, we see a set of relationships between things. One ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear to be "naturally" equal in value, just as one ton of each substance is equal in weight. The social relationship that creates their equal value [the amount of labor which they embody ] disappears from our consciousness. [438]
  2. Economists forget the source of the value of commodities—-human labor—-and describe the world as if coats or boots trade with linen independently of human agency. They fail to see that only capitalist production treats goods in this way, and thus mystifies real social relations. [439]
    1. Other economies do not hide the fact that the economy is based on the social relations of labor.
      1. Robinson Crusoe's 'economy' is not based on commodities, but on labor to create useful things. This economy is not mystified, and the source of value in it—-labor—-is clear. [439-440]
      3. The medieval economy was built on dependence; goods were given and goods were received on the basis of social relationships of dominance and submission. But these relationships were apparent to all. The economy was seen as a result of these social relationships, not as somehow separate from human beings. [440]
      4. Peasant labor is likewise dominated by production-for-use. Here, too, the origin of the economy in human labor is open for all to see. [440]
    2. One can imagine a community of free individuals, in which production arises out of free cooperation, and in which goods are shared according to the time each contributes toward their production. Here, too, the primacy of human labor in the production of goods for use is obvious. [441]
  3. Religion merely reflects the real world.
    1. It thus makes sense that capitalist society—-which reduces actual human labor to an abstraction—-has for its dominant religion a Christianity which reduces actual human beings to abstract "Man". [441]
    2. Other societies have not been so dominated by commodities and trade. They have not lost their connection with and dependence on nature, and so they worship Nature in their religions. [441-442]
    3. Such mystifications cannot disappear until the process of production is actually the result of free human association, regulated by the workers themselves. For this kind of society to emerge, however, a certain material groundwork must be laid. [442]
  4. In capitalist society, production has mastery over people, rather than the other way around.
    1. Thus commodities appear to be independent of the people that produce them—-and appear to rule over them, according to 'natural' laws. [442]
    2. Bourgeois economists see this fetishism when they look at older forms of economic life. For example, they see the lunacy of treating gold and silver as having inherent value, other than the value people give them. [442]
    3. These same economists do not see their own fetishisms, however. They especially fail to see, for example, that capital has no value other than what people give it through their labor. And above all, they fail to see that commodities have no value in themselves. All the value of commodities comes from the labor that created them. (Marx then gives several examples of how economists miss this point.) [442-443]

prepared 9/2001
 by Jim Spickard
[ ] indicate outliner's extrapolations

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revised September 2001