Discussion and Reading Team of Socialists (DARTS)
On Commodity Fetishism
The second meeting of DARTS was held on 30-12-2011 from 5:00p.m to 7:00p.m. at XIMB, Bhubaneswar. Prof. Raju Das of York University began his talk with a Power Point Presentation on Marx’s theory of ‘fetishism of commodities.’ Fetishism of the commodity, according to Marx, means that ‘the relationships between producers, within which the social characteristics of their labourers are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of [their] labour’. In his talk he explained this idea with a simple example using export-oriented shrimp production in Orissa. The conditions of the shrimp producers, as that of numerous other workers, in Orissa (as elsewhere), are simply bad. The work they perform in producing the shrimp as a global commodity not only fails to fetch them enough money for their daily maintenance. The production process oriented towards producing the maximum amount of exchange value (profit) for the shrimp producers/traders is inscribed on their labouring bodies: chemicals used in the process affect the (women) workers’ fingers so badly that they cannot even eat with their hands. When the shrimps are in the market, every buyer, including the buyer in advanced countries, wants to get the maximum counts of shrimps for every rupee/dollar she has in her pocket. Doing this is in her own material interest. The buyer (who is also a producer of other commodities, be it a service or a physical commodity) does not care about the conditions under which shrimp workers work. And the buyer does not care because her own conditions of work and wage-level, like those of the shrimp-worker, are beyond her own control. So, it is as if shrimps and other commodities start talking in the market. The actual people who produce those commodities are not directly and socially interacting. It is immaterial whether or not people know the conditions of shrimp producers because given their own position they have to command a maximum amount of the commodity (e.g. shrimp) they want for every unit of the commodity they own (or its money form). There exists, in the words of Marx, ‘the social relation between commodities’ and ‘material relation between men.’ In Prof. Das’s words: “commodities rule over us instead of ourselves ruling over articles of use to us.” Relations between commodities replace – or at least, become much more important than – relations between people, i.e. people-as-producers of things-for-use.
Then Prof. Das explained the aspects of Ideology using I.I.Rubin (author of Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value), Terry Eagleton (author of Ideology) and Slavoj Zizek (author of Sublime Object of Ideology). Marx’s ideas of fetishism are connected not only to his ideas about alienation (partly in the sense that fetishism – the rule of commodities over us — happens because of the absence of democratic social regulation over production) but also ideology: the objective reality is such that we think that things for use necessarily have a money-tag and have to be bought and sold (for a profit) and we behave accordingly. The reality – and not (just) our discursive inability to comprehend it – is such that it makes us think that our needs can only be satisfied through commodity exchanges. Commodity fetishism is not our failure of intelligence. It is an intelligent failure. The commodity form hides the real social relations from us. It acts as a veil. And, in the words of Marx: ‘The veil is not removed …. until [the production process] becomes production by associated [producers], and stands under their conscious and planned control’ (Marx). The question is what is to be done to make this happen. Marx, of course, ends Capital Vol 1 with his most definitive answer to the question. Marx’s discussion of the commodity (dealt with in the inaugural meeting of DARTS) and of fetishism clearly shows that if we want to understand the capital and the society it dominates we must understand Marx (and his Capital).
There was an audience from several disciplines – students and teachers of Technology, Literature, Economics, Business Studies, etc. A number of political and civil rights’ activists were also present. Interesting questions were raised and discussed in the meeting. The questions included: ‘What is the distinction between objective and intrinsic in the context of value?’; ‘In a particular village, where people know each other and produce agricultural products and consume them, how is the theory of ‘fetishism of commodities’ relevant?’. What is the distinction between concrete labour and abstract labour, and why is such a distinction important? One perceptive member of the audience and a senior scholar explicitly linked the idea of fetishism to alienation, building on early Marx’s writings.’
There was an active participation as each participant found Marx relevant in her/his field of work and/or area of interest. All the questions posed could not be addressed properly due to the lack of time, which meant that there was a great need for several rounds of discussion on such concepts as the commodity and fetishism.The discussion had to be limited to commodity fetishism; there was no time for a discussion of the other form of fetishism in Marx’s work: capital fetishism.
The DARTS provisional organizing committee has decided to meet on the 29-01-12. The topic to be discussed was proposed to be ‘Labour-power as commodity.’ The time and venue will be conveyed by e-mail.
We collectively hope that we will continue to discuss important ideas of Marx both from the standpoint of their theoretical value and from the standpoint of their ability to shed light on contemporary issues facing the humanity. We also hope that there will be reading teams such as ours in many other cities and towns of Orissa and India.