I’ve never really liked section 4 of chapter 1 of Capital v1, the section on the fetishism of commodities. I think this is one of the most over-rated sections of Marx, and certainly the most over-rated in v1 of Capital. The reception of the passage bugs me too, as it’s often (mis)read in isolation from the rest of the book. The passage is also commonly read as if the point were objects – commodities – rather than the social relations of capitalist society (this reminds me, I need to put up my notes on Raymond Williams), and as if Marx’s analysis didn’t turn around that ‘peculiar commodity’ called labor power.

That said, I had another thought tonight. I just started reading Robin Blackburn’s book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. On page 1 of the book Blackburn quotes excerpts from The Slave Trade Merchant by R. R. Madden. I looked and the poem is online, here’s part of what Blackburn quotes and some other bits.

Perhaps, the Cuban merchant too, may think
In guilt’s great chain, he’s but the farthest link.
Forsooth, he sees not all the ills take place,
Nor goes in person to the human chase;
He does not hunt the negro down himself,
Of course, he only furnishes the pelf.
He does not watch the blazing huts beset,
Nor slips the horde at rapine’s yell, nor yet
Selects the captives from the wretched band,
Nor spears the aged with his own right hand.
The orphan’s cries, the wretched mother’s groans,
He does not hear; nor sees the human bones
Strewed o’er the desert bleaching in the sun,
Memorials sad, of former murders done.
He does not brand the captives for the mart,
Nor stow the cargo–’tis the captain’s part;
To him the middle passage only seems
A trip of pleasure that with profit teems;
Some sixty deaths or so, on board his ship,
Are bagatelles in such a gainful trip;
Nay, fifty thousand dollars he can boast,
The smallest cargo yields him from the coast.

He need not leave his counting-house, ’tis true,
Nor bid Havana and its joys adieu,
To start the hunt on Afric’s burning shore,
And drench its soil with streams of human gore;
He need not part with friends and comrades here
To sever nature’s dearest ties elsewhere;
Nor risk the loss of friendship with the host
Of foreign traders, when he sweeps the coast.
But this most grave and “excellent Senor,”
Is cap in hand with the official corps,
Receives the homage due to wealth that’s gained,
No matter how, or where it be obtained.
His friends are too indulgent to proclaim
What deeds are coupled with his wide-spread fame.
‘Tis true, he merely purchases the prey,
And kills by proxy only in the fray;
His agents simply snare the victims first,
They make the war, and he defrays the cost.

So the thought I had, a series of thoughts really, reading the passage…

Like I said, in my opinion v1 of Capital is really about labor power.

I also think the earlier passages look different in the light of the later passages. NP has stuff on this that puts it better than I can; a while back I tried to touch on what it’s like to read Marx, that really Marx needs to be re-read in order to be read.

If these things are true, then the passage on commodity fetishism is really about labor power and needs to be re-read as such.

I’m not getting into this just now, except to say that I think the excerpt from the poem above shows this, where the labor power is that of a slave. Safely removed from the processes of “how these slaves were made,” the merchant and the owner can more easily consider labor power as simply a commodity, and humans as just a factor of production. I think it’s important to note, however, that the distance here, the ability to take human commodities as abounding in theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties, is not something inherent in the act of buying and selling per se, such that it is a foregone conclusion. Rather, this (empathetic and intellectual) distance is contestible and the product of institutional arrangements. Put another way, fetishism is of the social form of capitalist social relations but those awkward words have a rich, complicated, and conflict-ridden ensemble of social practices behind them. Walter Johnson’s excellent book Soul By Soul is good on this – his chapter on slave markets might be thought of as a historical-ethnographic account of one key moment of slave labor power’s commodification and exchange. Bound up with this is my impulse to say that fetishism is philosophically uninteresting and not something which philosophical study will do much to eliminate (I’m reaching here, but I’d like to say that Marx’s comment about theology and metaphysics re: fetishism is support for this).

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