I recently re-read the bit of Capital chapter 1 of v1 on commodity fetishism. I’ve long been annoyed by a common habit of treating this short bit as a sort of key that unlocks the whole book. As such, I’ve sort of avoided this bit much of the time for a long while.

In this selection Marx refers repeatedly to commodities has having a “mystical character,” “enigmatical character,” and famously as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Marx also writes that “wood (…) is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” These quotes have never sat well with me. Marx has always struck me as having no patience for subtle metaphysical theological enigmatic transcendent niceties. He has always struck me as mocking those. As such, I’m skeptical about the idea that for Marx commodities really do have these qualities.

It could be that these quote are a metaphor for ‘illusion’ – commodities are kinda confusing. I think that this is part of Marx does have in mind, but I also think these comments are insincere. Marx is a deeply (annoyingly) ironic writer who doesn’t always write with his own voice expressing his intentions directly. As such, I think the mysticism etc may be Marx having a dig at people who treat commodities mystically. That is: commodities are kinda confusing, and worse, some people respond to this confusingness in a confused manner and are confused about its nature.

Marx suggests that the confusingness of commodities arises “from this form itself,” the commodity form. That is, in a commodity “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.” The point here is that the relative opacity of commodities is about what commodities say to people, so to speak, or what people can see in commodities and their exchange. The thing is, though, this confusingness or opacity of commodities doesn’t necessarily have to have force.

What I mean is… well… French philosophy is confusing. So is calculus. But who is confused by these things? People who encounter them and try to decipher them. Of course, everyone under capitalist society encounters commodities, but my point is that there are two ways to think of the qualities of commodities that Marx mentions. One is that they are hard to parse, so to speak. Marx refers to them as social hieroglyphics. In that case, commodities would be like a language we don’t know. Another interpretation is that they actively cloud people’s minds, like taking intoxicants (Marx famously referred to religion as an opiate; if he immediately means what he says in this chapter then the claim boils down to the idea that commodities have an opioid character). That is, in this second interpretation, commodities are sort of like everyone is drinking a spiked drink that actively clouds their minds, which is more than the opacity of a hieroglyph.

In one passage Marx writer that with commodities, “[t]here, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”

Where is the “there” that Marx mentions repeatedly? This commodity world, is it in actual market practice? In the labor process? Or is it in writings about one or the other (ie, in political economy, among other things)? This relates to the issue of whether commodities are opaque or if they are more actively misleading, because if the “there” means “in some world of or about commodities which is internally confusing when people consider it” that’s one thing – that would apply to political economy that Marx studied and I think equally so to the discipline of economics today – but that’s about how things appear in one arena when people view it. It’s a different thing to suggest that everyone under capitalism lives in such an arena and people don’t have a choice but to view it. To put it another way: all of this stuff happens “there,” according to Marx; the scenario differs a lot if the idea is that all or most people are already there all or most of the time in capitalism vs lesser numbers of people being there for lesser amounts of time.

Marx makes a comment that seems to suggest an explanation for some of the dynamics he discussions.
“As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

This could be read to suggest that people under capitalism only encounter each other via market transactions. That is simply false. It could be read to suggest that people in capitalist societies only deal with each others’ labor via objects of exchanges pursued for individual ends, so there’s not a synoptic perspective. That’s closer to true, but also not entirely clear that it’s true. Here too it’s hard to tell if the claim is a weak one about opacity or a strong one about active misleading (what I above called an opioid quality to commodities). It’s not clear to me that people aren’t capable of understanding, at least to some degree, the nature of social relations despite absence of certain sorts of interactions. After all, Marx figured it out. Because actuality implies possibility, Marx’s figuring out proves it’s possible to figure it out.

Marx makes a good concise statement about understanding phenomena historically.
“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning.”
This seems in part like a description that applies to what Marx has said about fetishism. He talks here about commodities primarily in terms of social forms – which are treated as quasi-natural in the presentation: it’s in the nature of commodities to do this stuff – rather than historically.

This is great, though, for showing what he does and doesn’t mean by abstract labor:
“When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.
The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.”

Abstract labor isn’t an actually existing thing where some labors exist and really are abstract, more so than others, and some labors can become increasingly abstract. Abstract labor is an implied idea, a rational reconstruction on Marx’s part, implicit within social practice in capitalism and theories about capitalism on the part of people in favor of it.
Marx writes that “The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.” This could be taken to be a comparative claim about the relative opacity of capitalist society compared to earlier societies. That may well be what Marx meant, the passage reads that way to a large degree, though as I said Marx is often not meaning what he is directly saying. But… the “we come to other forms”, which could imply that Marx is talking not about change over time in societies so much as he’s talking about us using consideration of other societies as a thought process. On the first interpretation, Marx is laying out how societies have become progressively more opaque over time, especially as tied to production and exchange. On the second interpretation, Marx is saying “look, if we consider society statically in terms of social forms, we fetishize and dehistoricize; if on the other hand we look back at history then we can arrive at a historicized and less fetishized perspective.”