commodity fetishism

An idea elaborated by Karl Marx early in the first volume ofCapital. He makes a distinction between use-value and exchange-value: the former is a judgement about the usefulness of an object; the latter is what that same object will fetch in exchange on the market. Money provides the medium of exchange, and brings unequal, different objects into relations of equality with each other-one meal in a restaurant, for example, might equal four paperback books. Exchange-values depend upon the ratio of the labour times currently needed to produce the objects. This in turn refers us to the social division of labour and the complex relationships of interdependence that exist in capitalist society. These complex relationships, however, are not obvious to those participating in market exchanges who see only the resulting relationships (of price) between commodities. They therefore (mistakenly but adequately for their purposes) view these relationships as autonomous, and as governing rather than dependent on the social division of labour, and the relations it establishes between different producers. When generalized, this delusion is the commodity fetishism which Marx criticized in bourgeois economists who took economic value to be an intrinsic property of commodities, like their use-value.
The commodity is a fetish, in the sense that it is endowed with the powers of human beings, so it seems that what happens to us depends upon the state and movement of the market. György Lukács extends the theory into the notion of reification: all human relationships and experience come to be perceived as commodities and we treat them as things. Commodity fetishism is one aspect of the analysis of ideology in capitalist societies: the real underlying relationships are hidden from our perception and we build our understanding of the world only on appearances.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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