In 1867, German philosopher Karl Marx published his most notable work Das Capital (Capital: Critique of Political Economy). Amongst various ground-breaking ideas introduced in this book, Marx constructed an idea so fascinating that it still holds true — just as accurately as the fixed law of gravity. He phrased this proposition as ‘commodity fetishism’ (Warenfetischismus). ‘Fetishism’, generally refers to the sexual connotation of the word at first. But Marx used this particular word in the context of the colonial times he lived in. In ancient times, tribes in Africa used to own or worship inanimate artefacts as sacred. The word originated from this context of ‘inanimate material object having mystical power’. Marx incorporated this idea to generate one of the most widely used ‘Marxist terms’ of all time. In Capital, Marx introduced ‘commodity fetishism’ in Chapter 1, Section 4.
He used the term which had a religious meaning in a secular manner to describe the mysterious and contradictory nature of commodity: the dual state of commodity. Commodity, in laymen’s term, is something of intended use with an exchange value — generally, something we buy in the forms of product or service. Marx argued that ‘commodity’ lies at the very heart of the social material relations of a society.
As people constitute society, social relations are supposed to be constructed by people; yet commodity defines the social relations. This is the contradictory part. How come we live in a society where our social relations are not determined by us, rather by the object or services we consume for an exchange value?
What is the mystery here? The mystery is that consumers and producers of a commodity never really meet each other. Commodities have no real value until taken to the market, the place of exchange. In a marketplace, the labour of the worker producing commodities becomes social at the point of exchange. But this interaction is not between individuals; but of commodities. The interaction is between money of the consumer; which is the price of the consumer’s own sold labour; and the price of the commodity itself. Sounds so strange right? Because it is strange in the literal meaning of the word.
The mystery underlying in this whole debacle is the system — ‘capitalism’. In capitalism, production takes place under private ownership. The owners of capital conceal the whole process in such ordain that it is almost impossible to know anything about the whole process of production. Marx pinpointed exactly this very area of hiding the whole process where everything feels like popping out of thin air, like ancient Indian artefacts, a mysterious force producing something spectacular. Well, the only thing spectacular is the human labour which is ironically unnoticed in the grand scheme of things.
A society or system where social relations are formulated by commodities rather than the actual beings who constitute ‘society’ in the first place is ought to have deplorable consequences. So much is missing in such a way that leads to exploitation. Under this veil, capitalism hides the most important facets of the production process such as wages, working conditions, worker’s mental and physical well-being and so forth. Behind this veil are the underpaid workers, workers in disgusting working conditions producing commodities for us to consume. This is what Marx termed ‘commodity fetishism’ in classical context of the word.
To what extent this idea of ‘commodity fetishism’ exists in today’s world, some 150 years later, is even more astounding. One example of commodity fetishism is depicted by American rapper Macklemore in his debut single Wings, released in 2011. In this song, he explained how a pair of Nike shoes surrounded his imagination and captivated his seven-year-old mind. The one who owned a pair of Air Max felt like the next Michael Jordan. He went at length how consumer campaign worked for Nike — 100 dollars for a pair. Everyone envied the cool-dope kid who owned a pair. Later, growing up, he realised the idea of working instrumentally in the Nike campaign: ‘fommodity fetishism’. His lyrics run thus:
‘We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it
‘So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it
‘Got to show ‘em, so exclusive, this that new sh**
‘A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
‘Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid
‘I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement
‘My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it…’
This pro-consumerist movement spearheaded by sports giant Nike used the very idea of putting immaterial intrinsic quality (Flying like Jordan) to something so normally material good (a pair of Nike Air Max) that owning a pair made a far-stretching influence on the owner’s mind. As the song progresses, he describes it more in details how every American kid wanted a pair of Nike, but most of them could not afford one. Kids were killed for a pair of shoes; kids stole money to buy a pair of shoes just to satisfy that exact feeling — commodity fetishism Nike adhered to their project: wear a pair of Nikes and fly like Michael Jordan. The song continues:
‘They told me to just do it, I listened to what that swoosh said
‘Look at what that swoosh did. See it consumed my thoughts
‘Are you stupid, don’t crease ‘em, just leave ‘em in that box
‘Strangled by these laces, laces I can barely talk
‘That’s my air bubble and I’m lost, if it pops
‘We are what we wear, we wear what we are
‘But see I look inside the mirror and think Phil Knight tricked us all
‘Will I stand for change, or stay in my box
‘These Nikes help me define me, but I’m trying to take mine, off…’
Of course, it did not make anyone fly like Michael Jordan; no average American kid rose higher than average, wearing a pair of Nike. Macklemore later explained how it was all a part of a big campaign. How consumerism was injected in the veins of the immature. He discovered in later years that it had no real effect on his life. He had not become the next Jordan. But everyone wanting to own a pair is the trick that was played so well that everyone, including Macklemore himself, owned a pair. He concludes saying:
‘I started out, with what I wear to school
‘That first day, like these, are what make you cool
‘And this pair, this would be my parachute
‘So much more than just a pair of shoes
‘Nah, this is what I am, what I wore, this is the source of my youth
‘This dream that they sold to you
‘For a hundred dollars and some change, consumption is in the veins
‘And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes.’
Nike’s propaganda machine and their eye-catching advertisement campaign used every single component of ‘commodity fetishism’. They fetishized the incredible athletic quality of the various stars from the NBA. Their campaign worked so well that sales went off the chart. And, of course, Nike, like every other capitalist organisation, revealed nothing about its mode of production. While American teenagers were fighting over a pair of exclusive new release, somewhere in Southeast Asia, underprivileged teenagers were forced to work in a slavery-like condition to produce such spectacular pair of shoes. This is the contradiction; this is the mysterious dual state of commodity, just as Marx explained with sheer precision while defining ‘commodity fetishism’.
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