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commodity fetishism

I've been trying to help my students wrap their minds around the concept of commodity fetishism, as it is described and analyzed in Leah Hager Cohen's book, Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things. In the process, I've posted lots of emails and bulletin board messages on the subject. This is kinda scattered ... these weren't meant to cohere or be comprehensive ... but I want them to exist somewhere besides those emails in case I need to use them again, and so I can look at them in a new context and figure out what I've got wrong. So, more than usual, this is one of those "skip this post" posts.

First, the crucial quote from Cohen:

This tendency to regard objects as though their essence and their monetary worth were one and the same is sometimes called commodity fetishism. A commodity is a thing with a price. A fetish is a thing with a spirit. Commodity fetishism is the habit of perceiving an object's price as something intrinsic to and fixed within that object, something emanating directly and vitally from that object's core, rather than as the end result of a history of people and their labor. (11)

People and labor seem to disappear. We quit thinking of an object's price as something that reflects the labor that went into the making of the object. Instead, the price is a reflection of the object's true worth, or rather, the price IS the object. This is "strictly a human conceit" (207), but in fetishizing the object, we lose sight of the conceit and "believe" in the price. The labor that went into making the object disappears from view; the people whose labor made the object also disappear. All that is left is a price tag.

And so we look at a glass, or a newspaper, or coffee, and instead of seeing a logger or a factory worker or a farmer, we see $1.25. If you see a table and think "that table is $50," you aren't thinking about the logger who cut the wood or the carpenter who built the table ... you are thinking about the price of the table, you are acting as if the table "is" $50. How it was made, who it was made by, these things are irrelevant ... what matters is the price, we identify the table's value by saying it "is" $50.

Another problem arises when our entire society is caught up in the momentum of commodity fetishism. Everything ends up being defined by its price. As Cohen writes:

Almost everything can be seen in terms of exchange value; we look to a thing's price to gauge, even decipher, its meaning. We commodify things that seem inappropriately included in that sphere: advice, sex, adventure, babies, time, nature, safety. Our greatest expressions of adoration and rejoicing seem tied today to the market value of a given thing, to exalting it as a commodity (12-3).

I recently read a story about how expensive weddings have become. I'd like to think the coming together of two people in love could be seen as something other than a commodity, but when marriage is talked about in terms of the price of the ceremony ... well, I hope you see my point.

To define something, you must be able to define its opposite. The word "black" means nothing if we don't also understand "white." But the closer we come to being completely consumed by a point of view, the less likely we are to see an opposing perspective; the less we understand opposing points of view, the less we can truly define our own point of view. At which point "black" exists on its own, and any attempt to explain "white" is dismissed because it is not understood, it does not exist. This means we have a myopic view of what constitutes our world of "black," and no view at all of anything not-black.

And so, in today's world, we see everything in terms of commodity fetishism, and those terms are so prevalent that our view is myopic and we lack understanding of any alternative vision. Cohen writes:

[I]t is hard to find a starting place, to think of anything so sacred that it lies really and truly beyond the reach of commodification.... Anything we can control, even marginally, we can commodify. So of course today we've made commodities of things like trees and rocks and animals, even animal feces. We can pay for the service of having bees come and pollinate our orchards. We can pay to have someone else's horse mate with ours....

But the single greatest obstacle to our ability to see commodity fetishism as a construct we have imposed must be our legacy, as a country, of commodifying our own selves. Pounded into two and a half centuries of our history is the enslavement, and consequent ownership, of human beings ... since that practice ceased, we have found other ways to commodify human bodies and functions (210-2).

Commodity = thing with price. Fetish = thing with spirit. That spirit is the intrinsic, actual core of the object. Put the two together, commodity and fetish, and you attach a spirit to an object's price. The price of an object becomes its intrinsic, actual core.

Before this process occurred, the intrinsic core we valued was what you could call its "spirit." The juicy tastiness of an apple. The beauty of a sandy beach. The joyous abandon of a toddler. When we begin to perceive the intrinsic core as being equated with the thing's price, we value something different. Instead of the tastiness of the apple, we value the price of the apple ... instead of the beauty of the beach, we value the price of the land ... instead of the joy of the child, we value the price of his or her pre-school.

As the things we perceive as intrinsic change, as what we value changes, so then do our actions change. We no longer aspire to the eating of a juicy apple, no longer aspire to run on a sandy beach, no longer aspire to enjoying the company of a child. Those are part of our lives, of course, but the intrinsic core, the thing we mistake for "natural," is the price of the object. And so we aspire to make money, so that we can buy the apple, the land, the education.

Much disappears when price overtakes our desires. We lose track of the beauty of the apple, the beach, the child ... we make money, that's what matters. And when we look at something, we no longer care how it was created ... and you can take that in many ways, both concrete (which laborer helped put that apple on my plate) or more abstract (how do apples and beaches and children come to our world). We don't care how things are created, because we no longer think the intrinsic value comes from creation, but instead believe value is the same thing as an object's price.

And when "everything has its price," you can't leave out "human beings" when you say "everything." We are no longer just human; we are another thing with a price tag on it. Our worth isn't based on our actions or our moral sense or anything other than the price of our labor. Humans become no different from any other object. The apple is worth 50 cents, and your English teacher is worth a thousand dollars a month.

We often fetishize things without necessarily turning them into commodities. If I look at the shirt I wore when I got married in 1973, I don't see fabric cut and sewn into something I could wear, I don't see how much it cost, I see me getting married. Well, I've turned that shirt into a fetish. I see the shirt's value in what it means to me. So it's not the process of fetishizing that is the problem. The problem comes when the process only allows us to see value in an object's price. We no longer see labor, or history ... we only see the object as a commodity, a thing with a price.