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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 3 – Marx on Exploitation and Commodity Fetishism

Marx understands capitalist society to be the latest (and he thinks the last) in a succession of class societies that are all characterized by exploitation. Although one can judge exploitation from a number of moral perspectives, it is not a moral category for Marx but an analytic or scientific one. Exploitation has to do with the appropriation by a ruling class of an economic surplus, the appropriation of that amount of the social product above and beyond what has become the acceptable level needed for reproducing the labour force in its current form. To be exploited is not to be treated “unfairly”. Nor is it to be treated “fairly” either. In a class society to be exploited means to be treated fairly according to the type of concepts of fairness that characterize that particular society.

In a feudal society, the surplus is delivered directly into the hands of the ruling class, a landed nobility. As a result the transfer of the surplus, the exploitation of the peasantry is visible, if not obvious. But it is not perceived as unfair. What Marx calls “mystification” surrounds not the existence of the transfer, but its justification. The peasant does not consider the transfer of a good part of his product to the lord unjust. When peasants rebelled, they most often did so because they felt that the traditional rules governing the transfer were not being obeyed by the lord, not because the rules themselves were unjust or irrational. In such cases, the peasant wanted merely to remove the abuse of the lord-peasant relationship, not eliminate that relationship itself. The peasant rebelled against “unfair” exploitation, not exploitation itself, in Marx’s sense. This may indicate one of the most important differences between Marx and some of the utopian socialisms – the latter were directed  only against “unfair” exploitation and not exploitation as such.

In capitalist society, the exploitation that is visible in feudal society becomes hidden and mystified in the wage contract. In capitalism the existence of a contract between two individuals who are formal equals mystifies and obscures the exploitative contract that takes place. The employer is not a social superior to whom it is your recognized duty to deliver a part of your product. He is a legal, social and even political equal with whom you contract to exchange values that are, by definition equal, so long as there was no duress or force used in the making of the contract itself. You exchange “only” your labour-power for a certain time for a predetermined wage. In capitalist society labour too, in other words is a commodity. And it is only in capitalist society that exploitation takes place in the form of an apparently equal exchange of commodities.

Classical bourgeois economics had already formulated the notion of the exchange of labour time for a wage. What Marx discovered or stressed was that it was not simply time that was exchanged, but labour power, the capacity to perform work, and that labour power is different from other commodities in a number of important ways. Perhaps most important in this context is that labour power can create more value than is given in exchange for it, and that it can create more value than the value that is needed to sustain the labourer as the source of labour power.  In other words, the labour power of the worker creates more value than the wage she herself gets in exchange for it. What the worker gets is enough to go on reproducing himself as a worker and replacing himself with a new generation of workers, and workers have often had to fight for even that. The surplus goes to other classes in the form of rent and profit.

In capitalist society, then, a surplus is being extracted just as much or more so than in any other class society. But in class society this is not, however, obvious, or even apparent. It takes on the appearance of an exchange of equivalents between equals. The worker, more often than not, has the illusory experience of exchanging equivalents, of giving no more than he is taking. A fair days wage for a fair days work. In actuality, the worker is creating a surplus, without which, from the point of view of the capitalist investor, the whole exercise would be meaningless. From the owner’s point of view, the whole point is to create a surplus from which to extract a profit. It is the surplus which is of course the source of the expansion of the economy. Capitalist growth is the expansion of the surplus. This is why Marx points out that even in a “healthy” economy, the more the worker works, the less he has relatively. The worker’s product becomes greater and greater, but she/he stays in the same relative place of powerlessness he/she always occupied. This is why Marx often says that the essential or central contradiction of capitalist society is the private appropriation of a social surplus.  Sometimes, though, when the surplus is not expanding, the worker might lose his or her job. Very often, she must run very fast merely to stay in the same place.

Working class families do not actually hand much down from generation to generation. Even so-called middle class families these days (who in Marx’s terms are in many cases better placed working class families)  do not have much to hand down. So what happens to this surplus, to all the value they are producing year after year, decade after decade? Where is it all going? Only a part of it goes to reproduce the capacity of the working class family to function as a working class family of a particular cultural environment. We don’t see a lot of it going into what are considered necessities for the higher classes – polo ponies, Versace clothes, third and fourth vacation properties. The rest of the product will go to profit, or if it goes in taxes, those are used in large part to sustain the general conditions under which a profit can be made. A lot of the surplus is plowed back into capitalist expansion in order to make still more profit. Now, according to Marx, to appreciate the essential differences between the different forms of class societies, one must recognize what he calls, the “law of motion” of each. A law of motion we can conceive as that institution or set of rule governed activities that reproduces the society as the type of class society it is. The appropriation of ever-expanding surplus value by virtue of the wage contract is the law of motion of capitalist society. This is what keeps capitalist society reproducing itself in its characteristic form.

In capitalist society, then, there must be, at the least, the two classes of owners and non-owning workers. The non-owning workers will make up the bulk of the population. There can be other, even many other classes in varying proportions, but there must be at least a class that owns the preponderance of the means of production and a class that owns nothing but its labour-power, i.e. a class of “free” workers. A slave or a serf does not even own his/her labour-power (a slave or serf cannot use that labour power differently by deciding to try to change occupations or sell it to whomever). A slave or a serf is bound either to a specific master or to a specific place. A “free” worker gets to decide over whether to sell his labour power to this or that employer. But it must be sold to one or another employer upon pain of destitution or death. “Free” labour, is then, highly mobile labour. But since no one is born with a duty to work in one place or for a specific person it is necessary that production take place in the form of a wage contract, resulting in a surplus appropriated by the owning class.

From many liberal and conservative points of view, and even from the points of view of some non-Marxian socialisms, “exploitation” refers to an unjust relationship between owners and workers. But what Marx means by exploitation is the central and defining feature of capitalist society. So the only way of abolishing exploitation is to abolish the relationship of employer and employee. To raise wages, improve working conditions, guarantee work-place rights to individual employees, recognize workers’ rights to effective collective bargaining, etc… is only to improve what we might call capitalist justice. But it does not touch exploitation. In one way it makes it more difficult for the employers to carry on. But in other ways it regulates and improves their work force; it makes crucial portions of their business environments predictable and safe. From Marx’s point of view, the way to abolish exploitation can only mean to abolish this apparently equal, or equalizable, but actually grossly unequal, wage contract and wage relation. What is to take place in communism, according to Marx, is not the reimbursement of the worker for the “full value” of his individual product. That is ridiculous under the real conditions of modern industry and has connections with what Marx calls “petit-bourgeois” socialism , which is still based upon the notion of individual production. But Marx knows that production there has never been truly individual production, and that the more complex, massive and powerful the technological apparatus becomes, and especially as production becomes more and more a matter of the scientific regulation and manipulation of non-human power, the more social does production become. Raising wages is, then, not the solution, any more than putting indoor plumbing in the slave quarters is the solution to slavery.

Socialism, for Marx, has nothing to do with raising wages for employees. It has to do with the abolition of wages, along with the wage relation. It means that society as a whole, what Marx calls “the associated producers”, appropriates the surplus and disposes of it for the benefit of all its individuals, instead of the capitalist taking it and using it more or less compulsively or blindly to produce a still greater surplus. Capitalist society is ruled by the necessity for capitalists to appropriate the surplus and plow most of it back into production in order to produce a still greater surplus. But a socialist society would not be compelled to pursue an ever-expanding surplus. Perhaps we will be able to deepen and extend this notion of what the abolition of exploitation would mean by looking first at what Marx means by the fetishism of commodities.

In Marx’s later work, especially here in Capital, the theme of alienation returns, but more closely translated into the terms of political economy. This is evident enough in his concept of capitalist exploitation, which depends on the alienation of the labour-power of the worker. But it also arises even more forcefully in his concept of “commodity fetishism”. In commodity fetishism we can see alienation in its fourth aspect, alienation from society, raised to a new level. G.A. Cohen, in his book Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, has produced an elegant set of diagrams that I will borrow to help illustrate that concept.


In diagram 2, representing communal society, each individual contributes to production, in Marx’s terms, according to his ability”, and each avails himself of the common wealth, “according to his need”. In primitive communism, in the communism of early hunter-gatherer societies, this system is customary and not consciously planned, whether by a central agency or democratically. In early communal societies, the distribution might be accomplished by complex social customs regulating the transmission of “gifts”, and in such a way as to reinforce the solidary relations among different groups. In a modern communism, it would not be primarily customary, but planned: people would together, on a basis of personal equality, plan their contributions according to ability and their use according to need.

One of the fundamental ways both types of communal society differ from capitalism is that products are not exchanged according to an abstract measure of value. Products are not embodiments of “exchange value”. In other words, there is no exchange, in our sense of the term, in communal societies. People produce directly with one another, and they use the product in accordance with need. So, in communal society things have no “value”, as though “value” were an attribute like “blueness”. Were one to ask a member of a communal society if he were recompensed adequately for his labour, he would probably not know what you were taking about. He is not exchanging his product with society; society is not a thing with which he can enter into an exchange. I produce according to my ability and use what I need to do that, and there is no comparison to be made between these two activities.

One might be tempted to say that things have only “use-value” in such a society. But that would not be quite correct, since the idea of use-value, strictly speaking, makes sense only in contrast to exchange-value. Since, in such a society, there is no exchange-value pertaining to products, “value” would not be an economic category. It would be a category indistinguishable from other, non-economic categories. Of any thing it could not be asked “How much is this worth?”. But many other things could be asked: how many of these things are around? Is there need for more? What is done with it? If we used it this way, couldn’t we make even more of these other things with even less trouble?

In the diagram for feudal society, products travel from serf to serf, and from each serf up to the lord. Products change hands by virtue of pre-established social links, by virtue of the hierarchical and organic relations among serfs and the lord. Social custom, in other words, prescribes what the inferiors produce, how much they are expected to produce, and how much of it shall go to the superiors, how much and in what proportion things change hands among them, and what the superiors’ obligations are in terms of providing the conditions of social stability and peace. This is a direct and immediate command relationship. The serfs do not “exchange” their product for the lord’s protection; a certain amount of the social product is assigned to him as their social superior which enables him to perform his superior function. His superiority is based upon the higher function he performs. To hand over the product is not part of an act of economic exchange, but an act of service to a superior and to society.

In the diagram for the market society we have a series of separate workers at the bottom. At a second, superior level, we have the market, which according to Marx constitutes its own enigmatic and independent world of commodities. In the market, the direct social bond among producers in feudal and communal societies has been dissolved and been replaced by the cash nexus. Each of these individuals is now separate, formally free and equal to all the other individuals. The worker can no longer be made to work inside a command relationship. She can only be expected to produce on the basis of the wage contract into which she has “freely” entered. She can always choose homelessness, begging, disease and starvation. In appearance, at least, and in ideological terms, all of these workers are separate. Each experiences himself as independent (owing and being owed nothing), and engaging with others only upon the basis of free exchange, to wit: his labour time, or as Marx was to clarify his labour-power for a certain amount of time, in exchange for a wage. Labour power is the commodity, and the only commodity which he has at his disposal for sale on the market in return for a wage. His wage he uses in turn to purchase other commodities. This represents a society in which, as Marx points out at the beginning of Capital, the wealth of society (including the labour power of its members) presents itself as a vast collection of commodities.

According to Marx, in getting rid of direct dependence on each other, and in permitting all things to be treated as commodities, the members of the market society come to be actually dependent and to experience themselves as dependent upon an impersonal, inhuman set of forces belonging to the world of things. Things are experienced as the fundamental source of movement and action. And persons are in turn experienced as things. The human world of subjects free to fashion their own circumstances is thus “inverted”. The most important element of this strange topsy-turvy world of our experience in the market society – and this pervades Marx’s “economic” analysis – is that the human, social capacity of labour manifests itself as a thing, a commodity.

Labour is, of course, still social. It has in fact become more social than ever before. People are more interdependent in their productive activity than they ever have been before, under feudalism or primitive communism. What someone makes tomorrow afternoon in a shop in Helsinki can turn up as a component of a gadget in Tokyo that is sold two weeks later in an outlet of a global chain in Dubuque. But labour and the wealth it produces are not experienced or understood as social. Wealth and labour are not experienced as one of the forms relations among human beings takes. The social character of labour is, in a sense, transferred, “alienated” to the world of commodities and relations among commodities. Our human relations with others (whom we may or may not ever see) are experienced by us as belonging to things, as a characteristic of commodities, i.e. their “exchange-value”.

In people’s experience, they are not so much dependent upon one another, or bound to one another, so much as they are all independent of each other but individually and collectively subject to the world of commodities. They do not experience the social character of labour, even though they know that the value of the world of commodities is itself constituted by human labour power. They do not experience their interdependence as producers and as agents. What they experience is their separate dependence upon things, upon the fluctuating forces of the world of commodities, the fickle fortunes of the market, on costs and prices, on supply and demand… all of which are, in turn, manifestations of mysterious and impersonal forces. This sort of distortion in experience arises, according to Marx, in a society in which people are linked to each other exclusively or primarily by exchange. It is not produced by the greed of the capitalists, although capitalist greed is essential to keep it running. And in fact the world of commodities is not an objective phenomenon like the weather, or Newton’s laws of motion. It is the world we have produced by coming to relate to each other through exchange.

The commodity society also produces the separation of politics and economics. Economics appears to go on in a world of its own. The state can “intervene” or “interfere” with the economy, or not. But whether it does or does not, as long as it is a capitalist society, changes nothing essentially. And, in fact, this apparently independent world of commodities is not accidentally in parallel to the apparently independent world of the state. “The economy” and “the state” are two, linked, illusory or inverted worlds generated by capitalist social relations.  Both the economy, in which everything becomes exchange relations among commodity owners, and the state, which we’ve already seen as the alienation of communal life, are necessary to reunite and regulate the individuals who have been separated. In Cohen’s words, “since the elements to be united are initially severed, they come to be joined indirectly, on the alienated plane, in illusory form.” In the market economy we have the illusion of dependence on things; in the state we have the illusion of solidarity and community through dependence upon the impersonal and disinterested rule of law.

This illusion of solidarity is reinforced in a thousand ways every day, especially when we tap into the never-ending all-enveloping flow of “information” dispensed freely by the mass media. “We” are all crazy about our hockey team, or our darling pop-singer who is making it abroad; “we” are negotiating with the Russians, “we” are concerned about unemployment… The constant reiteration of the symbols and grammar of nationality and of common problems produces an illusory feeling of solidarity or community. But the concrete reality is substantially different. The illusory independence and power of the world of commodities is reinforced every time I might look at a colour television set and say to myself that “it is worth $800”. It seems as though the value, $800, were just as much an intrinsic quality of the television as its size, shape, colour or other sensory qualities or uses. We relate to ourselves in the same way, in terms of our “earning power”, i.e. what we are likely to be paid for the sale of our capacities on the market. Self becomes a thing, a thing that has a value determined by its price. To live in this hallucinatory, inverted world of commodity fetishism is not to realize that the “value” of a thing is actually your relationship to the people who participated in its production.

Instead of directly experiencing a cooperative relationship with the people who made this or that item, and for whom you might also be doing something, you are aware of relationships among commodities, enigmatic and fluctuating interactions among the most abstract quality that could possibly be attributed to anything at all.

Marx’s essential discovery, then, is that the “law of value” which runs through capitalist society – the law that the exchange value of a commodity (including human labour power) is proportionate to the average socially necessary labour time necessary to produce it – that this law is not a timeless law of “economics”, but a hidden and masked political and social relationship, a variable human power-relationship. In taking the law of value to be the law of productive-distributive activity as such, people in capitalist society deny their own authorship of  (and, one should say responsibility for) the socio-historical world they inhabit. Thus the notion of the fetishism of commodities translates the philosophical theory of alienation into economic terms (and translates economics into alienation). People – individuals, groups and finally the whole society – alienate their own powers (including the power to be consciously social) to an objective, alien world of forces apparently beyond their control.

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