Commodity Fetishism and Technological Solutions

A common observation among my group of friends is that “you can’t apply a technological solution to a social problem”; broadly speaking, that if a problem is fundamentally caused by human behaviour, technology can provide, at best, a temporary fix, until humans modify their behaviour to bypass the solution. Technology can’t, in many (perhaps not all) cases, address the fundamental causes of problems. And yet, somehow, it’s a recurring theme; a lot of security-related technology seems to fall into this category, for example.

Completely unrelated to all this, or so I thought, I’ve been trying to get my head around Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish:

As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

(Capital, vol. 1, p. 165, Penguin edition; emphasis mine.)

What I understand him to be arguing, in short, is that (in capitalist societies) people tend to see the value of a commodity as being, somehow, a property of that commodity or based on a relationship with other commodities (e.g., money), when in fact it’s a result of the relationships between the people who own commodities.

So I started to wonder if this could apply much more broadly; isn’t (for example) the Thatcherite–Reaganite refrain of There Is No Alternative rooted in the same assumptions? That is, it’s based in the assumption (or the assertion) that economic conditions are an unchangeable fact, the result of unquestionable laws of nature (a relationship between things) and not a result of decisions made by human beings who benefit from this state of affairs rather than the alternative, and who can impose this state of affairs  on others (a relationship between people).

You can see this at work in any discussion of the markets, which are (we are expected to believe) mystical forces uncontrolled by human desire, rather than some thousands of people around the world acting in their own interests; one memory of this that stands out in my mind was the days of discussion between the 2010 general election and the subsequent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The markets are unhappy. No mention of the people behind the markets, the people who wanted the best outcome for their own investments at the expense of other possible outcomes; simply an angry god, beyond human understanding or control, that must be appeased at all costs.

That seems to me to be what we’re seeing (perhaps at a more abstract level) with the current general election. Labour is unelectable because that’s the way things are. The Conservatives (or, “Theresa May’s Team”, as I hear they’re rebranding themselves) are strong and stable leaders because that’s the way things are. These assumptions appear to be entrenched even within the Labour Party, whose right wing insists that Corbyn will be (or already is) a failure because he fails to accept this framing. They’re reflected both in governmental economic policy (which can’t consider anything but cutting taxes and reducing expenditure: there is no alternative) and the priorities of every company attempting to use new technology to ‘solve’ a problem rooted in socioeconomic conditions (AI being the latest buzzword, but not the first).

Too often I think the first problem faced by the left is simply accepting the framing of problems that’s defined for us by the right, rather than redefining it in our own terms and with our own priorities. More and more, I’m starting to realize that this framing influences more aspects of society than just politics (and, after all, it’s to be expected; the separation of ‘politics’ from society and the economy is artificial). Dozens of startups spring up with a ‘clever’ algorithm or app to ‘solve’ problems facing employers or landlords (for example); the problems are simultaneously assumed to be unavoidable facts of life that are, nevertheless, fixable with a monthly or yearly subscription. This is doubly incorrect; on the one hand, the problems exist only because of the current socioeconomic structures, as a result of human actions that shape and are shaped by those structures; on the other, they’re unsolvable as long as those structures exist.

Of course, I don’t entirely know where I’m going with this; I don’t even know if my interpretation of Marx here is at all relevant, and I certainly don’t know how socialists might be able, in practice, to push back against the illusion that right-wing economic dogma is a law of nature. But asking the correct questions might be a starting point.

Book: The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002)

The aim of this book is to place capitalism into historical context: a social system that was brought about by specific conditions and historical trends. Particularly, it is concerned with showing that capitalism was not simply an expression of natural human tendencies; to “truck, barter, and exchange”, as Adam Smith claimed and (according to the author) many even on the left tend to accept unquestioningly. Rather than being an opening up of opportunities, by removing ‘unnatural’ feudal restrictions, capitalism represented an imposition of market imperatives.

The central claim of the book is that capitalism arose in England not due to mercantile activity in the towns or market activity in general (both of which had existed for centuries) but due to the extension of market relations to a new context, namely, relations between agricultural landlords and tenant farmers. She describes this as part of a shift from “extra-economic” relations (the political, juridicial, and military means by which the aristocracy, for example, extracted its income from the lower classes) to economic means (rents and wage-labour based in property rights). In doing so she also examines the development of Enlightenment conceptions of rights and property that served to reinforce this tendency.

For me, the really interesting aspect of this book wasn’t the detail of the argument (although this was informative in itself) but the challenges to assumptions, the refusal to accept the naturalization of capitalism (“assuming the very thing that needed to be explained”). In particular it challenges even left-wing assumptions about the ways in which economic development occurs, rejecting an oversimplified system of stages through which all societies progress. The subject of this book is further examined in the author’s other works: The Pristine Culture of Capitalism examines the differences in development out of feudalism between England and France, and Democracy against Capitalism develops the project of historicizing capitalism, while Citizens to Lords and Liberty and Property trace the history of political thought in its social context.

On Capital

I initially intended to write a review of Capital, but in the process of doing so it turned into something more like an attempt to explain some of the basics of Marx’s theory. So, here it is. Note that it’s based on my own fairly limited knowledge and interpretation, so it’s entirely possible I’m mistaken about any or all of it; writing/explaining is as much a learning exercise for me as anything else, as well as an attempt to improve my writing regardless of the topic.

What even is Capital? It’s often also known, even in English, by its German title, Das Kapital. It was the life’s work of Karl Marx, and only the first volume was published in his lifetime; another two were published posthumously, along with various collections of his notes and drafts.1 But still: what is it? A handbook for revolution and mass murder, as some would claim?2

It’s actually more like a literature review (hence the subtitle, A Critique of Political Economy). Marx sets out to analyze contemporary economic theory in order to expose the assumptions underlying the capitalist system. Part of how he does so is by taking their claims at face value and trying to figure out what such a world might look like. In effect he’s constructing a model and tweaking one variable at a time to see how it alters the system as a whole; in this volume, it’s production, whereas in later volumes (which I haven’t read) he looks at exchange, and so on.

He begins by defining a commodity: a thing that is produced with the intent that it be exchanged for something else (as opposed to a thing that is produced with the intent of using it). Therefore, in turn, a capitalist society is one in which the majority of production is the production of commodities, unlike for example feudalism, where although commodities might be produced, most people are producing things for their own consumption or their family’s. These first few chapters, says everyone who’s ever read it, are the hardest, as Marx talks about various seemingly-basic concepts of value in seemingly-excessive detail, building up concepts like money on top of that. In the process, he traces back the fundamental concept of ‘value’ to its source: human labour, or at least, useful labour.3 How do we figure out what’s useful? Well, it’s useful if people are willing to pay for it. Of course, you can’t know that beforehand; this is an early example of a dialectical relationship, meaning what might now be called a feedback loop — two factors that constantly influence each other and find an equilibrium. (Also one of the most overused words in Marxist political writing.) So, the basic value of an item comes from the labour that went into producing it, but you can only figure out what that value is by the social processes of exchange.

From here Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism: the habit people have of thinking in terms of relationships between objects (i.e., the belief that the value of a commodity is somehow a property of the object itself) instead of relationships between people (i.e., in terms of who produces the commodity and how their labour is valued). This in turn is sort of a fundamental metaphor for the Marxist way of looking at the world: there’s underlying societal relations, which are specific to this society at this time and place, but they’re obscured by other ideas like the belief that they’re natural and that society always has been and always must/will be this way.

After Chapter 3 things get a lot more clear, particularly because, having set out the basics, Marx is now able to use some real-world examples. In particular, Chapter 10 is significant, because it’s here that he starts getting into the concept he’s most known for — class struggle. Chapter 10, ‘The Working Day’, discusses how, during the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution,4 it was necessary to change the way people thought about time — to take people who mostly judged time by the sun (which, naturally, varied by season), and impose a mental discipline where arriving and leaving work at a particular time actually matter. This matters more than you might realize, since it’s all part of the idea that capitalism (actually, every mode of production) developed over time, through a process of conflict between differing economic interests. In Marx’s model, laid out in the preceding chapters, technological advancement happens over a period of time, changing the relationships between groups of people (in the case of capitalism, leading to the rise in importance of cities and city-based business owners, the ‘bourgeoisie’, and their workers, the ‘proletariat’). This in turn brings the newly-ascendent class into conflict with the old ruling class (the aristocracy, for example), until the ascendent class is able to win political rights for itself (in Britain marked by the increasing significance of Parliament after the seventeenth century and decreasing power of the monarch). In turn, the development of industry leads to the increased number and importance of the urban proletariat, who then come into conflict with the bourgeoisie who own the factories. Over a period of decades during the nineteenth century, this conflict took the form of a fight for increased rights in the workplace — from limiting the hours a worker could be expected to work, and the age they can be expected to start work at, to the provision of education.

That will take you to about a third of the way through. Over the rest of the book, he looks at things like technological progress and how that relates to the relationship between worker and employer, wages, unemployment (and how unemployment is actually necessary and desirable from the perspective of an employer, in order to keep their profits up), and a host of other things. Then, in the final sections, Marx attempts to show that capitalism arose not as a ‘natural’ process, but as a result of violent upheaval (land enclosures, monastery dissolutions, vagrancy laws, etc.) and in particular colonization — something that’s often forgotten amidst the claims that capitalism rewards merit and hard work.

So, as for a review? It’s really difficult to ‘review’ a book like this — on the one hand, it’s probably the most significant political text I’ve ever read; on the other, it’s not something that I’d recommend others to read without caveats, since it’s pretty tough going. It is interesting, though, and feels a lot more relevant than, for example, J S Mill; despite being 150 years old, a lot of the topics Marx addresses are still very relevant. I also can’t overlook the helpfulness of David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I read alongside Capital itself chapter by chapter; it’s very useful for giving modern examples, and for providing clarifications so that I could be reasonably certain I was along the right lines before going on to the next chapter. (He also has a series of video lectures, upon which the book was based, if that’s more your thing.) There are better (and shorter) introductions to the various aspects of Marxist theory (Value, Price, and Profit gives a decent overview of Marxist economics; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a good overview of Marx’s theory of history) but Capital draws them all together and goes into greater detail on everything.


  1. Actually, he apparently wanted to dedicate his life to writing about the French author Balzac, but wanted to get this Capital thing out of the way first; he never did. 
  2. Although usually the title of ‘most evil book in history’ is, for some reason, given to the Communist Manifesto, a much shorter book written twenty years earlier, during the political upheavals around 1848. It is, as its name suggests, more like a political party’s election manifesto — except the elections were actually continent-wide uprisings. 
  3. This is a refinement of an earlier theory of value, from a guy called David Ricardo; most of the refutations of Marx’s theory of value actually ignore his refinement, and refute Ricardo’s theory instead. 
  4. Incidentally Marx was one of the first to use the phrase ‘industrial revolution’.