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commodity fetishism

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The mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the investment of labour that went into its production. Karl Marx created this term, borrowing the notion of the fetish from anthropology, where it refers to a sacred or symbolic object that according to its worshippers has supernatural power. For example, in certain indigenous cultures in Australia it is believed that a ‘witch doctor’ can point a bone at a person and thereby bring about their death—such a bone is a fetish. Commodities are fetishes in this same sense because by power of our belief in them we create an obscure hierarchy of value that rates a diamond over fresh water (to use Adam Smith's famous example from The Wealth of Nations (1776), in spite of the fact that the diamond serves little or no purpose. By the same token, as with the witch doctor's bone, it isn't clear to the people who believe in commodities why they should believe in them, nor how they came to occupy the position they presently enjoy. Diamonds might be valuable because they are rare, but that does not by itself explain why society should choose to prize them so highly. Not only are there similarly rare items that might have been seized upon, there is no intrinsic reason why rarity itself should matter as much as it does. Commodity fetishism can also be understood in terms of social relations: neither the producer nor the consumer of a commodity has a necessary or full relation with the other. The fetishization of the commodity shields us from alienation. Sigmund Freud's use of the term fetish, which occurs later than Marx's, also borrows from anthropology. Freudo-Marxian theorists like Slavoj *Žižek have combined the psychoanalytic definition of fetish with Marx's own to create a theory of the commodity that uses the notion of fantasy to explain its peculiar power to deceive. Commodity fetishism is an important concept in Marxist and so-called post-Marxist theory: It is central to the work of György Lukács, particularly his concept of reification; it is also central to the work of Guy Debord, who famously argued the final form of the commodity would be the image; and it is central to Jean Baudrillard's theory of consumer society.

Subjects: Social sciences

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