Commodity Fetish

“We are atomized individuals wandering through a world of objects that we consume. When we buy a commodity we are just having an experience between ourselves and the commodity. We are blind to the social relations behind these interactions. Even if we consciously know that there is a network of social relations being coordinated through this world of commodities, we have no way of experiencing these relations directly because… they are not direct relations. We can only have an isolated intellectual knowledge of these social relations, not a direct relation. Every economic relation is mediated by an object called a commodity. The theory of commodity fetishism is central to Marx’s theory of value and it’s one of the things that sharply distinguishes him from his predecessors. Adam Smith and David Ricardo both held that prices were explained by labor time. But Marx’s value theory is much more than a theory of price. It is a theory of the way the social relations between people take on material forms that then act back upon and shape these social relations. Labor takes the form of value embodied in commodities. Money price becomes the universal expression of this value. The pursuit of money as an end itself dominates society. Means of production become capital. Money, commodities and capital, as representatives of social value, become independent forces in their own right out of the control of society. The law of value is the law of these forces. Attempts to exert some control over these forces through monopoly or the state always become enmeshed in the social antagonisms of value.”

In this age of commercialization and branding, it does appear as though Marx’s theory of commodity fetish holds true. People do save up in order to buy a certain brand of shoes, handbags, and clothing when there are similar products by not so well known brands because we believe it helps us fit in with a group of friends, or makes us feel good about our financial ability. However, I would like to dwell more along the lines of how the material forms shape social relations, given the premise that we confer social power to commodities.

First of all, the issue of branding and class: there appears to be an implicit relationship that if I am able to afford a certain brand, say a Coach handbag, I belong to a higher social class than another person who has a handbag of no particular brand. Is this really true for our society today? How does the “exclusiveness” of my possessions portray my social status? In my opinion, while material forms do play a part in shaping social relations, the mass manufacturing of goods that diminishes the exclusivity of a product causes the lines between branding and class to be blurred. From an economic point of view, companies want to make profit – that’s how they survive in the market. Hence, it would make economic sense for them to sell last season’s collection at a lower price rather than store it in a warehouse. This is why we have year-end sales or factory outlet stores; but does the value of the product change depending on when or where it is bought? Apparently not, since it is the brand that is of value and shapes social relations. In this particular scenario, it seems as though the material is no longer able to shape class and hence social relations distinctly.
Secondly, for the premise that material forms shape social relations, there is an implicit statement that requires all individuals of the community to understand the value of the material form in order for it to be places in a suitable social context. I would then like to question the validness of this implicit value judgment: can the understanding of the value of the material good be homogeneous across the entire society? If a person places a different value on a good, does this mean that his idea of societal relationship is flawed? Is he then, even part of this society?

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