My take on Commodity Fetishism

Marx’s concept of Commodity Fetishism has to be one of the most spectacular mindfucks I’ve ever experienced in my life, simply because of how basic and  everyday commodities (or in basic terms, shit that’s for sale) are. It’s always nice to discover something new, and it’s especially nice to realize you’ve been thinking a certain way without even realizing it. It’s like what Zizek says about unknown-knowns: it’s the things that you don’t know that you do know that keep you trapped. When understood, you walk away with this inverted understanding of daily capitalist life, as all of your upbringing under capitalist society is put on its head. It’s one of my favorite mindfucks.

Let’s say you need a new pair of shoes, and you go to the shoemaker. The shoemaker knows you. He knows you, your personal tastes, your whole family, your family’s personal tastes what you’ll need the shoes for, what the latest trends are, what materials the shoes are made out of, how all of these things will influence your social standing, the way that you walk, what other people will think about your shoes, etc. And not only does he know all of those things, but he knows how each of those things will influence the other things he knows, for example how the use of a certain type of material will influence the way that you walk, what your parents will think about the style of shoe, you get the point. He is an absolute master of his trade. He promises you to take all of these things into consideration when making your shoes, and he does. He gives you the best damn shoes you’ve ever seen. In order to make sure that he can continue to do this type of work in the future, what do you give him?

Let’s just now shift over to a capitalist universe. The shoemaker is still there, you’re still there, and you’re just about to give him something so that he can continue to do this work for other people. What do you give him? Cash. Simple answer, cash. And then you walk away. Does this seem strange to you at all? If the answer is no, then we need to explain the process of creation better.

In order to make the shoes, the shoemaker draws resources from the environment, draws inspiration from his years of experience living in society, assembles the resources in a culturally appealing way, and hands them to you. By giving him money you’re not returning any of those things to him, not directly at least. The money isn’t inspiration, the money isn’t the years it took get his trade down. It’s entirely unconnected and unrelated from the process of creation itself. He could buy the leather and rubber with the money you gave him. That would mean he would have to go to another leather and rubber master, give them more of these slips of paper that are also disconnected from their work in order to get what he needs. And here we come across one profound realization of Karl Marx: everywhere where man takes cash, man experiences alienation from life itself.

And just to bring the alienation point home, I’d like to engage in an exercise with you right now and ask you to look around wherever it is you’re reading and try to guess the price value of the objects around you if they were suddenly sold in a tag sale. You can imagine it. That bowl will go for a dollar each, that pair of shoes for five dollars, you get the idea. There’s nothing “one-like” about a bowl, or “five-like” about about a pair of shoes. The shoes and the bowls just exist, and we imagine “one” or “five” and then implant our ideas of what they might be worth onto those items. Again, there’s nothing one-like or five-like about these items.

Y’all ready for this? This is where Marx tells you that capitalist society is just as insane and strange as all of those “primitive” people of the world capitalist society takes a dump on. Marx says where else in the world do we see behavior like this, where man puts value onto an object and suddenly that object really does appear to have those values? The Third World, bitches! He cites an example of a tribe who, when their child gets sick, they put them in front of a totem pole, and by the belief that they actually put the child in front of a god and asked the god for forgiveness, the child becomes healed. Just as blocks of inanimate wood become gods, green slips of paper and cotton becomes an invisible life force that unites all objects. And that’s why it’s called commodity fetishism, because ordinary objects are taking on religious qualities.

And after all of this, you can nice and neatly wrap up this whole system of thought into two words: false consciousness. As long as we genuinely believe that objects have numerical value and that money is the holder of that value, we are not thinking freely.


On the 4th of July

I never really wanted to be a radical. I don’t think anyone wants to come to the conclusion that the world they were brought up in and made to feel comfortable in is unsustainable or a downright lie. Children want to grow up in a world where their parents are wise, adults enjoy living the lives they do, and that this is a place where people want to be. I grew up in an upper-middle class white family. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. When my Mom was being raised they would do their best to put the past behind them, and enjoy an America where the kids could go to school, make friends and wear pretty dresses, but the war took their innocence from them. As much as they tried to bring their children into a world without terror, they couldn’t escape what they actually felt about the world, that it was never actually safe. I think the concept of safe might have died for them. I never met them. My mom didn’t know her mother either, she committed suicide when she was ten. The theme of survival hardened in my mother, without someone to take care of her she picked up the reins of life herself and made life her bitch. My mother is the most accomplished person I’ve ever known, but deep down I know that it comes from a fear of helplessness and losing the people you love.

When she was raising me she pretty much did what her parents did, and to the same effect: idyllic household where nothing is wrong, where everything goes wrong. Having a daily routine to her and for us was pacifying to her. She’d wake up early in the morning to go to the gym, come back, pack our lunches, drive me and my sister to school, go to work, come back, make dinner, watch the news, read the newspaper, and then go to sleep. She couldn’t escape her past no more than her parents did, and these rituals could not be disturbed without her becoming very angry. She was so wedded to this idea of idyllic stability and peace that she didn’t really see us as people, almost as symbols for the story of her life first and foremost before we were people. Yeah, Indra’s Net, happens to everyone. (It’s a Zen Buddhist concept that people are so steeped in their own thoughts that whatever they take anything to be says more about their outlook on it than it actually says anything about it. So people think plastic cups are garbage when they’re done using them, in reality they are engineering marvels made from the liquefied bones of dinosaurs, processed through an industrial Odyssey just so they could be used for some cookout and then thrown away.) But this was a delusion, when I started to develop and get into situations that didn’t jive with this cookie cutter format of life she imagined, it took a lot more work to for her to accept it than for somebody else. Other parents, I imagine. And my Dad? He was escaping his own trauma. I think the two of them got married to keep each other safe. It’s really sweet when I think about it, but combined the effect they had on me was ruinous. Because they couldn’t acknowledge their own trauma they didn’t have the hearts to acknowledge other people’s trauma, so when it happened to me I left was completely alone in the world.

I’m wondering whether or not I should go full circle now and tell you the full story of why I have the political opinions I do. The blog that I made for myself is on how politics informs myself and how myself informs politics, so you might be able to see how important the subject is to me. I guess you can say that I see ‘what happened to me’ on a larger scale throughout society, or another way of putting it is that the social rules that justified my suffering still go unspoken and unrecognized. But even this is not good enough, because what are my political opinions? I think so far you guys have a very flimsy understanding of who I am and what I think, I think so far the blog posts I’ve made could come from another college lefty howler, out to be angry at something just to be angry at something. I guess I should lay out my opinion package. I would really like to use bullet points here, but honestly, I’m glad enough I have this platform that I don’t care enough about prettiness.

* We live in a hierarchical, abusive, non-compassionate society that assumes that the world is fair, and what happens to people is mostly the result of their actions. In the human world, white men are considered the embodiment of everything that’s best, followed by white women, black men, black women, and all of the people of the world fighting to climb up a social pyramid. Regarding the ecosystem, this pyramid still exists. After all of the people of the world come the mammals, after the mammals come the reptiles, after the reptiles come the insects, and after that come the plants, those suckers who just let other creatures eat on them all day long. (Hell, I even heard my boss said the other day that we add value to trees, the oxygen making, food and shelter providing miracles, by turning them into paper!) And after that, inanimate objects like rocks, dirt and water.

* Human beings are compassionate, but what keeps us from being compassionate to other humans and the planet as a whole is a blockage in that compassion, what I call societal callousness. The organizing principles of society are blocking us from seeing what we are doing to each other. In the human world, we are so driven by the idea that money is value that we refuse to see value in things that don’t have a monetary value. It’s this reason why we have an ecological crisis, blindly destroying things we don’t see as valuable, like the Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet. So in this case the monetary value restricts our ability to see only to that which makes money. This callousness extends from human to human and human to the natural world. This is a false consciousness as Marx would put it. It’s not just simply a lack of empathy that we just need to overwhelm with love and sunshine and happiness, the problem is that we’re not often aware of this gap between us and the real world. Capitalism is more than just a system that turns people against each other, its functioning requires philosophical premises that need to be brought into the light, critiqued and dismantled.

* Responses to economic, political and environmental crises NEED to think deeply about the massive systems of thought that block this compassion, otherwise we risk falling back into our delusions of what ‘ought’ to be rather than what is. These crises are philosophical in nature, and the problem of the world is that we are mistaking what we think reality is as reality itself.

* But what we need is not just a response to these pyramid, hierarchical systems but a complete inversion. Value does not come from above, it comes from below, from the earth, to the plants that make the raw materials possible, to the workers who put society together, to the engineers, scientists and dreamers who imagine new ways to create, to the poets and philosophers who make it all worthwhile, and then FINALLY to the ‘survival of the fittest’ people at the top, convincing everyone that they are worthless unless they are like them.

I mean I am 24 and don’t know shit but if I need a epistemologically mindfucking to get a more refined theory of power and change I’ll let you know, but this is what I got so far.