I've occasionally been asked by friends, comrades, and various kindergarten classes to try to explain terms which Marx used in relatively easy-to-digest ways -- one of the things that I've been called upon to explain from time to time is Marx's use in Capital of "the fetishism of commodities" -- usually this has me grappling for my copy of Tom Bottomore's "Marxist Dictionary" to look up the dozen-or-so rather dry paragraphs contained therein.
However, yesterday I ran across a copy of a play by Wallace Shawn (who also did "My Dinner With Andre") called "The Fever" that provides a much better explanation than I ever have -- I've enclosed it for the enjoyment of all...
- Tony Tracy
On The Fetishism of Commodities (Wallace Shawn)
One day there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep -- Volume One of *Capital* by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. A joke? Serious? And who had sent it? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. The beginning was impenetrable, I couldn't understand it, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers -- the coal miners, the child laborers -- I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly. How angry he was. Page after page. Then I turned back to an earlier section, and I came to a phrase that I'd heard before, a strange, upsetting, sort of ugly phrase: this was the section on "commodity fetishism," "the fetishism of commodities." I wanted to understand that weird-sounding phrase, but I could tell that, to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change.
His explanation was very elusive. He used the example that people say, "Twenty yards of linen are worth two pounds." People say about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things -- one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money -- as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat's price comes from its history, the history of all the people who were involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all of those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. "I like this coat," we say, "It's not expensive," as if that were a fact about the *coat* and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it, "I like the pictures in this magazine."
A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history -- the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between all those people -- the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer -- who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked.
For two days I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around me. It was a strange feeling. Then on the third day I lost it, it was gone, I couldn't see it anymore.
Wallace Shawn, *The Fever* (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), p. 19. Read at The Brecht Forum's Manifestivity celebration (in honor of the Communist Manifesto at 150) in NYC.