That Old Capitalist Religion

Patrick Murray’s essay in Culmination of Capital lays out sixfold aim of Marx’s Capital:

  1. to present and examine in the form of a systematic dialectic the social
    forms constitutive of the capitalist order, beginning with the
    (generalized) commodity;

  2. to expose capitalist society, in its enlightened secularism, to be
    idolatrous and fetishistic;

  3. to reveal that the social egalitarianism of capitalist society harbours
    class domination;

  4. to examine and critically evaluate representations and theories of

  5. to show how capitalist social forms naturally exude ideological representations; and

  6. to reveal capitalism to be a historically specific mode of production
    whose contradictory dynamics point towards its eventually giving
    way to a historically new mode of production. 

Aim number 2 is of particular interest. Marx the master of suspicion unveils a hidden religious impulse within an economy supposedly operating by the secular motives of self-interest and profit.

Marx was hardly the only nineteenth-century theorist to use the concept of “fetish.” Freud wrote of sexual fetishes, and the word had wide currency within the burgeoning literature of anthropology. As William Pietz explains it (“The Problem of the Fetish, I,” RES 9 [1985]), the word “developed from the late medieval Portuguese feilico, to the sixteenth-century pidgin Fetisso on the African coast, to various northern European versions of the word via the 1602 text of the Dutchman Pieter de Marees” (7). In its medieval usages, it referred to witchcraft, to the objects and persons who participated in magic (5). The fetish is an object on which desires are fixated, and which thus appears to possess super-physical powers. For the European theorists who used the term, it meant a “fixed power to repeat an original event of singular synthesis or ordering” and was “an object established in an intense relation to and with power over the desires, actions, health, and self-identity of individuals whose personhood is conceived as inseparable from their bodies” (10).

Marx begins Capital with a discussion of “commodities,” which, he claims, are more mysterious things that we might image. Paul Cobben (Value in Capitalist Society) argues that Marx, following Hegel, perceived a “discrepancy between objective world and subjective conviction,” and this discrepancy led Marx to describe the commodity as transcendent, “sinnlich-übersinnlich”: “On the one hand, the commodity is
a natural thing, a sensually given unity, but, on the other hand, it is a metaphysical, supra-sensual thing: it is a substantial identity, an objectivity which
dominates everything and which is served by the person as his idol. For ideological consciousness, the commodity is the objectively given world, the world
which creates the dollar signs in his eyes and which totally dominates him. As
a natural thing, the commodity participates in a huge collection of natural
things—the mass of commodities” (14–15). The commodity fixes the imagination and desire in the same way that, according to anthropologists, a fetish might do in a primitive tribe.

For Marx, the commodity appears to have these powers because it embodies, or is productive of, a double value. On the one hand, there is the natural use value; a bed is useful for sleeping, shingles for repairing my roof. In a capitalist system (so Marx argues), the bed isn’t merely produced for its use value, but has an exchange value in relation to all other commodities on the market; one bed might, for instance, be equivalent to five chairs. This exchange value has little to do with its actual use. Money is still more flexible in exchange, since it becomes the measure of the value of all other commodities. Gold doesn’t have much immediate utility at all, little use value, but it has enormous value for exchange. The exchange value of both commodities and money is a purely social reality, not inherent in the thing itself or dependent on the actual properties of the thing. But a commodity, especially the meta-commodity of money, seems to have a power beyond its lack of material usefulness. That power is the source of the fetishism of the commodity and the fetishism of money. 

As Murray summarizes the argument, Marx moves “from the double character of products in the characteristically capitalist form, that is, from the use-value and exchange-value of the commodity, to the necessity for one commodity’s value to appear in the body of another commodity (exchange-value as the necessary form of appearance of value), to the ‘fetishism of the commodity,’ and to the money fetish” (252–3).

Murray argues that fetishism organizes the entire argument of Capital, in two great sweeps. “The first explains how and why the product of the capitalist mode of production is a fetish. This circuit investigates the commodity and its twin fetish, money. . . . The second explains how and why the three factors of the labour process in general (raw materials, produced means of production and living labour) become fetishes inasmuch as each of the three appears to be an independent source of value and therewith of revenue (rent, interest and profit of enterprise and wages, respectively)” (249). Marx explicitly describes both the commodity and the factors of production as “fetishes,” and uses the religiously-charged phrase “Trinity Formula” to describe the second. Together, these forms of capitalist fetishism constitute the “religion of everyday life” (250).

If this is true, it is revealing: Marx claims to have discovered religious experience and motivations, a “mystical” presence, at the core of a supposedly secular economic realm. Marx deals a powerful blow to secular political economy. But it’s a surprise only to those who begin from an assumption of secularity, who expect they will discover a mysticism-free zone deep down. And it’s “illusion” only on the assumption of Marxian materialism. If we assume instead that every object is more than itself, mysticism is woven into the nature of things. If we assume that poiesis, production, simply is a reflex of God’s creativity, then every commodity is going to have a bit of a glow.

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