For several theorists, commodity plays a central role in the vibrant and dynamic interplay of the market. It is for this reason that commodity is regarded with such importance and value by many economic thinkers. Consequently, the legendary and highly influential Karl Marx was also cognizant of commodity’s crucial part in society. However, compared to his contemporaries, Marx provided a new approach on how commodity should be understood.
Rather than focusing on how commodity dictates the underlying operations and mechanisms of economy, Marx simplistically pertained to commodity as an object or material which embodies certain characteristics which are highly capable of addressing specific needs and wants (Morrison 84). Under this context, the term “specific” becomes the operative word. This is primarily due to the fact that commodities, in general, possess two characteristics which can be carefully categorized into: use value and exchange value (Morrison 84). Commodities have a use value since they have a unique and distinguished purpose that cannot be found in other objects or commodities, for that matter. Pencils, for example, are employed for writing purposes. Pencils have specific functions that cannot be possibly provided by other materials such as cars, clothes etc. On the other hand, the usefulness of an object or its use value must be readily quantified. Commodities’ measurable aspect then pertains to exchange value, which is highly manifested and experience in capitalistic communities. Exchange value is primarily based on the quantitative relationship of commodities to each other. It is overtly felt in capitalistic settings since such environments offer avenues for exchange. The existence of varying markets in capitalistic societies allows consumption and therefore good exchange (Morrison 90).
Commodity exchange, in as far as Marx is concerned, is highly instrumental in determining the commodity’s “value (Morrison 88).” Under this context, it is important to note that the process of “exchange” literally diminishes or to a certain extent—erases the significance of labor. Different levels of skills and abilities are required to produce certain goods or products. However, distinctions are disregarded when labor, regardless of the differences in the needed skills, are measured and determined via the time allotted in the whole production process. Thus, in this scenario, Marx examined two labor types. These are concrete labor (Postone 194) and abstract labor (Postone 195). Briefly speaking, useful labor refers to the qualitative process of transforming a commodity into a highly functional material (Postone 194). Relatively, abstract labor is determined by the amount of time spent in production (Postone 195).
As capitalistic societies continue to rely on varying exchange systems, this has a corresponding effect on the manner in which individuals interact with each other. Relatively, commodity fetishism takes place. Commodity fetishism occurs when certain materials or objects tend to acquire a high degree of value (Morrison 98). There are certain commodities that possess high value despite of their apparent lack of usefulness. The manners in which individuals assign value and importance to certain commodities is the offshoot of the continuous exchange that occur that occur in the marketplace. This basically explains Marx’s argument that the exchange process affects not only commodity’s nature per se, but it also transcend into the communities’ social relations. Fetishism connotes the awakening of one’s “desires (Morrison 97)”. Therefore, in the context of commodity fetishism, some commodities tend to ignite the individual’s desire for a particular good, not because it is useful. Rather, it is more on the corresponding impact that the acquisition of such commodity may produce. More often than not, commodities, which are deemed valuable and important by capitalistic societies, generate feelings of accomplishment or they tend to increase the individual’s position in the social, cultural, economic and political ladder.
To further illustrate this matter, branded perfumes, perfectly fit as examples. Literally speaking, perfumes, as commodities, are not as useful as other goods like food and clothing. Although, in way or another, the sweet scent that perfumes provide is somehow important to some individuals. However, it can be observed that a large number of the population, if given, the chance would splurge on branded perfumes, since its acquisition and ownership, for that matter, may (improve) the individual’s status quo. This scenario inevitably exemplifies the creation of false needs in capitalistic communities (Lury 68). Basically, commodity fetishism serves as a potent tool for capitalists to protect their class. They must readily impose and dictate individuals to value certain objects and materials to ensure the continuous flow of the exchange system. Consequently, as the ruling class manages to dominate society’s economic structure, they can extend their grip to the community’s social, cultural and political aspects
Morrison, Kenneth. Marx, Durkheim, Weber. London: Sage Publications Ltd., 2006
Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996
Poston, Moishie. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993