The Fetishism of Commodities

Tony Tracy tony at
Wed Feb 14 12:02:29 MST 2001

I've occassionally 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


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

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

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.

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