It is natural to correlate fetishism with a sexual connotation, but when Karl Marx discussed the fetishism of commodities, he was instead dictating people’s mysterious notion to enter a social contract of anthropomorphizing commodities.
Marx in The Commodity asserted that there are two distinct states of value that a commodity holds. Commodities can have use-value (example: corn, iron, leather), which is the qualitative value that is realized in use or consumption and is contingent on “the physical properties of the commodity” (Marx, 126). Contrastingly, exchange-value is the quantitative relationship between exchanging use-values of one kind with use-values of other kinds of commodities, and is entirely relative and based on social contracts intrinsically “characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values” (Marx, 127). Use-value is more valuable the more I want to consume it; the exchange-value is valuable insofar as I have more of the quantity to be exchanged on the open market, and more valuable the overall community desires it. The classic example is choosing between a bottle of water or a bag of diamonds. Granted, choosing the massive exchange-value of the diamonds is socially acceptable, but should you be stranded in a desert, the use-value of the bottle of water would exponentially trump the socially fabricated value of the diamonds. The value of any commodity is ascertained in a balance between these two values.
Marx asserts that the value of commodities is initially and contractually determined by labour—the externalization of human value. In a modern-day capitalistic society, money functions as a “universal equivalent” and obfuscates the value of labour by tying commodities to a socially agreed-upon price in the open market for exchange. Marx believed that this money form conceals private labour’s social characteristics and the social relations between congealed individual workers’ labour-time.
One such commodity that I have a deep-rooted passion for is playing cards. As a close-up magician, I often find myself using $4 Bicycle stock playing cards purchasable at any Target; yet, I have quite literally collected bookshelves full of playing cards worth thousands of dollars, with individual packs of playing cards value at anywhere from $10-$500+.
These playing cards that I have decided to keep forever unopened and held in acrylic cases hold exponentially greater exchange-value prices within the niche community of card-collectors. The increased exchange-value of this commodity is created by commodity fetishism. As Sue Collins in her article Nike Shoes would say, I have quite literally projected a “magical” attribute onto these playing cards, and displaced value as a product of labour and ultimately made the value of these rare cards abstractly inherent. This abstraction is ultimately a social one, and can be caused by a multitude of factors, ranging from conspicuous spending, to branding and marketing, to conformity.
The abstraction of value through commodity fetishism is what allows for the exploitation of labour in a capitalistic, exchange-based society. Businesses can produce products at use-value and profit based on the (sometimes extreme) differences in exchange-value. Sue Collins mentioned Charles Kernaghan’s documented example of horrendous labour-exploitation by Walt Disney’s usage of sweatshops: Disney sold Pochahontas shirts at an exchange-value price of nearly two-hundred-fifty times the labour-value salary the workers received.
This exploitation of labour shows the significant disparity between production and consumption. The sweatshop workers do not care what design needs to be sewn onto the shirt. As well, a great majority of all the popular playing cards I purchase are printed in the same process and by the same company, USPCC. Thus, my willingness to pay exponential multiples for certain decks is entirely dependent on my acceptance of commodity fetishism. The intensity of my abstraction of value and desire to displace the labour-value—and in my instance, completely ignore the use-value consumption aspect as a collector—is what propels the exchange-value price. A layperson who is ignorant of the design quality, story-telling, exclusivity, and significance of these cards would ultimately place these luxury playing cards on the same value of any stock playing cards. The layperson removes the skewed exchange-value imbalance and merely accepts the use-value of intended use. Concurrently, communities that do not understand the meaning of a Supreme Logo, or recognize the Disney characters, would most certainly not fall prey to commodity fetishism.
Commodity fetishism distances the consumer from the production of the commodity. In the world of exchange-value capitalism, prices are skewed, labour is exploited, money, which holds no use-value, is accepted as a universal commodity, society will anthropomorphize and continue to nurture value into products. Regardless of how explicit the equivalent use-value of playing cards is, luxury playing cards will continue to speak to me as a superior, more attractive, desirable product. I appreciate picking my own cards.