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Why do Marxists use the terms fetish(ism), reification, alienation and what do they mean?

The process of turning goods and services into products to be sold masks the true value of humanity, explains the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

THE answer to the first question is — because they sum up what are sometimes difficult concepts to understand or explain — which (in answer to the second question) is what we’re going to try to do now.

Let’s start with alienation. Alienation is the way that humans are distanced and estranged from what should be (and sometimes once was) theirs — their work, their skills, their time, their humanity, themselves, often through its appropriation by others.

The concept appears first in Marx’s early writings, in particular his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (which were unpublished in his lifetime).

Alienation is the general condition of human estrangement under capitalism and, for Marx, manifests itself particularly in work.

Marx saw work — labour — as central to all societies (a view at that time shared by most economists, but developed by Marx in his later writings, particularly Capital).

Workers are alienated from what they produce, which they have little control over and which is appropriated by their employer, from the process of production, which is likewise dictated by others, and from their own labour which is not voluntary but enforced through the need to secure a wage.

They are alienated from themselves as during work they “belong” not to themselves but to their employer and their personality is denied full expression. They may also be alienated from other workers, with whom they compete for employment.

Marx said: “The worker feels himself outside his work and in his work feels outside himself.”

Today alienation in work is arguably greater than when most workers were directly exploited in the factory or in the field.

The Uber driver or Deliveroo cyclist may “produce” a satisfied customer but they have little direct contact with their real employer, who extracts the profit.

And workers in a call centre, in scientific research or in financial services may not even be aware of what the ultimate product of their work is.

Reification — literally: “making into a thing” is a particular form of alienation whereby human products or relationships are conceived as existing independent of humans.

The simplest example — for an atheist, anyhow (and most Marxists are atheists) is God. As Marx observed: “Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.”

God — all gods — are a product of the human brain and of human history, yet those who believe “God” exists, generally present her as if the relationship was the other way around.

The concept of reification applies to many areas of life, including work. Your job, if you have one, is often presented as a “thing,” an entity in its own right.

Yet in reality it is a process, the outcome of a set of social relationships that are historically determined and could be organised differently.

Fetishism is a term borrowed from anthropologists who applied it to the belief that an object — including a human-made object — can have supernatural powers or can confer such powers on its owner.

Marx adopted the term to refer to the way that social relationships are perceived, not as relationships between people or classes, but as economic relationships involving money and commodities, independent of human agency and historical development.

Commodity fetishism is a specific form of reification whereby social relationships are symbolised or expressed by the relationships between traded objects.

Marx drew an analogy with “the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.

“So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities.”

The concept of commodity fetishism is important because it describes the way that capitalism transforms the use-value of objects and their exchange-value in the market into supposedly objective, absolute qualities that are perceived to have intrinsic value.

Gold or works of art are classic examples but today the same fetish attaches to share values, stock-market indicators and other non-physical entities.

Money in general “seems to have the magical power to increase itself at a compound rate. I do nothing, but my savings account grows.”

It acts as a mask behind which the reality of human labour as the source of value is hidden.

Today “the main arbiters of capital accumulation have little or nothing to do with actual production.” Particularly since the abandonment of the “gold standard” (the theoretical convertibility of the US dollar to gold) in the 1970s new “financial instruments” and forms of “fictitious” capital (the subject of another answer) have emerged — effectively fetishes of fetishes.

The three concepts — fetish(ism), reification and alienation — are helpful because they help us understand and challenge things that are often taken for granted or seen as somehow “unchangeable” or even “natural.”

They are a subset of a more general argument related to human nature and the relation of humans to nature, issues which we unpick in other answers.

Marx used a phrase which is generally translated as “species-essence” to refer to human nature — an essence which (as another answer has argued) is not fixed eternally in the genes, but varies historically in space and time.

Alienation prevents the realisation of the true potential of that essence.

Alienation doesn’t just relate to production. As a previous answer (on shopping) has argued, commodity fetishism is central to capitalism.

Alienation is a pervasive feature of modern capitalism and is arguably greater when people feel powerless to change things and greater still when we fail to see the need for change.

It is a key, central issue for any vision of socialism, especially in a world where many go hungry both in the so-called “rich” countries as well as in the “developing” world.

“Compensatory consumption” — the purchase and ownership of luxury or “non-essential” goods that serve to reduce the subjective feeling of alienation that many feel in their everyday lives is essential to capitalism, promoted by lifestyle advertising in the ultimate interest not of human well-being but of corporate profit.

Those goods range from luxury yachts, through to the latest smartphone to cheap fashion items, often produced by exploited workers under appalling conditions and sometimes at enormous cost to the environment.

And of course racism and other forms of prejudice against “other” groups is itself a form of alienation, serving to hide people’s sense of their own (individual or collective) subordination and at the same time concealing the social (class) origins of that subordination.

For many, a major attraction of socialism is the way it offers the prospect of reassessing our priorities about the way we live. And challenging alienation doesn’t need to wait until we have achieved socialism.

Marxists emphasise the way that humans — individually and collectively — can begin to comprehend and realise their potential through “self-actualisation” — understanding their position in history and society, challenging the constraints which prevent them from realising their potential and engaging in action to alter things, learning more about themselves and their circumstances (and becoming more free as a consequence) in the process.

So alienation can be counteracted (for example) by environmental activism, collective action to secure better wages, greater control over working conditions and, beyond this, by political struggle for a better world.

The next Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School course of four meetings on an Introduction to Marxism starts on Tuesday June 25. For more information visit www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/education.

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