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Capital & Class
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DOI: 10.1177/030981680207600106
2002 26: 145 Capital & Class
Samuel Knafo
The fetishizing subject in Marx's Capital

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145 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
The fetishizing subject in
Marxs Capital
Samuel Knafo
It is fair to say that the duality of worker as object of
capital and as living creative subject has never been
adequately resolved in Marxist Theory. (Harvey, 1982:
apital has always occupied a special place amongst
Marxs works. Praised by many as his ultimate
achievement, it has also been the object of criticism
by many historically-minded Marxists for falling into the
theoretical whirlpool of Political Economy in presenting a
reied and ahistorical conception of capitalism (E.P.
Thompson, 1; Negri, 1;). The ambivalence towards
Capital reects in part the diculty of articulating Marxs
historicist sensitivity and his analysis of the law of value.
The former can be found in his historical works starting in
the late 18(os, where class struggle is identied as the driving
force of history (Communist Manifesto, the th Brumaire,
or the Civil War in France); whereas the latter is often
associated with Capital and seen as an analysis of the general
or inherent laws of capitalist development. This diculty
has left many Marxists defending the analysis of the inherent
logic of capitalism, while clinging to class struggle as the
driving force of history. But their inability to clearly articulate
both has vindicated criticism concerning the deterministic
tone of Capital and its reductionistic treatment of subjectivity
(Laclau and Moue, 18; Castoriadis, 1;6).
Capital & Class #76 146
To avoid falling into the trap of determinism, Marxist
economists have insisted that Capital only presents the
general nature of capitalist development, which must be
substantiated with historical material. This tendency to
formalize the distinction between objective and subjective
features of capitalism has resulted in the increasing separation
of the logic of capital, as depicted in Capital, from history.
Such a solution, however, is far from satisfactory and remains
viable only as long as the concrete historical analysis is
postponed. Ultimately, either class struggle determines
history, and there can be no space for an inherent logic of
or it is the logic of capitalism that plays the
active role in structuring society, leaving class struggle with
a limited inuence in a process already given by the
structuration of capital (Gunn, 1z).
By contrast, it is argued here that Capital cannot be
reconciled with Marxs historicist preoccupations if the issue
of the subject is not directly addressed. Once the primary
focus is placed upon structures or laws, it becomes impossible
to explain how subjects can instantiate and act according to
a previously dened objective dynamic. Hegels dialectic
oers a solution to this problem because it rejects the subject/
object dichotomy. For Hegel, subjectivity constitutes the
starting point of any understanding of objective forms. More
precisely, objectivity is the form taken by subjectivity; the
form through which subjectivity is projected onto the world;
how it relates to the world. Such a romantic notion of the
subject is very close to Marxs conception of labour. In
Marxs work, labour represents an open, creative and
subjective force; the process by which people relate to nature
and give form and meaning to it. The purpose is to discern
how subjective expression comes to be historically channelled
into constraining forms such as wage labour. Hence, labour
represents more than simply workers in factories. It concerns,
more broadly, the social forms that constrain the capacity of
individuals to express their subjectivity and the ways in which
these forms are invested and reshaped by social struggles
around power.
The aim of Capital, I argue, is to uncover the process of
objectication of subjectivity, not the logic of motion of
objects (i.e. capital). It sets out to examine the process by
which subjectivity acquires form (e.g. how becoming a worker
qualies our experience of the world and the way in which
we act upon it), instead of a process by which the subject is
147 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
reduced to a form (e.g. how being a worker determines how
we will act in the world). Capital is fundamentally about the
nature of agency in capitalism, the specic form that
subjectivity takes in capitalism, which in turn conditions the
nature of social interaction, and thus class struggle.
This argument is set out in three sections. First, I discuss
the limits to economic conceptions of Capital that view
Marxs work as one concerning the logic and circulation of
value. By economic conceptions, I mean those approaches
that attempt to uncover causal relations regarding the
production and formation of value at the abstract level of
theory. Such approaches, I argue, cannot articulate their own
economic theory with history, and necessarily share a
reductionist conception of agency. In the second section, I
present the dialectic as a means to problematize subjectivity.
This leads to a re-examination of the appropriation of Hegels
dialectic by Marx. The third section lays out a conception
of value as a structure of signication that organizes the way
we rationalize capitalism. Fetishism is integral to the
working of this structure of signication because it shapes
consciousness in specic ways. It explains how value appears
as a thing, a product of labour, when it is only the form of
appearance of a social rationality that is structured by
production. This leads to the conclusion that the law of
value is not the result of class struggle (i.e. a product of
alienated labour), but the expression of class struggle (the
form in which it appears).
The economic perspective of Capital and its
The passage on fetishism in Marxs Capital is one of the
most debated amongst Marxists and their critics. Its
importance lies in its explicit treatment of the nature of
subjectivity in capitalism and the role of agency within what
many call the logic of capital. For Marxist economic
theorists, this passage has often served to anchor their
attempts to uncover the structural tendencies of the circulation
of value inherent in capitalism. This is because objective
processes that are determined prior to concrete and historical
actions of subjects raise the problem of their own enactment.
How can subjects instantiate a logic which transcends them?
This denition of a logic, created prior to what people do in
Capital & Class #76 148
history, generates a problematic trade-o since theory is
explanatory only to the extent that people do not alter
substantially what was dened abstractly. In other words,
the theory has explanatory powers only if it considers subjects
to be reied by the logic of capital. The less subjective factors
interfere with the logic, the purer is its unfolding. Fetishism
constitutes a useful link to justify a Marxist economic
discourse about the world. It is said to reect the fact that
capitalist structures tend to reduce people to interact
rationally and instrumentally according to this logic.
Fetishism, as the internalization of the logic of capital,
becomes a convenient way to equate subjects with objects
and enables us to move further in the study of the inherent
laws of capital.
However, once this move is made, it becomes impossible
to bring back the subject. Marxist economists might argue
that the logic of capital is only partially instantiated, because
people are only partially constrained by economic
imperatives. But without concretely dening what it means
to be partially determined by the logic of capital, any theory
of the logic of capital will stand only as long as subjectivity
is excluded. Of course, in the last instance, when we come
back to history, subjectivity is supposed to re-enter the
picture. But when a second narrative is introduced to account
for subjective factors, the problem initially excluded
resurfaces: how does human subjectivity relate to the logic
of capitalism? Considered from the start as two dierent
perspectives, there is simply no way to articulate one with
the other. In the end, this double narrative leaves subjective
and objective factors side by side by qualifying the analysis
with levels of analysis, or by distinguishing between inherent
tendencies or the pure logic of capital and historical capitalist
forms. This defensive formalism only holds as long as the
historical work is postponed.
The separation of theory and history places Marxist
economists in an awkward position when they wish to address
historical developments, such as changes in social structures
or specic developments in dierent capitalist societies. In
order to use the logic of capital to explain history, Marxist
economists must accomplish a quantum leap between theory
and history. They must assume some kind of analogy between
the pure logic of capital and history in order to make possible
the analysis of history from the viewpoint of theory. Theory
is said to grasp the principal causal dynamics that structure
149 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
history, to uncover the tendencies buried under the
complexity of history. Never, however, can there be any real
articulation within history of the mechanisms laid out in
theory. This produces both a deterministic conception of
capitalism and a voluntaristic view of social change.
Deterministic, because our understanding of capitalist history
is provided by the relations that are drawn from an abstract
logic dened outside of history, which is only later somewhat
adjusted according to class struggles. Class struggle is given
only a marginal role in history that is dened by the extent
to which it resists the capitalist process of structuration that
is dened, in itself, a priori of the actions of subjects. This
view is also voluntaristic since it considers change as a move
out of the dynamic of capitalist structures. Agency, then, is
thought in terms of the capacity to escape historical structures
in order to act outside of them. Its constitutive power can
never be thought of in historical terms because it presupposes
moving out of the structures that dene an historical
condition. It is impossible then to have a theory of the
subject, because subjectivity is dened precisely by the fact
that it escapes the grasp of theory.
The dialectical structure of necessity in Hegel and
The concept of commodity fetishism can suggest an
oversimplied solution to the subject/object dualism. Many
Marxists now recognize that appearance is not simply a veil
that mysties people, making them unaware of the true
nature of their social relations (Rubin, 1;z; Geras, 1;z;
Dunayeskaya, 1;). Rather, the logic of capital exists
precisely because relations between people really do take
the form of relations between things. Fetishism points to
the fact that objective laws exist only because they are rooted
in subjective experiences that are constitutive of these laws.
But this explanation is not sucient to escape the problem
of the relationship between subject and object, nor is the
idea that both are mutually constitutive. What is required is
an understanding of how it is possible to speak of the world
without reproducing this dualism. Hume oers a version of
this problem in his critique of induction where he challenges
the possibility of grasping necessity itself. For Hume, there
are no sucient instances of an event that ensure its future
Capital & Class #76 150
occurrence. Thus we cannot draw necessary causal laws from
our experience or from history. Similarly, Kant considers
the problem of how rationality rooted in subjective experience
can relate to the world.
For him, the issue is more complex
than simply acknowledging the subjective roots of experience.
Rather, it consists in specifying how subjectivity, often
associated with freedom and arbitrariness, can serve as a
foundation for understanding objectivity and necessity.
In this debate, Hegels originality lies in his rejection of
the traditional conception of necessity. Both Hume and Kant
rightly stress the diculty in identifying a source from which
to derive causal necessity. The problem is intractable as long
as we maintain a conception of necessity that is rooted in
terms of causality. To circumvent this diculty, Hegel
reformulates the problem of necessity as pertaining to the
structuration of consciousness. For him, necessity lies in
the way in which we invest the world with meaning.
The Hegelian dialectic
Hegels dialectic constitutes an attempt to historicize
consciousness. His project has often been readily dismissed
as idealist, leading Marxists to generally misunderstand the
signicance of Capital . According to the or thodox
interpretation, Hegel took the wrong object as the starting
point of his dialectics. His focus on the Spirit would be
responsible for seeing the subject as the creator of the world.
By contrast, Marx and the materialist tradition would assert
that subjectivity reects the material conditions in which
subjects live. This inversion would imply that the Marxist
dialectic moves away from the proposition that objects are
reections of subjectivity, instead contending that subjects
are reections of objective relations.
This, of course, makes
it hard to escape the conclusion that subjects are completely
determined by objects, or more specically, by the logic of
Since the early and problematic conceptions of authors
such as Engels, Lenin or Plekhanov (see Colletti, 1;), the
theme of Marxs inversion of the Hegelian dialectic has
undergone important developments. However, the
fundamental aw of these early views continues to persist in
contemporary Marxist accounts of the dialectic, albeit in a
more subtle way. The source of the misunderstanding lies in
the idea that the Hegelian dialectic constitutes a method
151 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
that can be applied to a dierent object than consciousness.
For most Marxists, the dialectic constitutes a method to
uncover the internal contradictions explaining the movement
of self-expansion of a system. According to this view, the
dierence between Marx and Hegel would only be one of
object, not of epistemology. Whereas Hegel uses the dialectic
to trace the development of the Geist, Marx would apply it
to the development of Capital (Murray, 1; Smith, 1;
Reuten, 1). The problem is that this assertion rests on a
reductionist and formalistic view of the dialectic. It assumes
that Marx reappropriated the dialectic as a formal logic that
could be dissociated from the purpose behind its design.
Without accounting for the reasons the dialectic could deploy
its features, these Marxists are not only incapable of justifying
the use of the dialectic,
but miss its crucial signicance.
The dialectic is not a method applied to subjectivity by Hegel;
it is the nature itself of subjectivity. Hence, the method cannot
be disentangled from its object (i.e. subjectivity) because
the purpose of the dialectic is precisely to see them as one
and the same.
By contrast to this perspective, Hegelian scholars often
point out that the originality of Hegels dialectic lies in the
fact that it is not a method in a traditional sense, but
represents the structure of consciousness itself (Stewart, 18;
Taylor, 1;; Kojve, 1(;). Its purpose can only be
descriptive, not deductive. Whereas Plato views the dialectic
as a method that allows to grasp the essence behind
appearances, Hegel insists that the structure of consciousness
cannot be uncovered by moving beyond the appearances that
constitute the experience of subjects. There is nothing behind
appearances. Essence lies only in the way in which
appearances relate to one another (Fraser, 1;). Through
these relations, appearances take on a dierent meaning as
our knowledge of them is mediated by our understanding of
other experiences:
Hegels method is radically undialectical. It is the
experience of consciousness itself which is dialectical and
Hegels Phenomenology is a viable philosophical
enterprise precisely to the extent that it merely describes
this dialectical method [].
The intelligibility of the entire phenomenology hinges
upon a rm grasp of what phenomenal experience,
Capital & Class #76 152
knowing as it appears, consists in. In the rst place,
phenomenal experience is more restrictive than other
philosophical experience because experience, to be
described as a phenomenon, must appear. Thus mere
intentions, capacities, dispositions, meanings, and so forth,
do not, as such, constitute experience. [] For Hegel,
on the contrary, genuine experience is a self revealing
process and philosophy is conceived as a description of
this process, not as a systematic analysis of a presumed
relationship between meanings and assertions. Experience
is constituted by an act: something which is actually said
or done. Experience is therefore revealed in language
and work and what is revealed can be described. (Dove,
18: ;-8)
Instead of deducing the nature of the world out there, the
Hegelian dialectic aims to specify the nature of our own
experience. More specically, it represents the mode through
which we invest meaning in the world, the way we relate to
it. A central premise here is that one cannot understand objects
without problematizing the subject that relates to them. The
meaning of things lies in the process itself through which
we invest meaning. The dialectic is thus a means to
problematize the object from the position of the subject. It
posits that our knowledge of both is always socially and
historically situated. It must be clear then that reality, or more
specically capitalism, does not in itself follow a dialectical
dynamic. This starkly contrasts the prevailing view amongst
Marxists that the dialectic constitutes a non-linear mode of
thinking, enabling us to grasp the interconnectedness between
causes and eect in the world itself (Carchedi, 11) Rather,
the use of the dialectic is justied because it represents the
way by which we rationalize the world.
The originality of such an approach to subjectivity tends
to bewilder readers. Whereas traditional thinkers explore
subjectivity by trying to recreate the process of thinking,
Hegel looks at subjectivity in the way it projects and inscribes
itself in the world. Hence, Hegel speaks about subjectivity
when he describes objects and facts. In the same way, Marx
traces in Capital the social rationality of capitalism, thus
qualifying our understanding of it. If Marxists generally miss
the subjective dimension of Marxs argument, it is partially
because this social rationality is grasped through its
manifestations, and not through the intentions of subjects.
153 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
These preliminary remarks help us look more directly at
the dialectic itself. The heart of the dialectic lies in Hegels
theory of alienation. For Hegel, alienation consists of the
tension between experience and our ability to rationalize it,
in order to render it meaningful (Hegel, 1;;). This tension
manifests itself in the form of contradictory experiences.
Contradictions are subjective symptoms that question or
challenge subjects and direct their consciousness towards
the sources of their alienation. However, in their attempts
to render their reexive understanding adequate to their
experience, alienated subjects tend to approach contradictions
as if they existed in the world itself. They do not realize that
contradictions do not exist in the world but only in the way
subjects invest the world with meaning.
Hence, people look
for something in the world that can account for the
contradictions they perceive. Resorting to external forces
(gods, myths, laws, human nature, etc.) becomes an easy
way to explain, but also justify and naturalize, the tension
that people experience. This, however, only creates further
contradictions as subjects mystify the signicance of their
contradictory experiences.
To clarify this, we can imagine in our life having only
seen the colour white. If this was the case, it would not only
be impossible to describe what seeing white as an experience
is, but also of even realizing that there is something that
could be seen as white. White could not be dierentiated
until it would be contrasted by another colour such as black.
For Hegel, negation is central to the process of rationalization
because things do not have meaning in themselves. Their
properties do not exist apart from the way they relate to
each other. Investing meaning requires us to distinguish
things or categories. This cannot be done by comparing
dierent properties on their own terms. For example, white
cannot be compared as the quality of white in itself to black
as the quality of black in itself. The only way to relate two
objects in order to distinguish them is through a negation
(e.g. white as the category of white is not black).
is the only way to perceive and posit dierence.
However, if negation is the precondition for meaning to
exist, the process also produces the impression that what we
observe can be isolated from its context. The contradiction
creates the impression that white really exists in and of itself.
Only with a second process of articulation can we move
beyond this direct appearance in order to mediate our
Capital & Class #76 154
understanding of it. This requires the realization that the
negation by the second term represents, in fact, a dening
feature of the rst (e.g. the black we see qualies our
experience of the white) (Hegel, 1;;).
Here, the
appearance of a contradiction, or a negation, is the basis for
signication to emerge. This leads us to a synthesis, but not
in terms of an absorption or subsumption of dierent
principles or categories within a more encompassing one.
Rather, it is the realization that both can only be two sides
of the same process of rationalizing the world. This helps
specify our knowledge by shifting the problem to a third
term that makes the rst two more specic (e.g. the notion
of colour as something that species the fact of seeing white).
But this third term only helps us to further specify our starting
point, not transcend it.
This leads Hegel to a radically new conception of
necessity, no longer found in causal relations, but in the way
these relations appear to us (Hegel: 16). Objects are never
independent from us. They only represent the form of our
projected subjectivity.
If we often feel compelled to act in
certain ways, it is because our imagination is trapped in
alienating ways of rationalizing the world: ways that paralyse
us into thinking that we are victims of events beyond our
control. Alienation leads us to vest the responsibility of our
lives in external forces. Expanding on this understanding of
alienation, we can say that constraints are created by the fact
that our practices must be meaningful for others. The problem
is that people tend to believe they must follow specic
practices, as though social recognition depended upon these
practices themselves. Hence, necessity is simply the
misrecognition that the constraints we face depend upon
the way people socially recognize practices as meaningful,
and not in any obligation to follow a specic practice. There
are innite ways of being meaningful, yet people still revert
overtly to the specic practices they have learned. Hence,
social imperatives are experienced as the causes of what we
do, when they are only pressures to meet certain conditions
(i.e. remain competitive, pay for subsistence). They do not
determine how we will meet them.
People miss the full signicance of this move when they
simply claim that necessity and agency are two sides of the
same process, or that laws perpetuate themselves because
people are not conscious of their own agency. Hegels
dialectic shows that, although we render the world meaningful
155 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
to us, the world, as the colour white, is never grasped in
If we perpetually try to make sense of our experience,
it is because something always escapes our understanding
of it. The world never presents itself in a positive form, but
only in the form of negations that are not meaningful in and
of themselves. They become meaningful only when we invest
them subjectively with meaning.
For Hegel, subjects and objects can be intertwined only
because the objective is the constructed dimension of
subjectivity. They are not the mutual product of one another.
The world is not a collection of objects, nor is the world the
realm of the objective; one that presents itself in the form of
objects (even if we say that this is only so because of our
subjectivity). Objects, rather, constitute meaningful
constructs, means by which we specify the nature of our
experience of the world and render meaningful the negations
we perceive. Hence, subjects and objects can be interrelated
because they both relate to subjectivity, to our experience
and understanding of the world. But the world as such always
escapes our subjectivity and it is the experience of this
distance that is constitutive of subjectivity.
For agency and necessity to co-exist, necessity must
already be a moment of agency, one by which subjects project
meaning in the world. This inverts the traditional terms of
the structure/agency debate where the problem revolves
around dening the liberty that agents have within structural
constraints. This, it has been argued, can only lead to a
dualistic perspective because both are dened in opposition
to one another. Cleverly, Hegel turns the problem around
to examine how objective necessity is constructed as a
subjective experience. Many appraise this in idealist terms,
but only because they misunderstand that necessity pertains
to the meaning of experience, not the world itself.
The dialectic is a practice of freedom striving to overcome
alienation. It constitutes the form through which we delve
into the structure of our subjectivity by specifying the nature
of our experience of objects. Freedom depends on the
capacity to account for experience without depending on
exterior forces to explain or appease the tension we endure.
It represents the capacity of subjects to position themselves
in a way that allows them to be responsible for themselves.
This depends on people gaining greater awareness of the
signicance and implications of their actions. By describing
experience rigorously and systematically, the dialectic allows
Capital & Class #76 156
to rationalize and understand the determinants of experience.
The dialectic can thus only be descriptive since emancipation
requires a reexive knowledge that avoids any recourse to
external forces.
The essence of contradiction lies in the way contradictions
specify experience.
Hegel demonstrates that consciousness
is both an historical and social form. First, consciousness is
inherently structured by its historical trajectory. Since the
features we identify depend on distinguishing dierent states,
conditions or experiences, the knowledge of changes within
a historical trajectory are means by which we can specify
our experience. These changes are constitutive of forms of
consciousness. They help to distinguish the relative nature of
things by using dierent individual or social experiences in order
to grasp the necessity contained in the way they appear to us.
This allows the dialectic to problematize objective forms that
peopl e constr uct as natural and necessar y. Secondly,
consciousness is social, because the signicance of individual
experience always goes beyond what the individual
consciously perceives. Alienated subjects cannot directly
perceive how they participate in a wider process of
structuration of meaning. Hence, by articulating dierent
dimensions of experience, the dialectic traces the context
that frames a social rationality and how people participate
in it.
Marxs critique of the Hegelian dialectic
This examination of the dialectic oers hints at understanding
the real signicance of Marxs analysis of capitalism. It should
be clear by now that the dialectic cannot serve as a means to
uncover the pure nature of capitalism, but can only serve
to socially and historically specify the meaning of capitalist
experiences. For Marx, the dialectic represents a means to
move beyond the apories of political economy by providing
the means to historicize problems raised by political
economists and recast them in terms of alienation, not in
terms of exploitation, as it is often done.
What about Marxs criticism of the dialectic? The problem
for Marx does not lie in Hegels inversion of subjects and
objects, but in the f act that Hegels conception of
consciousness is not specic enough. In Hegel, alienation is
a necessary step in the process by which subjects acquire
157 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
self-consciousness. Hegels purpose is to explain the advent
of consciousness itself. He locates the source of alienation
simply in the incapacity of subjects to understand the form
of their experience as a historical and social creation. Even
if the emergence of consciousness in Hegel is seen as a social
process (i.e. it is pursued socially, not just individually),
objective forms are experienced only as natural limits that
confront subjects. There is nothing that bars the subject from
nally arriving at this understanding once it has gone through
its dialectical development. By contrast, Marx insists that
limits are social experiences. Alienation is not only linked
to our incapacity to understand the process by which we
rationalize the world, but to the fact that the projection of
subjectivity in the world is intrinsically tied to the
structuration of power.
Consciousness is always shaped
by the social relations through which it emerges. Since social
relations structure forms of power, necessity appears as a
constraint imposed by society. Alienation results from the
tension between social imperatives and individual desires.
It refers not only to the fact that our subjectivity is trapped
in objective forms independent from us, but more specically,
that subjectivity is constrained by objective forms which seem
to be imposed on us by others. Hence, subjectivity itself is
experienced as a contested terrain framed by social relations.
This leads Marx to focus on the problematic of class
consciousness in order to enquire into the ways people
conceive of power in a given society.
Social relations are not the infrastructure reected in
consciousness, but rather constitute the mediating relations
through which consciousness emerges. This is why Marx
refuses to start from the empty category of being, instead
opting for the socially specic form of consciousness in
capital: the commodity and its value. This point is often
misunderstood by Hegelian Marxists who stick to the formal
features of the dialectic. It is common, for example, to see
scholars argue that Marx starts from the category of value
because it is the most undened category (Reuten, 1;
Sekine, 18(; Arthur, 1). But this view is profoundly
ahistorical. The starting category cannot be pure, such as
Being in Hegels logic; it can only be already historically
situated. The fact that it is undetermined has nothing to do
with a particular inherent feature of a category such as value.
It is only so because the dialectic starts from something that
has not yet been specied.
Capital & Class #76 158
Value and the form of capitalist rationality
In contrast to an economic perspective that starts from an
abstract and seemingly objective logic in order to examine
how it is played out in history, I have defended an historicist
perspective which seeks to understand how subjectivity
projects itself and creates objective forms in the process.
Social and objective forms do not determine how subjects
act, but instead qualify their actions. In other words, it is not
that objective forms determine the choices people make, but
they do structure the meaning people impart upon their
experience of social relations. Here, the conception of
structures (or, more adequately, forms) shifts from a causal
perspective that emphasizes the role of structures in
producing certain eects, to a perspective that sees structures
as mediating forms in social relations, which make agency
appear in specic ways. If, to paraphrase Marx, people make
their own history but not under the condition of their own
making, it is because the social meaning of their decisions
always partially escapes consciousness and have unintended
Where an economic understanding of the
development of capitalism focuses on an abstract and general
logic, the historicist claims that our comprehension of social
developments can only be historical in its form. It can only
specify what has already occurred; specify how what people
do is meaningful in their specic society.
Marx opens Capital with the commodity, because
commodities are the objects that mediate capitalist social
relations. The commodity represents the category that
grounds the way in which people rationalize their experience
in capitalism. Hence, the meaning we invest in the world is
structured by the way we value commodities. This explains
why Marxists see the source of necessity in capitalism in the
process of valuation.
Marxist economists take necessity to be a fundamental
tendency of capitalism that takes the form of the logic of
value. This tendency they claim, is compatible with the view
that agents make their own history. One corollary of this
position, which is of particular interest here, is the idea that
value possesses both an objective and subjective dimension.
On the one hand, value is presented as the product of labour.
This rmly grounds necessity in capitalism in the process of
production. On the other hand, value is also presented as
the form of appearance of the product of labour. This qualies
159 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
the decisions people make and shapes how a society
recognizes something as valuable. The result is that the form
of appearance (i.e. value) seems to explain the nature of
social recognition and how this recognition structures the
objective process of accumulation whose essence lies in the
production process. Yet it is never clear how value can be
produced and be at the same time recognized socially.
It would be possible to imagine a society in which people
have the desire and the proper information on labour
processes to evaluate commodities according to labour time.
But nothing in capitalism accounts for how people could
consciously validate commodities in terms of labour. In the
absence of any instance or institution that ensures that value
reects necessary labour time, the production of value by
labour cannot be assumed to be the basis of social recognition.
To claim otherwise is to ignore the reality of fetishism.
The logic of value can only constitute a necessity in the
sense in which Hegel presents necessity. In other words, the
logic of value is not a causal dynamic, but constitutes a means
to specify the form of agency in capitalism, how it appears
to people. The form of social recognition in capitalism thus
qualies the process of socialization in distinctive ways. To
grasp this, we need to understand how labour comes to be
evaluated in abstract terms.
Fetishism and the social recognition of value
Marxs discussion of fetishism aims to clarify the conditions
that qualify this recognition. The general mistake of orthodox
readings of fetishism is that they conceive of fetishism as
the reduction of subjects into objects. Fetishism becomes,
then, the way to close the issue of subjectivity when it serves,
in fact, as a starting point to pose the problem.
But fetishism
can also be understood as the inversion by which people
attribute a force to things, as though these things acted
according to their own will. Fetishism constitutes an alienated
means for people to rationalize their experience.
characteristic of fetishism is not the reication of people,
but the alienated nature of their experience.
In Marxist terms,
fetishism relates to the way dierent classes rationalize their
place in capitalism and think about how their power is structured.
We can thus distinguish two moments, or features, of
fetishism in capitalism.
First, fetishism refers to the
Capital & Class #76 160
inability of people to grasp the social signicance of their
actions in the market. This implies that people do not
recognize value as an expression of something such as labour.
But how do people organize their exchanges according to
value when they do not understand what it expresses? As
Marx says value [...] does not have its description branded
on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour
into a social hieroglyphic. (1o: 16;) This is not, as Elson
contends, simply because we do not hold the appropriate
information about the labour process that produced a
commodity (18;), but more fundamentally because the
signication of what we do depends on what all other
participants will do (McNally 1). The result is that social
value might appear to be something autonomous, existing
and acting on its own and apart from the will of any particular
agent. But a market is still simply the reection of the acts
of all its participants, not something that acts by itself. We
only experience it as an external force imposing upon us
the conditions through which we interact with others.
Secondly, the opacity of the commodity shapes the ability
of people to make sense of a system they can never fully
grasp, and in which they can never directly know the actual
consequences of their actions. This condition leads people
to make sense of their experience through formal
abstractions, seeking in the recurrence of social patterns the
causal laws that govern their existence (Clarke, 11). Such
abstractions are not false in themselves because they rest on
observations of social dynamics. But the incapacity to specify
the historical and social determinants that underpin these
observations induces people to emphasize the wrong issues.
By trying to deduce laws from their direct observations,
people tend to lend an autonomy to phenomena they observe
when, in fact, these phenomena are only the manifestations
of social struggles. In attempting to rationalize this
experience, the tendency is to explain the process by focusing
on the mediator, in this case the commodity and money.
Value as a structure of signication
The fetishized form of value rests on the belief that value
has positive content, which lies behind its expression in a
price. Marxists widely recognize that there are no intrinsic
properties in things, or in their use value, which can account
for the quantitative form that value takes.
This generally
161 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
serves to ground a theory in exchange value by rejecting
use value. But exchange value cannot reect a quantitative
property embedded in a commodity. In searching for this
positive content behind prices, we are necessarily led to
essentialise and locate value as a product that lies beyond
peoples agency and precedes social validation. The process
of valuation, however, is not the validation or the realization
of a value already given. It shapes the content itself that it
evaluates. Because value structures the form of meaning we
ascribe to our social relations, value must be problematized
as a structure of signication. It is a structure that makes
social actions meaningful to others in particular ways.
As any structure of signication, valuation depends on a
process of dierentiation instead of on a process of production.
Value is not something contained within an object (i.e.
embodied labour) but a meaning. It represents a means of
making sense of commodities by comparing them to others.
To say that value is subjective does not mean that it is
arbitrary, but simply that it expresses dierences among
commodities, and not an intrinsic and positive content such
as dead labour. Although Marx does not have a concept
equivalent to structures of signication at his disposal, his
depiction of the forms of value in the rst chapter of Capital
clearly suggests such an understanding.
There, he argues
that value does not have any signicance in absolute terms
(i.e. a positive content), but only in relative terms, in the
kind of relation it establishes. By presenting value in
dierential terms rather than positive ones (Spivak, 16),
the point is to show how subjective decisions, based on
dierent motives, can express themselves in quantied and
homogenous terms. Indeed, if abstract labour cannot be the
expression of a single feature abstracted from the concrete
(i.e. labour time), it must be claried how concrete
qualitative features come to take a quantitative meaning.
Marxs analysis of the accidental or simple form of value
shows that value rests ultimately on qualitative and subjective
foundations. Indeed, the equation x commodity A = y
commodity B reveals value only as expressed through the
use value of another commodity. In other words, the value
of zo yards of linen or 1 coat cannot be dissociated from
their use value.
The rst peculiarity which strikes us when we reect on
the equivalent form is this, that use-value becomes the
Capital & Class #76 162
form of appearance of its opposite, value. The natural
form of the commodity becomes its value-form. But note
well, this substitution only occurs in the case of a commodity
B (coat, or maize, or iron, etc.) when some other commodity
A (linen, etc.) enters into a value-relation with it, and then
only within the limits of this relation. (Marx, 1;6: 1(8)
The two poles of the accidental form cannot be reversed.
The equation does not imply that zo yards of linen are equal
to one coat in a purely mathematical sense, but that zo yards
of linen have for value one coat. The one coat is here a
signied, the expression of value, and thus cannot be at the
same time an object that both possesses value and represents
value. It can only be one or the other. Because exchange
value can only express itself in the form of use value, there
cannot be a fundamental dierence between use value and
exchange value from the standpoint of the commodity alone.
What gives exchange value its quantitative and rigid aspect is
not in itself the fact that it is a quantitative expression abstracted
from its concrete and qualitative dimension, but that it is a
social and mediated expression of use value. This is why use
value is never divorced from the process of socialization in
capitalism; it remains central, but in a mediated form.
Exchange value is the form through which use value
expresses itself through the process of capitalist socialization.
Value loses its subjective appearance with the extended
form. This second form of value is basically the equivalent
of a signifying chain in semiotics. The linear articulation of
relations between commodities (x commodity A = y
commodity B = z commodity C = .... etc.) gives exchange
value the appearance of autonomy from the previously
indistinguishable use value. Here the signier takes place in
an endless series where signiers refer to a signied that
itself becomes a signier of another signied (e.g. the value
of 20 yards of linen is worth one coat, which is itself worth
5 loaves of bread, which are worth something else, etc.).
Here, the expression of value loses its arbitrariness because,
ironically, we never reach a foundational expression of value.
Value imposes itself because it is not contained in an
individual object of exchange, and because individuals
experience value as a phenomenon that transcends their
individual acts of exchange.
If the articulation of a commodity within a chain of
commodities can help to generalize, or socialize, the
163 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
signication of the arbitrary relation we have examined in
the rst form, it does not, however, produce a quantied
expression of value. The specic quantitative form of value
comes from the use of a general equivalent. This third form,
or the general form, can be characterized by the fact that it
sets all commodities against a single one, in order to express
their value in a common term:
1 coat
10 lb. of tea
1 quarter of corn = 20 yards of linen
40 lb. of coee
Value now crystallizes around a universal expression given
by a single commodity. This stabilizes value because
commodities now share a common term that shapes the way
we value these commodities. The peculiarity of this structure
is that our judgements are now shaped by the fact that things
are set on the same qualitative ground (i.e. the use value of
the general equivalent). Value as a structure of signication
thus radically changes the way we compare things by making
commodities commensurable, despite their qualitative
In this process, money plays a crucial role and constitutes
the nal form of value that Marx introduces. Money makes
value appear distinct from the concrete commodities that
are exchanged. In the general form, there is always a tension
between the use value and the exchange value of the general
equivalent that threatens to destabilise the expression of value.
Money solves this problem because its use value lies in its
capacity to be exchanged against any commodity.
value is the only raison dtre of money, money seems to
have an intrinsic bond to value (Goux: 1o).
The analysis of the forms of value allows us to shift the
nature of necessity as we experience it in capitalism. Marx
demonstrates that value has no reality in itself, no intrinsic
or natural referent. For Marx, value is a structure of
signication that expresses something else. But if value does
not determine meaning, it qualies the way things come to
have meaning in a society. The secret lies precisely in the
fact that value relates to something qualitative, to social
characteristics that are mediated and expressed through a
quantitative form of expression. Value is a quantied
Capital & Class #76 164
expression of use value, and acquires this feature through a
certain process of socialization. It emerges because it is
embodied in a single commodity that crystallizes the relations
among all commodities into its own being. Money further
creates the illusion that value is cut o from any concrete
use value. This leads to the conclusion that value is not a
means to reduce the complexity of society to a quantied and
objective logic, but shows how this complexity comes to take a
social meaning for people in quantitative terms. Value formation
escapes the will of individuals, but not because it is structured
by something else. Rather, it is because the social signicance
of individual choices always partially escapes individual
Value and the labour process
In the rst chapter of Capital Marx deconstructs the
commodity. The rst three sections of it demonstrate that
value is not a positive feature, a property of commodities,
but rather a social phenomenon structured by a dynamic of
social relations. With fetishism, Marx pushes the arguments,
stating that value is not an abstract law, but the result of our
own actions. Finally, he shows that if value nds its roots in
human actions, this does not rest on human nature. It is not
an objective fact about how we relate when we exchange or
when we interact in a market. Value is only the expression of
our subjectivity, not subjectivity itself. If this expression is
quantied it is because of the particular social form that this
subjectivity must invest.
This achievement is a true tour de force for Marx. Instead
of subsuming class struggle under the law of value, which is
something Marx actually denounces in classical political
economy (Clarke, 11), he uses fetishism to ultimately
reintroduce class struggle as the determinant of valuation.
At this point, however, only the basis of the argument is set
out (i.e. that value is a subjective category). To discuss how
class struggle in capitalism is shaped by this experience of
social relations would require an article in itself, but it is
possible to introduce a few concluding remarks. The form
of value is important because it structures certain kinds of
imperatives on capitalist producers and workers. Because
people choose certain commodities over others according
to their price, it imposes a competitive imperative on
165 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
producers to produce at low costs. However, if value relates
commodities to one another in a certain way, the process of
valuation does not explain in itself what it expresses. As
Marx says, the properties of a thing do not arise from its
relations to other things, they are, on the contrary, merely
activated by such relations (1;6: 1().
The factors that dene the valuation process depend upon
the particular kinds of strategy dominant in capitalism to
confront this imperative. The nature of the competition in
capitalism implies that producers are led to focus on the
organization of labour as the primary means to face such an
imperative, both because other means are cut o by the
market and because primitive accumulation has set out certain
conditions of power which allow capitalists to reshape the
labour process. This constant reorganization of the labour
process specic to capitalism places labour at the centre of
capitalist competition, and in this sense, labour constitutes
the central determination of prices. However, this is not
because of the cost of labour, or because labour has actually
produced value, but because class struggle is at the heart of
this process of restructuring. It determines the organization
of the labour process and the extension of the working day.
If labour does not produce value in itself, it conditions the
capacity of capitalists to be more productive than others. In
that sense, dierential relations between commodities, which
structure value, is dened in modern capitalism by class
struggle and the resistance of labour.
This article has argued that fetishism should not be viewed
as a condition that reduces people to bearers of the logic of
capital, but rather one that concerns the value-form of class
struggle. Fetishism is not the description of a condition
resulting from Marxs analysis, but a starting point that
explains how people and classes make sense of the world
around them, and rationalize their experience. In this sense,
it qualies, but does not determine, peoples behaviour.
Hegels dialectic represents the basic form of this
rationality. By emphasizing that only negations can
constitute the basis of a meaningful relation to the world,
Hegel shows that our relation to the world can be completely
constructed as a subjective experience and yet be founded
Capital & Class #76 166
on a real experience of the world. If this relation were
conceived in positive terms (i.e. as the transmission through
this experience of a positive knowledge of the world)
subjectivity would then become the arbitrary meaning we
add to objective knowledge, leading us again to a subject/
object dichotomy. But if our knowledge of the world is shaped
uniquely by successive experiences of negations, to which
we give meaning, then it is possible to understand how
subjectivity can anchor a discourse about the world.
Subjectivity constitutes the moment by which we try to render
meaningful the negations, or non-sense, we face. This allows
Hegel to show how people fully create the world by giving
meaning to it, but not under the conditions of their own
making, since the world always partially resists their creative
attempt to render the world meaningful.
This dialectical reading of experience allows Marx to
understand how rationality in capitalism is tied to the
constitution of value. Indeed, once Marx demonstrates that
exchange value does not have any positive foundations, he
turns to their subjective roots. Value then stems from the
fact that subjectivity is constrained to express itself through
reied categories. The inability to understand what lies
behind prices leads people to relate to commodities in terms
of value and to rationalize their experience in quantitative
terms. This makes it impossible for people to understand
the social signicance of their actions and creates
unconsciously an imperative on producers to increase their
relative productivity, instead of other forms of individual
creativity. Producers must now structure the creativity of
workers in narrow forms to remain competitive. The law of
value is nothing else other than the expression of this class
struggle. To subsume labour to the law of motion of capital
is to fall in the same trap as political economy and build
formal abstractions that invert the relationship between labour
and capital. In giving the law of value a will of its own, we
fetishize capitalism by misunderstanding how people are
actually the movers of history.
This leads to the conclusion that Capital is very much a
consecration of Marxs historicist sensitivity: a historical
work about capital as a social relation (i.e. class struggle)
rather than an economic work about capital as a thing (i.e.
the circuit of capital) (Bonefeld, 1). If Marx introduces
both, it is to explain class struggle through capital rather
than the opposite. The structure of value is, both in its
167 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
qualitative features and its magnitude, always historically
specic. Hence, Capital cannot be read as the structure of
capitalism itself from which we could interpret all its
dierent variations in dierent periods and countries. It is a
historical analysis of the way capitalism developed in
England in the nineteenth century. If Marx still speaks to
us, it is because he was able to specify some features of
capitalism from his vantage point that are useful to specify
the nature of other capitalist societies. But in the spirit of
historicism, his insights should be used to problematize
contemporary societies, but not to explain by themselves
the dynamic of these societies.
1. I would like to thank Rob Albritton, Matina Karvellas, Andrew
Kliman, Martijn Konings, David McNally, and two anonymous
reviewers for their comments.
2. A particularly pervasive view is represented by Laclau and Moues
conception: In order that this general law of development of the
productive forces may have full validity, it is necessary that all the
elements intervening in the productive process be submitted to its
determinations. To ensure this, Marxism had to resort to a ction:
it conceived of labour-power as a commodity. [...] Labour power
diers from the other necessary elements of production in that the
capitalist must do more than simply purchase it; he must also make
it produce labour. [...] The evolution of productive forces becomes
unintelligible if this need of the capitalist to exercise his domination at
the very heart of the labour process is not understood. (18: ;8-;)
3. Althusser represents the classical example of such attempts to
separate science from history. Given the diculties of articulating
both axioms, many Marxist economists have opted to exclude in
one way or another subjective features from their reading of Capital
in order to salvage their analysis of the logic of capital (Lebowitz,
16; Sekine, 18(). For them, the exclusion of subjectivity becomes
the means to preserve the idea of a general capitalist logic.
4. Some can argue that Capital only describes tendencies, but the
important point is that there is no process of structuration that can
be inherent to capitalism.
5. For Kant, necessity cannot be derived from the world, and thus
must be radically dissociated from it. The foundations of necessity
are to be found in its internal logical consistency. This leads Kant to
Capital & Class #76 168
an abstract formalism. In a way reminiscent of Marxist economists,
Kant completely separates experience and necessity. This allows
him to ground necessity outside of experience. But only at the
cost of recasting necessity as an imperative that is external to
6. In his Postface to the Second Edition of Capital, Marx argues that
the mystication which the dialectic suers in Hegels hands by no
means prevents him from being the rst to present its general forms
of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is
standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the
rational kernel within the mystical shell. (1;6: 1o). Althusser had
already noted that the allusion to the rational kernel hidden within
the mystical shell implied that Marx could not be speaking of a
simple inversion (16). Still, Althusser, starting from the orthodox
view on Hegels dialectic could not solve the problem of determinism
that was associated with it. This reduced him to separate what the
dialectic had shown to be inseparable (i.e. objective and subjective
factors), leading him into all kinds of new contradictions that opened
the way towards the dissolution of structural Marxism into Post
Marx did not so much invert as radicalize Hegels dialectic. For
Marx, the mystication does not lie in the emphasis on the subject,
but in the fact that Hegel conceives the evolution of consciousness
as something that is socially neutral. By contrast, Marx insists on
the centrality of power and thus class struggle in the development
of consciousness.
7. To solve this problem, some Hegelian Marxists argue that Hegel
conveyed in his thoughts the experience of capitalism because he
was living in a capitalist society. This allowed him to grasp the basic
motion of capitalism. But, unfortunately, these authors argue
(Reuten, 1; Sekine, 18(; Arthur, 1), Hegel applied his
dialectic to the wrong object. This explanation is very problematic.
First, many scholars question the fact that capitalism existed in
Germany in the rst decades of the 1th century (Wood, 11;
Mooers, 11). One might wonder then if capitalism had evolved
suciently, if at all, for Hegel to be able to grasp its logic of motion
without even being aware of it. Some might argue that Hegel had
read the political economists, notably Adam Smith, and could grasp
capitalism through their writings. Yet, Hegels peculiar interpretation
of the problems raised by political economy reects the dierent
social context that shaped his reading (see Kennedy, zoo1). Hegel
did not address these issues because they were characteristic of the
time (i.e. because of capitalist developments), but because political
economists, in addressing issues of capitalist development, provided
169 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
solutions for Hegel to completely dierent social problems. One of
them was to think the Prussian state in terms of social necessity and
freedom. For this, the notion of the division of labour proved quite
useful to Hegel.
Secondly, if we neglect the rst point, it remains to be shown in
what way does the dialectic apply only to capitalism. How can it
express the particular motion of capitalism? The crude idea here of
the reection in thought of the motion of capitalism brings us
dangerously close to a deterministic conception of ideas as the
reection of the material basis. Thirdly, even if the dialectic reected
in thought the motion of capitalism, this would not justify in any
sense how the formal features used by Hegelian Marxists explain
capitalism. To say that the dialectic reects a purely capitalist way of
thinking, does not justify why this way of thinking explains
8. It is impossible, once we take capital or value as the subject of the
dialectic, to explain how this subject can tell the history of its own
demise. How can the dialectic show the historical specicity of a
subject whose being is transcended by its own negation (labour)? By
contrast, Hegel argues that the transformation of the subject is
central to its own understanding because the subject uses negation
as a means to specify the nature of its own being.
9. It is a curious turn of event that Hegel is now criticized for
attempting to reconcile contradictions when this is the endeavour
Hegel ascribes to alienated experience. This does not mean that
there are no real contradictions, but that contradictions are subjective
10. The mediation as the category white here is important because we
are not comparing white itself but only white as the category of
white that we are constructing by comparing it to black.
11. As we mediate our experience of seeing white by comparing it to
other colours, we can attribute properties to white (i.e. luminosity,
peacefulness, neutrality, etc.) that help specifying our experience of
seeing white. But we still do not know white in itself, only how it
diers from other colours.
12. Hegel correctly points out that we never understand the world in
itself, because there is no meaning that is inscribed in the world.
Still a discourse about the world is possible, not because there is a
world out there that contains its own meaning, but because our
discourse is related to our experience of the world, not the world
itself (Hegel, 1;;). Objects are subjective constructions. They
represent the attempt of subjects to give meaning to the world.
But, Hegel insists, this does not mean that objects are arbitrary
constructions. Subjects do not create the world, they simply project
Capital & Class #76 170
meaning over it. Objects are the expression of the relation between
subjects and the world. They are possible only because the world
partially resists to our desires and to our attempts to invest meaning
in it. If we put, for example, our hand in the re we get the feeling
of burning. Even if we wished to think that a re was pleasant, every
time we would put our hand in the re our experience would tend
to contradict our presumption. This would last until nally we
attribute to re something that accounts for the property of burning
our hand. This does not mean however that the re burns in itself.
It does not have the meaning of burning inscribed in it. This meaning
is only our way to rationalize our experience, one that is more
adequate to our experience than the idea that res are pleasant.
Hence, meaning is neither contained in the subject itself or in the
world, but emerges from the relations that constitute our experience,
even if, in a strict sense, it is still a creation of a subject.
13. It has been argued that subjectivity is constructed in the process by
which people try to make sense of what they do not understand.
Without this relation to something outside of our subjectivity we
would all be schizophrenic (i.e. a subjectivity without form). The
dialectic shows that this lack, experienced as a negation, is the only
form of relation to the world that can be the basis of meaning. Thus,
the lack as the relation we entertain with the world, precedes form
and must be thus distinguished from objectivity. Objectivity refers
to the means or forms we use to try to rationalize the lack, while
subjectivity constitutes the movement through which we mobilize
these forms and articulate them.
14. Since specications depend on articulating dierent dimensions of
our experience, the pursuit of freedom requires a totalizing approach:
the more our understanding is expanded and articulated, the more
our experience becomes nuanced and complex. Here, the particular
cannot be understood without the pursuit of the universal that
qualies our understanding of the particular. It must be clear however
that the universal represents the whole, not the category that is
universal to everything. Because the whole species the nature of
each particular, it is universal in the sense that it denes all particular.
This yearning for the totality has thus nothing to do with the crude
attempt attributed by some poststructuralists to Hegel to reduce
the particular to the universal.
15. In the dialectic of the master and the slave, Hegel refers to power as
a limit that turns the slave back unto himself. However, despite his
allusion to power in the form of a social relation, Hegel is only
interested in the experience of the fear of death that shakes everything
the slave takes for granted. Death represents the absence of meaning,
the crisis of consciousness when it foresees its possible disappearance.
171 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
If power enters then the picture it is as something asocial in that it
matters only because it conveys the experience of death. But Hegel
does not problematize this experience of power in order to
understand, beyond the abstract idea of death in general, how it can
shape dierent forms of consciousness.
16. Marxists generally insist on the imperatives that are imposed by
certain sets of social relations. But social imperatives cannot be
unproblematically accepted without problematizing how these social
imperatives are experienced by subjects. In other words, to say that
capitalism produces imperatives does not mean anything if we cannot
show how and in what way they are perceived by subjects. Hence,
imperatives only exist as long as they are constitutive of a subjective
17. This tension exists in Marxs own work. Many reasons can explain
this ambivalence in Marxs work. One is the inuence of Hegels
language inherited from metaphysics. If one reads the dialectic as a
causal dynamic (Kojve, 1(;; Hyppolite, 1(8; Butler, 1) terms
like essence, substance, or necessity suggest an essentialist view. But
a reading of the dialectic as the structure by which consciousness
invests meaning in the world (Dove, 18; Stewart, 18) radically
changes the status of these terms. They are now considered intrinsic
to the process of rationalization, not something beyond it and
independent from it.
Secondly, for Marx, the idea of embodied labour might not
have appeared contradictory with his endeavour to historicize social
forms. Important debates have allowed us to specify issues regarding
determination and agency in ways that probably were not apparent
to Marx. This does not mean that Marx was either deterministic or
not. We can nd elements that support both positions in his work.
It might simply mean that Marx did not position himself on this
issue. Otherwise, it is dicult to understand how Marx could have
used formulations like embodied labour that were incompatible
with his project of historicizing social forms.
18. This is not to say that all or even most Marxists share this conception.
Value-form approaches tend to oer rich insights on fetishism (see
Rubin, 1;z; Geras, 1;z; Clarke, 11; Zizek, 18). However,
even these perspectives generally take fetishism as the description of
a condition and seldom try to move beyond in order to see how
fetishism actually qualies our reading of Capital as a work about
the nature of subjectivity in capitalism.
19. The essential feature of commodity fetishism does not consist of
the famous replacement of men with things (a relation between
men assumes the form of a relation between things): rather, it
consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation
Capital & Class #76 172
between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really
a structural eect, an eect of network of relations between elements,
appears as an immediate property of one the elements, as if this
property also belongs to it outside of the relation with other elements
(Zizek, 18: z()
20. There is an important dierence to make between fetishism and
reication. Both are often understood as the objectication of
subjects, as if people were reduced to the condition of objects,
although most Marxists specify that this is only so within the relation
to capital (Lebowitz, 16). In this conception reication and
fetishism are conated, which closes the possibility to address the
place of subjectivity in the process of capitalist accumulation.
Reication refers to the form of a relation to others in which
people, pressed by economic imperatives, are obliged to take others
simply as means to reach their own objectives and needs (e.g.
employers exploiting workers). By contrast, fetishism is a particular
way to understand our experience, by projecting agency in the thing
itself that mediates social relations. The conation of both leads us
to the view that capital, as an agency, takes people as mere objects
of its own accumulation. This again constitutes a useful way to close
the issue of the relation between subjectivity and capitalist
accumulation. We do not need to understand how people relate to
capitalist accumulation, but simply how capital relates to people
(i.e. how does capital uses people).
But people never become objects of others or act as objects.
They are only considered as objects by others. This, in itself, is not
necessarily new to capitalism, but the particularity of social relations
in capitalism is the extent to which this occurs. First because the
competitive imperative of the market obliges people to systematically
disregard the feelings and opinions of others in their relation with
them. Secondly, because they are able to use others instrumentally
in capitalism since the power of money allows individuals to
restructure social life in unprecedented ways
21. As Zizek argues, fetishism in itself is not specic to capitalism. It is
the basic recourse of the subject to explain any alienated experience.
But the particularity of fetishism in capitalism is that people no
longer fetishize men but things. In Capitalism the place of fetishism
has just shifted from intersubjective relations to relations between
things: the crucial social relations, those of production are no
longer immediately transparent in the form of the interpersonal
relations of domination and servitude (of the Lord and his serfs, and
so on); they disguise themselves [] under the shape of social
relations between things, between the products of labour (Zizek,
18: z6).
173 The fetishizing subject in Marxs Capital
22. The assumption of utility as a common scale to evaluate specic
preferences, needs and desire boils down to pure metaphysics. The
belief that somehow people do a certain computation that reduces
qualitative features to quantitative ones cannot be simply posited.
It is actually what needs to be explained, and what Marx explores in
his discussion of value.
23. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains
impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value. However, let us
remember that commodities possess an objective character as values
only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance,
human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore
purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can only
appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity.
(Marx, 1;6: 18-1)
24. Without semiotics, which developed subsequently, Marx could not
fully grasp the signicance of his discovery. This might explain why
Marxs formulations appear ambiguous at times and why he clings
to certain essentialist formulations (i.e. embodied labour).
25. For Marxist economists, the dissociation of use value and exchange
value is the necessary step to ground an economic theory. Because
use value refers to qualitative choices, it becomes dicult to subsume
it in a logic. Use value is a category that calls for agency, for the way
people conceive of their use of commodities for personal and social
purposes. Seeing exchange value as something distinct from use
value (Sekine, 18(), might allow to ground a social dynamic in an
objective factor: labour. But in the same way as Neoclassicals who
cannot explain the reduction of preferences to a common scale,
these approaches are incapable of showing how labour can be reduced
to an abstract common scale.
26. Here, the circle is closed in an unending loop where use value
assumes the form of exchange value and vice versa. We have reached
a tautological situation deemed impossible in the accidental form
in which the value of money is given by its own value. But contrarily
to the rst form, this identity is mediated by all other commodities,
thereby catalyzing a chain of signication that represses the
qualitative dimension of value. People now act as though money is
the true expression of something called value that exists as a property
of objects.
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