TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Immateriality of Capitalist Economics: Fredy Perlman on Commodity Fetishism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, James Santucci looks at Fredy Perlman’s “Essay on Commodity Fetishism” from Telos 6 (Fall 1970).

Two interesting things happened in the brouhaha over the proper antecedent of “that” in “You didn’t build that.” First, Dylan Matthews, a senior at Harvard who writes for Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog, explained several different theories of dessert and how each interpretation would inform the intent behind President Obama’s phrase. Soon afterward, Rush Limbaugh attempted to discredit Matthews’s and the Obama campaign’s defenses of the statement by accusing them of working with words. Never mind that they were accused of working with words; what we’re interested in is the suggestion that there is a fundamental antithesis between working with words and materially engaging with the world. Without meaning to do so, the two provided a perfect context for reading Fredy Perlman’s “Essay on Commodity Fetishism.” A close reading of the essay reveals that not only is there no antithesis, but also that because of the theory of the commodity fetish, Marxism is material engagement with real phenomena.

Perlman begins with the abandonment of political economy in favor of economics. Economics as a field of study in the essay can be dispensed with quickly: Perlman focuses primarily on Paul Samuelson textbook Economics: An Introductory Analysis, which was published only several years before Perlman’s essay appeared. Samuelson’s definition of economics is “the study of how men and society choose, with or without the use of money, to employ scarce productive resources, which could have alternative uses, to produce various commodities over time and distribute them for consumption, now and in the future, among various people and groups in society.” In that sense, economics appears to be a multifaceted and fascinating thing, but a few observations reveal that this definition at least is single-minded in approach. Note that men and society together are choosing not whether to produce commodities but which commodities to produce, that these commodities are then distributed “now and in the future,” and that various people and groups will receive them, apparently whether they want them as commodities or not. Read this way—which does not appear to be a reach—Samuelson’s definition suggests that everything is a commodity. In such case, we don’t have to argue that commodity fetishism is an aspect of the capitalist mode; Samuelson himself chose it as a foundation for economic study.

The criticism to make of theories in general, though, is that they are only ways of thinking about the world and not performative on the world. The criticism of commodity fetishism, then, would be that it is “only an interpretive mode that holds that treatment of labor as a commodity forces man to alienate his labor for something less than what he gave up,” but to this the obvious answer is that man really alienates his labor for something less than what he gave up. This last aspect is incidental though. Whatever man receives in return, “the theory of commodity fetishism, namely the theory of a society in which relations among people take the form of relations among things . . . becomes Marx’s ‘general theory of production relations of the commodity-capitalist economy.'” The alienation of labor and its trade as abstract/social/commoditized labor is irreversible and transforms man only as a machine who labors. This is not an interpretive mode but something that actually occurs. Try, for instance, to buy back previously sold labor, even at a steep premium, or to claim that individual portions of a commodity a firm produces were produced by an individual worker, and the absurdity will be made clear: individual creative activity is, through the productive process, erased from history and hidden somewhere inside the commodity, but the commodity will never let it out, nor can it ever be recovered.

Marx arrives at this conclusion by asking different questions from those asked by the neoclassical economists. Perlman writes:

Marx asks: How is human working activity regulated in a capitalist economy?

Marx answers: Human working activity is alienated by one class, appropriated by another class, congealed in commodities, and sold on a market in the form of value.

The economists answer: Marx is wrong. Market price is not determined by labor; it is determined by the price of production and by demand. “The great Alfred Marshall” insisted that “market price—that is, economic value—was determined by both supply and demand, which interact with one another in much the same way as Adam Smith described the operation of competitive markets.”

Marx was perfectly aware of the role of supply and demand in determining market price. . . . The point is that Marx did not ask what determines market price; he asked how working activity is regulated.

The shift of the question began already in the 1870’s, before the publication of the second and third volumes of Marx’s Capital. At that time capitalist economists revived the utility theory of value of Jean Baptiste Say and the supply-demand theory of price of Augustin Cournot, both of which were developed in the early 19th century. The virtue of both approaches was that they told nothing about the regulation of human working activity in capitalist society, and this fact strongly recommended them to the professional economists of a business society. (Perlman 265)

And this represents what is fundamentally lost in the transition from political economy to economics. In the former, it was possible and meaningful to ask how working activity is regulated. The subject, as is shown by the industry tables and data in Marx’s Capital, vol. I, was the real working activity of real workers. It was possible, from such a framework, to read that children’s working hours were capped at twelve per day and then ten per day and so on, to read that regulation was ineffective and that capitalist factory owners frequently ran children from one factory to another to extract sixteen hours of labor from them anyway, and say that perhaps there was something wrong with the mode of production that encouraged such behavior. The move to economics, though, can only ask stupid questions: was the behavior rational, based on the likelihood of being caught? How did the behavior contribute to or detract from economic growth? What incentives might change this behavior?

Perlman’s essay should be required reading for anyone seeking either an introduction or a fuller understanding of Marx’s political economy. Capitalist economics can only give answers in terms of commodities because it only asks commodity-related questions, and cries of “but it will hurt our profits”—which mean, really, that business owners will accumulate less surplus value, which means, really, that business owners will accumulate less money-form of commodities—are a defense, regardless of what behavior is being regulated. However, on the labor other side, “but it will hurt our well-being!” is for some reason not a legitimate line of defense for workers. This is the tragedy and fundamental objectification of labor in the capitalist mode. Marx’s political economy is a material engagement with the real working engagements of a particular period; capitalist economics is an abstract engagement with theoretical workers in an anonymous historical period. But to which do we direct the “only a mode of interpretation” critique?

Read the full version of Fredy Perlman’s “Essay on Commodity Fetishism” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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