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Rethinking Marxism

A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society

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Did Marx Fetishize Labor?

Faruk Eray Dzenli

To cite this article: Faruk Eray Dzenli (2016) Did Marx Fetishize Labor?, Rethinking Marxism,
28:2, 204-219, DOI: 10.1080/08935696.2016.1158970

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2016.1158970

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Vol. 28, No. 2, 204219, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2016.1158970

Did Marx Fetishize Labor?

Faruk Eray Dzenli

Labor is often construed as the universal ontological ground of social life, the differentia
specica of human beings in most, but not all, Marxian accounts. But such a rendition
fetishizes labor: a quality that arises as an effect of a network of relations (self-realizing
productive activity, or the creator of all that exists) is conceived as the inherent, natural, and
essential characteristic of an element of this network (labor). Despite occasional slips, Marx
carefully avoids this fetishistic inversion: consequently, neither the creator of use-values nor
the producer of values should be read as labors innate or essential attribute. Rather, labor
acquires these characteristics within Marxs discourse, rendering class relations visible.

Key Words: Capital, Fetishism, Labor, Karl Marx, Value

Labor appears as the universal ontological ground of social life in most, but not all,
Marxian accounts (Gould 1978; Lukcs 1978a, 1978b). Construed as the founding
moment of social being, all that exists comes into being or is transformed into a new
reality through labor. It is considered to be the mediating moment between human
beings and nature through which they materialize what they have conceived ideally
to satisfy their needs and to reproduce themselves (Arthur 1986). Labor is both an
activity of self-realizationa teleological, intentional activity through which human
beings objectify, develop, and realize their capacities, recognizing themselves in sensu-
ously perceptible objectsand of self-creationthese individuals do not necessarily
have a xed, eternal nature, but come to be what they are and create themselves
through their labor in the process of becoming species-beings. As such, labor is
taken to be the dening quality as well as the fundamental characteristic of being
human; it distinguishes human beings from animals, or nature in general, and gives
them their unique character (Engels 1972; Lukcs 1978a).
This account nds textual evidence not only in Marxs early, humanist texts but
also in his more mature writings, and it is epitomized in Capital when he asserts,
Labor as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence
which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which
mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself
(Marx 1977, 133; see also Marx 1970, 36). Despite his persistent criticism of fetishism, I
argue that this is a rare moment of Marx fetishizing useful labor.1

1. I refer to Marxs rare moments of, rather than tout court, fetishization, following Ruccio and Amar-
iglio (2003), who register the postmodern moments of modern economics.

2016 Association for Economic and Social Analysis

Marx and Fetishism 205

Starting with a discussion of fetishism, I contend, following iek (1989, 1997), that
fetishism involves not only a displacement or substitution, which is exemplied
in Marxs (1977) famous formulation, Relations between men appear as relations
between things. Fetishism also entails a false naturalization/externalization: the treat-
ment of a quality that arises as an effect of a network of relations as the inherent,
natural, and essential characteristic of an element of this network, a quality that is dis-
placed onto that element. Despite rare slipswhen he refers to useful labor as an
eternal, natural necessity, independent of all forms of societyMarx almost always
avoids this fetishistic inversion by situating labor within his analysis of a particular
society. In addition, neither the creator of use-values nor the substance of values,
the dual nature of labor, should be read as its innate or essential attribute; rather,
using these denitions as building blocks of his discourse, Marx analyzes class relations
that prevail in a capitalist society.

Substitution/Transference as a Constitutive Side of Fetishism

Fetishism, to begin with, is a relationship of transference, substitution, displacement: in

Marxs oft-quoted formulation, what in reality are interpersonal relations assume the
fantastic form of relations between objects in a commodity economythe objecti-
cation and reication of social relations.2 What is more, individuals participating in this
economy apparently do not recognize these transferences/inversions and perceive their
interpersonal relations, in a mystied, enigmatic form, as relations between their
material possessions: social relations formed between producers and their private
labors appear not as direct social relations between persons in their work, but
rather as material relations [dinglich] between persons and social relations between
things (Marx 1977, 164).3
What precisely does this apparent misunderstanding of the real nature of social
relations entail? Fetishism is not a mere matter of false consciousness, nor is it the
reication of social relationships; as Marx (1970, 345) suggests, Everybody under-
stands more or less clearly that the relations of commodities as exchange-values are
really relations of people to the productive activities of one another. For example,
money is the universal equivalent and as such, in its material reality, appears as
the embodiment of wealth, even though money is in reality just an embodiment,
a condensation, a materialization of a network of relations (iek 1989, 28). But
iek (1989, 31; 1997, 101) suggests that such an articulation misses that commodity

2. However, one person can be substituted for another person, or a signier can take the place of the
signied, which I discuss in detail below (iek 1997, 111).
3. For a brief history of various conceptualizations of fetishism and Marxs appropriation of this cat-
egory, see Pietz (1993). I. I. Rubin (1972) contends that commodity fetishism is solely about reication:
the objectication of social relations as relations between things is necessary for capitalism to function
properly, and Marxs achievement lies in his treatment of material categories as reections of pro-
ductive relations among people, thus seeing the internal connections of these relations and the
essence of capitalism. See Lukcs (1971) for a different rendition of fetishism as reication. Amariglio
and Callari (1993), in their seminal essay, criticize those who construe commodity fetishism as a theory of
false consciousness and read it as a Marxian theory of subjectivity.
206 Dzenli

owners/exchangers do not really think that money, magically, has such a quality; rather,
they act, in their everyday life, as if thats the case: They are fetishists in practice, not in
theory what they misrecognize is the fact that in their social reality they are
guided by the fetishistic illusion. That is, even though we/subjects do not believe, it
is the commodities/objects who believe in our place (iek 1989, 1997).
iek (1997, 105) further elaborates this displacement by alluding to the Hegelian
speculative inversion of the relationship between the Universal and the Particular.
The Universal is just a property of particular objects which really exist, but when we
are victims of commodity fetishism it appears as if the concrete content of a commodity
(its use-value) is an expression of its abstract universality (its exchange-value)the
abstract Universal, the Value, appears as a real substance which successfully incarnates
itself in a series of concrete objects (iek 1989, 31; emphasis added).4 As such, Value
appears to act like Hegelian-subject substance, as embodying, manifesting itself in
these commodities.5 Once again, this does not necessarily mean that commodity
owners actually think that the Particular is the manifestation and embodiment of the
Universal; rather, they are well aware that the Universal is a property of, an abstraction
from, the Particular. But bourgeois individuals, in their everyday lives, act as if they do
not know: that is, when a bourgeois individual engages in commodity exchange, In his
practice, in his real activity, he acts as if the particular things (the commodities) were
just so many embodiments of universal Value (32).
Is this not eerily similar to Marxs derivation of the concept of abstract labor in the
rst chapter of Capital? Does this mean Marxs (1977) analysis of value and the commod-
ity, with which he begins his investigation of the capitalist mode of production, suffers
from this speculative inversion, the idealist methodology for which Marx vehemently
criticized Hegel and the Young Hegelians in his early works?

Is Abstract Labor the Absolute Fruit?

Marx distanced himself from Hegel as early as 1843 and from the Young Hegelians by
1844 (Marx 1975a, 1975b).6 The Holy Family, which he coauthored with Engels, is at rst
sight yet another critique of Hegel and the young Hegelians (Marx and Engels 1975).
What is interesting in this polemical work, however, is Marxs elaboration of the Hege-
lian idealist procedure: the Young Hegelians, according to Marx, just like their master,
abstract from sensuously observable reality to arrive at the concept, which then
becomes the Absolute, Transcendental Subject that manifests itself in this corporeal
world.7 That is, Marx ascertains that what should be contingent, particular, and specic

4. Dimoulis and Milios (2004) refer to this formulation as the pre-Marxian conception of fetishism.
5. Belloore (2014), referring to Ehrbar (2010) and Schulz (2011), suggests that Marx differentiates fetish-
like character from fetishism; a Hegelian-subject substancefor example, the commodityhas a
fetish-like character.
6. See Cornu (1957) and McLennan (1969) for a discussion of Marxs relationship to the Young
7. Among others, Murray (2000) questions Marxs interpretation of Hegel; see also Arthur (2004),
especially the introduction and the authors cited therein.
Marx and Fetishism 207

to time and place is, for Hegelians, nothing more than the embodiment, manifestation,
and unfolding of the Universal (Wolff 1989).
Marx is highly critical of this speculative procedure and, in The Holy Family,
unequivocally illustrates the absurdity of this method by humorously deriving the
concept of the Fruit:

If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea Fruit,
if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea Fruit, derived from real fruit, is an
entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc.,
then in the language of speculative philosophyI am declaring that Fruit is the
Substance of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying that what is essen-
tial to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the
essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence
of my ideaFruit. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere
forms of existence, modi, of Fruit Particular real fruits are no more than sem-
blances whose true essence is the substanceFruit [For] the speculative phi-
losopher the different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the
one Fruit; they are crystallizations of the Fruit itself. (Marx and Engels 1975, 579)

According to Robert Paul Wolff (1989, 17680), Marx develops the concept of abstract
homogeneous socially necessary labor in a similar manner to what he criticized in the
Hegelians and persists in speaking this way throughout Capital, some twenty years
after deriding speculative philosophers.8
To summarize Marxs analysis of the commodity in the rst chapter of Capital: the
exchange-values of a commodity, although representing the diverse proportions in
which it would be traded with all other commodities at a given point in time, are
rather forms of the appearance of a content, its value. Marx arrives at value by abstract-
ing from each and every useful quality that a commodity has, which then is only left
with a residual: that of being a product of human labor. This leftover, however, does
notbetter yet, cannotrefer to concrete useful labor(s), simply because particularity
cannot establish commensurability; rather, the leftover has to be a universally common
element: The same kind of labor, human labor in the abstract (Marx 1977, 128). Marx
exemplies this point by arguing that tailoring and weaving, although qualitatively
different productive activities, are nevertheless objective expressions of homogeneous
labor and two different forms of the expenditure of human labor-power, and as such
they can be considered as the social substance of value (128, 134).
So far, all Marx has done is philosophical or conceptual abstraction, which is
necessary to bring many particular concrete instances under one general heading
(Wolff 1989, 177). But Wolff calls attention to what he perceives to be a subtle shift in
Marxs analysis, from abstraction to speculative inversion. The analysis of the commod-
ity in the rst chapter of Capital seems to abound with this inversion: for example, when
Marx (1977, 129; emphasis added) posits, A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has

8. This section, including its title, borrows heavily from R. P. Wolff (1989), who draws an analogy
between absolute fruit and abstract labor. However, as it should become clear below, my analysis
and conclusions differ signicantly. Also see Murray (1988), and Rancire (1989), who suggest a
similar analogy.
208 Dzenli

value because abstract human labor is objectied [vergegenstandlich] or materialized in it

or when he construes the value of a commodity as the social substanceabstract
human laborcrystallized in and common to all commodities (129). Likewise, when dis-
cussing the relative and equivalent forms of value, Marx suggests that the coat as the
equivalent gures as the embodiment of abstract human labor; consequently, tailor-
ing, a specic useful and concrete labor, becomes the expression or manifestation
of abstract human labor, its form of realization (150). The same inversion seems to
be all the more clear when he argues that the many specic, concrete, and useful kinds
of labor contained in the physical commodities now count as the same number of
particular forms of realization or manifestation of human labor in general, and when he
derives the particular equivalent form of the commodity in his discussion of the
total or expanded form of value (156; emphases added).
Is abstract human labor that realizes and manifests itself in commodities any differ-
ent from the true essence, the real substance, the Absolute Subject of Hegelian idealist
philosophy? To put it differently, is Abstract Human Labor, or Value, any different
from the absolute fruit that crystallizes itself in different ordinary fruits and that pre-
sents itself at times as an apple and at others as a pear or an almond (Marx and Engels
Marx (1978b, 140) himself seems to articulate a similar argument in the appendix to
the rst German edition of Capital, titled The Value-Form:

This inversion (Verkehrung) by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form
of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly
general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the
same time, it makes understanding it difcult. If I say: Roman Law and German
Law are both laws, that is obvious. But if I say: Law (Das Recht), this abstraction
(Abstraktum) realises itself in Roman Law and in German Law, in these concrete
laws, the interconnection becoming mystical.

Consequently, C. J. Arthur (1979, 107) suggests that while Marx accuses Hegel of invert-
ing the real relationship of the abstract and the concrete thus making the latter the
mere hypostasis of the abstract essence, Marx himself describes the relation between
concrete labors and their abstract identity (as substance of value) in precisely this
way. This abstraction from the concrete, and then the hypostatization of that abstract
as the concrete, Marx deploys because commodity production inverts the relation
between concrete particular and the abstract universal as a basic ontological fact of
capitalism, and thus he can simultaneously condemn Hegelian metaphysics, on the
one hand, and analyze the real social relations generating the absurdities of commodity
fetishism, on the other (Mohun 2003, 4115).9

9. According to Arthur (2000, 1078; 2002), Hegels Logic (Idea) is homologous to Marxs Capital (capital).
Arthur suggests that Hegels idea provides the guideline to a reading of capital that uncovers the
metaphysics of the value-form the key thing about the bourgeois epoch is that real abstraction is
present in exchange of commodities, and on this basis there develops a form, namely capital, which
(like Hegels Idea) is immanent in the phenomena and has effectivity in its objectication in them.
As a result, the critique of Hegel cannot be separated from the critique of capital (2000, 105).
Marx and Fetishism 209

This is not to say that Marx (1977, 169) is not aware of the absurdity of this method, as
he makes clear in his analysis of commodity fetishism: If I state that coats and boots
stand in a relation to linen because the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract
human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. But he insists that this
absurd form in which products of particular labors relate to one other (and to the uni-
versal equivalent, money) is socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of
production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e.
commodity production; so are the theoretical categoriescategories of bourgeois
economicsthat purportedly reect the relations of this socioeconomic organization
(169). Wolff (1989, 180) takes this as a sign that Marx, despite acknowledging the absurd-
ity of speculative inversion, persists in speaking this way throughout Capital. He
explains Marxs insistence on this admittedly absurd language as his desire to register
the manifestly inverted and the objectively crazy (or contradictory) nature of capital-
ist reality. This ironic voice, assuming the character of and expressing the Hegelian
speculative discourse, is necessary to register the irrationality of the capitalist socioeco-
nomic organization as well as the absurdity of the social theory that professes to rep-
resent this society (186).
In contrast, I contend that Marx carefully avoids Hegelian speculative inversion.10
For example, Wolff refers to Marx, who argues that, when commodities exchange,
their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-
value (Marx cited in Wolff 1989, 177). But Marx (1977, 1289) explicitly emphasizes
this manifestation only occurs within and as a result of the exchange relation. In
addition, Marxs analysis does not posit a subject-cause of this commodity exchange
process, as exemplied by his deliberate use of passive sentences without specifying
a subject. That is, he does not say, for example, useful objects have value because
abstract human labor materializes or embodies itself in them; rather, commodities
are values because they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human
labor [and because] human labor-power has been expended to produce them,
human labor is accumulated in them (128). Similarly, abstract human labor does not
express, manifest, or realize itself in commodities; rather, useful labors take the form
of the expression, manifestation, or realization of abstract human labor in a commod-
ity-exchange relationship (150).
Marxs aversion to speculative inversion becomes all the more lucid in a subtle trans-
formation in his analysis of the commodity: his argument shifts from particular labors
as the producers of use-values to a process without a subject. He argues, once we
abstract from the sensuous characteristics of the object, from its useful aspects, that
the object is no longer the product of any particular kind of productive labor. That
is, although Marx maintains that particular useful labors produce different use-
values, he does not carry his analysis in a similar vein and argue that the commodity,
as the body/repository of value, is the product of abstract human labor. Rather, as he

10. Does Marxs (1977, 156) assertion that different useful labors count as particular forms of realization
or manifestation of human labor in general constitute a rare and inadvertent instance of him deploying
speculative inversion? An anonymous reviewer convinced me that it does not, as Marx does not ascribe
an essence or telos to human labor.
210 Dzenli

abstracts from different concrete forms of labor, he contends that these useful labor[s]
can no longer be distinguished from each other, but are all together reduced to the
same kind of human labor, human labor in the abstract (Marx 1977, 128). Thus, abstract
human labor does not exist as such, creating and manifesting itself in commodities; it is
simply the result of an abstraction entailed in the social relations that comprise com-
modity exchange. As Marx puts it, individuals do not bring the products of their
labor into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely
as the material integuments of homogenous human labor. The reverse is true: by equat-
ing their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their
different kinds of labor as human labor (166). He is even clearer in A Contribution to
the Critique of Political Economy:

Universal labor-time itself is an abstraction which, as such, does not exist for com-
modities. But the different kinds of individual labor represented in these particu-
lar use-values, in fact, become labor in general, and in this way social labor, only
by actually being exchanged for one another in quantities which are pro-
portional to the labor-time contained in them. Social labor-time exists in these
commodities in a latent state, so to speak, and becomes evident only in the
course of their exchange. The point of departure is not the labor of individuals
considered as social labor, but on the contrary the particular kinds of labor of
private individuals, i.e., labor which proves that it is universal social labor
only by the supersession of its original character in the exchange process. Uni-
versal social labor is consequently not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging
result. (Marx 1970, 45; emphasis added)

That is, abstract human labor comes into being, and acquires its universal character, as
a result of exchange relations among individuals, as well as the abstraction involved in
those relations (Sohn-Rethel, 1978); abstract human labor is notand Marx does not
ascribe it the role ofthe Transcendental Subject, which re/incarnates, manifests,
and realizes itself in various objects.11 Consequently, Marx unequivocally distances
himself from and does not deploy the speculative inversion characteristic of Hegelian
philosophers, as well as the classical political economists.12

11. However, if abstraction is a necessary yet not sufcient condition of fetishistic misrecognition, it is
such a condition of scientic knowledge, as well. See Sohn-Rethel (1978). This is why Marx can refer to
classical political economy as scientic despite these economists, as individuals within and represen-
tatives of the bourgeois society/economy/consciousness cannot but be commodity fetishists. Marx (1977,
1734) can thus credit classical political economy for uncovering, albeit incompletely, the content of
valuesocially necessary abstract labor time embodied in commoditieshidden beneath the value-
forms. But these economists never question and analyze why this content (labor) and its measurement
(labor-time) has assumed these particular forms, value, and magnitude of value, respectively, and as
such, classical political economists suffered from the fetishistic misrecognition that is part of their analy-
sis by attributing these qualities to objects themselves.
12. Even if it were the case that Marx deployed the Hegelian speculative method, his insistence on the
absurdity of construing values as universal incarnations of abstract human labor in particular, and his
analysis of commodity fetishism in general is his warning against, and provides one with the theoretical
framework to avoid such inversions.
Marx and Fetishism 211

False Naturalization/Eternalization as the Other Constitutive

Side of Fetishism

To return to iek (1989, 24), the misrecognition in fetishism also concerns the
relations between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a struc-
tural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an
immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belongs to it
outside its relation with other elements. In this sense, fetishism entails the naturali-
zation, universalization, and eternalization of these structural qualities as they are
taken to be inherent to that particular element, independent from its place within
the network of (social) relationships (iek 1997). This naturalization is common to
fetishism in its generality and as such is not limited to relations in a commodied
economy. For example, in feudalism, being a lord/king, just like being a serf, is the con-
densation and effect of a totality of social relationseconomic, cultural, political, and
natural processes. But for those who participate in this relationship, being a lord/king
or a serf appears to be an inherent, natural, and essential property of that particular
person: that is, a king/serf is a king/serf because he, in his very essence, by his nature, is a
king/serf (iek 1989, 1997). As Marx (1977, 149) puts it, One man is king only because
other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the other hand, imagine
they are subjects because he is king. Likewise, An individual A, for instance,
cannot be your majesty to another individual B, unless majesty in Bs eyes assumes
the physical shape of A (143). As Marx further elaborates, an individual (Peter) can
recognize or relate to himself as a man only through his relation to another man,
Paul, in whom he recognizes his likeness; in this relationship, Paul also becomes
in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter
In a commodity economy, on the other hand, the site of fetishization shifts as
relations between things, between commodities, rather than interpersonal relations,
are misrecognized (Marx 1977, 144). Qualities associated with and resulting from social
relations between commodity owners appear as genuine aspects of the objects they
possess: as Marx puts it, The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists
therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reects the social characteristics of
mens own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as
the social-natural properties of these things (1645). For example, the value of a com-
modity, which depends on and nds its expression only in exchange, appears as a
natural attribute of this object, independent of its relation to and its determination
by the other commodity it exchanges with, or more generally, separate from its
expression in the universal equivalent, money (Marx 1977; iek 1989, 236). That is,
a commodity that functions as the equivalent in an exchange relationship expresses
and represents value in a tangible natural form; even though it acquires this
qualitybeing an equivalentin its relationship with the other commodity, it
appears to be endowed with it independently, outside of this relationship. As Marx
(1977, 149; emphasis added) puts it, the commodity seems to be endowed with its equiv-
alent form, its property of direct exchangeability, by nature, just as its property of being
heavy or its ability to keep us warm.
212 Dzenli

This, however, does not imply that value is necessarily a fetishized category.
Objects, in addition to their particular and unique qualitiesthose that determine
them as use-valuesbecome values when they take the form of a commodity; what
is common to these objectsvalueis the form that expenditures of labor-powers
assume in a commodity economy. It is important to note that this so far is merely an
abstraction, a reduction to a common element, which is a necessary condition for the
universality and comprehensiveness of the discourse/analysis. When one ignores
that things have value only within and as a part of a network of relationsthey
become commodities within and as a result of capitalist exchangeand when one per-
ceives this quality to be an inherent, universal, and ahistorical property of the objects
themselves, one becomes a fetishist.
This is precisely the fetishism of bourgeois economists: for the adherents of the
Monetary System, gold and silver have the quality of being the universal equivalent,
of being money as (a result of) their natural properties and not as a result of social
relations of production. Likewise, Physiocrats suffer from the illusion that the
ground rent grows out of soil, not out of society (Marx 1977, 176). Classical political
economists become fetishists when they deal with capital. Rather than understanding
it as a specic social relation of production, as a pumper-out of surplus-labor, they
equate capital with the means of production in the labor process: We nd in the capi-
talist process of production the indissoluble fusion of use-values in which capital subsists
in the form of the means of production and objects dened as capital, when what we are
really faced with is a denite relationship of production (Marx 1981, 966; 1977, 983). This
fetishism nds its culmination in the Trinity Formula, when classical political econ-
omists attribute the ability to create valueand more specically, the quality of being
the source of incomes in the form of rent, prot, and wagesto land, capital, and labor,
respectively, as elements of the production process, treating this quality to be a prop-
erty inseparable from and an innate material character natural to these factors of
production independent of their social character in the capitalist production
process, determined by a particular historical epoch (Marx 1981, 9646; see also
Dzenli 2011). Classical political economy thus naturalizes and eternalizes the exploita-
tive social relations of production prevalent in capitalism, rendering them independent
of their historical and social specicity; as Marx (1978b, 303) conclusively puts it, The
fetishism peculiar to bourgeois economics transforms the social, economic character
that things are stamped with in the process of social production into a natural character
arising from the material nature of things.

Fetishizing Useful Labor

I take Marxs aversion to and criticism of false eternalization and/or universalization

(iek 1989, 49) and of the naturalization of specic social relations to be a warning
against fetishizing, and it is thus equally applicable to his analysis of useful labor. Sur-
prisingly, Marx himself cannot avoid rare moments of the fetishism he so vehemently
criticized, precisely when he discusses useful labor in particular or when he depicts the
labor process in its simple and abstract elements in Capital. This is not to say, I hasten
to add, that Marx is a fetishist tout court when discussing useful labor, since such a
Marx and Fetishism 213

conclusion can only be reached by ignoring (and the textual evidence for it can only be
found at the expense of) the immediate qualications that Marx attaches to his
occasional fetishistic assertions. Nevertheless, he momentarily fetishizes labor when
abstracting from particularity (useful labors) to attain universality (abstract human
labor), when Marx (1977, 133; 1970) construes useful labor as an eternal, natural neces-
sity through which individuals mediate their relationship with nature and other
human beings.
Marx (1977, 12832) starts his discussion of different aspects of the commodity
having a use-value and exchange-value, and being a valueby focusing on two differ-
ent objects: coats and linen, which as use-values are products of specic kinds of
productive activity, in this case tailoring and weaving. Their existence as different
use-values and the possibility of their exchange depend on their being products of
qualitatively different productive activities (132). As Marx continues, The existence
of coats, of linen, of every element of material wealth not provided in advance by
nature, had always to be mediated through a specic productive activity appropriate
to its purpose, a productive activity that assimilated particular natural materials to par-
ticular human requirements (133). Here, Marx is clearly discussing useful labors in
their specicity. He suggests that since human beings have to produce and consume
use-values under the compulsion of their needs, they perform useful labors in all
forms of society. In the next sentence, however, he naturalizes/universalizes useful
labor, as if it is not an abstraction from particular productive activities in particular
societies, thus treating tailoring (or weaving) as a particular form of useful labor as
such when he asserts that labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor,
is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is
an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and
nature, and therefore human life itself (133).
Here, one can register a subtle shift in Marxs discourse, as he no longer refers to
useful labor as an abbreviation for a specic kind of productive activitytailoring or
weavingbut as the creator of qualitatively different use-values, a necessary con-
dition of human existence without which there can be no human life, an eternal,
nature-imposed necessity that is independent of all forms of society (see Marx 1996,
53).13 But there can be no useful labor as such; there are useful labors, particular pro-
ductive activities, such as tailoring and weaving, that are appropriate for the production
of specic things of use, coat and linen, at a particular place and time, in every society.
When abstracted from the particularity of useful labors, one can attain a universality,
the concept of useful labor: Labor whose utility is represented by the use-value of its
product, or by the fact that its product is a use-value (Marx 1977, 132). But Marx
does not register or acknowledge that the universality/homogeneity of useful labor
in the singular can only be derived from the particularity/heterogeneity of useful

13. Earlier, referring to the labor that produces a particular commodity, the coat, which is the result of a
specic kind of productive activity determined by its aim, mode of operation, object, means and
result, Marx states that we use the abbreviated expression useful labor for labor whose utility is rep-
resented by the use-value of its product, or by the fact that its product is a use-value. However, he
declares useful labor as the creator of use-values almost immediately, no longer distinguishing
between a specic useful labor, in its particularitytailoringfrom the concept, useful labor, in its uni-
versality, at this instance as if there is no difference between the two (Marx 1977, 133; emphasis added).
214 Dzenli

labors in the plural; instead, he here treats useful labor as independent of all forms of
society.14 In doing so, he renders this Universal, Useful Labor as eternal and ubiquitous,
independent from everything else, even the relations that ascribe to it its dening
quality, that of being productive of use-values. That is, Marx ends up (albeit briey)
eternalizing useful labor, rendering the quality of producing use-values as inherent
in and a natural aspect of this productive activity; labor thus becomes the mediating
moment between man and nature and as such appears as the eternal, natural condition
of all human existence.

Productive Labor as the Performer of Surplus: Avoiding Fetishism

It is important, however, to note that Marx does not construe useful labor, or the labor
process in its simple and abstract elements, as the basic and fundamental model for his
analysis; and this is so not because he amends this essential framework in accordance
with changes in the prevalent productive forces or the dominant social relations. On
the contrary, he qualies the universality and eternality he ascribes to labor when
he later analyzes the labor process. After eternalizing/naturalizing useful labor
Purposeful activity aimed at production of use-values is the universal condition
for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-
imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every
form of that existencehe immediately qualies it as an abstraction: it is rather
common to all forms of society in which human beings live (Marx 1977, 290).15 That
is, Marx is essentializing and fetishizing labor simply when he construes it as indepen-
dent of every form of human existence, since its quality of producing use-values only
then appears to be in its very nature, as its precise essence; however, when Marx refers
to labor as a commonality inderived by abstracting fromeach and every form of
socio-economic organization, the quality that renders it useful not only comes into
existence in a network of social relations, but the possibility of this labor taking differ-
ent forms, thus becoming different from itself, even in its commonality, arises.
On the other hand, if useful labor were to be taken as the basis of Marxs analysis, as
his essential model, it should be kept in mind that this is not the only aspect of the
simple labor process that can be abstracted from and universalized. As Marx (1977,
981) compellingly shows, so can the means of production, or as Marx calls them, the

14. When Marx abstracts from particular useful labors in his analysis, he does not do so to arrive at the
category useful labor but rather at abstract human labor. To put it differently, Marx sets the concrete/
abstract, particularity/universality relationship between useful labors/abstract human labor, which has
no room for the abstract category, useful labor as such. This is not to say that the relationship cannot be
between useful labors/useful labor as such; however, this, in and of itself, is not helpful for analyzing
commodities as bearers of value. Finally, abstract human labor is not a universally valid concept;
rather, as the substance of value, it is specic to a commodity economy. See Murray (2000), who
nds two notions of abstract labor in Marx.
15. Murray (2000, 467n42, emphasis added), while refuting the unfortunate legend of Marxs asocial,
monological theory of labor and production, argues that some general observations regarding the dis-
tinctively human labor process can be made independently of, that is, in abstraction from, all specic
social forms of the labor process. In contrast, I contend that discussing labor independent of specic
social forms is a moment of fetishization.
Marx and Fetishism 215

objective conditions of labor; they are necessary feature[s] of the human labor process
as such, irrespective of the form they have assumed. Notwithstanding his fetishistic
moments, Marx articulates this all the more clearly when he states that the general
features of the labor process for example, the sundering of the objective conditions
of labor into materials and instruments on the one hand, and the living activity of the
workers on the other, are all independent of every historical and specically social con-
ditioning and they remain valid for all possible forms and stages in the development
process of production. They are in fact immutable natural conditions of human
labor (10212). But even though Marx acknowledges the existence of these common
elements of the labor process, he repeatedly warns against solely, primarily, or even
remotely focusing on them; he relentlessly criticizes classical political economists for
concentrating on features common to all processes of production, while neglecting
their specic differentiae by abstracting from the distinctions, as a result of which
they establish an identity between the material objects and capital, labor and wage-
labor, and gold and money (982).16 This is exactly the way bourgeois economists
fetishize capitalwhich is a social relation, or better yet, a condensation of social
relationsand turn it into an eternal and universal condition of production, simply
by equating it with the form it manifests itself inin this case, the means of production.
Or as Marx decidedly puts it, this is how the objective conditions essential to the reali-
zation of labor are alienated from the worker and become manifest as fetishes endowed
with a will and a soul of their own (1003).17
Lest it be thought that he limits his critique of fetishism to the forms that elements of
the labor process assume within capitalism, Marxs (1977, 103849) analysis of pro-
ductive labor in Results of the Immediate Process of Production unequivocally
shows that his critique can be equally valid for useful labor.18 He registers a bourgeois
obtuseness in the manner that classical political economists conceptualize productive
labor, according to whom all labor is productive if it produces, if it results in a product
or some other use-value or in anything at all (1039). Marx contends that this denition
is a result of and exemplies the fetishism peculiar to the capitalist mode of pro-
duction from which it arises. This consists in regarding economic categories such as
being a commodity or productive labor as qualities inherent in the material incarnations of
these formal determinations or categories (1046; emphasis altered).19 That is, conceiving
labor as productive if and when it produces use-values or materializes itself in useful

16. As Marx (1977, 982) puts it, It is the same logic that infers that because money is gold, gold is intrin-
sically money; that because wage labor is labor, all labor is necessarily wage labor.
17. By invoking the alienation of the objective conditions of labor, Marx refers to the private ownership
of these means of production by nonlaborers; direct laborers cannot access the objects necessary to the
labor process unless they sell their labor-power to their proprietors.
18. Marx left this section out of the rst volume of Capital and subsequent editions; it appears for the
rst time in English as an appendix in the 1977 edition. See Mandel in Marx (1977, 9437).
19. This is only one of three sources of the desire to dene productive and unproductive labor in terms of
their material content. The other two Marx (1977, 1046) designates as follows: (1) the consideration of
labor as productive only if it results in a material product in the labor process as such and (2) the differ-
ence that exists between labor engaged on articles essential to reproduction and labor concerned
purely with luxuries.
216 Dzenli

objects and construing this quality to be its inherent, natural, and eternal characteristic
would be nothing more than fetishizing (useful) labor.
In contrast to classical political economists, Marx (1977, 1038) looks at productive
labor from the standpoint of capitalist production and not from the labor process in
its simple and abstract elements. He distinguishes between productive and unproduc-
tive labor by ascertaining whether this particular labor-power exchanges for money as
money or for money as capital: that is, whether it creates surplus-value or not. For
example, individuals can simply buy the cloth and hire a tailors assistant for his ser-
vices to produce a pair of trousers, or they can buy the same pair from the merchant
tailor; in both cases, individuals purchase and consume a use-value, and thus their
money does not become capital. In addition, the labor that the tailors assistant per-
forms in its qualitative aspectsthe useful labor that produces the trousers
remains the same irrespective of whether the tailors assistant is hired by the individual
or by the merchant. But only in one case is the assistants labor productive, and only
in that case does there exist an exploitative class relation: when producing for the mer-
chant tailor, the assistant ends up performing labor for an amount of time that is above
and beyond the labor time that is necessary to reproduce the assistant, which is rep-
resented by the wages received by the assistant (10467).
So far, what Marx has described is just another example of an exchange between the
wage laborer and the capitalist, which is a condition for and ends in surplus labor being
extracted from the former by the latter in the form of surplus-value. Marx (1977, 1047)
does not stop there, however, adding that the fact that this transactionthe tailors
assistant performing 12 hours of work and is paid only for 6 [and thus] does 6
hours of work for nothingis embodied in the action of making trousers only con-
ceals its real nature. That is, solely focusing on the use-value itself, or on the useful
labor that produces this objecttailoringconceals and leads to the misrecogni-
tion of the class aspect that this production might entail; better yet, xating on the
labor process in its generality might become a mystifying veil that obscures the per-
formance and extraction of surplus, as it is now hidden beneath the material content,
the usefulness of the product, and the purposeful activity that produces it.
This is not to say that any attempt to dene labor as purposeful activity that is pro-
ductive of use-values is in and of itself fetishistic. Once again, if this aspect is not seen as
a condensation of a multitude of social relations but rather is perceived to be a charac-
teristic of labor as such, only then does it become so. For example, tailoring and weaving
are particular purposeful activities through which useful objects are produced;
however, when one abstracts from their specicity that renders these activities
unique and construes them as the manifestation of the necessary and ubiquitous
Useful Labor, when one eternalizes labor as independent from all forms of society,
labor as purposeful activity is fetishized. Nor does this mean that useful labor is irrele-
vant to class analysis. On the contrary, as Marx (1977, 131) pertinently emphasizes,
Nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so
is the labor contained in it; the labor does not count as labor, and therefore creates
no value. That is, for valueand by implication for surplus-valueto even exist,
this value needs to be attached to a use-value, and this use-value, simply because
or to the extent that it embodies value, must be created through a particular useful
labor. After all, A thing can be a use-value without being a value (131). Nevertheless,
Marx and Fetishism 217

useful labor (and use-value) remains necessary but not sufcient for developing this
unique class perspective. Not only does it refer to an aspect of the simple labor
process that is common to all forms of productiona commonality deduced by
abstracting from the particularities that make these modes of production unique
but it also does not shed any light on or enable one to construe what Marx conceives
as the differentia specica of these productive activities: the class processes that charac-
terize them. Construing labor as the potential performer of surplus allows one to see
these class relations; yet this ability to perform surplus is not and should not be con-
ceived as an innate ability or natural gift of labor (Dzenli 2006). Rather, labor has
the capacityand in the capital/wage-labor relationship, is forcedto continue with
and to elongate production beyond that time during which it creates the necessaries
for its subsistence.

Conclusion: Rethinking the Dual Nature of Labor

Did Marx fetishize labor? As I have tried to elaborate, despite rare fetishistic moments,
neither of the characteristics that Marx ascribes to labor should be taken as a natural,
inherent, or essential attribute of labor. For example, (abstract human) labor becomes
the social substance of value once Marx abstracts from it all concrete and natural prop-
erties of commoditiesany quality that renders them a unique and particular use-
valueto arrive at value, which means that objects qua commodities are not products
of concrete, useful labors; as a result of this abstraction, he is only left with a phantom-
like objectivity, congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor, that is, expendi-
tures of human labor-power independent of the specic form this productive activity
takes (Marx 1977, 128). As such, labor, the substance of value, is an abstraction, the build-
ing block of an accounting scheme with which Marx can trace the ow of uncompen-
sated labor from direct producers to appropriators, and nally to those who receive this
On the other hand, the second characteristic Marx designates in the dual nature of
labor, labor that produces use-values, is an abstraction as wellan abstraction from
concrete, particular useful labors (in the plural), such as tailoring and weaving. And
this is still the case, despite Marxs claim to the contrary when he declares it to be
an eternal natural necessity (Marx 1977, 133). After all, Marxs persistent aversion to
fetishizing concepts, categories, and relations is a constant and unwavering reminder
against naturalizing these qualities that he ascribes to labor and with which he devel-
ops a unique discourse: one that focuses on class relations and subverts classical po-
litical economy.


I thank David Ruccio and Antonio Callari for their insightful comments on an earlier version. I
am thankful to Ceren zseluk, Yahya Madra, and Ruth Toulson for discussing this paper with
me over the years. I am grateful for their, as well as two anonymous reviewers, helpful com-
ments. The usual caveat applies.
218 Dzenli


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