Tuesday, 27 November 2012

An interpretation of Marx: A critique of the division of labour: alienation & Commodity Fetishism

Marx provided a great critique into the capitalist system and in this post I want to explore his ideas relating to alienation and commodity fetishism. 

Capitalism at a glance...

Capitalism was founded upon classical economic thought such as those of Smith and Ricardo. 

One could argue that the building block was Smith’s theory of division of labour and specialisation which was later extended by Ricardo to his theory of Comparative Advantage. 

Smith argued that to develop the “division of labour” must take place because this increases productivity. By this he meant that as workers specialise in one particular part of the production process, they are able to produce more and if workers collaborate in specialising them the productivity of goods will increase and development will be in process. 

Do Note: Smith was aware of the negative social implications this could have in society as if he predicted the existence of Marxist “Alienation” theory. 


Before defining the notion of Alienation and Commodity Fetishism, we need to set out a few points. 

For Marx the whole organisation of society changed in capitalism. 

In the old Feudal system, the economy was run (as seen below):

C -> M -> C

But what does this mean? This means that workers would produce a commodity such as tomatoes (remember as this society didn’t have full division of labour employed), they would use some of their production for  subsistence and they rest would be sold for money (M). This money would be used in exchange for other goods such as apples which the worker may not be producing. The implication of this is that the price of commodities arises out of the time and value of labour used in the production. 

However, in the capitalist system this has changed to:

M -> C -> M’ 

What does this mean? In the capitalist system, we start with the premise that there are two classes of people which are continually diverging: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat's.  The bourgeoisie are the capitalist class they have money [M] (either through getting a loan or previous economic activity) and they use this money to employ labour (the proletariats) and means of production and produce commodities, C. These commodities are then put on the market and are sold separate from the labour and the production process that was used to make them. Given the distance of the production process and that now workers need to use their wages to buy everything (as they own nothing that they make) prices are determined exogenous to the production process and the outcome results in a larger some of money produced for the capitalist who instigated the production process in the first place.

So what do we learn from this? The first critique Marx has for the capitalist system is alienation.


For Marx, the capitalist system led to the worker being alienated. Social relations become estranged in such a society because the worker works for subsistence (as he can no longer on his own compete with capitalist productivity) and this subsistence derives it existence from the exchange of labour for a wage. We can summarise that the worker becomes alienated for three reasons:

  1. The workers do not own the means of production - so even if they wanted to make the product for themselves, they would have to buy it as they simply do not have the money required to own the means of production - even their own labour is now separate to them - it is a commodity (leads to second point). 
  2. Workers do not own the product of their activity.
  3. Workers do not control the organisation of productivity process - they merely carry out specific roles. 

Alienation is crucial for Marxian thought because you can see this one of the reasons that has the potential to leads to such high levels of tensions that would eventually cause a revolution and lead us into the new era of socialism (although what that is we do not know - we just know workers would not be alienated).

Commodity Fetishism 

What is commodity fetishism? and how does it link to all we are talking about?

So we have already established in a capitalist society all relations are economic not social such as employer-employee. Workers are compelled to sell their labour to have some kind of subsistence in this new society. 

Commodity Fetishism refers to economists obsession with commodity. The transformation social relations into objectified economic relations because of this obsession.Commodity fetishism is blinding because now products derive their value on what people perceive the product to be worth not their real economic worth which includes the labour that has gone into them.  This value is no longer equivalent to the price - price derives itself from contingent factors whereas value by fetishism of commodities.

The ultimate aim of the whole production and exchange process is to own exchanged values (and these values aren’t real because of commodity fetishism). Furthermore, the capitalist society is now characterised by social stratification - the workers and the capitalist and controlled by one class implying the exploitation of one class over the other. Here you can see exploitation could include alienation that capitalism causes. 

The obscures the notion of division of labour in a way, because there isn’t that collaboration between workers. Yes workers do specialise but for a wage which is used for subsistence - again showing the estrangement of social relation by some objective economic relations. 


The post boils down to Marx’s philosophical and economic ideas that the capitalist society which is characterised by the process of M -> C -> M’( money used to produce commodities which are sold to create a profit). This leads to the alienation of workers which is crucial for eventually spurring a revolution and moving into the Socialist realm of society. Furthermore, it is important to recognise that the capitalist system is essentially based on a lie - products derive their values from what people perceive to be their value not their real labour or exchange value. This turns what were social relations to objective economic relations and this transformation he terms commodity fetishism.

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