On the 21st of February 2019 we held a meetup during the exhibition Unsettled Tensions at Nieuw Dakota.During this meeting, we returned to Marx’ notion of commodity fetishism, as well as Debord’s further development of this idea in his critique on society.
The aim was to bring us closer to understanding (one facet of) contemporary society, and enable us to ask questions relating to object-fetishism, various forms of estrangement, and the ways in which the present-day economy and modern technology affect our live.
If you need context about Debord’s work, I would reccommend this article.
Why are we talking about Marx in the context of Debord’s thought? Debord’s own writings are quite difficult to penetrate, because they were not written with the aim to engage in a discussion and to provide a clear argumentation about the state of society. Rather Debord wrote out of necessity and only the essentials in an aphoristic style, providing a series of theses about the nature of society as he saw it. This style of writing resists interpretation and, on top of that, the subject of which he wrote, the emergence of the Spectacle, is so abstract and foreign – while yet so close – to us that it makes it hard to uncover the argument that is being elaborated. So, what to do when you have to give an introduction about Debord? As a historian of philosophy, I luckily don’t have to elaborate the argument that is developed in the texts, but can revert to the historical development of which Debord partakes and explains what is happening in his writings. With respect to Marx, Debord himself provides us with a point of departure and that is his notion of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism is a key concept in Debord’s thought and is explicitly discussed by him in, i.a., chapter two of his Society of the Spectacle. Here he says, for example, that: “The fetishism of the commodity…attains its ultimate fulfilment in the spectacle”, meaning that the spectacle as he conceives it is a further development of the notion of commodity fetishism. Therefore, our way into the work of Debord is provided by an elaboration of Marx’ notion of commodity fetishism, which we will take as a point of departure today in order to see whether we can clarify some aspects of Debord’s concept of the spectacle and uncover the logic that is inherent in both.
When we look at the notion of commodity fetishism, there are two words that we need to take into consideration: commodity and fetishism. Let’s start with M’s notion of commodity. In his book The Capital, Marx begins with a definition of commodity, as it is the beginning of the economy. He defines commodity as “any external thing that, via its properties, satisfies a need”.
As human beings, we have certain needs in our live that we cannot satisfy by ourselves as isolated from our surroundings. Instead, we use things that we find in our surrounding to see to those needs, either by directly deploying them or indirectly by first making them into something that we can use to satisfy a need. In this way we are in interaction with our external environment, which is essential in order to live our life. Any external thing that is used to satisfy a need can thus be seen as a commodity. Herein the needs that we have is to be conceived in the broadest sense, both physical (as in food, warmth, etc.) and spiritual (knowledge, artistic, etc.), which can be met by external objects (such as bread, clothing and books). We thus have three things that are important here, and that is a need, our activity that produces and deploys external things and the external things that are the product of our activity and satisfy the needs that we have. It is in this interaction between the human being, her needs and the external things that can be used to satisfy her needs that a commodity gains value. It becomes valuable by having a function in living our lives. With respect to the value of a commodity, Marx distinguishes two types of value that can be addressed to it. First, the products of our labour are valuable to us in so far as they satisfy our needs. A bread is valuable because it satisfies my hunger, a house is valuable, because it gives me shelter from weather conditions and a book is valuable because it provides me with knowledge about a certain topic. The ability of an object to satisfy specific needs makes it useful to us and therefore it has a usevalue. This use-value of an object is linked to the actual engagement with the object as it is put to use in our concrete live. As such, it is not an object that stands apart from us, but is part of our living our lives, our practicalities and (future) possibilities.
Naturally, as an individual we cannot devise all the various products that see to all our basic needs, so we work together is a group, a society in which there is a basic form of labour division. Some make the bread, others the houses, others make clothing, so that we collectively can see to our needs. This cooperation in the production of products that see to our needs is thus a social process and does not only consist of the interaction with nature (the raw materials), but also with other human beings. This means that we make decisions about which needs have priority to satisfy, how that is done and who is going to do it. As a society, together you determine the basic needs, who needs what and who does what according to the values that are inherent in the community. Therefore, when it comes to the generation of products that have a certain use-value, people engage in social relationships in which they explicate what is meaningful and necessary when it comes to give shape to their existence. Furthermore, in this scenario, the needs that people have and the possibilities of production depend on environmental conditions and what has been built up so far (heritage of predecessors).
Therefore, there is not only a strong social consciousness, but also a consciousness of the surrounding, the way in which people depend on it an how it is influenced by the activities that are being done. So, when we look at the production of things that satisfy our needs and have for that reason a use value, these goods are embedded within a society in which they have a concrete function. This concrete function makes them valuable, but this also makes the specific labour that devises them valuable. Being able to produce bread or building a house are valuable activities, because they give rise to the products that see to the basic needs of a society. In a overseeable society, where there is a limited division of labour, the people who live in it have a sense of this value of their own labour, as they can see how their products directly satisfies the needs that are present therein and contribute to the functioning of a society. But people also have a view on the labour of their fellow citizens as they help to see to their own needs and see the activity being done in their direct surrounding: they know why things are done, how they are done and what it takes to be done. When things are solely devised on grounds of being useful, there is an organic unity between human activity, their environment (both literal and societal sense) and the things that function in human practices. This organic unity makes that people see others and their surrounding as a part and extension of their own existence and they identify themselves with them.
Besides use-value, Marx distinguishes exchange value as a value that can be addressed to commodities. Exchange value originates when the production of a certain good is higher than the needs that are present in a society and thus accumulate. When products accumulate, they are no longer put to use and can be exchanged for something else that might be more useful to a society. In this case, you take the end product of human labour, take it out of the context in which it is used and try to exchange it for another product that is likewise the end product of a production process, but not your own. Because the exchange between two products (often) concerns two entirely different products that have nothing in common, the exchange value of the one product with respect to the other, cannot be determined on account of their concrete properties and specific usefulness. There is, for example, no way to compare the properties of a loaf of bread and a house and the way they see to their respective needs. Therefore, in order to determine the exchange value of products, we need a common measure that translates the different usevalues of products into an exchange-value that makes them commensurable: a matrix in which every product can be put in proportion to any other. The introduction of such a common measure implies the need for an abstraction from the concrete things themselves and the needs that they satisfy, because that is what make them essentially different. Only by abstracting all qualitative differences away, they can be judged by a single common property that determines their value relative to each other. This common property on which the exchange value is based is thus totally different from any of the tangible concrete properties of the things that are valued thereby. In the light of this Marx says that “the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterised by a total abstraction from use value.” Because there is no substantial quality that all products share, the common measure by which the exchange value is determined is quantitative: product x is worth 4 times a unity of common measure z. This common measure is, according to Marx, the average labour time that is invested to produce the products that are exchanged. Here too, labour as average labour time, is merely the abstract determination of human activity that is devoid of any qualitative substance and is in a later stage also expressed in money. Therewith, focussing on exchange value, each thing loses its particularity in terms material properties, but also the way in which it is made, handled, and functions in the life of a human being are abstracted away.
What remains is an abstract formula that product x takes, on average, a certain amount of time to be produced. Like the physical properties, the way something comes about, the strains it puts on the labourer, the infrastructure that needs to be in place, the impact production has on environment, the communal values that are attributed to an object, etc. are abstracted away and translated in terms of average labour power that determines the value of the end product. The end product is represented as an abstract unity that is taken out of the context in which it was useful to the craftsman and society and exchanged for a product that has more or less the same abstract value determination. So, here we have the difference between use and exchange value and the perspective through which the product and the production process is looked at has influence on the way they are conceived of. According to Marx, a commodity always has these two aspects, use and exchange value. In the case of the first, the product and production process is intertwined with the concrete actions of and interactions between people, infused in society, its organisation, needs and values. Therein the production and product are tied to and in balance with the needs and values in human life and imbalances can be addressed (as they are noticed) and overcome. In the second case the particularities of the product, both its concrete properties, its usefulness and the particular form of labour that devises it is abstracted away and viewed from the process of the exchange of goods according to an abstract valuation of the end products.
Ownership and identity
This dual aspect of the commodity, which is expressed in the oppositions: concrete vs abstract, quality vs quantity and social relation vs product of social relation, is not bad per se and the transition from use value to exchange value is inherent to the development of any economy whatsoever. A product is always, initially, devised on account of the use value and enters the realm of exchange value when there is overproduction and the possibility to exchange the product for a different product. In any thriving community, exchange value evolves from use value and supervenes upon it. In a normal, balanced situation, the exchange value of the commodity indeed supervenes upon the use value. But the exchange value can obtain its own dynamics apart from the use-value and become to follow its own rules of worth accumulation. Then, the commodity, as the mere end product of concrete life and social interactions, obtains its autonomy with respect to the context in which it is devised and is no longer seen as part of and dependent upon the concrete context and needs for which it is produced. The product is then merely seen along the lines of its exchange value and this in turn will start to influence the production process, which will then be more organized with the aim to accumulate the exchange value. In that case, with the desired end product in mind, economic laws of efficiency, cost reduction, etc. will start to dominate the labour activity of human beings and become determinative for the organisation of their society.
No longer will it be the needs and values inherent in a community that determine what is produced and how it is produced, but a certain selection of desired end products will start to determine how the people who have to make them live their lives, regardless of how this effects the labourers and their environment. Therein, something that was an abstraction of the concrete at first, becomes a real and independent force that influences the way that human life and society are organized. On the one side it does so in an abstract way, i.e. in the sense of how we look at the commodities and see each other, but also in a very concrete way, for example the building of large factories outside the neighborhoods, trade infrastructure, cars and daily schedule of the laborer (supporting further forms of labor division and separation). All this literally reshape the society and the lives of humans therein, in such a way that the view on what how and why things are made are lost out of sight. Furthermore, the social relationships and engagement with the direct environment that were essential in the production process of useful commodities are disrupted and lose their importance in determining the direction of the production process.
As long as products are valuable for the exchange market, these elements are subordinated and hidden behind the curtain of abstract determinations. This makes for a big change of society and the self-understanding of the people that live it. Where there is an organic unity of man’s needs, activity and products, human beings have a sense of ownership and identity: they build a home with people and things they know and care about. Furthermore, they have the power to change things that do not work well and react to imbalances. There is also a sense of community, dependence on and responsibility for each other and the direct environment. When expansion of exchange takes place (with more and more sophisticated products over a larger distances) and becomes the core business of a society, there is no (direct) relation between man’s activity and needs that are inherent in the life that they live. A laborer spends all his or her activity on producing a single part of a production line hidden somewhere in a factory and thus produces a great amount of things that she will not use herself, nor feels a need for. Likewise, you have no view on who does exactly what and how that contributes to your well being or the well being of the society. There is no longer a direct link between need, activity and the product of your activity and no sense of being part of your surroundings.
Now, in this scenario, there surely are still needs that need to be satisfied and products with which they are satisfied. But, because of this inversion, it is not via the engagement with environment and other people that it is done so. Instead, the products that people need to satisfy their needs only become obtainable by them via the exchange market. Here, the concrete can only be obtained via the abstract. A laborer devises products solely with the aim to have the greatest amount of end product x, in turn gets money that equals the abstract labour power that he or she has spend and can then exchange that for end product z that satisfies a certain particular need. From the very start, all products, both the ones that are made and the ones that are bought, have exchange values and therewith no longer are seen as part of the concrete lived experience, but as things that are separate from and positioned over against concrete live. And it is only via these alien things that human beings still engage with each other, as Marx says that “[T]he relationships between the producers . . . take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour. . . . It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Like the products that are isolated from their original context of a lively community, the individual becomes isolated from this context and merely becomes a barer of labour potency. The only way to become meaningfully involved with others is via the exchange market where the needs of the individual can be met. This makes that social live is experienced as secondary and separated from the individual who only becomes social through consumption. Herein lies the important notion of estrangement or alienation, which also has these two sides: on the one hand human beings become estranged from their own products and on the other hand they become estranged from the society and the environment in which they live.
Exchange value and use value
With the notion of exchange value of the commodity and the way it influences society and the individuals who live in it when it becomes the sole focus of human labour, the notion of fetishism occurs. Fetishism in religion is when divine powers are attributed to specific objects that function in rites, for example. But also in sexual activities you have certain fetishes in which great sexual powers are attributed to, for example, shoes: a shoe fetishism. In both these cases, something that has no material reality (immaterial powers or ideas) are attributed to a material thing. The same projection of something immaterial is, according to Marx, happening with respect to the commodity. In order for something have exchange value it is, as pointed out, represented in an abstract manner, as having some abstract value determinations that make it commensurable with all other products according to a common measure. These determinations solely exist on the basis of social/economical convention, which produces a matrix in which the relative value of one product with respect to another is determined. The exchange value that is addressed to a concrete object cannot be found in the concrete object, as a material property, nor can it be found in its use value. However, when products are only seen in the light of their exchange value and no longer as a part of meaningful activity and as embedded in a social context in which it is clear what they are, how and why they are made, but instead come out of the blue and stand as strange things opposed to the people, there is no sense of where the value that is addressed to them on the exchange market comes from. They come out of the blue and are already endowed with a sense of worthiness by a market that has come to dominate people’s lives. This makes it easy to see the value that is addressed to commodities as something that is inherent in the thing itself and as something that belongs to the product itself, enveloping it with an almost religious aura. A value that is only an abstraction, determined by convention, in a matrix in which the relative value of one product with respect to another is determined, becomes a reality of the product, which becomes desirable just for that. The very appearance on the product becomes a manifestation of value, which is something that is, of course, supported by marketing strategies.
This is the key, so I claim, in understanding Debord’s notion of the spectacle. Debord picks up on the idea that exchange value has come to replace use value, but than in a more radical way than the way in which Marx thought of it. According to Debord, exchange value has completely replaced all use value in society. Not only with respect to the goods that we we use in daily live, but also with respect to politics, education, science and the way we look at ourselves: all these aspects have become devoid of concrete content and lived experience and have been commodified, replaced with representations that are fashioned with the eye on exchange value and thus governed by economical laws of value accumulation and efficiency. All these representations, which basically are the further developed and exploited end products of what was once embedded in the concrete lives of human beings, are collected together in a monstrous self-enhancing system, which Debord calls the spectacle. The word spectacle is derived from the Latin word spectare, which means ‘to see’. This stands, on the one hand, in a metaphorical way for the distance between people and their products, which are no longer part of their lived experience and engagement, but stand opposed to them in a completed form. Herein the human being takes a passive attitude. Instead of moulding something into an object that can be put to use to see to a need in a specific context, the object comes to man from the outside in a readymade form. Like real sight that only shows you a (small) perspective of the outside of a thing, the commodities viewed in the light of their exchange value are only seen in a limited perspective (the end product and not everything that is involved in it’s coming to be). On the other hand the spectacle stands in a quite literal sense for the importance of images. Via television, in shop windows, and in politics for example, we are confronted with images that have a strong appeal to us and give us a sense that they stand for something valuable. The spectacle is an image producing mechanism that infiltrates more and more into our daily lives filling the void of meaninglessness with representations that have the aura of sweet salvation. This spectacle has, on the one hand, come to replace real live in all its aspects, but on the other hand, via the logic of fetishism itself has become more real and valuable than real live. This is only possible due to expanding alienation of people from their own productive activity, from each other and their surroundings. Due to this expanding alienation, which is further supported by modern technologies, the spectacle has become to mediate every aspect of human live, to such an extent that even the possible ways to criticize it are offered by and fashioned to enhance the grip of the spectacle itself.