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Commodity fetishism and object liberation

A wooden box containing a wine glass, an egg, a bubble pipe, a map of the moon, and other objects. On of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism. And this has a superficial plausibility; doesn’t the focus on objects enact the kind of reification that Marx criticizes. I don’t think this plausibility is more than superficial, though, because it misunderstands object-oriented ontology and, more importantly, misunderstands commodity fetishism. In fact, object-oriented philosophy might provide a useful way of analyzing commodity fetishism which we could use to provide a Marxist corrective to the banality of much leftist critique of reification (such as that of Axel Honneth).

The kind of critique I have in mind is one that sees the problem of capitalism as the “spread of the inert,” the way in which the growing concern with inert objects harms human intersubjective relationships . This line of thought tends to lead into a moralizing critique of consumerism in which the problem with capitalism is our over-absorption with consumer goods (with revolution being, presumably, the symbolic violence towards Ikea furniture in Fight Club).

This might look like a Marxist analysis, as it is, after all, a rejection of commodities. But the point of the analysis of commodity fetishism isn’t that commodities are bad, but rather an exposé of the way in which commodity production makes us misperceive relations between things. That is to say, the critique of inert objects isn’t a critique of commodity fetishism, but rather remains completely caught up within it. Marx’s point is that, as commodities, objects are not inert: tables dance and “evolve out of their wooden brains grotesque ideas” (Capital). Because of this, object oriented ontology’s understanding of objects as active can be helpful in understanding commodities.

But, you might say, doesn’t object-oriented ontology, with its isolated objects that never enter into relations, make the mistake of commodity fetishism to an even greater degree than the anti-consumerism argument, by completely removing objects from the social relations of which they are the bearers? I’m not sure it does. One of the things that object-oriented ontology rightly reminds us of is the importance of distinguishing between ontological dependence and causal dependence. That objects cannot be reduced to their relations does not mean that they could have come to exist without these relations. The relations of production which produce commodities as commodities are no less visible on an object-oriented view. Furthermore, for Marx commodity fetishism is not just an illusion, a misrecognition of relations as objects. Rather, commodity fetishism is a material reality: capitalism really does produce autonomous objects which gain their powers from the relations which produced them. Object-oriented ontology’s account of objects is compatible with this materialist analysis of commodity fetishism, indeed, may be better placed to explain commodities than a philosophy which focuses on the human subject.

And this might show us a way out of commodity fetishism, by directing criticism not towards the commodity, but towards the fetish. The problem with commodity fetishism is the opacity it generates about the relationships in which humans and commodities are captured. The solution to this, then, would not be to reject commodities, but to liberate them from the occulted networks of commodity production, which would allow the independent powers of objects to act, rather than standing over against humans as a store of congealed labor. The end of commodity fetishism would be the liberation of the commodity as much as it would be the liberation of the proletariat (indeed, the two are bound up with one another inasmuch as labor-power is itself a commodity).