Some rough thoughts I’ve had on the parallels between De Brosses’ theory of fetishism and Marx’s use of this theory in his critique of political economy:
William Pietz provides a history of the concept of fetishism. Pietz’s history traces the term from its origin in Portugese trade with native African Tribes up to its canonization in 20th century theory. Along the way Pietz points that it was a translation of Charles de Brosses’s popular work, Du Culte des Dieux Fétiches, that Marx acquired at ??? that serves as basis for Marx’s use of fetishism.
Accounts of Marx’s conception of fetishism by Keston Sutherland and John Millious have brought out particular parallels Marx’s use of the term have with De Brosses’s theory of fetishism. Both Sutherland and Millious point out that Marx ‘detourns’ de Brosses’ concept of fetishism by applying it to capitalist society. Sutherland also makes a substantialist interpretation of these parallels by arguing that Marx’s description of the commodity as —– is a graphic embodiment of physiological dead labour pointing to the ultimate savagery of the capitalist mode of production.
I will argue Marx’s use of de Brosses is more complex. In the first place this use evolves. Marx uses the term fetishism in his early writings several times. This use has continuity with his designation of the fetishism of political economy. It consists in the fetishism of something consisting in a deficient theoretical conception. In this use fetishism parallels the primitive practice of African tribes by having a distorted conception of the nature of things.
However, there are also striking parallels between the way that Marx uses the terms fetish character or fetish form in his critique of capitalist social production and de Brosses’s wider description of the social practice of fetishism.
In the first place there is de Brosses’s distinction between the fetish worshiper and the fetish object. De Brosses describes these fetish objects are animals or inanimate objects that have been ‘deified.’ He is adamant that these objects are not Gods but “things endowed with a certain virtue.” De Brosses goes on to describe these fetish objects in several of the ways that Marx also describes the fetish character of commodites as “enchanted” and “divine.” In a parallel that Marx also uses in his description of the fetish character of commodities as a ‘social hieroglyph’ de Brosses also argues that egytpian hieroglyphs are types of fetish object. For de Brosses this means that instead of worshipping a higher power that is imbued in the fetish object: “the poor stupid savage actually worships the miserable fetish itself.”
In the second place de Brosses’s notion of the conditions that lead to the selection of the fetish object reads like a perverse parallel description of Marx’s derivation of the necessity of the fetish character of the money form from the social division of labour and arbitrary selection of the commodity that takes this form. Thus de Brosses argues that fetishes fulfill a certain primitive form of necessity because: “all these peoples had the same way of thinking about the matter, for they had the same manner of behaving, which is a logical consequence of that premise.” He further argues that the objects that are chosen as fetishes “are nothing but the first material object that the nation or the individual was pleased to select.” Yet these objects are still meant to protect their bearers against accidents.
It is tempting to tie these two points together and speculate about how money serves the same function in capitalism, only in an exaggerated way. In the first place money is necessary form generated from the division of labour. Money has a fetish character by virtue of this process but we can be said to actually worship the stupid fetish itself. In the second place obtaining this fetish is necessary to protect ourselves from accidents due to the function of the capitalist system. In this way Marx seems to have detourned De Brosses’ theory of fetishism to describe his monetary theory of value and fetish character of capitalist social production.