Althusser and Fetishism.

Currently trawling through my literature review. So apologies for the lack of any substantive content. One thing that did surprise me while trawling through the reams of commentary on fetishism was how much I agreed with Althusser’s conception of fetishism and reification.

I found this surprising because of the caricatured portrayal of Althusser I received in my courses on Marx. My faculty were humanists of a certain generation still hung up on the Epistemological break. So the way they explained it was that Althusser treated fetishism as a Hegelian hold over that could be skipped when you read  Capital.

This is not how I read the following passages I located in For Marx and Reading Capital. In my view they seem more like accurate admonishments of those who read everything through alienation and reification prior to and at the time of Althusser’s writing:

F E T I S H I S M !(fétichisme ). Fetishism is the mechanism which conceals the real functioning (the real movement — wirkliche Bewegung ) of the dominant structure in the social formation, i.e., it is the constitutive dislocation (q.v.) between the ideological practice and the other practices (q.v.). This is not a subjective mystification, but the mode of appearance of reality (Marx calls it a reality — Wirklichkeit ). In the capitalist mode of production it takes the form of the fetishism of commodities, i.e., the personification of certain things (money-capital) and the ‘reification’ of a certain relationship (labour). It does not consist of a general ‘reification’ of all relationships, as some humanist interpretations of Marx argue, but only of this particular relationship. Fetishism is not absent from other modes of production, it is merely displaced onto whichever level is dominant in the social formation characterized by that mode of production. (From the Glossary of Reading Capital)


The whole, fashionable, theory of ‘reification’ depends on a projection of the theory of alienation found in the early texts, particularly the 1844 Manuscripts, on to the theory of ‘fetishism’ in Capital. In the 1844 Manuscripts, the objectification of the human essence is claimed as the indispensable preliminary to the reappropriation of the human essence by man. Throughout the process of objectification, man only exists in the form of an objectivity in which he meets his own essence in the appearance of a foreign, non-human, essence. This ‘objectification’ is not called ‘reification’ even though it is called inhuman. Inhumanity is not represented par excellence by the model of a ‘thing’: but sometimes by the model of animality (or even of pre-animality — the man who no longer even has simple animal relations with nature), sometimes by the model of the omnipotence and fascination of transcendence (God, the State) and of money, which is, of course, a ‘thing’. In Capital the only social relation that is presented in the form of a thing (this piece of metal) is money. But the conception of money as a thing (that is, the confusion of value with use- value in money) does not correspond to the reality of this ‘thing’: it is not the brutality of a simple ‘thing’ that man is faced with when he is in direct relation with money; it is a power (or a lack of it) over things and men. An ideology of reification that sees ‘things’ everywhere in human relations confuses in this category ‘thing’ (a category more foreign to Marx cannot be imagined) every social relation, conceived according to the model of a money-thing ideology.

This is not to say that I agree with Althusser’s interpretation of fetishism, particularly his conception of it as a transhistorical form of mystification.( For some good criticism of this see Alfred Schmidt’s History and Structure). However, I now more keen to read up on attempts like the recent one by Milious–Rethinking Marx’s Value-Form Analysis From a Althusserian Perspective- to fuse Althusserian and Value Form approaches.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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