In Capital, Karl Marx discusses how the products we buy are separated from any recognition of the people who produced them. If I want to buy a TV, I’m unlikely to be involved in any kind of interaction with the people who made it. I don’t see the factory where they worked, I don’t have any idea what the conditions were like, I have no specific idea where it was made, outside of “Made in _____” written on the box. Instead, I exchange money for the TV at a store that almost certainly had nothing to do with manufacturing the TV; no one at Best Buy or Wal-Mart could tell me any more about the specific conditions of production than what I can figure out from reading the package.
Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. The social relations embedded in products — the fact that someone made that TV, under particular conditions, making a certain amount of money for their labor while producing profit for their employer — are obscured and workers become invisible. Instead, we focus on how much we pay for it, and which store charges the least. Marx argues that relationships between workers, employers, and consumers are presented to us simply as relationships between things; we exchange paper money (an abstract measure of our labor) for commodities, and we rarely pause to think about how the price of a TV is determined by the worth placed on workers in a particular place at a particular time.
Social activists concerned with working conditions, environmental impacts, and a range of other concerns often push back against commodity fetishism, attempting to make the social relations of production visible to consumers again. Craig Martin of Religion Bulletin provided an example from South Africa’s Apartheid Museum. This poster, produced during the struggle against apartheid, calls for a boycott on South African fruit (UPDATE: A reader found a larger image so you can see more detail; via):
The visual of
workers soldiers superimposed on the fruit, with workers and protesters in the background, and the phrase “Every bite buys a bullet!”, remind consumers that items they buy having meaning for the world around them, and that they aren’t just exchanging money at a grocery store in return for that fruit; they are buying into a system of production that provides profits for a racist government, which uses those profits to buy military supplies used to enforce its brutal, unequal racist policies.
As Martin says,
In Capital Marx says that commodity fetishism presents relations between men as relations between things — and this poster is a powerful example of an attempt to demystify commodities and reveal that they are in fact relations between human beings.