Postmodernism, commodity fetishism and hegemony

Issue: 105

NĂ©stor Kohan

This is an edited translation from the Spanish of a paper given by the Argentinian Marxist philosopher Néstor Kohan in Portugal in October. The original title was ‘The Theory of Commodity Fetishism and the Struggle for Hegemony in the Era of Global Resistance’. It contains a few philosophical references general readers may have difficulty in following. We try to explain these in footnotes, with other references in endnotes, as usual.

Time for accounting

The first few years of a new millennium have brought a range of new struggles against the ‘new world order’, from mass mobilisations against imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the protests against US involve¬ment in Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America, and the struggles of the Brazilian MST and the piqueteros of Argentina. And in the heart of the capitalist metropolis there is the growth of ‘new’ social movements—although in fact many of them have long histories—like the environmentalists, gay and lesbian and ethnic organisations, squatters, movements against repression and so on.

This broad spectrum of struggles, important in themselves, has not yet formed a common front against capitalism and imperialism. The World Social Forums represent a first attempt at dialogue, but they are weak, and these movements still lack the kind of real coordination that could allow them to develop common long-term strategies. It is important that we recognise these limitations if the struggle against global capitalism is to advance.

A crucial first step in that discussion must be to recognise a number of theoretical positions which have made that understanding more difficult by attempting to legitimate this fragmentation as ‘the best of all possible worlds’. Unless we make a critical assessment of the philosophical perspec¬tives which predominated through the 1980s and 1990s we will not be able to analyse, understand or ultimately overcome our present difficulties.

An inherited fragmentation

It has been a common experience of the last three decades that the ruling classes of the world have pursued a strategy of divide and rule. Yet that commonsense assertion does not, in itself, allow us to understand the complex modes of domination that characterise our times.

The theory of commodity fetishism has a key role in helping us to overcome the divisions that affect the anti-capitalist movement. Yet in recent times the theory has suffered from a rather ‘bad press’ and has lost credibility in academic circles. In my view, that is no accident.

What are the reasons why the theory of commodity fetishism has been either abandoned completely or at best assigned an entirely marginal role in the critique of capitalism? At the level of theory, there is no doubt that the Althusseriana assault left a deep mark on the thinking of the left. And although the writings of Althusser and his disciples were subjected to a widespread critique, they established an important precedent. The mes¬senger was shot, while the message slipped through. From that point on, the mere mention of fetishism or reificationb brought an immediate condemnation as a symptom of neo-Hegelianism and thus of philosophical idealism, a barely disguised turn to bourgeois ideology.

With some few and honourable exceptions, the references to the Marxist theory of fetishism (and to its earlier expression in Marx’s discussion of alienation) grow fewer and fewer.

The fetishism of historical process requires certain prior conditions— the reification of social relations, the personification of the products of labour, the inversion of subject and object, the crystallisation of global social labour in a world of objects that seems to be autonomous and to grow independently, the coexistence of the rationality of the part and the irrationality of the whole, and the fragmentation of the social totality. Something similar occurs with other historical processes symptomatic of ‘alienation’ (the autonomy of manufactured products which turn against their producers, the alienated character of all social relations, the labour process as suffering, etc).

In all these instances, the use of the terms as ‘fetishised’ or ‘alienated’ assumes that there are autonomous social subjects who suffer a loss of their autonomy, their rationality, their capacity to plan social relations democrat¬ically and their control of the conditions of their own existence.

Yet the very existence of such subjects was called into question as postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism and so on began to pro¬liferate in academic circles over the last three decades. Most of these schools of thought would insist that they are anti-metaphysical;c but each ends by attributing an ‘ontological’d significance to a particular moment in the history of the development of Western (and particularly European) capitalism. They ascribe a universal character to a social reality in which fragmentary political discourses prevail, social movements become dispersed, and the old subjectivities become schizophrenic. Yet in fact these are the characteristics of one specific stage in the course of capitalist development.

Gramsci argued that any philosophical posture that affirms that there are universals outside history and politics is a pure metaphysics, separated from human history.1 Metaphysical truths acknowledge neither time nor space; they are abstracted from human history and fail to explain the social conditions in which their terms originate. It is our view that postmod¬ernism, post-Marxism, etc all share this perspective, for all their minimalist and relativist protestations; that is why we consider terms like ‘the plurality’, ‘the flow of desire’, ‘the diversity of the Other’, ‘local Powers’e and so on to be metaphysical concepts.

All these metaphysics cry out with one voice, ‘There is no longer a subject,’ and they replace the subject with a proliferation of multiplicities or ‘agencies’ which have nothing to unite them in a collective identity born of class consciousness or class struggle. If there were no subjects, of course, then alienation, solitude, all imposed suffering, manipulation, cultural and sexual suffering, all obstacles to social cooperation, all exploitation in fact, would disappear as if by magic. All that would remain would be schizophrenia, linguistic chaos, the decentring of the subject which alone can provide meaning, the dominance of the flattened space of the image over the profound historical time on which individual and collective identity and memory are built. All class memory and consciousness would be dis¬solved into a single blurred snapshot that shatters instantly into a thousand fragments. With the disappearance of the subject, all possibilities of a cri¬tique or radical opposition to capitalism and its inauthentic, commodified, reified life also disappear.

This mode of thought buries the dialectic, announces from its comfortable university chairs the death of the subject, expurgates contradiction from the social sciences, abandons forever any struggle for the state on the basis of the supposedly ‘Jacobin’ character of that struggle, dreams of guar¬anteeing pluralism without a revolution. In a word, it abandons any possibility of revolutionary struggle against capitalism and provides a metaphysical justification for impotence. And it does so, not in the language of reformism, but through a series of theoretical neologismsf, political euphemisms and rhetorical gestures which never produce any new theory capable of rivalling Marxism.

From grand theory to the micro-narrative

The critique of capitalist exploitation and domination moved in those years from grand theory—for example, the concept of ‘mode of production’ as the articulated totality of social relations—to the micro-narrative, from the questioning of the class nature of the state to surface description and the ‘autonomy’ of the political, from the attempt to move beyond the practical consciousness of social subjects to a populist apology for the specific discourses of each segment of society.

Then came the ‘linguistic turn’, with its debt to Heideggerg and his intolerable neologisms, in which the social world becomes mere image and representation, and revolutionary praxis dissolves into pure discourse.

Some may argue that post-structuralism and postmodernism are
distinct currents. We, on the other hand, share Fredric Jameson’s view that ‘contemporary theory (essentially postmodernism) should be considered as just one more postmodern phenomenon’. It might also be argued that post-structuralism contains two different currents—one that reduces social reality to text (Derrida, for example) and another which acknowledges an extra-discursive reality, spoken and unspoken (like Foucault). Yet both are rooted in the abandonment of the subject, the difficulty of constructing any form of opposition to the capitalist totality and the absence of any theory which permits a conception of a transforming collective praxis.

The sad fetishism of the cheerful fragment.

In the new theories, the complex instances of social life become absolutely ‘autonomous’; the local fragment takes on a life of its own without refer¬ence to any global directions in the struggle. The specificity of each rebellion (of the oppressed ethnicity, people or community, gender, sexual minority, generation, etc) acknowledges no connection with any other and any attempt to integrate the different struggles into a common strategy is viewed with suspicion as an outmoded idea. ‘All collective representations are totalitarian’ it is argued. ‘No group can speak on behalf of any other.’ Each sphere of domination can thus only be contested from within its own sphere, an isolated ghetto disengaged from any global vision or any universal sense.

The media monopolies were happy to underline and disseminate this mode of thought, celebrating the disconnectedness of things, the cult of ‘spontaneity’, niche micropolitics and the absence of any long-term global political strategy. The struggles for the recognition of cultural difference, while legitimate in themselves, did not touch the capitalist mode of pro¬duction as a totality. They unsettled the system, winning occasional reforms which increased the degree of ‘tolerance’ towards the new social subjects, but they inflicted no serious—let alone mortal—wounds.

The decision by the US military—a genocidal invasion force and protector of big capital—to admit homosexuals and promote Latinos and Afro-Americans to high rank , and to allow women to conduct the torture of prisoners in Iraq, was as emblematic in this respect as George Bush’s decision to promote a woman of colour as his National Security Adviser, the chief spokesperson for the extreme right of imperialism. All these examples are expressions of the policy of ‘tolerance’, ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect for diversity’ so fervently pursued by the ‘post’ metaphysicians.

Separating patriarchy from class, colonial domination from imperi¬alist expansion, racism from colonialism, the systematic destruction of the environment from the irrationality of capitalist accumulation, led inescapably to the ghettoisation of each social movement. Every politics became a micropolitics, every protest a partial protest, every cry of revulsion a local whisper.

All of these thinkers shared the view that such conflicts did not touch on the heart of capitalist social relations. Thus they were all suscep¬tible of solution within an enigmatic presumed ‘absolute democracy’ (according to Negri) or ‘radical democracy’ (in Laclau’s terms) which would leave capitalism itself intact. How surprising! For the majority of post-structuralists, post-Marxists, et al, capitalism can be compatible with ‘respect for the other’, ‘democratic dialogue’, ‘an end to discrimination’.

‘Pluralism’ or the temptations of liberalism

The ‘post’ metaphysicians focused on social relations in their plurality and dispersion; their specificity resisted any political articulation against capital’s general exploitation and domination. The only outcome was a growing frustration as it became impossible to identify the common enemy against whom we should direct our struggles and protests. In this way, the ‘post’ metaphysicians gave universal ontological status to a sense of powerlessness that characterised one particular historical moment.

Under the aegis of a ‘libertarian’ and ‘pluralist’ dialect, the old liberal tradition which rejected any type of global politics in favour of the private and the particular was restated in a new neo-anarchist jargon which bore no relation at all, for example, to the anarchist traditions which had led social struggles in Spain and Argentina in the 1920s and 1930s. It uses a libertarian rhetoric of the left to veil right wing ideological clichés. Alex Callinicos makes a similar point in his discussion of Foucault’s description of 1968 as ‘anti-Marxist’.2

Foucault’s theoretical writings do include some insights and ideas which have absolutely no place in the ‘post’ metaphysics to whose con¬struction he paradoxically contributed; but the academic postmodernists elegantly sidestep those aspects of his thought3 where he goes beyond the metaphysics of Power (whose capital letter disengages the concept from class determination) to locate the institutions of punishment and discipline in a historical context linked explicitly to primitive capital accumulation in Europe. If, despite all his post-structuralist baggage, Foucault sometimes returns to Marxist thinking and leaves metaphysics behind, the same cannot be said of the French ‘new philosophers’. These ex-Maoists had by 1976¬77 begun to denounce Marxism as ‘the philosophy of the Gulag’, giving their support first to social democracy before becoming noisy fans of neo¬liberalism.4

The products of defeat

The ‘post’ metaphysicians were the progeny of a triple defeat. In Western Europe they blossomed amid the post-1968 disillusionment, the electoral defeats of the 1970s and the crisis of Eurocommunism; in the US they emerged in the wake of the defeat of the black and student rebellions of the 1960s; in Latin America after military repression, with the thousands tor¬tured and disappeared in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Peru, drowned the insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s in torrents of blood.

What followed was fragmentation. The absence of any coordinating organisation left only the possibility of resistance by each social movement within its own framework.

The ‘post’ metaphysics followed, transforming the inescapable into a virtue. This joyful acceptance of postmodernism and post-structuralism was linked in Western Europe, its birthplace, to the emergence of new well paid and comfortable middle sectors (largely in management roles) who enjoyed high levels of consumption under Thatcher in Britain and her acolytes else¬where—the ‘children of Marx and Coca Cola’, as Alex Callinicos describes the young intellectuals whose disillusionment after the failure of 1968 led them back into the arms of the system.

In the US, the fashion for ‘post’ everything spread through the academic world once the repressive forces of the state had neutralised the black struggle and the anti Vietnam War movement declined. The ideological operation consisted in depoliticising the cultural critique of capitalism developed by the Frankfurt school, the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams and the Gramscians of the Anglo-Saxon world. With no politics, and above all without Marxism, the socialist critique of culture became the innocuous ‘cultural studies’ so easily assimilated by US academia and its bland peer-reviewed journals.

This homogenisation and reduction of critical theory reached its extreme in ‘post-colonial studies’ which were a wretched parody of the militant anti-colonialism of a Franz Fanon, a Guevara or a Ho Chi Minh, not to mention the Black Panthers or Malcolm X. Study followed study, as if nothing new were happening in the world, as if US marines were not continuing to invade countries, imposing neo-colonial regimes, launching oil wars, and torturing on a mass scale just as they had in Vietnam.

In Latin America this ideological initiative was more complex. A number of ‘post’ theorists did appear in universities, funded by social democratic foundations which were busy co-opting intellectuals, especially ex-leftists who had repented of their past. But a different sector began to emerge in the 1990s with the proliferation of NGOs. These were largely ex-militants of the left who had survived the genocides of the previous decade, but were hard hit by the defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, the tem¬porary isolation of the Cuban Revolution, the echoes of the Soviet collapse and the disillusionment with the so called ‘transitions to democracy’ which followed the end of the military dictatorships.

These survivors of the left did not bother with Foucaultian, Deleuzian or Derridian hermeneuticsh but simply began to repeat the pseudo-liberal pluralist jargon and the critique of revolutionary Marxism passed on by the Europeans. They tended to buy the whole package of Eurocommunist demoralisation. In the 1990s they began to seek to legitimate their strategy by appealing to the authority of Zapatismo and the so called ‘autonomy of the indigenous nations of Latin America’. But in fact they were simply mimicking their European puppetmasters, and did the same with the Argentinian rebellion of 2001. By hook or by crook the Latin American rebellion would be forced to fit the mould of post-metaphysics.

Power in ‘post’ metaphysics

One of the rather puerile discursive devices used in the cultural studies and political writings (even of the left) based on ‘post’ metaphysics consists of replacing singular by plural nouns, as if the simple addition of an ‘s’ produced a different way of seeing the world. Thus resistance became ‘the resistances’, capitalism became ‘capitalisms’, imperialism ‘imperialisms’. This scattering of ‘s’s is one of the many symptoms of the frivolity and triviality of the political thought arising out of the ‘post’ metaphysics. ‘The style becomes the message’ and an iconoclastic literary form often serves simply to obscure the underlying political content.

But not everything is a question of style; the work of the ‘post’ metaphysicians has a deeper theoretical significance, hypostasisingi certain social relations, dissociating them from others and placing them above the totality of social relations rather than within that totality. They thus become a kind of omnipotent god and the sole explanation for the reproduction of the social order. The mode of thought which produces this fetishistic hypostasis is present in all the ‘post’ schools. Though it is given a different name in each case, the operation is always the same. It is called ‘Ideology’ in the late work of Althusser, ‘Power’ in Foucault, ‘Discourse’ in Laclau, ‘Differance’ in Derrida, ‘Constitutive Power-Potential’ in Negri, ‘Interpretation’ by Vattimo, ‘Desire’ by Deleuze and Guattari—but it always begins with a capital letter.

All these metaphysics complain about a supposed Marxist reductionism (characteristic of a Stalinism long since discredited and no longer a serious participant in the scientific debates) which centres on the Economic. Yet in the end they all replace that economic reductionism with other equivalent reductions, and are never able to overcome the fetishistic fragmentation which impedes any understanding of capitalism as an articu¬lated and historical totality of social relations.

These philosophical and political positions did not even recognise any centralised power against which to mount the struggle. Instead, in their most extreme formulations, political logic was transformed into an endless skein of fragmented and dispersed logics expressed in reciprocally untranslatable languages. ‘There is no power, only powers!’ as the post-1968 philosophers declaimed, opening the door, despite all their oppositional gestures and left wing rhetoric, to postmodern conformity.

If there is no longer a central power to fight against, no privileged space of confrontation where exploiters and oppressors could form a common front to ensure the reproduction of the social order, then neither can there be any way of radically opposing the whole or proposing an alternative to it. Revolution is no longer a possibility—not because we do not possess the forces to carry it through at a given time but because it is…logically impossible!

So what are we left with? Social movements enclosed within their own circle and limited to their local demands, a politics that is no longer capable of generalisation or of mounting a struggle for the emancipation of all. For all the ‘libertarian’ gestures and the language of confrontation, in the end these ideas represent a return to the moth-eaten and outdated ideas of social reformism. Since there is no possibility of challenging power, only reforms are possible—and the device of calling them ‘radical’ reforms does not change their political character.

But at least the reformism of the late 19th century, the reformism propounded by Eduard Bernstein, had the virtue of honesty; it recognised its weakness in the face of the power of capital and claimed that its gradu¬alist approach could avoid ‘social violence’ and the repression of the workers’ movement. The postmodernist formulations, by contrast, side-step reality, transform it into mere discourse, claim weakness as a strength and necessity as a virtue, and by sleight of hand disguise the old reformism as a ‘new radicalism’. But it is radicalism in name only, bereft of any political force.

The globalising logic of capitalism

Paradoxically, while the academic philosophical literature of the last three decades of the 20th century was dominated by the fetishism of the fragment, capitalism was moving in exactly the opposite direction as far as the economic, political and military order were concerned. Although capitalism has been a global system from its very origins, the world has never seen a period of globalisation of social relations mediated by capital like the present one. This began with the oil crisis of the early 1970s, with the crisis of the dollar and with the Pinochet coup in Chile, which marked the inauguration of neo-liberalism in Latin America before it spread onto the world stage. There was an accelerating expansion of capitalist market relations. In less than two decades they engulfed the planet, incorporating into their global domination millions of workers who until then were trying to survive in post-capitalist transition regimes. Nobody was exempt.

As Jameson lucidly puts it, this whole postmodern culture is the expression of a new wave of US military and economic domination on a world scale: ‘In this sense, the background to the culture is, as it always has been, blood, torture, horror and death’.5

While postmodernism pays homage to ‘difference’ and liberalism elevates tolerance for the ‘Other’, the world capitalist market homogenises everything and crushes all diversity. The forced integration of the world system begins with the use of bombs and bonds to overwhelm all dissidence and opposition while legitimising itself in the name of tolerance and differ¬ence. Metaphysical pluralism and relativism are the decorative covering worn by US bombers and tanks, the IMF and the World Bank.

While university philosophy departments and the publishing industry sanctioned the universe of the micro-narrative and the fragment in the 1980s and 1990s, the opposite was happening outside the seminar rooms. Specific identities were dissolving into a perverse and menacing global logic. Postmodernism, in a word, was inverting reality—and giving legitimacy to the domination of capital. While postmodernism and post-structuralism were winning sections of the movement to their cult of the fragment and the part, neo-liberal ideology was recommending to capital that it accelerate globalisation.

At the bottom, we were being told to abandon the struggle for power; at the top, the talk was of strengthening domination. At the bottom we were told to keep our eyes fixed on our own navel (workers to stick to wage demands, women to patriarchy, ecologists to the environment, sexual minorities to issues of sexual preference) and not to exchange glances; meanwhile at the top, global market strategies were being prepared. Below micro—macro above.

How should we understand this combined but unequal coexistence between the philosophical and the economic, between ‘post’ metaphysics and neo-liberalism?

It is not as an accidental coincidence in chronological time; they are connected and complementary. The theoretical explanation is to be found in the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism, read in primarily political terms. This theory, ‘forgotten’ by fashionable academic discourse, can offer an explanation for the apparent contradictions.

The theory of fetishism and its notion of the subject

All ‘post’ metaphysics accepted as common sense Althusser’s contention that the theory of commodity fetishism belonged to the ‘humanism’ (always a critical term) of a youthful and insufficiently socialist Marx who had not yet elaborated his key concepts and categories in a way different to Feuerbach. This was assumed to be the correct conclusion derived from a careful and rigorous philosophical reading. In fact, the origins of this theory are more complex than is believed.

‘Fetish’ comes from the Portuguese word meaning ‘made by human hand’. Marx used the term for the first time in his essay ‘Debates on the Law Punishing the Theft of Charcoal’ (1842): ‘The provinces have the right to create these gods but once they are created, they must then forget, like all those who revere fetishes, that the gods were the product of their own hands.’ Later in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx takes from Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit the concept of ‘alienation’ and the idea of the human species as the product of labour understood as mediation and nega¬tion. From the Grundrisse (1857-58) onwards Marx further develops the question of fetishism, but starting with money rather than the commodity.

Marx revised the first volume of Capital (published in 1867) for the second German edition in 1872-73. One of the chapters most carefully and thoroughly revised, perhaps the most carefully revised by Marx of any of his texts, is ‘The fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ (Section 4 of chapter 1). It is only in the second edition that Marx separates this section from the chapter on value and gives it this distinct title. So this theory actually corresponds to the mature Marx, despite the Althusserian analysis of his writings, which for decades was taken to be the last word on the subject. Indeed it can be shown that it was among the very last of his handwritten revisions of Capital.

Marx formulates one of the key concepts in his critique of capitalism and political economy in this section. George Lukács, in his History and Class Consciousness (1923), a key work of Marxist philosophy, insists that the chapter on fetishism contains and synthesises the whole of historical mate¬rialism, the whole of working class consciousness as the consciousness of capitalist society (and Lukács had not read the 1844 Manuscripts when he wrote this book, since it had not yet been published).

Although the theories of alienation and fetishism have much in common (the inversion of subject and object, personification and reifica¬tion, for example), fetishism derives exclusively from the study of capitalist market relations. And while in his 1867-73 writings Marx does allude to processes akin to those discussed in 1844, he avoids any reference to any lost or alienated ‘human essence’. Fetishism is a historical process that can be overcome and is not some essence buried in the heart of the metaphysical individual.

That is why it is a serious error on the part of the ‘post’ metaphysicians to ascribe to the Marxist theory of fetishism any fixed, bourgeois, liberal notion of the ‘individual subject’. As Marx repeats over and over again in Capital, any notion of a free subject making wholly rational decisions in full self-consciousness and self-control is a juridical myth—although it is that very modern subject that stands at the heart of neo-classical political economy and its calculating rationality, the ‘free subject’ of bourgeois ideology.

The Marxist subject, by contrast, is not the Cartesian rationalist, the bourgeois owner of goods and capital, autonomous, sovereign and free to enter into contracts so beloved of political economy. It is, on the contrary, a collective subject which constitutes itself as such (incorporating the many individualities and identities contained within the group) in the course of struggle against its historic enemy. It is the working class as a whole, whose rationality is neither calculating nor instrumental. The political theory which defends its strategic interests is neither the liberal idea of social contracts, nor the social world of isolated Leibnisian monadsj where every human becomes a wolf preying on every other human (Hobbes) and whose mutually exclusive individual life is organised by the ‘invisible hand’ that Adam Smith and his followers spoke of.

This elementary distinction between two diametrically opposed conceptions of the subject must be the starting point if we are to avoid the misreadings and misunderstandings that so often lead to the questioning of Marx by ‘post’ metaphysicians.

The theory of fetishism—a ‘forgotten’ notion

Marx argues in his critical theory of fetishism that, with primitive accumu¬lation and the generalised exchange of commodities, the conditions under which popular masses live take on a life of their own, as if they were persons. Capital becomes the subject and the expropriated producers become objects. The personification of things is combined with the reification of human beings, the apparent rationality of the part with the irrationality of the whole.

Fetishism also freezes the processes of development, ideologically defining one aspect of the social as fixed when in reality it is dynamic and changing. Social relations suddenly ‘evaporate’ and are replaced by objects which become the sole mediators of intersubjective social relations. The apparent ‘absolute objectivity’ of the social order overwhelms the subjectiv¬ities subordinated by the fetishist order. The laws that prevail in that objective reality escape all human control and become autonomous, independent of any collective will or consciousness.

In Capital the theory of fetishism is the foundation of the theory of value and the critique of political economy. If Smith and Ricardok investi¬gated the value of products in terms of social necessary labour time, they never asked the question, ‘Why does human labour generate value?’ The answer to that question leads us back to the theory of commodity fetishism and abstract labour, that living labour is crystallised as value because it has been produced in the context of commodity production.

Marx’s modesty led him to acknowledge repeatedly that he had not discovered the class struggle, or the appropriation of the economic surplus, or even socialism or communism. But he did take some pride in having developed the category of surplus value in general (beyond profit, rent or interest), the necessity of a period of transition to communism under workers’ control, and the difference between concrete and abstract labour, the key to the critique of political economy. In Capital Marx avers, ‘I have been the first person critically expound the double nature of the labour contained in the commodity…and that is the key to un