Friday, June 11, 2010

Commodities and Contradictions

I have to riff a bit more on the “paradox of the preface” that Andrew Pessin thinks can be the cure for those pesky ol' religious conflicts. Pessin recommends believers operate with a contradictory combination of beliefs: being certain that their religion is true while thinking that they may be wrong about that certainty. Of course logically this is nonsense, as Ophelia Benson puts it over at the excellent Butterflies and Wheels making it “I am certain” he turns the whole thing into gibberish. If you are already quite certain that you have made a mistake somewhere, then you can’t also be certain that you haven’t – you can’t be certain that every sentence is true.

Now of course people can function while holding contradictory beliefs; the key being that they alternate between their two opposing positions in such a way that they avoid the nasty cognitive dissonance that might force them to confront the fact of the contradiction. I gave an example of this in my last post: the believer who wouldn't accept non-rational means of decision-making when going about their daily tasks but who is quite happy to abandon reason when talking about metaphysical issues.

However, there's an even more glaring example of living and functioning with contradictions that we deal with every day- what Marx referred to as “commodity fetishism”. No, not that fun kind of fetish; rather Marx has in mind the icons and statues worshipped in many religions, objects that are really just hunks of wood or stone but that are thought by believers to have magical powers.

In our modern world rather than statues of Ganesh we make fetishes of commodities. We come to mistake the results of social relations as objective qualities that inhere in the objects themselves. We come to think that the values of objects that we create are somehow natural aspects of those objects and “the market” as if both the objects and the market are not simply the solidified final result of many human social interactions. Really, we come to think the things we create are in the saddle rather than ourselves. Commodity fetishism is essential to capitalism, obviously. It's no accident Marx used the religious terminology of the fetish when describing how:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

In part this is a form of “scale error” since it's not too hard, when we personally create an object or perform a service, to see that our work depends on relations to other people and springs from our own creative powers. Later that same day when we become buyers of commodities it becomes almost impossible for us to keep in mind that our earlier understanding still applies. We see our food, lying serenely on the store shelf, as something brought and priced by the hand of the market and not as a chain of human relationships of which we play a part. We can't see the entire ensemble of commodities we encounter each day as being of the same nature as the ones we create. Of course it's hard to take in such a totality, especially as in the last few centuries the objects we encounter have often incorporated labor of people in multiple countries over long periods of production and spanning vast webs of interrelationships. How else is it that we can feel vague pity for starving children in third-world areas and not see that their specific economic situation is directly tied to our economic and political choices? How else is it that we can think it is normal to “rent yourself” to an employer who gets to appropriate the things you create with your labor?? The exclusionary function of commodity fetishism reminds me of the exclusionary function of religious doctrine, which is supposedly universal for all humans (as God's beloved creations) and yet in practice sharply distinguishes between believers and heretics (to the extent that unbelievers must be tortured for eternity, no less!).

All this just tells me that Pessin's advice is unneeded and ineffective; we already live with contradictions . We alternate between contradictory positions in different times of day, in different locations or in when taking on different social roles. Social progress is largely composed of ferreting out these contradictory (read: hypocritical) positions and dealing with them. Pessin would have us try to heighten this tension by constantly crashing our contradictory notions together, but not even with an eye toward transcending them. Strange medicine, that.

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