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READ : Part II: Ideology and Commodity Fetishism
As noted in the introduction to this unit, in past decades many anthropologists and scholars have been interested in the question of what it is that leads individuals to accept a given organization of social relations and distribution of power, even when the resulting social system works against their best interests. One way in which anthropologists have attempted to answer this question is through the concept of ideology. We can define ideology broadly as the social beliefs, practices, or sense of self that make the existing organization of social relations, no matter how unequal they may be, appear simply natural and right, or otherwise encourage us to reproduce existing systems of power and inequality even when we recognize them as unfair.
The above definition, however, includes often quite different and even contradictory approaches to the concept of ideology. In this section of the unit notes, we will further explore and unpack the concept of ideology. We will explore three different approaches to the concept of ideology that have been developed and adopted by anthropologists and other social theorists. These include: the “false consciousness” theory of ideology, the “cynical reason” theory of ideology, and an approach to ideology that views it as an ambivalent commitment to promises of “the good life.” While these approaches to ideology have been applied to a broad array of social and political contexts, here we will focus in particular on how they relate to arguments about capitalism, with a special emphasis on Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his concept of commodity fetishism.
For those who may be studying Marx in other classes or will do so in the future, it may be useful to note that in Marx’s own writings the theory of ideology is developed most explicitly in one of his early works, The German Ideology. Marx does not explicitly use the term ideology in relation to his concept of commodity fetishism. However, later theorists have argued that commodity fetishism should be viewed as a form of ideology, an argument which has been instrumental in the development of different approaches to this concept.
2.1 Ideology as “False Consciousness”
Your textbook argues that Marx adopts a “false consciousness” approach to ideology. The false consciousness theory of ideology argues that ideology works primarily through the adoption by individuals of “false” ideas and beliefs that persuade them to accept the rule of the governing class or existing social order as simply natural and right. Analysts argue that these ideas and beliefs are “false” because they misrepresent some aspect of that dominant social system, for instance, by representing capitalism as though it guaranteed individual equality when it in fact depends on, as we have seen in Unit 6, the systematic exploitation of workers’ labour.
The “American Dream” provides us with a compelling example of how ideology would seem to function as such false ideas and beliefs. The “American Dream” can be taken to refer to the long-standing belief or myth, often replayed in films, advertisements, or political campaigns, that, in the United States, every individual has equal opportunity to succeed financially through their own individual hard work and perseverance. Many social theorists argue that this belief is false because it ignores how various social differences and identities – race, ethnicity, class origin and economic status, gender, and so on –contribute to whether or not and to what degree individuals are able to succeed financially and in their careers in the United States, as well as, the various ways in which capitalism in the United States and elsewhere depends on exploiting the labour of workers.
The false consciousness theory of ideology is compelling. It points to how dominant ideas and beliefs within a society often do not measure up to its reality, encouraging individuals to support an organization of society that may work against their own best interests or those of many others. Understandings of ideology as ideas and beliefs about the organization of society and distribution of power that are simply or totally false, however, also have important limitations. For instance, consider Karl Marx’s comparison of capitalism to other modes of production. As outlined in Unit 6, Marx argues that in some ways capitalism does in fact promote greater equality than do other modes of production or ways of organizing labour, such as medieval feudalism or modern forms of slavery. Under medieval feudalism, individuals are born to a particular station in life, and remain in that station for life. The serf works the land that belongs to his or her lord, extracts just enough to allow for his or her survival, and gives the rest to the lord. There is no possibility of moving out of that position. Modern forms of slavery similarly involve a coercive and violent relationship of power. Slaves were obliged by individuals to whom they were sold as so much property to work, often through violence, were allowed enough to survive (or not), and the remaining products of their labour went to the benefit of their owners.
By contrast, according to Marx, capitalism offers relative freedom. The worker sells his or her labour as a commodity to capitalists who own the means of production. If workers don’t like where they work, then, at least in theory, they are free to look for work elsewhere. There may be serious limitations to where and what types of work any particular worker can locate, but again, by comparison to the serf or the slave, there is a relative freedom at work here. Again, in principle, there is nothing to prevent the worker from looking for work elsewhere. Yet even if capitalism promotes a relative freedom by comparison to feudalism or slavery, it also involves its own particular forms of exploitation and inequality. Recall, as we noted in Unit 6, Marx’s argument that capitalism depends on extracting a surplus-value from the labour of workers for which the workers are not compensated. The creation of new commodities with new and greater values than the materials used to make them depends on the labour of worker, but workers are not compensated for this increased or surplus-value. Instead, companies come up with various strategies, including, for instance, outsourcing labour to areas of the world in which workers are paid less for their labour or there are fewer environmental and safety protections and standards, in order to increase the gap between costs to the company, such as paying workers’ wages, and the profits made by the company through the sale of its products.
From this perspective, myths such as the American Dream are not “just” or simply false. The contemporary United States and capitalism arguably do offer greater opportunities for equality and social mobility than did medieval feudalism or modern slavery. In that sense, we must minimally understand that ideologies may often have some basis in reality, even as they encourage us to gloss over or ignore other aspects of how society is functioning. In the case of the American Dream, for instance, the representation of the contemporary United States and capitalism as offering equal opportunity to all individuals is true when we compare the contemporary United States or capitalism to medieval feudalism or slavery, but false when it leads us to equate this relative freedom for an absolute freedom or equality. From this perspective, we might say that the American Dream has some basis in reality, but nonetheless misrepresents or ignores how social differences such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, and so on, give some individuals more opportunities for financial or career success than, as well as, more broadly, how capitalism depends on exploiting workers’ labour in order to increase profits.
Both a simple or a revised notion of ideology as false consciousness retains at core both a similar view of how ideology works and how it can be overturned. In this approach, ideology is viewed as involving, at its core, ideas and beliefs that misrepresent some essential aspect of how the existing organization of society in fact works to reproduce inequality and exploitation. From this perspective, the task of ideology critique and, even, perhaps, the road to social change and revolution, would seem to be relatively straightforward. All we should have to do is to demonstrate to people how their ideas and beliefs about reality obscure some essential aspect of how it works in order to convince them that they or others are in fact being exploited.
2.2 The “Cynical Reason” Approach to Ideology and Commodity Fetishism
Other scholars, however, challenge the false consciousness approach to ideology. They argue that ideology does not depend just or even primarily on the ideas and beliefs that individuals hold about reality. Rather, they argue that ideology involves the ways in which individuals reproduce the dominant systems of power through their actions and behaviours. In the “cynical reason” approach to ideology, developed for instance by philosopher Slavoj Zizek (1989), this emphasis on actions as key to ideology leads some to conclude that, in many cases, individuals may even be aware of the exploitative nature of capitalism or some other social system, and yet, through their actions, may nonetheless continue to participate in and reproduce this unequal social system.
Zizek developed his cynical reason approach to ideology in large part in relation to Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. To get a better understanding of the difference between the false consciousness and the cynical reason approaches to ideology, let’s take a moment to explore that concept. Marx (1977:164) defines the commodity fetish in Volume 1 of Capital, his three-volume analysis of capitalism as follows:
“The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists . . . in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things”.
To understand what Marx means in this passage, recall, as noted in Unit 6 and above, that Marx argues that the value of commodities is derived from the labour of humans. It is through labour that materials or commodities, such as thread and material, can be brought together in order to produce a new commodity, blue jeans, with a new and greater exchange-value than the costs of producing it, or a surplus-value, which is then either reinvested in the system of production or extracted as profit. Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism suggests that, even though it is human labour, intentions, and efforts that produce the value of commodities, in our everyday lives, we treat commodities as though value were inherent in these objects themselves.
To unpack this argument, let’s look more closely at the example of jeans. Jeans were initially designed for cowboys and miners. They became a fashion staple for a broader sector of the Western population when James Dean wore them in his iconic role in the 1955 movie, Rebel Without a Cause, which then recast jeans as a statement of youth rebellion. In the 1960s, jeans were identified with hippy subcultures. And in more recent decades, they have become a staple of contemporary Western and even global fashion. In part through the cooperative activities and labour of designers, editors of fashion magazines, retail companies, and so on, popular styles of jeans continue to change every few years, such that in the early 2000s it became more fashionable for jeans to be worn around the hips and close to the legs (low-waisted skinny jeans), whereas in more recent years, waistlines have risen again on popular jean styles.
The production of many brands of jeans, meanwhile, often relies on an exploitative and global division of labour. To increase profits, many companies rely on a global and exploitative division of labour in which jeans and other clothes are produced in factories in the Global South by workers who are paid less than they would be if these same items were produced in the United States or Canada. Workers in these countries are often also required to work in more dangerous work conditions than would be considered acceptable in North America. Many of the clothes sold by widely known brands such as Joe Fresh, Walmart, or Benetton, for instance, are made in Bangladesh. In 2013, the poor conditions in which Bangladeshi workers making clothes for these brands must work came to international attention, when a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing over a thousand workers. This is a horrific tragedy by any standard, and drew global attention to the ways in which the desires of consumers in the Global North for cheap fashion depends on the exploitation by international corporations of workers in the Global South.
The value of jeans, therefore, is a product of human labour. Jeans have value for us because of the activity and labour of individuals involved in the fashion industry who work to convince consumers of the aesthetic worth of different styles at different moments through advertising campaigns and other tactics. The value of jeans also derives from an often exploitative and global division of labour in which consumers in the Global North gain access to cheap fashion at the expense of workers in the Global South, as corporations outsource labour to countries where they can pay less in wages and conditions around health and safety are lower. And yet, in spite of all of this human labour that goes into making the clothes we buy, when many of us purchase jeans, we are probably most concerned with how they look on us, whether or not they are in keeping with current trends, and their cost relative to other similar products and how much money we make. In that sense, we are behaving like commodity fetishists. We are treating the jeans as though their value, including their stylishness and cost, were the natural property of the jeans themselves instead of paying attention to the complicated human history of fashion and the global and exploitative division of labour that goes into making them.
If we follow this explanation, commodity fetishism would still seem to fit the false consciousness theory of ideology. The problem seems to be a question of false ideas or beliefs about commodities and the production of their value through human labour. From this perspective, paying attention to the conditions of labour involved in the production of jeans would be enough to rid ourselves of ideology. Zizek and others, however, argue that commodity fetishism and ideology do not depend just on our ideas and beliefs, but rather on our actions. Take the example of the jeans. As noted above, probably one of our concerns when we buy a pair of jeans is whether or not they look good on us, are up to date with current fashion trends, and are within our price range. But it may also be the case that you have a keen sense of the history and politics of fashion. Maybe you’re the kind of person who tries to keep their old clothes for as long as you can rather than spend more money on every new fashion trend that shows up. Maybe you’re even aware of the global division of labour involved in the clothing industry and prefer to buy locally produced clothes. At the same time, for all your awareness of the politics of the clothing industry, at some point your jeans are likely to develop holes and need replacing. So, you go to the store and buy a new pair. Maybe you don’t make that much money at the job you currently have, so you even find yourself buying jeans made in China or some other part of the Global South, where you suspect that workers may not be paid that well. Indeed, even if you do have the cash to buy locally produced clothing, at least according to Marx, all labour under capitalism involves some degree of exploitation. According to this perspective, regardless of whether the clothes you buy are made in Bangladesh or in Canada, you are reproducing capitalism and all of the exploitation of workers’ labour that this entails.
Zizek argues that some variant of the above scenario is how ideology often functions in modern western societies. He contends that it isn’t because we don’t know how power and exploitation function that we reproduce it. Rather, we know perfectly well, but through our actions, we reproduce the dominant power dynamics of our societies anyway. Or, to put this in terms of our jeans example above, it isn’t that we don’t know at least something about the exploitative and often global dynamics of labour that go into the products that we buy, it’s that we do know, and yet we buy these products anyway. We are commodity fetishists who end up reproducing capitalism not because we don’t know any better, but rather because we keep participating in this system even though we know something about how it works.
2.3 Ideology as an Ambivalent Attachment to Promises of the Good Life
Still other scholars argue that neither the false consciousness nor the cynical reason approaches to ideology fully account for why individuals might continue to support and reproduce existing systems of power. They contend that if we continue to reproduce a particular social system, this is because we remain attached to the ideal of a “good life” it offered us in spite of the fact that it continuously fails to deliver on that promise. Lauren Berlant (2011), suggests that if many individuals continue to reproduce capitalism, this is because we retain some hope of achieving, for instance, the dream of middle class economic stability or that of becoming rich, even when in actual fact we find ourselves working part time job after part time job or working increasing numbers of hours to keep our jobs. From this perspective, individuals are neither totally deluded nor totally cynical about the realities of contemporary capitalism. Rather, it’s because we keep hoping for some version of the life we were brought up to want, or because we see in capitalism some set of values and promises that still appeal to us, that we end up reproducing it.

To consolidate your understanding of Karl Marx’s theories of exploitation under capitalism as well as different approaches to the concepts of commodity fetishism and ideology, watch the required documentary, David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), which tracks the production and consumption of Mardi Gras beads. After watching the documentary, draw on Part IV and Part II notes, and the additional required reading by Gary Lapon, “What Do We Mean By Exploitation,” to write a brief essay answering the following questions. Note that to answer these questions and succeed on this assignment, you are strongly advised to watch the documentary more than once and take notes as you watch it.
1) In your own words, explain Marx’s theory of how exploitation works under capitalism. To answer this question, you will need to explain the differences between use-value, exchange-value, and surplus-value, what produces value according to Marx, and how capitalism reproduces exploitation and inequality. Next, describe the conditions of labour in which Chinese workers are producing the Mardi Gras beads, as well as the roles in and justifications for this labour given by the Chinese factory owner, Roger Wong, and the American distributor, Dom Carlone. How would Marx’s theory of labour, value, and exploitation under capitalism account for the production of the Mardi Gras beads?
2) In your own words, explain commodity fetishism and the different approaches taken to this practice by the false consciousness theory of ideology versus the cynical reason theory of ideology. Next, analyze some of the answers given by people at the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans when the documentarist asks them if they know where the beads come from. Which of the responses of the Mardi Gras celebrators might be seen as an example of a false consciousness version of commodity fetishism? Why? Which seems more like a cynical reason version of commodity fetishism? Why? One way to approach this question is to choose responses which seem particularly good examples of one or the other approach to commodity fetishism and compare and contrast them. You may draw on the responses of Mardi Gras celebrators provided at any point in the documentary, but note that some excellent responses can be found in a brief sequence beginning at minute 31 of the documentary.
Your papers should take an essay form.
Arguments from the unit notes, the textbook, or the article by Lapon, should be either paraphrased or cited using American Psychological Association (APA) citation and format style.
Provide a reference for the documentary in your reference page as follows:
Redmon, David. (2005). Mardi Gras: Made in China. Carnivalesque Film Productions.
Your paper should be 2-3 pages long, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, using a 12-point font.
Referencing Style
All references should be cited using American Psychological Association (APA) citation and format style

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