The Introduction to Marxism site, written and designed by Dino Felluga and hosted by Purdue University, is an invaluable resource. The module “On Fetishism” explains Marx’s distinction between the use-value and the exchange value of the commodity. Use-value is inextricably tied to “the physical properties of the commodity“; that is, the material uses to which the object can actually be put, the human needs it fulfills. In the exchange of goods on the capitalist market, however, exchange-value dominates: two commodities can be exchanged on the open market because they are always being compared to a third term that functions as their “universal equivalent,” a function that is eventually taken over by money (Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory).
But what is money? Following Marx, David Hawkes conceptualizes money as a symbol of human labor power. In this podcast, Hawkes discusses Marx’s central concepts, but applies them to pre-industrial and post-colonial contexts (it runs approx. one hour).
At the heart of the global economy, a regime dominated by lending and finance, is a symbol we call money. What does this say about who we are and how we work, and what ethical judgments can and should be made about money, wage labor, and capital investment? David Hawkes draws connections among money, human labor-time, usury, and other cultures’ beliefs in magic.
Hawkes emphasizes how usury (understood as lending for interest, in general) historically has been seen as a violation of both spiritual and natural laws. All previous systems of philosophy or world religions, all systems of thought, condemn usury, yet “usury runs our economy,” Hawkes asserts. Hawkes links usury to the distinction between use-value and exchange-value, which he traces back to Aristotle. Aristotle’s main objection to usury was that it’s “unnatural” in that it takes something that is not part of nature and allows it to “reproduce,” and to acquire needs, desires, impulses and interests. In the view of Aristotle and Marx, the purpose of economic activity is to produce use-value, things we can use — not money. Both Aristotle and Marx warned of the dangers of the rule of money (including the fetishization of money).