Inicio > Economía marxista, Filosofía marxista > «Commodity fetishism»: Fredy Perlman

«Commodity fetishism»: Fredy Perlman

Fredy Perlman’s 1968 Introduction to I.I. Rubin’s «Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value«, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1973.


According to economists whose theories currently prevail in America, economics has replaced political economy, and economics deals with scarcity, prices, and resource allocation. In the definition of Paul Samuelson, «economics – or political economy, as it used to be called … is the study of how men and society choose, with or without the use of money, to employ scarce productive resources, which could have alternative uses, to produce various commodities over time and distribute them for consumption, now and in the future, among various people and groups in society.»(1) According to Robert Campbell, «One of the central preoccupations of economics has always been what determines price.»(2) In the words of another expert, «Any community, the primers tell us, has to deal with a pervasive economic problem: how to determine the uses of available resources, including not only goods and services that can be employed productively but also other scarce supplies.»(3)

If economics is indeed merely a new name for political economy, and if the subject matter which was once covered under the heading of political economy is now covered by economics, then economics has replaced political economy. However, if the subject matter of political economy is not the same as that of economics, then the «replacement» of political economy is actually an omission of a field of knowledge. If economics answers different questions from those raised by political economy, and if the omitted questions refer to the form and the quality of human life within the dominant social-economic system, then this omission can be called a «great evasion».(4)

The Soviet economic theorist and historian I.I. Rubin suggested a definition of political economy which has nothing in common with the definitions of economics quoted above. According to Rubin, «Political economy deals with human working activity, not from the standpoint of its technical methods and instruments of labor, but from the standpoint of its social form. It deals with production relations which are established among people in the process of production.»(5) In terms of this definition, political economy is not the study of prices or of scarce resources; it is a study of social relations, a study of culture. Political economy asks why the productive forces of society develop within a particular social form, why the machine process unfolds within the context of business enterprise, why industrialization takes the form of capitalist development. Political economy asks how the working activity of people is regulated in a specific, historical form of economy.

The contemporary American definitions of economics quoted earlier clearly deal with different problems, raise different questions, and refer to a different subject matter from that of political economy as defined by Rubin. This means one of two things: (a) either economics and political economy are two different branches of knowledge, in which case the «replacement» of political economy by economics simply means that the American practitioners of one branch have replaced the other branch, or (b) economics is indeed the new name for what «used to be called» political economy; in this case, by defining economics as a study of scarcity, prices, and resource allocation, American economists are saying that the production relations among people are not a legitimate subject for study. In this case the economists quoted above are setting themselves up as the legislators over what is, and what is not, a legitimate topic for intellectual concern; they are defining the limits of American knowledge. This type of intellectual legislation has led to predictable consequences in other societies and at other times: it has led to total ignorance in the excluded field of knowledge, and it has led to large gaps and blind spots in related fields of knowledge.

A justification for the omission of political economy from American knowledge has been given by Samuelson. In the balanced, objective language of an American professor, Samuelson says: «A billion people, one-third of the world’s population, blindly regard Das Kapital as economic gospel. And yet, without the disciplined study of economic science, how can anyone form a reasoned opinion about the merits or lack of merits in the classical, traditional economics?(6) If «a billion people» regard Das Kapital «as economic gospel», it is clearly relevant to ask why only a few million Americans regard Samuelson’s Economics «as economic gospel». Perhaps a balanced objective answer might be that «a billion people» find little that is relevant or meaningful in Samuelson’s celebrations of American capitalism and his exercises in two-dimensional geometry, whereas the few million Americans have no choice but to learn the «merits in the classical, traditional economics». Samuelson’s rhetorical question – «And yet, without the disciplined study of economic science, how can anyone form a reasoned opinion about the merits …’ – is clearly a two-edged sword, since it can be asked about any major economic theory, not merely Samuelson’s; and it clearly behooves the student to draw his own conclusion and make his own choice after a»disciplined study» of all the major economic theories, not merely Samuelson’s.

Although Samuelson, in his introductory textbook, devotes a great deal of attention to Marx, this essay will show that Samuelson’s treatment hardly amounts to a «disciplined study» of Marx’s political economy.

The present essay will outline some of the central themes of Marx’s political economy, particularly the themes which are treated in Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value. Rubin’s book is a comprehensive, tightly argued exposition of the core of Marx’s work, the theory of commodity fetishism and the theory of value. Rubin clarifies misconceptions which have resulted, and still result, from superficial readings and evasive treatments of Marx’s work.

Marx’s principal aim was not to study scarcity, or to explain price, or to allocate resources, but to analyze how the working activity of people is regulated in a capitalist economy. The subject of the analysis is a determined social structure, a particular culture, namely commodity-capitalism, a social form of economy in which the relations among people are not regulated directly, but through things. Consequently, «the specific character of economic theory as a science which deals with the commodity capitalist economy ties precisely in the fact that it deals with production relations which acquire material forms.» (Rubin, p.47)

Commodity fetishism


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