Alienation, Value and Fetishism in Marx’s Critique of the State*

By Rômulo Lima

It is well known that Marx never systematized a political theory. But he nonetheless addressed substantive political issues in a coherent and consistent way. Only an understanding of the totality of Marx’s thought can correctly inform either a dismissal or an acceptance of his views about the state and politics. In examining Marx’s political thought, we must therefore look at the ensemble of his legacy. The problem, of course, concerns not only theoretical matters, but urgent practical issues whose consideration can clarify the long-lasting crisis of the movements, parties and theoretical articulations of the Left.

In recent decades, mainstream forces on the Left have put aside all-embracing objections to capitalism and have reduced their critiques to vague protests against neoliberalism. While doing this, they have implemented policies traditionally advocated by conservative forces. Contemporary movements such as Occupy, Indignados and Nuit debout, as well as new radical left parties like Syriza and Podemos, now have the chance to redeem this failure with a new breath of democratic participation. It is not just a matter of claiming that Marx was right. What is necessary is to understand that only through the type of critique he once made is it possible to go beyond offering bandaid solutions to problems such as austerity, financial crises and environmental destruction. The drive to expand value and profit underlies these disturbing developments and has to be confronted for what it is: a fundamental flaw of the current social model. That’s why a structural critique pointing to the society’s underlying metabolism becomes more than ever vital to the effectiveness of movements that would put people before profits.

Every minimally comprehensive description of the social world encompasses hidden or at least implicit elements for a conception of the way of being in a community, and about the dimension of polity. What I argue here is that, although unsystematic, an organic political theory does exist within Marx’s thought. This is not an original idea. But instead of the usual search for dispersed elements of an either consistent or incomplete political theory, I think we can reach more clarifying results if we focus primarily on the general direction and range of Marx’s critical project.

It follows that our study should not be restricted to texts directly tied to conceptions of the state and politics. We must seek out the essential features of Marx’s political thought throughout his critique of capitalist sociability. The reason for this is that Marx viewed political and economic matters as two sides of the same coin. Thus, the critical approach he developed to analyze the capitalist economic metabolism finds its counterpart in his critique of modern political forms. Underlying this approach is the idea that there is a unitary sense in Marx’s critique. As the following analysis will indicate, both the categories of alienation and fetishism, as well as the critique of value, play an essential role in Marx’s critique of the state.

The unitary aspect of Marx’s social critique

Let us start with the problem on which the whole argument depends. Is there a critical unity in Marx’s thought? Is there a kind of red thread which traverses his whole intellectual development and helps weave together all his critiques? In the search for answers, it is possible to take from the author himself one clear indication of what is perhaps the most decisive moment of his intellectual development. The oft-quoted 1859 text contains more than just a personal anecdote. After confessing that the studies he did before starting to work in the Rheinische Zeitung were insufficient to ground an opinion on so-called “material interests,” Marx comments: “The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law; the introduction to this work being published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher issued in Paris in 1844” (Marx 2010g: 262). From this moment on, the core of his critical comprehension of the world was forged, namely, a materialist conception of human history and development.

But recognition of this crucial matter is nonetheless impeded by the difficulty of grasping the relation between two concepts used by Marx in distinct moments of his intellectual development: alienation and fetishism. The term alienation is especially present in Marx’s early texts, while the concept of fetishism makes its appearance only in Capital, and is allegedly tied to a radically different theoretical structure.1 This usual interpretation finds its counterpart in authors who relate both terms to the shadows of German idealism, an original sin chasing Marx even in his mature work.2

The perspective advanced here, by contrast, argues for a positive unity between alienation and fetishism. Assuming this positive connection does not mean that both concepts are perfectly equivalent, or that it is possible to find all the important features of Marx’s social theory already in his texts of 1843 and 1844. The contrary is actually the case. My claim is that the concept of alienation, present in the early Marx, is positively articulated with the concept of fetishism, but conceptually less developed than the latter.3 In any case, the common content that appears in both notions, the one which constitutes their fundamental meaning, can only be properly understood with reference to the idea of estrangement [Entfremdung], which finally appears as the core of Marx’s critical movement as a whole.4

Alienation and fetishism represent, in distinct moments of Marx’s theoretical elaboration, different configurations of the same critique of estranged forms of social existence. Recurring to the idea of alienation, Marx notes that the modern political realm, by virtue of its own abstract universality, remains alien or strange in relation to the material disparities that exist in the effective life of social beings.5 The contradiction between the political ideal of equality and actual material inequality is reflected in the dual social existence of individuals as bourgeois and as citizens, reflecting the gap between the distinct political and economic existences in modern society. Accordingly, human community exists only abstractly in the political realm, given that there is no effective community – but rather competition – in the economic realm. An authentic community is denied in favor of a nominal one. Estrangement arises as individuals organize their communitarian dimension as an abstract form of community (the prevailing political form). This abstract form impedes the efforts of individuals to achieve an authentic community. Alienation involves, therefore, a moment of inversion (of subject and its predicate, respectively man and state), a moment of naturalization (whereby this form is perceived as the natural form of human community), and a moment of impediment (whereby an alternative set of relations is obstructed).

With the notion of fetishism, Marx indicates that the modern dynamics of wealth production and circulation generate a curious metabolism in which the commercial exchange of produced objects ends with the subjection of the producers themselves to objective social laws emerging from the abstract movement of commodities. The form assumed by material wealth in capitalist societies – the commodity form – makes the private labor that creates a given product recognizable as part of the exchangeable (social) labor only if it achieves a certain level of social productivity. Depending on the blind regulation of the competitive market, the producer needs to obey the laws of profitability, which are posed by this specific form of product-interaction. At the same time, the world of commodities acquires autonomy as the relations between producers are determined by the relations between things: the commodities start to “act” as real subjects, indifferent to those who concretely animate their movement. Accordingly, production is not primarily conceived to satisfy the concrete needs of the producers; it can satisfy those needs only if it first satisfies the abstract constraint of value expansion. As with the notion of alienation, fetishism thus encompasses a moment of inversion (of subject and its objects, respectively producers and commodities), a moment of naturalization, and one of impediment.

In the following sections, the task is not only to demonstrate the common content in the notions of alienation and fetishism (despite their discernible asymmetries), but also to sustain that these same concepts point toward an organic political thought which is present at every stage of Marx’s intellectual development. The argument is particularly based on two different moments of Marx’s production. Before referring to the texts of the Grundrisse (1857-1858) and Capital (1867), we will first deal with the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) and the Critical Notes on the Article “The King of Prussia and Social Reform, by a Prussian” (1844). Showing the continuity between those two moments of Marx’s development will allow us to discern the red thread tying together the different layers of his critiques.

State as alienation and the notion of species-being in Marx’s early texts

The materialist itinerary of Marx starts with his rupture with the Young Hegelians and his reading of Feuerbach. After the forced closing of the Rheinische Zeitung by Prussian censorship, Marx, until then the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, gladly accepts the opportunity to resume his studies. Soon he starts to formulate the first global critique of the Hegelian system. The foundational aspect of the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right rests on the fact that Marx, while attacking the artificial character of Hegelian logic, and specifically the rationality attributed by Hegel to the constitutional monarchy, hits at the very base of speculative idealism and starts to formulate a new philosophical approach, one that would also soon overcome the sensuous materialism of Feuerbach.6

Although Marx’s critique focuses on Hegel’s logical description of social processes, what he had in view was much more than just the theoretical aspects of that system. Seminal to assess both Marx’s political thought and the unitarian character of his social critique are ideas about communitarian belongingness within modern political forms. As Marx says, “The atomism into which civil society plunges in its political act follows necessarily from the fact that the community, the communal being in which the individual exists, is civil society separated from the state, or that the political state is an abstraction from it” (2010a: 79).

This well known idea that state and civil society are separate, however, is often misunderstood to imply that the state is an abstract (and hence ineffective) being, whose sole effective substance would have to be found in civil society. In reality, what Marx describes as abstract is state universality, not the state itself. The essential issue is that the political community represents an abstraction from the empirical existence of civil society, the latter actually constituting a rather atomistic form of community – hence a non-community. “The separation of civil society and political state necessarily appears as a separation of the political citizen, the citizen of the state, from civil society, from his own, actual, empirical reality” (2010a: 77–8). Hegel also perceived the separation between civil and political society, but advanced a logical resolution to a very real contradiction. In Marx’s words, “By expressing the strangeness of this phenomenon Hegel has not eliminated the estrangement” (2010a: 79). As a consequence of its abstract universality, the modern state form is first characterized by Marx as an alienated objectivity.

What comes to light here is the specific nature of modern sociability, related to the autonomous character of its political sphere. In the feudal system, “the organic principle of civil society was the principle of the state” (Marx 2010a: 72); the inequality of empirical (social) existence corresponded to a political inequality. The modern political community, however, does not reproduce the empirical reality of individuals. When moving from the civil sphere to the political one, bourgeois man needs to forget his economic determinations, to set apart his practical effectiveness, in order to assume a communitarian – though abstract – citizen form. The alienated character of the modern political realm comes from the fact that it does not reflect the main structural determinants of the individual’s empirical practice. These determinants include: market competition, scarcity of resources (in a framework of private wealth appropriation), and individualism. They underpin our form of socialization, but are overlaid by a set of political values and institutions such as solidarity, commonwealth (the general good) and cooperation, which are indeed very important, but which remain dependent on voluntaristic initiatives and not on the economic structures.

It is worth noting that Marx, while criticizing this bifurcation in the individual’s existence, does not seek to strengthen the state against civil society or, vice versa, to reinforce civil society against the state. Rejecting the artificial conciliation proposed by Hegel, Marx criticizes along with him the liberal tradition and the notion of a social contract. For Marx, the alien character attributed to the modern form of political community is to be resolved not by taking the bourgeois of civil society as a model for the political citizen, but rather by overcoming both these one-sided figures.

The two articles Marx published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1844) indicate the deepening of these questions. In On “The Jewish Question,” Marx  highlights the effects of the split within the individual between bourgeois and citizen. “Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his ‘forces propres’ as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished” (2010b: 168).

Besides confirming the intrinsically disruptive character of modern sociability, the reasoning gains theoretical density and clearly indicates the path to be followed by Marx’s critique. The alienated existence, already described in the political field, turns out to exist also, through money, in the economic field, that is, in the domain that was already referred to as the empirical existence of individuals. “Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it” (2010b: 172).

In the second text of the Jarhbücher, planned as an introduction to his earlier critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx insists that the contradictory aspect of modern society stems from the practices of civil society. “Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world” (2010c: 175). Much more than a critique of the inverted consciousness, what arises here is a critique of a form of life which is objectively inverted, in the sense that agents are governed by forms that should actually be under their conscious control. The inverted world refers to the inversion of subject and object, the determinations of the former being transferred to the latter.

During this period, while criticizing both spheres into which the modern individual is split, Marx assesses the basic communitarian character of man by referring to the notion of “species-being,” a concept which has been attacked from different perspectives within Marxism. The theoretical dimension of this rejection claims that the concept of species-being implies the assumption of a generic existence, of a natural and thus ahistorical essence of man that Marx would erroneously propose to recover. This essentialist vision of man would derive directly from the idealist influence exerted by Hegel and Feuerbach. On the other hand, the terminological aspect of this rejection is based on the assumption that Marx would later abandon the concept of species-being, attesting to the development of a new approach, based no longer on philosophical speculation, but rather on historical science. Within this new framework, the idea of species-being would be incompatible, for instance, with the objective and historically grounded concept of social classes. Accordingly, the concept of alienation, deeply connected to the notion of an abstract species-being potentially desirous of regaining its lost essence, would also have to be rejected.

Despite their longevity, such arguments do not withstand an attentive analysis. We deal initially with the first part of that rejection and leave the second one, since it relates to a later part of Marx’s trajectory, for the next section. It is of course true that Marx is influenced by Hegel’s framework of analysis and concepts such as alienation and estrangement. The German term for species-being, Gattungswesen, is indeed very probably taken from Feuerbach and his ahistorical conception of materialism. In Feuerbach, species-being really denotes a sort of generic essence present in all men. But the question for Marx is far from a generic essence. As early as 1844, Marx affirms that the “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.…” (2010e: 4).

Here Marx takes established philosophical notions, but re-signifies them. He understands species-being as referring to the genus form of being, that is, to the natural belongingness of all humans to the same species. This belongingness is biologically underpinned, but this natural dimension would not be sufficient to differentiate man from other animals. For Marx, the particular aspect is that man is conscious of his own sociability, i.e., man is the only animal that considers its species belongingness and acts consciously upon it.8 This specific trait of human species-being is its social nature; and this forms a direct critique of idealist or one-sided conceptions of human nature. In sum, there are no vestiges of idealism in Marx’s idea of species-being, only a highly abstract (but still correct) way of describing the objective social character that defines the human species.

This concept of human nature is actually the ontological ground of the whole of Marxian thought and serves as a basis to all his critiques. In fact, as early as in 1843 and 1844, Marx already advocated an alternative form of social praxis able to supersede the estranged interactions of the economic domain and therefore to confirm human belongingness to the same species. This belongingness is thought to be ratified in all dimensions of social existence and to be situated beyond both sides of the reflexive pair formed by the modern state and capitalist civil society. Therefore, the notion of species-being should be understood as the material ground of social being, as a concept that apprehends man’s distinctive character of being potentially conscious of its own belongingness to a community with others of its same kind.

The main content of Marx’s early social thought seems clear. It sets forth the critique of the alienated character of modern sociability and aims to show that human practices, when distinctively organized, could envisage a higher degree of communitarian existence, in which individuals would finally act as conscious subjects in a world produced by their own social forces. Simultaneously, the specific content of Marx’s political thought is expressed by the radical critique of the modern state, seen as an estranged entity subjecting its constituents to alien forms of social regulation. In sum, Marx’s political thought derives directly from his fundamental assumptions concerning sociality. But, in reality, the most scathing of Marx’s critiques of the state is still to be found in his Critical Notes on the Article “The King of Prussia and Social Reform, by a Prussian” (1844).

In an anonymous text signed simply “by a Prussian,” Marx’s former colleague Arnold Ruge wrote that the workers’ protest conducted at that time by the Silesian weavers had to be seen as an isolated fact, given that an “unpolitical” country like Germany could not understand that revolt as a universal protest. Marx reacts to the Prussian’s (i.e. to Ruge’s) ideas and, drawing on the difference between a political struggle and a social struggle, criticizes the proposition that there would be a lack of “political soul” in Germany. “The community from which the worker is isolated is a community the real character and scope of which is quite different from that of the political community. The community from which the worker is isolated by his own labor is life itself, physical and mental life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human nature [menschliches Wesen]. Human nature is the true community of men [Gemeinwesen der Menschen]” (2010d: 204).

Marx characterizes Ruge’s notion of a “political soul” as a spiritualistic deviation enclosing all social movements in the abstract realm of the political community. In doing so, Marx elaborates what can be called a critique of political reason. As he argues, “The mightier the state, and the more political therefore a country is, the less is it inclined to grasp the general principle of social maladies and to seek their basis in the principle of the state, hence in the present structure of society, the active, conscious and official expression of which is the state. The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable is it of understanding social ills” (2010d: 199).

For Marx, the state cannot provide the means for changes in the essential functioning of civil society precisely because it integrates this same organic ensemble. In other words, as part of the same form of sociability, the state organs can only corroborate the other dimensions of bourgeois society. That is why Marx states that “the administration [i.e. the state government] has to confine itself to a formal and negative activity” (2010d: 198).

In this negative characterization of praxis under modern political forms, political struggles have as their limited goal the seizure of state power and its replacement by another power of the same nature. As Marx says, “a revolution with a political soul, in accordance with the limited and dichotomous nature of this soul, organizes a ruling stratum in society at the expense of society itself” (2010d: 205). If Marx stands in favor of an empirically active community, how can such a transformation be circumscribed within the alienated political domain? The political, in the sense of an autonomous sphere, is exactly one of the dimensions of modern sociability that Marx wishes to supersede.

Marx’s critique of political forms thus implies a rupture with an older tradition of political thought. Marx effectively dismisses the idea that the polity, as conceived in modern times, is an intrinsic predicate of social being and, while breaking with the positive conception of the state as a means of human agency (a conception which is present even within liberalism), offers an essentially negative account of it.9 The question here, obviously, is not how to support apolitical behavior within capitalist society, but rather to recognize the intrinsic limits offered by political action within modern political forms. The conclusion is that, for Marx, an effectively conscious organization of human beings has to assume a different form, one in which the material dimension of sociality is part of communitarian existence, hence confirming – not negating – the social nature of species-being.

Estranged labor, value and fetishism as developments of Marx’s early critique

The task now is to see whether this dimension of Marx’s thought remained present in his mature work. In terms of the unitary character of his critique, it is symptomatic that Marx’s main work, Capital, constitutes not simply an alternative approach in political economy, but is in fact a critique of the whole system of premises of political economy (see Heinrich 2012). That is why there is no sense in speaking about Marxian economics. For Marx did not try to replace one economic theory by another, preserving all other features of his contemporary society. In fact, he criticizes the essential forms of capitalist socialization through the internal critique of its main ideological and theoretical reflex, namely, political economy. Thus, Marx does not simply retake and improve concepts such as value and abstract labor as meant by Smith and Ricardo. He criticizes the very concepts of the political economists in order to show that they correspond solely to the self-organization of capitalist society and to that society alone. Capital is thus eminently a social critique.

The comprehension of labor as an objectification of human life allows Marx to grasp the reasons why man objectively negates his communitarian nature through his estranged economic relations. But it is important to bear in mind that the general notion of labor which is in question here cannot be confused with its specific modern form, that is, abstract labor related to value production. Hence it is not labor in its capitalist envelope which is taken by Marx as the general form of human activity. The broad category of labor represents, in reality, the active adaptation of nature that constitutes the basis of human life. It is precisely this broad comprehension of labor as social praxis that allows Marx to elaborate a critique of the narrow and alienated way in which capitalist relations mediate human activity.

When we examine the preparatory notebooks for Capital, the Grundrisse, it becomes clear that the question of alienation remains at the core of Marx’s economic analysis. Marx devotes an important part of his manuscripts to the study of money. The outcome of this investigation is the explicit critique of the estranged aspect of money as social mediation. Money is a product of human activity which, acquiring the character of a real subject, starts to stand in front of his own creator and to subjugate its forces. Immersed in capitalist exchange relations, human beings come to be governed by the products of their labors. The relationship between individuals is no longer direct, but is represented by something external to them, i.e., the means of exchange. In Marx’s words, the individual “carries his social power, as also his connection with society, in his pocket.… The social character of the activity, as also the social form of the product and the share of the individual in production, appear here as something alien to and existing outside the individuals; not as their relationship to each other, but as their subordination to relationships existing independently of them and arising from the collision between indifferent individuals” (2010f: 94).

Instead of using their common forces as a community of producers, as conscious members of the same species, individuals act in a divided manner as owners of commodities and let themselves be ruled by the laws of production and circulation, which exist “outside them as their fate” (2010f: 96). The exchange of commodities is thus based on the common element present in all of them, namely, on the fact that all of them result from human labor. The ability of the producers to satisfy their concrete needs depends therefore not on their capacity to produce use values, but on their success in appropriating abstract labor, acting independently and being subjected to economic laws that none of them can control. “The very necessity to transform the product or the activity of the individuals first into the form of exchange value, into money, and the fact that they obtain and demonstrate their social power only in this objective [sachlichen] form, proves two things: (1) that the individuals now only produce for and within society; (2) that their production is not directly social, not the offspring of association distributing labor within itself” (2010f: 95–6).

The confirmation of the species-being condition of man is thereby merely contingent to the success of individuals in the market. The conscious articulation of members of this community emerges only through another instance: the political sphere. However, as this sphere is structurally separated from the market’s metabolism, the communitarian aspect of bourgeois society is rather subjective and hence fictional. Individuals form a subjective community in the state but compete objectively in the market. The objective community, in fact, stands outside man: “the thing which confronts him has now become the true community, which he tries to make a meal of and which makes a meal of him” (2010f: 420). The conclusion is that “production based on exchange value, on the surface of which that free and equal exchange of equivalents takes place, is basically the exchange of objectified labor as exchange value for living labor as use value; or, as it may also be expressed, labor relating to its objective conditions – and hence to the objectivity created by labor itself – as to alien [fremdem] property: the alienation [Entäusserung] of labor” (2010f: 438).

In Capital, Marx develops further the ideas contained in the Grundrisse. Now value – and no longer money or exchange value – appears explicitly as the element which, through market mediation, gives the productive activity of individuals its social character. It is in this framework that the concept of fetishism will come to life. Impelled to drive their activities not by the results of their own material development and level of consciousness, but by the presuppositions of the commodities exchange, the producers themselves are caught up in a movement of things. Fetishism is the other name of labor alienation.

We now return to the argument on the alleged disappearance of the ideas of species-being and alienation in Marx’s mature works. The least we can say is that, in reality, this commonly accepted terminological evidence is not as evident as supposed. Marx never really abandons the idea of an ontological basis which assembles all participants of the human genus. The notion of species-being actually develops into the perception that man socially produces his own history and is a social product of it – an insight that appeared clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being.” (2010j: 276). The human being distinguishes itself by its ability to adapt the spontaneous causalities of the natural world to its own necessities. This general description of labor, as an essentially human praxis, is the ontological basis of social development.

In Capital, the capitalist relations of production definitely take the foreground of the analysis, but they presuppose the concept of man as species-being. As Mészáros (1970) argues, the capitalist forms of production are the second-order mediations that intervene over the first-order mediation that exists between man and nature. It can thus be said that Marx, in Capital, concentrates his attention on those second-order mediations, but never forgets that first-order mediations remain the basic level of interaction between man and the world. As shown in chapter VII of Capital I, the ontological dimension of wealth production remains fully acknowledged:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.… We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal…. We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. (2010h: 187-188)

Accordingly, it is also clear that at least since the Manuscripts of 1844 – but in fact since the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher – the concept of alienation, instead of disappearing, expands its range of application from the political to the economic sphere. The alienation of labor means the alienation of man’s forces through his productive activity. Exactly the same conceptual critique to the estranged character of money and exchange value resurges in the Grundrisse. In Capital, Marx describes the fetishist character of the commodity by means of the same critical apparatus.

One might still affirm that the concepts of species-being and alienation textually disappear in Marx’s mature works. But this also turns out to be false. As for species-being, one has only to read an often quoted passage of Capital III to realize that it remains very present through the idea of human nature: “Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature [menschlichen Natur]” (2010k: 807 – italics added). And concerning the alleged vanishing of the term alienation, only one more quotation of Capital III is needed to dismiss it. “Capital comes more and more to the fore as a social power, whose agent is the capitalist. This social power no longer stands in any possible relation to that which the labor of a single individual can create. It becomes an estranged, independent social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power” (2010k: 263 – italics added).10 In short, neither the ideas of alienation and species-being/human nature nor the terms themselves are rejected. In reality, they retain their basic features and, in addition, acquire new and more complex determinations in Marx’s mature theoretical apparatus.

Marx’s concept of fetishism, like his original idea of alienation, is related to the links existing between individuals in modern society, to the kind of communitarian bonds these individuals can establish under capitalist relations. Fetishism thus involves more than a simple theory of production and circulation of commodities; it encompasses the very statute of the human community and, therefore, concerns the state and the modern realm of politics as a whole. In a short and precise manner, Kurz (2011) observes the wide range of the concept of fetishism: “In the situation of unconsciousness of himself, man (mostly disconnected from genetic codifications) needs a social form of abstract universality so as to act as a subject. The unconscious constitution of such an abstract universality can (with Marx) be called fetishism.” The abstract universality of fetishism is manifold and applies both to the economic realm and to the political one.

Summing up Marx’s development on the matter, we can say that he recognizes the existence of three dimensions of communitarian existence in the capitalist context: (1) an immediate community of species-beings, which is nevertheless superposed and denied by (2) the only true community posed by the value metabolism, an indirect and estranged one. The estranged character of the latter demands the existence of (3) the illusory community of politics, an objectively necessary complement to the true community of value. If the fetishism of commodities (related to the true community) and the alienation of the state (operating within the illusory community) are not identical, the essential point is that both, besides describing reflexive processes, are bound in the same form of estranged sociability and require each other.

Marx describes in Capital the economic mechanisms of the objective community of commodities, but it is evident that the existence of that estranged community implies a negative role to be played by the political one. After all, “commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners” (2010h: 94). The individuals who mutually recognize themselves through commodities are also merged in diversified forms of social practice. As such, they need to form a community based on the subjective union of effectively separated individuals. The estranged nature of the capitalist state cannot be separated from the estrangement of the commodities exchange. Both forms are aspects of the same manner of being in society. Kurz (2002) summarizes it as follows: “As the commodities cannot by themselves become ‘subjects’, and since – in the relations between commodities – the individuals of this ‘unsocial socialization’ (itself absurd) have to be mutually related (but secondarily) in an indirect way, the sub-system of politics had to arise. This is where those direct secondary relations are undertaken.” The result is that the modern political realm, in its semi-autonomous form, is structurally unable to solve the problems posed by this autonomous subject which is value.

This connection between politics and economy requires us to consider once again the conceptual relation between alienation and fetishism. What Marx calls alienation or estrangement in his earlier work also informs the notion of fetishism – the fact that human beings lose control over their own social relations, that they cannot use their resources through conscious agreement, but must rather do so through means whose direction none of them can control. Individuals are governed by relations which are constructed by them, but which become autonomous and, instead of serving man, make man their servant.

It is clear that the theoretical evolution of Marx cannot be explained by a discontinuity between the two concepts. In reality, the passage from one moment to another includes discovery of the specific traces of estrangement in capitalist society. With the concept of fetishism, Marx shows a clear comprehension of the autonomization of abstract labor, and hence about the impersonal rule of value. But this same red thread was also woven into the first theoretical mesh through which Marx criticized the autonomization of social structures in the political realm. On the one hand, then, the fetishism of commodities is necessary to fully grasp the alienation of the modern state. On the other hand, however, the basic concept of alienation is a prerequisite to the deep critique of capitalist relations.

Without clearly connecting the critique of capitalist relations to the notions of alienation, estrangement and fetishism, Marx’s analysis of the commodity appears pointless and, as consequence, the critique of capitalist sociability is transformed into a mere problem of better management and distribution of the produced value. The dismissal of that crucial element of Marx’s social critique is, not by accident, one of the main sources of the crisis in the Left, which – given the structural crisis of value expansion – is becoming increasingly unable to even support its traditional politics of distribution and, therefore, can barely distinguish itself from traditional conservative forces.

The transformation of social-democracy into a soft form of neoliberalism is now patent in many European countries. Since the burst of the last economic bubble in 2008, we have seen governments of all shades trying to ensure minimal levels of profitability to the private sector through deregulation policies and cuts in social spending. Unfortunately, from the perspective of capitalist profitability and value expansion, there is little room for maneuver. That is why this perspective ought to be questioned consistently.

New anti-systemic movements, when comprehensively disregarding what may sound like an outmoded critique, risk eventually taking the same direction as the social-democrats, thereby reinforcing the conservative idea that there are no alternatives to capital regulation. The superseding of this estranged form of sociability depends on a new metabolism between human beings and between man and nature, one that can only be affirmed outside the existing economic and political forms.

Final remarks

The present analysis shows that, even when dealing with different dimensions of modern sociability, there is a common content connecting all Marx’s critiques. The identification of this common content makes it possible to say that the theories of fetishism and alienation encompass a broad and unitary meaning of Marx’s thought: the critique of estranged social forms. This acknowledgement is essential to affirm the contemporary relevance of his ideas, for it implies recognition of the basic structure of the capitalist form of sociability and indicates which dynamics should then be superseded.

Marx’s vision of the overcoming of capitalism depends on a radical transformation of the productive domain, and not only its forms of distribution. As Marx says in the Critique of the Gotha program: “The vulgar socialists (and from them in turn a section of the Democrats) have taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution” (2010i: 88). It means that a real transformation of present society is bound up with the transformation of the essence of its metabolism, that is, with supersession of social mediation through the value form. When ignoring this dimension, all attempts to transform our social system will fail. For the only effective answer to the problems of capitalist regulation is to overcome the labor-centered society, that is, the mechanisms that transform abstract labor into the fundamental dimension of social relations. This includes an effective critique of the commodities-producing system and of the state.

Needless to say, criticizing the modern political realm by reason of its intrinsic alienated character does not mean attributing a higher level of importance to the economic domain. The latter, when well observed, is subject to the same critique. Neither the political nor the economic domain is by itself an inherent dimension of social being. The point is that the value economy makes the political sphere a subordinate level of action. It’s not by accident that various left-wing parties, when assuming national governments, are obliged to repeat the same agenda proposed by right-wing ones. Also the new anti-systemic forces – the so-called left populist parties like Podemos or Syriza and the movements like Indignados, Occupy or Nuit debout – inasmuch as they remain unable to direct a critique towards the foundations of this social metabolism, will not be able to offer an effective alternative to problems caused by capitalist regulation and could at best only temporarily mitigate the worst outcomes of this standard of sociability.

Politics and economy, fields that exist autonomously only in the modern era, both appear to Marx as spheres to be overtaken. There can then be a sort of fusion – and, with it, the disappearance – of politics and economy. The state as condensation of political practice retreats under new forms of regulation while the value-oriented social metabolism is replaced. Politics is dispersed in favor of self-organization. The communitarian link between individuals is then direct, explicit and driven by the subjects themselves. On the basis of an active commonwealth of species-beings, a space for matching and mismatching human wills is affirmed, and wills are nourished only by the objective degree of development of the productive forces and the subjective stage of spiritual development. No recovery of any lost essence, no teleology, no infallibility; only the confirmation of humanity’s richest potential: the power to reason and to consciously produce its own world.


[MECW = Marx and Engels Collected Works. London: Lawrence & Wishart (the quoted digital editions were all published as E-books in 2010).]

Althusser, L. 1969. Avertissement aux lecteurs du livre 1 du Capital. In Marx, K. Le Capital, livre I. Paris: Flammarion.

Artous, A. 1999. Marx, l’État et la politique. Paris: Syllepse.

Chasin, J. 2000. Marx: A determinação ontonegativa da politicidade. Ensaios Ad Hominem, 1/III (Política), 129–161.

——— 2009. Marx: Estatuto ontológico e resolução metodológica. São Paulo: Boitempo.

Heinrich, M. 2012. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung. Stuttgart: Schmetterling Verlag.

Jessop, R. 1982. The Capitalist State – Marxist Theories and Methods. New York: New York University Press.

Kurz, R. 2002. O fim da política: Teses sobre a crise do sistema de regulação da forma da mercadoria.

——— 2011. Não há Leviatã que salve: Teses para uma teoria crítica do Estado – primeira parte.

Lukács, G. 2009, O jovem Marx. In O jovem Marx e outros escritos de filosofia. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. UFRJ.

——— 2013. Para uma ontologia do ser social – Parte 2. São Paulo: Boitempo.

Marx, K. 2010a. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. MECW, Vol. 3.

——— 2010b. On “The Jewish Question.” MECW, Vol. 3.

——— 2010c. Introduction to the “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” MECW, Vol. 3.

——— 2010d. Critical notes on the article “The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian.” MECW, Vol. 3.

——— 2010e. Theses on Feuerbach. MECW, Vol. 5.

——— 2010f. Grundrisse. MECW, Vol. 28.

——— 2010g. Contribution to the Critique of Polítical Economy. MECW, Vol. 29.

——— 2010h. Capital. Vol. 1. MECW. Vol. 35.

——— 2010i. Critique of Gotha Program. MECW, Vol. 24.

——— 2010j. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. MECW, Vol. 3.

——— 2010k. Capital. Vol 3. MECW, Vol. 37.

Mészáros, I. 1970. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. London: Merlin.

Musto, M. 2010. Revisiting Marx’s Concept of Alienation. Socialism and Democracy, vol. 24, no. 3, 79-101.

Sève, L. 2012. Aliénation et émancipation, Paris: La Dispute.


*The author thanks Roey Reichert for his valuable suggestions. Italics in quotations are as in the original texts unless otherwise noted.

1. This is the case for Jessop (1982: 25), who characterizes the years 1843–44 as those of the “Hegelian-Jacobin” Marx. Artous (1999), who particularly focuses on the concept of fetishism, also sees the category of alienation as being overcome in Capital. For very distinct reasons, separation of the young Marx from the mature Marx was a keystone of the official Marxism of the Soviet regime.

2. Note the advice given by Althusser (1969) in a presentation of Marx’s Capital: the reader should skip the first chapter, nest of Hegelian reminiscences, and come to it only when the general structure would be already understood. Althusser may be the most famous advocate of a break between the young and the mature Marx.

3. Given our particular interest here, we tend more to affirm the continuity between alienation and fetishism than their contextual differences. For a detailed discussion on this matter, from a perspective that I do not entirely share, see Sève (2012).

4. The choice made here for the term estrangement requires comment. In fact, Marx uses Entäusserung [alienation] and Entfremdung [estrangement] as synonyms. To pick up a single concept able to express the common content of alienation/estrangement [Entäusserung/Entfremdung], on the one hand, and fetishism [Fetischismus] on the other, we could also recur to a third concept, namely reification [Versachlichung or Verdingerung]. It seems, however, that the word estrangement expresses more precisely the common content of both ideas alienation and fetishism, for Marx also used the verb and the adjective estranged to refer to the latter phenomenon.

5. “Effective life” is an expression employed by Marx in the period 1843-44. It could be approximately translated as material existence, referring to the objective determinants of social life, in opposition to idealist or subjective figurations.

6. Apart from Marx himself, a great number of authors acknowledge the foundational character of this work. See, among others, Lukács (2009, 2013), Mészáros (1970), Chasin (2000, 2009), Kurz (2002, 2011), Artous (1999).

7. This is the case, for instance, of concepts like alienation, human nature, essence, labor, value, fetishism etc.

8. As stated by Marx in the Manuscripts of 1844: “conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him” (2010j: 276).

9. Chasin (2000, 2009) calls this perspective in respect to the state an onto-negative one.

10.Numerous quotations attesting that the concept of alienation/estrangement is used by Marx in his mature works are provided by Mészáros (1970), chapter VIII. Sève (2012) does the same for Capital. Musto (2010) also provides an analysis of the continuity of the theme of alienation from the early to the mature Marx.

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