rather than equating alienation and fetishism, fetishism is better thought of as a particular form that alienation might take. (To be clear, there looks to be no reason to think that Marx would, or should, disagree with this claim.)

The example the author of the SEP article gives is nature, which does not have fetishistic dominion over us. But don't we, it?

  • I think the first helpful phrase is to paraphrase Adorno, “All reification is a forgetting.” Usually the human, man himself, is forgotten, as for instance the thing produced by man’s labor is whisked (alienated) out of his hands it is now a thing to sit only by itself with no history including the history of man in its production.
    – Gordon
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:46
  • This by the way is what Hegel means by STEP BACK. Step back and see the history. For instance the history of the object. But Kant mentions it too, also: alienation. And a key point, this is the term used in Anglo-American property law for transfer of property. So for Marx this equaled out of the laborers’ hands and into the capitalists’ hands. See also Meszaros lecture! napoletano.net/cursos/geomarx2018a/textos/Meszaros2005.pdf
    – Gordon
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:55
  • 1
    There is always a forgetting with the fetish. The thing must sit as an absolute number. “Thing” qua “thing” only. Man, labor is forgotten. Man’s creativity is destroyed in the process and so on. The orange really does come from the grocery store. There is a forgetting of man in its production and transport.
    – Gordon
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:57
  • The bourgeoisie never steps back. They seize upon the immediate concrete object. As if it self-appeared. The panties, the shoes, numerous things can be a fetish and the “masturbation” of consumer culture begins.
    – Gordon
    Dec 23, 2019 at 17:01
  • Meszaros also wrote a book on alienation which is difficult to understand, but worth reading. He was Georg Luckacs’ last assistant, secretary, co-worker and went on to an academic career in England I think.
    – Gordon
    Dec 23, 2019 at 17:09

3 Answers 3


First, let's be clear that the SEP article linked above is not specifically about the Marxist conception of alienation, but about the more general concept of alienation that runs through modern philosophy. That is a big topic, so it's no wonder the SEP spoke in overly general terms. I'm not certain whether this question is asking about the Marxist view or the more general philosophical view. I'll answer in the general case, with Marxist examples as needed.

Fetishism (speaking philosophically) means taking a concrete objectification of a concept, and granting that objectification some sort of metaphysical power. The term is adopted from the religious notion of a fetish: a saint's finger bone, the shrunken head of an enemy, a totem or juju, or any object that is perceived to have more than symbolic power. The belief that a cross will ward off a vampire invokes a fetish, as does the belief that a rabbit's foot will bring luck. Marx thought of 'The Market' as a fetish (and here I use capital letters to distinguish a fetish, and small letters mark the un-fetishized concept), to the extent that people actually believe an unthinking system can exercise an 'Invisible Hand' that balances everything. Many laypeople fetishize science, thinking that this thing called 'Science' will somehow automatically solve all human problems. Other people fetishize nature, thinking that a return to this thing called 'Nature' will resolve all of the flaws and problems of human civilization. I would not use the term 'dominion' here. Fetishization is more at bringing a metaphysical power in line with our own interests than in giving it power over ourselves. In this sense, the fetish of 'The Market' helps us, because (psychologically speaking) it transforms a brutal tooth-and-nail economic conflict into a far more congenial Market-moderated competition. That way, when we see a beggar in the street we can say "He's a beggar because he didn't satisfy the demands of The Market," not "He's a beggar because we collectively and greedily destroyed his opportunities for a decent life."

Alienation by contrast (and again, speaking philosophically), is as the SEP article puts it "the problematic separation of a subject and object that properly belong together," or as I prefer to think of it the division of a wholistic thing into disjoint subjective and objective elements. Marx thought of alienation in primarily material terms: i.e., the alienation of the producer from the means of production. In Marx's view, when a worker does not own the tools he needs to do his work, s'he becomes a cipher to be exploited by those who do lay claim to the tools of his work. Thus, a factory worker is a (from the perspective of a factory owner) a replaceable commodity to be acquired at the cheapest possible price, not a human being with a subjective life (needs, hopes, desires) all his own. In that same vein, much of existentialism and phenomenology focus on alienation from one's own authentic self, usually driven by societal rules and expectations that demand the presentation of a socially acceptable persona. Existentialism turns to immediate experience (awareness of existence in its bare sense) as a way of breaking through the social strictures that surround us.

Looked at this way, fetishization and alienation become opposing forces, not equivalent concepts. We might feel alienated from nature because of an overly technological world, and then fetishize Nature as a cure for that sense of alienation. We might feel alienated from our fellow man because of the brutal, aggressive, destructive systems of capitalist society, and then fetishize The Market to appease that sense of alienation. But in fact, we do not have to fetishize nature or the market, meaning we do not have to embody these concepts as objects and imbue them with metaphysical power. Instead, we can recognize that nature or the market or science are merely complex systems that we do not fully understand, and work within those systems to try to achieve ideal goals. In that sense, we don't expect 'Nature' or 'The Market' or 'Science' to act on their own (as things in themselves) to fix what ails us; we work for solutions through them.

  • interesting, thanks. i like the claim that they are opposing poles, but i'm not sure i trust it
    – user38026
    Dec 24, 2019 at 7:11
  • @another_name — Healthy skepticism is an uncommon virtue. 😀 Dec 24, 2019 at 14:28

Without Hegel, everything is Bouville or Mudtown. See Sartre’s “Nausea” set in “Bouville”.

The bourgeois paradise: Bouville.

I think Goethe had a little ditty about the orange that Hegel quoted. The rind and the core. Get to the core. Don’t be fooled by appearance. We can think of Kant in reading off the appearance. But we don’t want to be hard on Kant because he was well aware of the problem.

There is a forgetting in pure reification. Look at these beautiful old buildings!! NO. See through the buildings to the dead labor that built them. Get to the core of the situation.

These things, the buildings, can be a fetish too because we “just forget” man himself.

Marx used the orange too, I believe. We use it for an example today!

Aristotle and Hegel were the great rascals who enable us to see things for what they really are. And Goethe.

Plato has frozen forms, Aristotle moves, opens the door to history including the history of the object ... A is not A. Not really.

The thing qua thing is the frozen object. Pristine self-identity. The fetish. This is peace, this is mother, a dream world of bourgeois safety. Plato.

You can see a lot of this in the masterpiece of Diego Rivera. The Flower carrier. Notice how the man is pushed down almost to the ground under his load. Almost forgotten. https://www.diegorivera.org/flowercarrier.jsp The flowers are now only a pure object for sale. A commodity. Totally objectified. Reified. Thing like. And when bought, they can sit pristine in the vase with man and broader nature forgotten.

Notice how it is painted so the eyes go immediately to the object for sale. Man is obscured.

Please note again English property law. To alienate is to transfer property (sell or convey). Nature is alienated of its flowers, Man of his labor, or what could be his self owned creativity, all to produce the pristine self-identical non-historical object that can be “worshiped” in isolation.

You could say that these series of alienations, particularly in a capitalist economy, result in “thingification” or reification where certainly the history of man’s input is forgotten, and nature’s too, to produce the isolated “thing” or things which can end in a fetishism of the thing (commodity etc )

PS keep in mind English (modern) Capitalism was first to develop. This is what Hegel studied, also Marx in more detail.

  • interesting, but too dense for me to take anything but slight amusement from. but i upvoted, because yeah it was enjoyable
    – user38026
    Dec 24, 2019 at 7:16

In the Paris Manuscripts Marx outlines his theory of alienation . He lists 4 kinds of alienation but all share a common form : we can sum this up as the separation of a subject from an object . For instance the employee is separated from the product of his labour through the institution of private property . Marx mentions alienation later on in Das Kapital but this is in relation to the fetishism of money . Here money is seen as the paradigm case of alienation . Money becomes or has become the substance of value when it is only its appearance . Money is also the classic example of reification . Reification is when an object of our own creation comes to dominate the producer . So the fetishism of money is but one form of reification but both concepts share their origin in alienation .

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