The fetishism of oil, and its secret

August 9th, 2006  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

Capitalism gives rise to a unique and wonderful kind of nonfiction writing: the tale of the commodity. These are the accounts of how a product comes to be, illuminating the human stories behind an object's journey from raw materials to end consumer. The intent of the story is typically to shock the reader with the concealed suffering and drama that inhere in a previously context-less object. Commodity expose stories have a long history, and have produced some famous landmarks (Sinclair's The Jungle, for example), but globalization, outsourcing, and the growth of massive global commodity chains have enriched the genre tremendously.

As a Marxist, I would somewhat unfelicitously call these "defetishizing" stories. The term comes from Marx's famous comment on "the fetishism of commodities" in Capital:

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.

The subjective effect of grasping the passage above is beautifully communicated by Wallace Shawn in The Fever:

People say about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things - one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money - as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? What is it that determines the price of a coat? The coat's price comes from its history, the history of all the people who were involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all of those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. "I like this coat," we say, "it's not expensive," as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it, "I like the pictures in this magazine."

All of this is by way of lead-in to a wonderful piece of defetishizing journalism that just appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The PDF is here, and this is the lead-in:

What is the true cost of quenching America’s mighty thirst for gasoline? To answer that question, Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek did what has never been done: He traced the gas pumped at a single station to the fuel’s shadowy sources around the globe. The story begins at a glistening Marathon outlet on Chicago’s exurban edge and ranges from the fishless waters off the coast of Nigeria to the politically restless fields of Venezuela and beyond. Salopek’s journey, a travelogue of America’s addiction to oil, reveals how U.S. consumers are bound to some of the most violent, desperate corners of the planet-and to a petroleum economy so fragile that it may not last.

Oil is a particularly compelling subject for such treatment. Not merely because of the industry's global reach and sordid geopolitical entanglements, but because of oil's unique character as a commodity. It is an abstraction in a dual sense. Like any commodity, it takes on an abstract value, its price, which conceals the human relationships that go into its production. But it also embodies another abstraction, energy--the abstracted representation of our ability to shape the physical world to our human needs, the power and potentiality that grows our food, erects our houses, drives our cars, and animates our laptops. To grasp the social relationships behind oil, then, is to touch on a system of relationships that permeates the entire world economy.

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