Apropos of commodity fetishism, Marx himself uses the term ‘objectively-necessary appearance’. So, when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist’s reproach should not be, ‘The commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people’; but rather, ‘You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you – in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers …’ This difference between the two appearances (the way things really appear to us versus the way they appear to appear to us) is linked to the structure of the well-known Freudian joke about a Jew who complains to his friend, ‘Why are you telling me you are going to Lemberg when you are really going to Lemberg?’: say, in the case of commodity fetishism, when I immediately perceive money as just a knot of social relations, not any kind of magic object, and I only treat it like a fetish in my practice, so that the site of fetishism is my actual social practice, I could effectively be reproached with: ‘Why are you saying that money is just a knot of social relations, when money really is just a knot of social relations?’ Jean Laplanche wrote about the hysteric’s ‘primordial lie’ which articulates the original fantasy: ‘The term proton pseudos aims at something different from a subjective lie; it renders a kind of passage from the subjective to the founding, even, one could say, to the transcendental; in any case, a kind of objective lie, inscribed into the facts.’ Is this not also the status of Marxian commodity fetishism – not simply a subjective illusion, but an ‘objective’ illusion, an illusion inscribed into facts (social reality) themselves?
Dupuy proposes a convincing critique of John Rawls’ theory of justice: in the Rawlsian model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they also assist those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are based not on inherited hierarchies but on natural inequalities which are considered contingent, not meritorious. What Rawls fails to observe is the way that such a society would create the conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of ressentiment: in such a society, I would know that my lower social status is fully ‘justified’, and would thus be deprived of the ability to excuse my failures as the result of social injustice. Rawls proposes the terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized by natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a benevolent witch: she will either give him one cow and his neighbour two cows, or take from him one cow and from his neighbour two cows – the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: ‘I will do to you whatever you wish, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbour twice!’ The peasant, with a cunning smile, tells her, ‘Take one of my eyes!’.) It is no wonder that even today’s conservatives are ready to endorse Rawls’ notion of justice: on 8 November 2005, David Cameron, the newly elected leader of the British Tories, signalled his intention to turn the Conservative Party into a defender of the underprivileged, declaring that, ‘I think the test of all our policies should be: what does it do for the people who have the least, the people on the bottom rung of the ladder?’
As Friedrich Hayek observed, it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from a blind, impersonal force. The good thing about the ‘irrationality’ of market success or failure within capitalism (recall Marx’s comparison between the inscrutable market dynamics and the ancient conception of Fate) is that it allows me to perceive my failure (or success) as undeserved, and thus contingent. The fact that capitalism is not ‘just’ is thus a key feature that makes it palatable to the majority of people – I can accept my failure much more easily if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities but to chance.
[Extract from [amazon text=The Universal Exception&asin=0826495303], 2006, pp. 306, 340 & 313-314. Get it from [amazon text=Amazon&asin=0826495303].]