This chapter discusses how the specific way in which “post-Enlightenment” humans tend to relate to material objects is a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism. The aim is to reconnect the discourse on “fetishism”, the main thrust of which has become largely restricted to exploring personal phenomenologies of aesthetic or sensuous experience (cf. Apter & Pietz 1993; Spyer 1998; Mitchell 2005; Latour 2010), to a general critique of global capitalist relations. The ambition here is not to attempt to review the voluminous discourses on fetishism, animism, epistemology, magic, materiality, technology, or consumption, but to bring together insights from these various topics to suggest new ways of illuminating some cultural dimensions of modernity and capitalism. More specifically, the goal is to combine some relevant aspects of culture theory with perspectives from political economy, world-system analysis and ecological economics in order to “defamiliarize” (Marcus & Fischer 1986) our everyday understanding of technology. Empirically, the discussion ranges from early British textile factories and the Luddite movement to indigenous Amazonian animism and ancient Andean ritual.
EXPANDING THE MARXIAN CONCEPT OF FETISHISM
Karl Marx ( 1990) famously observed that relations between people in capitalist society assume the form of relations between things. The fetishism of money and commodities thus obscures the social foundation of these objects, as a result of the alienating split between people and the products of their labour. It simultaneously animates such things, by attributing to them autonomous value, productivity, or growth.