Desmond McNeill, Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021; 341 pp., ISBN 978-3-030-56122-2, £89.18 (hardcover).
Reviewed by: Stavros D. Mavroudeas, Department of Social Policy, Panteion University, Greece.
COMPETITION & CHANGE, September 2021,
This book offers a thorough and compelling analysis of the significance of the notion of fetishism for Marxist Political Economy. In contrast to Dobb’s (1979: 11) argument that the theories of fetishism and alienation belong to the Marxist theory of ideology, McNeill argues that they are sine qua non parts of the qualitative aspect of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (LTV). This is a correct claim that the author proves convincingly, even though McNeill tends to downplay the quantitative aspect by stating that this was of no concern to Marx. Marxist Political Economy engages with both dimensions.
The broader framework within which the author conducts his analysis is the accurate thesis that the Marxist perspective remains relevant in the 21st century. The current crises and turmoil of the capitalist economy, the blatant failure of mainstream economics and the subsequent revival of interest in Marxian Political Economy attest to this.
The first part of the book examines the development of the notion of fetishism in Marx’s works, from an initial journalistic metaphor to a fully developed scientific concept. This analysis is extended in Part II where McNeill rigorously establishes the generic category of commodity fetishism and then its relationship to other forms of fetishism (money, capital and interest-bearing capital). He bolsters his exposition with a meticulous and accurate juxtaposition of Marx’s dialectical approach with that of Ricardo and Samuel Bailey (a critic of Ricardo and precursor of the Marginalist theory) regarding the nature of value. He accurately pinpoints Marx’s fundamental difference with both, namely his consideration of value as a social rather than a natural phenomenon. McNeill also juxtaposes Marx’s materialist dialectics with Hegel’s idealist dialectics. These two parts constitute the backbone of the book and offer original contributions to Marxist Political Economy.
Part III goes into slippery grounds as McNeill argues that value would be better understood through linguistics and reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of structuralist Marxism by considering the works of Althusser (whom he characterizes as a not serious structuralist), Levi-Strauss (a non-Marxist structuralist) and Godelier (a promising synthesizer of both of them). McNeill argues that Structuralism, despite its limitations, presents advantages for a social understanding of value and for conceiving of commodity as a sign. This is a rather problematic part of the book. Structuralism and his alter-ego, post-Structuralism (with whom he shares overt and covert linkages and similar deficiencies) fail to comprehend materialist dialectics and end up with an unproductive juxtaposition of structure with agent; unable to comprehend both and their interrelationship. Furthermore, making value a sign overemphasizes idealistically the social character of value and obliterates its physical dimension. This perspective – as notoriously exemplified by Baudrillard – opens the floodgates to post-Modernism and the subsequent dissolution of the LTV into an idealistic form-without-content analysis. On the contrary, for Marx, the social dimension of value does not extinguish its physical dimension. Value is the expenditure of human labour. But this expenditure is recognized, represented and renumerated according to the predominant social relations. In his discussion of Aristotle’s famous conundrum, Marx makes clear his position, which is also extremely realistic. McNeill does not recognize these well-known, contemporary problems.
Part IV continues into more slippery grounds as the author challenges Marx’s emphasis solely on production and considers also exchange and consumption as social relations and praises the contributions of Baudrillard and Bourdieu. This is a well-trodden path by the so-called use-value or culturalist theories of consumption. Their main argument is that Marx, by prioritising production, neglected use-value and hence the social determination of what is to be produced and what is to be consumed and by whom. Therefore, they placed their emphasis on value-form and especially in the social construction of use-value. This resulted in a failure (Fine, 2002; Mavroudeas, 2012). Their emphasis on the value-form neglects its quantitative, dynamic and historical dimensions and substitutes the qualitative for the quantitative. Hence, these theories fail to comprehend capitalist commodity production and to distinguish between productive and final consumption. Moreover, they inversed Marx’s logic. Instead of the combination of use-value and exchange-value to determine productive forces, class and power, it is the other way around. As a result, class and power become external referents through which is explained the pattern of uniformity and distinction in consumption. This inversion is based on a more general inversion of Marx’s logic: commodity and money become the central categories, thus displacing labour and value. The final stop for these theories was the post-Modernist quagmire. Last but not the least, Rosdolsky (1977) has accurately refuted the argument that Marx failed to theorize use-value. Confronting these problems, McNeill’s presentation remains ambivalent.
Part V critically assesses recent Marx-inspired literature regarding (a) nature and environment and (b) financialisation. Regarding the first, McNeill offers a meticulous presentation of the relevant literature. A problematic aspect of his analysis is his acceptance of Harvey’s idea of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. This notion, which constitutes the foundation of Harvey’s New Imperialism thesis, is totally misguided. Essentially, it equates capitalism with pre-capitalist systems and disregards one basic differentiae specificae of the former: namely that it is a system not based on violent expropriation of the surplus product but on the appropriation of surplus-value through the labour-market and production-process nexus. Consequently, Harvey’s New Imperialism equates pre-capitalist empires (which operated through military conquer) with capitalist economic imperialism (which operates through non-violent value transfers). This is not to deny that violent forces exist especially in international relations. But it means that it plays second fiddle to the basic capitalist norm, which is international economic exploitation. The same holds for nature and imperialist extractivism.
Similar problems characterize McNeil’s analysis of financialization. He again offers a very meticulous review of the relevant literature, but when confronted with the issue of exploitation, the answers provided are not fully convincing. I have argued (Mavroudeas and Papadatos, 2018) that the contemporary buzzword of financialization constitutes a blind alley for political-economic analysis. Setting aside a few approaches (e.g. Fine), it leads to an erroneous understanding of the role of the financial system in capitalism and, ultimately, to a Keynesian dichotomization of the bourgeoisie into two separate classes (the financial rentier and the industrialist); which is both unrealistic and against Marx. These problems are expounded in the case of the so-called ‘financial expropriation’, which identifies a second circuit of exploitation (apart from surplus-value extraction) through usury. In this vein, the financial rentier exploits not only the workers but other classes (and capitalists) as well and their revenue does not come from a redistribution of surplus-value but also through usurious extraction. The financialization approach follows, to a great extent, Harvey’s misguided idea of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and identifies capitalism with pre-capitalist forms of exploitation. McNeill fails to identify these problems and moreover is ambivalent on whether finance is productive or not; something vehemently and justifiably denied by both Classical and Marxist Political Economy. His probe that risk may be a source of surplus-value and profit is utterly problematic. Risk, as the source of profi,t is a very problematic neo-classical theory. Its masquerading, through the ‘financialisation of everyday life’, as a source of profit leads to the dissolution of labour into a component of capital, as Bryan et al. (2009) suggest.
Despite these issues, this book is a commendable endeavour to prove the timeliness of Marxism (and especially its LTV) and offers an original analysis of the economic significance of fetishism. The book is well written and presents a rich and multifaceted alternative to the barren and simplistic analyses of mainstream economics. It is well worth reading.
Bryan D, Martin R and Rafferty M (2009) Financialization and Marx: Giving Labor and Capital a Financial Makeover. Review of Radical Political Economics 41(4): 458-472.
Dobb M (1979) Introduction to Marx K. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: International Publishers.
Fine B (2002) The World of Consumption. London: Routledge.
Mavroudeas S (2012) The Limits of Regulation: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Mavroudeas S and Papadatos F (2018) Is the Financialisation Hypothesis a theoretical blind alley?. World Review of Political Economy 9(4): 451-476.
Rosdolsky R (1977) The Making of Marx’s Capital. London: Pluto.