Fetishism and Innate Differences


Dan Hicks


May 23, 2012

(Going through my folder of notes and paper ideas, I came across the following, which I wrote last June.)

With the draft of my dissertation sent off to my committee for notes over the summer, I’m taking advantage of the free time to work through a pile of books-to-read. Over the last week, I’ve been working on G.A. Cohen’s classic of Analytic Marxism, Karl Marx’s Theory of History [KMTH]. For those who aren’t familiar: Cohen was raised Marxist (in the same sense in which one is ‘raised Catholic’, for example) in Montréal, then went off to graduate school in philosophy at Oxford, trained in Analytic methods by the likes of Isaiah Berlin and Gilbert Ryle. The purpose of the book is an Analytic reconstruction of the basic elements of Marxist historiography-economics-sociology-critical theory. It was the first of several brilliant books by a brilliant political philosopher. I highly recommend Cohen’s work, if only because I think he is an exemplar of the Analytic style and method. (And he belies utterly the lingering stereotype of politically-disengaged Analytic philosopher.)

However, there is one notable deficiency in Cohen’s body of work: to my knowledge, he did not write even a single article on either gender or race issues. KMTH is a brilliant exposition of classical Marxism – but, as we learned well during the second wave, classical Marxism is profoundly limited for feminist purposes. So, as I’ve been reading KMTH, I’ve been asking myself two questions: (1) How can this be adapted to give an account of (aspects of) sexism and racism? (2) How can this not be adapted to give such an account? In this post, I want to give only a partial answer to (1).

In chapter V, Cohen gives his version of fetishism, as in the ‘commodity fetishism’ discussions of Marx’s Capital. Cohen distinguishes three versions of fetishism in capitalism; I’ll just present the second, capital fetishism, since it’s the easiest to explain here:

(1) The productivity of physical work takes the form of the productivity of capital.

(2) Capital is productive.

(3) It is not autonomously productive.

(4) It appears to be autonomously productive.

(5) Capital, and the illusion accompanying it, are not permanent, but peculiar to a determinate form of society, viz., capitalism.

As I understand it, capital fetishism corresponds to a certain picture of the relationship between labor (the worker and her or his activities) and the means of production (the raw materials, instruments, etc., used in labor). On this picture, initially, labor and the means of production are separated: the worker is over here and the means of production are over there. The role of the capitalist is to bring these two together: using his capital, the capitalist buys the means of production and offers wages in exchange for labor, and so production occurs. (1) says that the widgets that are literally produced by the worker, using the widget-making machine, are thought to be produced ‘by capital’.  Now, this story is accurate enough as far as it goes, and thus (2): capital really does play this role in the production process, bringing together labor and means of production. This role, of course, can be played (3) only if there are workers and means of production available and they are separated in such a way that capital can bring them together. But, in a capitalist society, we tend to forget this. Consequently, we confuse the fairly minor and facilitating role that capital actually plays with the activity of production itself. Production becomes a sort of black box: you put capital in and get commodities out. Thus (4). Finally, (5) reminds us that this story is only accurate for capitalist societies. In other societies – such as feudal society, historically, and possibly socialist society in the future – capital does not play this role, and is not productive.  

All together, then, capital fetishism rationalizes the appropriation of wealth by the capitalist in the form of profit – his investment produced the commodities –  and, indeed, makes it seem ‘natural’ or ‘necessary’ – his investment is required to bring together labor and the means of production – despite the fact that it is utterly ‘artificial’ and ‘contingent’ (in the corresponding modalities) to organize production in this way – labor and the means of production aren’t separated in other systems of production. Thus, if claims (1-5) can be supported, capital fetishism serves as a form of ideological critique: these claims explain how certain forms of society seem to be natural or inevitable when in fact they are utterly artificial and contingent.

Again, my question upon reading this was: How can this be adapted to give an account of (aspects of) sexism and racism? Here’s what I came up with:

(1) Racial/gender differences take the form of racial/gender inequalities in wealth, status, and power [‘inequalities’ for short].

(2) There are racial/gender inequalities.

(3) These are not the product of innate racial/gender differences in ability and virtue.

(4) They appear to be the product of innate racial/gender differences in ability and virtue.

(5) Racial/gender inequalities are not permanent, but peculiar to a determinate form of society, viz., racism and sexism.

Certainly there are differences between people of different races and genders. Almost all women are physically capable of pregnancy; almost no men are. People whose ancestors come from different parts of the world tend to be more or less susceptible to certain diseases and tend to have different traditions of family and community organization and religious practice. But, in our society, these differences manifest as inequalities: women and nonwhites tend to have lower status and less wealth and power, compared to men and whites respectively. Our default explanations for these inequalities, almost always, point to innate differences in ability and virtue: Women aren’t in the physical sciences (or economics or philosophy) because of emotions or babies or subtle differences in intelligence distributions. African-Americans are impoverished because of a culture of promiscuity, neglect of children, and dependence on the state.

Of course, other explanations are offered for racial and gender inequalities. But they must be presented as alternatives to the innate differences that are assumed. And this despite more than a century of research that has systematically demolished every previous explanation in terms of innate differences (not to mention obvious ways of obviating the inequalities even if the differences exist, e.g., robust laws prohibiting common types of discrimination against mothers). Indeed, in light of the long history of debunked explanations, I suggest that a reasonable induction is that all innate differences explanations are at least suspect, if not to be rejected out of hand. We can and should, by default, be looking for other kinds of explanation – and asking how to bring about a society in which these inequalities do not exist anyways.

In this light, meritocratic responses to feminist and antiracist charges appear as myths, deep-seated in sexist and racist societies – a fetishism of innate racial and gender differences. Like capital fetishism, they rationalize certain contingent features of our society, making them appear necessary.