The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Capital notes that wealth “presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” Marx marveled at capitalism’s potency, its over-productiveness even—and how it creates a wellspring of new “needs” that we didn’t know we had. The commercial spectacle we walk through each day—a visual inundation of alluring objects, tempting prices, glossy advertisements, exclamatory price tags and deals—is presented in this way, but conceals a vast social and economic machinery of production and exchange underneath. This illusion is the commodity fetish.
The idea is rooted in the thinking of Adam Smith, who famously observed in The Wealth of Nations: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In some quaint preindustrial marketplace, the reader imagines, these small producers buy and sell their wares. Each buyer knew where the meat, beer, and bread came from, and all the marketplace activity—rooted in the exchange of an individual’s labor—built the very foundation of society itself. “It was not by gold or by silver but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Nearly a century after Smith, Marx witnessed the rise of great machines, mass production, and the factory, of William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” The industrial revolution was a time when the origins of production became lost, dispersed. Today, the web of global connections between producers and consumers is even more elusive. When we see that dazzling rows of iPads at the Apple Store, we do not see all the tinkering, gluing, and assembling that young women did at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. At the coffee shop, we don’t see the Mexican campesino who harvested the beans, or the truckers who hauled the green coffee north in sisal bags. Our connections to producers are anything but direct, but every bit as real as Smith’s fanciful butcher buying bread from the baker.
Even if we know how a product came about, it’s nearly impossible to experience these relationships in a meaningful way, which is why consumer society presents us with a moral problem. Our relationships with Farmland bacon, the latest Jessica Simpson platform boots, and the frenzied charge of Black Friday itself are immediate, sensory-rich, and compelling, but our relationships to the human beings making our things have only become more of an abstraction. Consumer society, especially on this day in November, seems designed to hide this simple fact.
In Reynosa, Mexico, nearly a hundred thousand workers—the entire population of Boulder, Colorado—labor in a huge complex of factories just across from the southern tip of Texas. Each month, the combined work-time—most of it logged by displaced rural women and men from Mexico’s southern states—approaches 20 million hours. That’s billions of bends, pivots, and thrusts of elbows; billions of circuits soldered, copper tubes brazed, and auto components degreased by calloused hands; 72-billion seconds of finger-work, some of it strenuous, all of it tedious. Twenty-million hours of labor—made into sleek televisions, seat belts, women’s intimate apparel, wheelchairs, vacuum cleaners—that crosses a border the workers themselves are not permitted to cross.