Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

In New York State a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death today by shoppers rushing to buy “Samsung 50-inch plasma high-definition televisions for $798, Bissel Compact upright vacuums for $28, Samsung 10.2 megapixel digital cameras for $69 and DVDs like “The Incredible Hulk” for $9.”[1] When shoppers were were told that the employee was killed, they protested: “I’ve been in line since yesterday morning.”

According to the New York Times, both the state detective and the union boss blamed the death on a lack of “security.” Marx, however, taught that security – capitalism’s “supreme social concept”[2] – is only the flip-side of the fetishization of commodities. The ‘fetish of the commodity’ was a concept introduced early in Capital in order to name the process by which commodities are abstracted from the wage labor relationship, the “secret of our social products.”[3]  In the absence of the legibility of real-world relations of inequality, production, and exploitation, objects become obscure and we lose our orientation. When objects are no longer thought of as products of labor and capital, all that is left is a mystified fetishism; commodities come to appear  as autonomous objects and “social action takes the form of the action of objects.”[4]

For an exchange object to become an object of fetish, therefore, its social basis in wage labor must be negated or somehow disavowed. Did the Wal-Mart customers not take commodity fetishism to its absolute logical extreme by literally negating labour, by killing the wage employee? Is that how capitalism must end? If capitalism is to collapse under its own barbaric weight, it can only do so by undermining the material basis of the “social hieroglyphic” itself: the commodity. “What is it about the particular mode of human practice that requires it to exist against itself in the mode of the object?” More importantly, “what sort of praxis is needed to fight against Barbarism?”[5]

[1] “Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death” New York Times 11/28/2008

[2] Marx, Early Writings, ed. Bottomore (1964) p.25

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1967) p.74

[4] Ibid. p.75

[5] Werner Bonefeld, “Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno,”in Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism (2009) p.129, p. 123


7 Responses to “Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death”

  1. Mavaddat Says:

    Hi Nathan,

    I was wondering, when you say that “[Marx] indicated that commodity objects are fetishized as a result of being abstracted from the wage [labour] relationship, the ‘secret of our social products’,” what do you mean by “as a result of”?

    I mean, is this a psychological claim about the reasons what mental mechanism causes people to fetishize commodity objects? Or, is it a historical claim about the emergence of possibly some other psychological mechanism for fetishizing commodity objects?

    I’m just trying to understand how to think about this claim. Thanks!

  2. nathancr Says:

    hey Mavaddat,

    I actually think it’s neither of those two. Freud’s notion of fetish does not help with Marx’s fetish, where there is no ‘interior’ – the fetish is actually not in the subject, it is in the object-world itself. It is in the very nature of the commodity, set in the highly complex exchange relations of capitalism, to obscure the social background. The commodity is presented as having value inherent to itself, without the social relations. But as Marx says sarcastically, “so far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in a pearl or a diamond.”[83] Perhaps the problem though is that neither can the chemist or any other scientist discover the labour “congealed” in the commodity. Marx suggests this: even when the social scientist tries to “look beyond the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves” [74], the very “analysis shows that [the commodity] is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” [71] Zizek makes a remark about this, pointing out the strange fact that the analysis itself does not demystify or uncloak the commodity, as one would expect. Rather, analysis reveals the metaphysical nature of the commodity. The fetish is in the nature of commodity society itself – individuals only recognize the commodity in its essence (perhaps if they recognize the exchange object , free from the commodity form, perhaps then the alienation, exploitation, and the “essential expenditure of human brains, nerves and muscles” becomes apparent) . This is very important for understanding what happened in New York State. If we psychologize the fetish, we make regrettable moralized condemnations of the individual shoppers, displacing our guilt onto them and so on. The reality is that the entire system creates the fetish, including especially sellers, capitalists, retailers. And here is where the analysis is so radical: mainstream analysis would never attempt to place the blame on Wal-Mart before placing blame on individual consumers. I am not saying that these things are beyond the control of individuals. Obviously people can resist against commodity society – that is our only choice for escaping the barbarism, I think.

  3. Mike Thicke Says:

    Nate, what do you mean when you say “the fetish is actually not in the subject, it is in the object-world itself”?

    -What is the subject?
    -What is the object-world?
    -What is a fetish, and how is it a property of things in the object-world?

  4. Mavaddat Says:

    Nathan, I hope you will forgive my denseness , but I feel more confused now than before.

    I gather from what you wrote that you are saying one (some, or all) of the following four positions:

    1) Fetish is a quality that inheres in the metaphysical nature of commodity, such that “commodity objects are fetishized” is actually an ontological claim about the character of the commodity object itself, independent of people’s perceptions. In this case, the fetishization of commodity objects is not subjective.

    2) The fetish inheres in the nature of commodity society, rather than in the actual objects of that society, such that it is the structure of our society that creates fetishized commodities. This arises from a confusion of commodity objects as having objective value in themselves, which is just what we mean by that fetishization. In this case, the fetishization of commodity objects is entirely subjective.

    3) Contrariwise, it is actually possible to discern the essence of commodity objects by analyzing them directly. This is what I gather from your sentence, “[…] individuals only recognize the commodity in its essence […]”.

    4) The fetish-nature of commodity objects cannot be discovered by any empirical means such as direct observation, but only emerges through the analysis of our ideas of commodity objects.

    The first and third positions seem at odds, respectively, with the second and fourth positions. Then again, the first and third seem well-suited to each other (as do the second and fourth).

    So am I getting warm here? Do one (or more) of these recapitulations capture Marx’s idea of commodity fetishization accurately? Thanks again, Nathan.

  5. Billy Flanigan Says:

    Is Marxist theory really the most potent response you can come up with to something like this? I’ll agree that the idea of goods being so idolized that their value is removed from the everyday sphere of interpersonal relations is bot interesting and relevant…

    The idea that this was a byproduct of insufficient security is actually pretty valid. As a byproduct of whatever, the frenzied crowd was ridiculous enough that this store called the Police to help out with keeping things safe/orderly at 3:30 AM. The response was minimal bc other walmarts had them stretched so thin.

    Why increased private security would have made a difference is because the store was understaffed and as a result, weren’t able to open the doors without endangering themselves. Theory goes that by hiring temporary employees with people-handling experience, door opening, etc. could be handled more safely and the death avoided…

  6. nathancr Says:

    Hey Mavadatt, don’t apologize. here’s the original chapter. there is also a wikipedia entry on commodity fetishism that begins to explain the chapter, especially through this single sentence: “commodity fetishism is the belief that value inheres in commodities instead of being added to them through labor.” (you give a version of that in your second point)

    The second point you make needs to be clarified so that it is no longer at odds with the first: It’s not that commodity society is different from the actual objects of that society, commodity society is the society of objects. Specifically, it is the society dominated by the exchange of objects in the market – I think that’s an adequate definition. The third point should be clarified (sorry I wasn’t clear). It’s confusing because of Marx’s ‘dialectical’ method, which I suppose I employed in this sentence: “individuals only recognize the commodity in its essence…” Conventional logic might say that “the commodity in its essence is merely the embodiment of social relations.” but that’s like saying, “the commodity is not a commodity”: it should be clarified that the commodity in its essence is obscure! that’s why it causes the fetish. It’s essence as a commodity is to abstract from the complex social relations and become a “social hieroglyph”[p74]. On point four, the fetish nature of commodities can only be understood by studying commodity society, not commodities. I suppose that means studying our ideas of commodities, yes (Mike, that’s what I mean by “subject”).

  7. nathancr Says:

    I am agreeing with you, in a way: tragedy happens because of insufficient security in this commodity society. So the choice would be between more security or less capitalism. armed security, temp security, hired guards, blackwater mercenaries, ‘homeland security,’ anti-terror policing, gated communities, private guards, vigilantes, ‘security and prosperity partnerships’ – rather than abandoning Marx, we might ask how he already knew in 1843 that “Security is the supreme social concept of civil society; the concept of the police”?

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