Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: Critique of Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part Three, or How Commodities and Money Dominate Our Lives


I have already criticized Mr. Stanford’s definition of money as purchasing power in two previous posts (see Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of the Social Democrat Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part One   and Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part Two). I turn now to the social effect of commodity and money production as commodity fetishism and money fetishism. 

Mr. Stanford’s definition of money fails to connect it to the peculiar kind of social labour that produces commodities and how this peculiar kind of social labour necessarily gives rise to money as the monopolizer of purchasing power. To repeat his definition of money (from Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism, 2008, page 189: 

Very broadly, money is anything that allows its holder to purchase other goods and services. In other words, money is purchasing power.

We can compare this with Marx’s views on money. From pages 168-169: 

The forms which stamp products as commodities and which are therefore the preliminary requirements for the circulation of commodities, already possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life before man seeks to give an account, not of their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but of their content and meaning. Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values. It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Since money as simply given hides the “social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers,” it is necessary to analyze how it arises theoretically (and practically through the actual exchange process)–which is what Stanford precisely fails to do. From Capital, page 139: 

Everyone knows, if nothing else, that commodities have a common value-form which contrasts in the most striking manner with the motley natural forms of their use-values. I refer to the money-form. Now, however, we have to perform a task never even attempted by bourgeois economics. That is, we have to show the origin of this money-form, we have to trace the development of the expression of value contained in the value-relation of commodities from its simplest, almost imperceptible outline to the dazzling money-form. When this has been done, the mystery of money will immediately disappear.

For Stanford, however, there is no mystery to money. It is simply the power of a specific thing to purchase other things. How and why money permits its owner to purchase other things–including the capacity of workers to perform human labour–remains a mystery on the basis of Stanford’s definition. Stanford, in fact, merely assumes the power of money to purchase commodities. At least eighteenth and nineteenth century political economists were able to infer from exchange relations that labour formed their basis as value (although they also assumed that the kind of social labour that produced value was concrete labour). From pages Capital, 173-175: 

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely,  and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The above quote links up to the theme of commodity fetishism and money fetishism, or the loss of power by workers over their own life process (the production process of their own lives) and the positive acquisition of power of the things they produce–commodities, money and, ultimately, capital. 

Mr. Stanford’s definition of money as “purchasing power” fails miserably to address something which is very relevant for members of the working class: Why does the ownership of money by employers confer so much power over the workers at work? 

By severing the connection between the positive monopoly of immediate purchasing power of money from the negative lack of such power of commodities, Stanford fails to grasp the organic or internal connection between the difference in power between commodity power–especially the commodity called labour power–and money power (represented by the employer)

Part of the answer to the question of the asymmetry in power relations between the owner of commodities and the owner of money is found in Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, and the associated theory of the money fetish, which is really a development from commodity fetishism. By fetishism is not meant some kind of personal fetish, such as a fetish for a particular part of the human body or a particular item of clothing. Rather, it is a fetish in that human powers appear as the power of things, whether as commodities (commodity fetishism) or as money (money fetishism), or indeed as a thing called capital (capital fetishism). As Elena Lange (2021) notes, Value without Fetish Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 225: 

The inversion of the problem – money is not to be explained on the basis of the fetish character of the commodity, but the commodity is to be explained on the basis of the fetish-character of money – however leaves open the question how money is capable of paradigmatically representing general social exchangeability.

Stanford, with his one-sided positive definition of money as purchasing power, cannot link the power that ownership of money confers to the employer. He cannot do so since he fails to link the nature of money in a capitalist society to the nature of the kind of labour that requires money as an external power (“purchasing power”).  Money for Stanford  just has purchasing power–it appears to have this active power independently of the way in which the producers’ own labour (the labour of the working class) is organized and how they relate to each other by way of the topsy-turvy relation between things (commodities and money).

The Nature of Commodity Fetishism–and the Domination of Workers 

Stanford cannot understand the nature of commodity fetishism since he simply assumes that a thing called money has purchasing power by nature. He obviously rejects connecting the nature of money to the peculiar social labour that produces commodities. In fact, I doubt that he is even aware of the connection (since he interprets Marx’s labour theory of value as some sort of moral theory that is applicable throughout history). 

Commodity fetishism arises because the labour performed by the workers is not social labour as it is being performed and, as a consequence, the relations between the labours of workers who work for different and independent employers lack direct social connections. Materially, though,  they form, interdependent relations. At the brewery where I worked, for example, brewery workers did not produce the bottles that they needed to produce the beer, nor the barrels of soap needed to make the bottles move smoothly along the line, nor the chains on which the bottles moved, nor the machines, such as the soaker, the filler or the labeler. There was thus a material dependence of the workers in the brewery on the workers who produced the bottles, the barrels, the soap, the chains, the soaker, the filler and the labeler. 

The labour performed by us to produce the beer, though materially dependent on other labour processes, did not express its dependent nature directly by means of those who produce beer, along with the whole set of other workers jointly communicating and deciding on what to produce, how much to produce and how to produce according to the diverse productive and personal needs of the producers (and other members of society). Rather, the dependent (and interdependent) nature is only expressed indirectly, through the relations of commodities to each other in the exchange relation and the exchange process–since the labour performed during production in a society characterized by a class of employers is only social labour indirectly. The commodities themselves then obtain human characteristics that appear to arise from the nature of the commodities as natural things (such as beer) rather than through their nature as social things. Thus, beer having a price seems to arise from the nature of beer  whereas price in fact arises in the first place because of the organization of production as private, isolated production.  This attribution of social relations between humans as an attribute of commodities and their relations is what Marx calls commodity fetishism. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 164-166: 

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation
of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity form,
and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations
arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them.

Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labour, the specific social characteristics of their private labours appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.

It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility.

Stanford, by assuming as given that money has purchasing power, fails to derive such power from human relations characteristic of a society where the workers lack the power to direct their own lives and–therefore–money arises as a result that permits others to direct their lives.

Stanford presents the purchasing power of money as natural to money–it is (“that is the way it is” attitude–with a shrug of the shoulders). The purchasing power of money, however, derives from the lack of such power by commodities, and the lack of such power is in turn derived from the nature of the labour that produces value–abstract labour, or labour that is not social as it is being performed but requires a further process–a process of exchange–if it is to form part of the labour of society. 

In a society characterized by the production of commodities and their expression in money (with its immediate power to purchase), the power of workers to produce their social lives (reciprocal production of human life) assumes the form of a relation between things produced. The origin of commodity and money fetishism is thus in production–the way production is organized. From Guido Schulz (2012), “Marx’s Distinction between the Fetish Character of the Commodity and Fetishism,” in pages 25-45, Studies in Social & Political Thought, Volume 20, page 26: 

The fetish character of the commodity, which Marx also calls “mystic character”, originates in the “peculiar social character of the labour” that gives products their commodity form. Therefore, the fetish originates in production. Although production is ultimately social under capitalism, it is privately organized and carried out by atomised producers. Capitalist production thus entails a conflict between sociality and asociality. An objective mediation between the two extremes of sociality and asociality is established through the process of commodity exchange. The social relation between the producers is thereby established. Instead of consciously creating immediate links between the
producers, in place of “rationally regulating [production], bringing it under […] common
control“, the social link gets reified and externalized in commodities.

Abstract labour as labour that is not yet social assumes the form of a relation between commodities, things with physical and supersensible (social) qualities that regulate the participants in exchange rather than the participants regulating the process. From Guide Schulz, page 27: 

But value relations objectified in commodities do not only establish the socializing link between producers. From the viewpoint of the individual producer, these objectified value relations even gain autonomy and regulative social power. This non-imaginary regulative social power is twofold: “[R]elations based on the exchange-value of commodities (‘social relations of things’) come to control the distribution of labour-products and the distribution of the labourers themselves within the production process” (Carver 1975, p.51).

All human production is social in character in that, if we are to produce our lives and continue to live as a species, we must in one way or another work for each other in even a temporary social division of labour. This “working for each other,” however, in a situation where labour is not social as it is being performed, assumes the form of a relation between produced commodities, with the social nature of the labour expressed not in the immediate or material form in which it exists but in another use value (as I have already explained in an earlier post–see  Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of the Social Democrat Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part One). If there are two commodities produced, say beer and a pair of pants, the social nature of beer production is not expressed in the beer but in the pair of pants. From Samezo Kuruma (2018), Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money How, Why, and Through What is a Commodity Money? page 144:

How, exactly, is the value of a commodity indicated? Given that a commodity cannot indicate its value on its own, it is indicated instead by another commodity with which it is in a relation of exchange. Yet in the case of that other commodity as well, its natural form is its use value (not value), and it does not, on its own, have a form of value in addition to its natural form. The natural form of that other commodity must therefore become the form of value. This is indeed what happens … he [Marx] traces the development of the
form itself, and in so doing thoroughly solves the riddle of money.

The pair of pants in this case is immediately exchangeable or convertible into the beer since it represents objectified social labour–objectified labour that is freely convertible into any useful form. Similarly, the  labour that produces the pair of pants represents general social labour, or labour that can assume many different forms. The pair of pants is immediately exchangeable with the beer (its “purchasing power”) despite the concrete labour that produces the pair of pants being separated off and being produced independently of the other commodities  because this particular labour represents general social labour. 

This power of immediate exchangeability, or its purchasing power, is derived from the negative way production is organized in a capitalist society; there is no unity of workers with each other as human beings who produce for each other. The unity arises through the emergence of a special commodity that functions as an external unifier of producers who are socially external to each other despite their material interdependence. 

It is through the development of this simple expression or form of value–the value of the beer being expressed in another use value, the pair of pants or what have you–that there arises the money form, as the final form where value achieves a uniform and general expression in just one commodity that then becomes money as the monopolizer of general exchangeability or purchasing power ultimately emerging from the nature of abstract labour and embodied in one particular use value (and hence one particular form of concrete labour). 

The property or characteristics of commodities as social products requires a form different from their immediate use value as the product of concrete labour. This form–ultimately the money form or money–then has the social characteristic of being immediately exchangeable or convertible into any particular commodity or use value.

This social power is transferred to commodities, but only potentially, not immediately since commodities cannot immediately express their value in their own use value. In turn, this social power becomes concentrated in one commodity–which becomes money.

Stanford, by ignoring completely the process by which money acquires the immediate power to purchase all other commodities, himself contributes to commodity fetishism since he fails to link the property of money of having immediate purchasing power with the lack of such power of commodities and, in turn, their lack being due to the peculiar social nature of the labour that produces the value of commodities. 

The Nature of Money Fetishism

The fetish character of commodities is a simpler form than the money form since the relations between producers is still expressed as a relation–although a relation between things. From Marx, Capital, Volume 1,  page 176: 

As the commodity-form is the most general and the most undeveloped form of bourgeois production, it makes its appearance at an early date, though not in the same predominant and therefore characteristic manner as nowadays. Hence its fetish character is still relatively easy to penetrate. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Where did the illusions of the Monetary System come from? The adherents of the Monetary System did not see gold and silver as representing money as a social relation of production, but in the form of natural objects with peculiar social properties.

Does Mr. Stanford enlighten workers on how money has the property of “purchasing power?” Not at all. He assumes such a property as given without explaining it. The money form, however, is a form that hides its own nature. From Marx, Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169: 

It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual

Commodity fetishism, as a social relation between workers as exchangers that assumes the form of a relation between things, is converted into a money fetishism as money emerges as the unique power of a commodity to be converted immediately into any commodity form.  Money thereby assumes the form of a thing that has–“purchasing power”–by its very nature, apparently  independently of the nature of commodities and commodity production. Money fetishism is a development of commodity fetishism. From Desmond McNeill (2021), 
Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century, pages 61-2: 

There is a similar important passage later in the same volume [of Marx’s book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859]:

A social relation of production appears as something existing apart from
individual human beings, and the distinctive relations in which they enter
in the course of production in society appear as the specific properties of a
thing. … This perverted appearance manifests itself merely in a more striking
manner in money than it does in commodities. (Marx 1970: 49)

Here, Marx is making the point that money fetishism is a developed form of commodity fetishism.

As Georgios Daremas (2018) says, “The Social Constitution of Commodity Fetishism, Money Fetishism and Capital Fetishism,” in pages 219-249, Judith Dellheim Frieder Wolf, Editors, The Unfinished System of Karl Marx Critically Reading Capital as a Challenge for our Times  page 226: 

An inversion has taken place: money—instead of being seen as a reflector of a commodity’s value (as the universal equivalent or representative, as the passive agent of reflection)—is perceived as the active agent positing the value of the commodities. From a logical point
of view, the basis of money fetishism is the collapse of a relationship of reflection/representation to that of an identity. The inner connection of the commodity’s value represented by the money form is reduced to a social feature inherent in money per se that appears to hold an external, contingent connection to the multiplicity of commodities bestowing value upon them.

Stanford, by assuming the purchasing power of money without explaining it, reinforces the fetishism of money. This is hardly in the interest of workers. 

Probably in a follow-up post, I will in future elaborate on the further development of commodity fetishism and money fetishism as capital fetishism (I have already hinted at such a fetishism in referring several times to the domination of workers’ lives by their own actions and by the products of their labour). 


The way in which the labour process is organized in a society characterized by a class of employers involves the relations between workers assuming the absurd form of a relation between things leads to the mystery of why a particular commodity–money–has the magical ability to purchase all other commodities whereas they, on the contrary, lack such power. 

Commodity fetishism is easier to understand than money fetishism since it relates more directly to the production process and involves the expression of value in a not-yet fixed form. With money fetishism, on the other hand, money seems to have purchasing power capacity immediately, independently of the organizational structure of labour. Stanford, by simply accepting the purchasing power of money without linking it to that structure, contributes to hiding the real nature of money and the real nature of commodities as alienated forms of human social labour. 

It is instructive of how dominant social democracy and social reformism are here in Toronto (and undoubtedly in many other capitalist cities) is the lack of any criticism of Stanford’s definition of money. 

I will conclude this post in anticipation of a possible future post on capital fetishism by quoting from Thomas Hodgskin’s book (1825), Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital: 
Or the Unproductiveness of Capital proved with Reference to the Present Combinations amongst Journeymen, pages 71-73: 

Betwixt him who produces food and him who produces clothing, betwixt him who makes instruments and him who uses them, in steps the capitalist, who neither makes nor uses them, and appropriates to himself the produce of both. With as niggard [stingy] a hand as
possible he transfers to each a part of the produce of the other, keeping to himself the large share. Gradually and successively has he insinuated himself betwixt them, expanding in bulk as he has been nourished by their increasingly productive labours, and separating them so widely from each other that neither can see whence that supply is drawn which each receives through the capitalist. While he despoils both, so completely does he exclude
one from the view of the other that both believe they are indebted him for subsistence. He is the middleman of all labourers … Not only do they appropriate the produce of the labourer; but they have succeeded in persuading him that they are his benefactors and employers. At least such are the doctrines of political economy; and capitalist may well be pleased with a science which both justifies their claims and holds them up to our admiration, as the great means of civilising and improving the world.

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