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Excerpts from J. Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud and the Gods Black People Make (2018)..

  • Feb 09 2022
  • J. Lorand Matory
    is the Lawrence Richardson Distinguished Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. His research spans a wide range of interests, including religion, gender, ethnicity, and transnationalism in Africa and its diaspora. He is author, most recently, of The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud and the Gods Black People Make (2018). His next book, Slavery in the Heart of Freedom examines religion, politics, and popular culture through the lens of Haitian Vodou and white American BDSM.

[Anthropologist William] Pietz traced the “problem of the fetish” back to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century encounter between African and European traders on the Guinea Coast of western Africa. These traders […] expressed the view that Africans were capricious in ascribing godly power to material things. Further, they mocked the Africans for attributing great value to objects that these Portuguese and Dutch critics represented as relatively worthless, such as beads and seashells. […] Their readers’ ignorance about Africa had its strategic uses. Over the course of the seventeenth century [Dutch Protestant merchants] encrusted the term “fetish” with their own radical opposition to almost all material embodiments of the divine and with the premise that fetishism was the root cause of not only bad business dealings but also political despotism. […] In a potentially infinite array of disagreements, it could be used by one European to cudgel another and, in equal measure, to legitimize the speaker and blacken, as it were, his rivals’ reputation and rank […] In this intra-European struggle, Africa became both hostage and proxy. [p49][...]

Marx and Engels turned the Enlightenment idea of the fetish, long an explicit description of African spirited things, into a household word and a leading metaphor in the theorization of their fellow Europeans’ foolishness. I argue that Marx’s and Freud’s political programs and rhetorical strategies were shaped by the nineteenth-century rise of capitalism, overseas imperialism, pseudoscientific racism, and Jim Crow, as well as these men’s own class insecurity. They were also shaped by these men’s desire as secular Jews to escape the stigma, exclusion, and murder suffered by religious Jews. [p16][...]

Marx wrote his history and critique of capitalism in the midst of a circum-Atlantic war over the fate of the enslaved African, whom he turned into a metaphor for the fate of the “wage slave.” Of course, Marx was sympathetic to the “negro slave,” but the first volume of Capital expressly employs the enslaved African American not as a human victim of capitalism or protagonist in its overthrow but as a “pedestal” for the display of European workers’ suffering. That enslaved person could hardly take comfort in being the lens, rather than the target, of Marx’s concern. 

… Marx’s appropriation of African gods as the paradigmatic metaphor of the European foolishness at the root of European workers’ suffering [i.e. “commodity fetishism”] is difficult for me to regard as natural or innocent. Marx was critical of religion generally, but he embraced and amplified a gentile European tradition of singling African religion out for special contempt. I see an element of “ethnological Schadenfreude” [the strategy of middling status groups to seek membership in higher-status groups by assenting to, and indeed proclaiming, the inferiority of a third, more vulnerable party] in this tandem marginalization of the “negro slave” and singular put-down of African gods, since Marx was himself vulnerable to the sort of marginalization and contempt that he passed on to Africans. [p48; p16][...]

Contrary to the current uses made of his work in the humanities and some social sciences, Marx was not an abstract, disembodied theory machine mechanistically graphing a purely evidence-based diagram of economic history for all times and places. Rather, he was a mid-nineteenth-century human being born in central Europe with culture-specific aspirations and historically specific social and material problems of his own. [p59] [*This summary passage is important for a Marxist audience to read. I hope it won’t be deleted.]

[Marx biographer Jonathan] Sperber […] highlights Marx’s financial problems, but a further major fact unspoken in the usual twentieth- and twenty-first-century reception of Marx—unspoken even in Sperber’s own account—is the influence of Marx’s own racially ambiguous character and the insecurities that it inspired in the context of nineteenth-century European antisemitism. I maintain that the rhetoric of Marx’s claims about value and history reveals precisely that insecurity. Moreover, [literary historian Peter] Stallybrass argues that specific material things of exchange in Marx’s life—namely, his pawned overcoats—gave rise to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism […] Marx animated these and other highly cathected material things—[such as] black bodies, the factory, and the piano—with his ambition, his disappointment, and, in a word, his ambivalence about his own race and class. [p59]

Marx’s benefactor, Engels, earned his living in a Manchester cotton mill supplied by slave-grown cotton. The “negro slaves” who planted, weeded, and plucked that cotton in the hot sun, whose fingers were lacerated by the bolls, and whose backs carried the bales to market were, for all of their efforts, deprived of their freedom; mutilated physically and psychologically; separated from their husbands, wives, and children; and subjected to the total intergenerational theft of the surplus value they produced. By rights, my children and I should have inherited some of the capital that they produced. Instead, the proceeds of their labor power were shifted to a chain of European American settler colonists and metropolitan Europeans, [and] some of [of those proceeds] ended up as Engels’s cash handouts to Marx himself. Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, was not the product of his labor alone. It was and is a fetish that conceals many hours of “negro slave” labor that subsidized its research, formulation, and material production. [p82][...]

Marx’s labor theory of value is no more empirically demonstrable than the theories that it critiques and [...] it is just as socially positioned in the perspective it articulates. By comparison with the ostensible incompetence of the “negro slave” and the supposedly minimal worth of his or her product, Marx affirms the collective agency of all European wage workers, the value of their product, and, by proxy, Marx’s own worthiness of enfranchisement despite his ethnicity and downward class mobility. [p38][...]

As a child of the European Enlightenment, I am both heir and victim to the premise that European “thinkers” create abstract, disembodied, and historically transcendent ideas, in contrast to Africans’ ostensibly illogical gestures and bedazzled enthrallment to things. Since the Enlightenment, self-described white people have relied on the disparagement of Africans’ sacred material things as proof of their own European dignity and as a fulcrum for the valorization of their own material things, ideas, and priorities. Yet, as a child of Africa, I am aware that African consecrated things embody ideas to the same degree that European social theories do. From this point of view, I can also see that European theories endorse contestable social priorities and dwell in things as much as African gods do. [p34][...]

… by “fetish,” I mean to say that they are beings constructed and materially activated by humans, as all gods and spirited things are, that their value and agency result from a displacement of value and agency from other things or people, and that their legitimacy as concentrated repositories of value and agency is contested by the partisans of rival fetishes. In this sense, Afro-Atlantic gods and spirited things resemble multinational corporations, universities, nation-states, homelands, homes, and social theories. All of these institutions are networks of material things, plants, animals, and people animated by ideas asserted in the context of rival ideas about the value of and relationships among beings and things. [p31][...]

In the end, though, the worshippers of the Afro-Atlantic gods are no more right or wrong than other people are about their equally useful but human-made reifications, such as the mind, charisma, conscience, or abstractly quantifiable time (that is, the kind that “waits for no man”). They are no more right or wrong than the people who believe in individuality, corporations, races, cultures, society, revolution, discourse, or habitus. And they are obviously nor more wrong than believers in Marx’s labor theory of value or in the inevitability of “class struggle” as the engine of history.... [or in the] “negro slave” as a volitionless antitype of the rights-bearing white worker. Those who successfully build communities through the enactment of these central European constructions and those who successfully build communities through the worship of Afro-Atlantic gods simply create and experience the world through different fetishes. Sometimes, central Europeans and the worshippers of Afro-Atlantic gods fetishize the same material things—such as black bodies—from different social positions, making our bodies the most enduring and powerful of fetishes.


This text was published in the Extrablatt of ISSUE 19: ANTICRISTOS, a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), in the frame of the exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus, opening on February 10, 2022.



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