Sein und Schein


Exchange still is the key to society. It is characteristic of commodity economy (Warenwirtschaft) that what characterizes exchange – i.e. that it is a relation between human beings – disappears and presents itself as if it was a quality of the things themselves that are to be exchanged. It is not the exchange that is fetishized but the commodity. That which is a congealed social relation within commodities is regarded as if it was a natural quality, a being-in-itself of things. It is not exchange which is illusory, because exchange really takes place. The illusion (Schein) in the process of exchange lies in the concept of surplus value.

However, fetishized perceptions are not illusions either because insofar as human beings in fact become dependent on those objectivities which are obscure to them, reification (Verdinglichung) is not only false consciousness but simultaneously also reality, insofar as commodities really are alienated from human beings. We really are dependent on the world of commodities (Warenwelt). On the one hand, commodity fetishism is an illusion; on the other hand, it is utmost/ultimate reality – and the superiority of reified commodity over humanity stands testament to this. That the categories of illusion are in truth also categories of reality, this is dialectic.

Concepts like the fetish character of commodities can only be understood when one does not just transform them into subjective categories. Here, I do not mean the appeal to today’s human beings which emanates from commodities in a store. It is not about the psychological fetishizing of individual commodities but about the objective structure of commodity economy. In a society in which exchange vale is the dominant principle, this fetishizing is realized necessarily. What is essential is that the commodity disappears as a social relation, all other reactions of reified consciousness are secondary things.

To be sure, the commodity is the archetype (Urform) of ideology, but commodity itself is not simply false consciousness but results from the structure of political economy. This is the actual reason why consciousness is determined by being. What is decisive is that the objective structure of economic form itself realizes from within itself fetishization. This is the objective process of ideology – independent of the consciousness of individuals and their will. The theory of ideology (Ideologielehre) has its gravity (Ernst) only in the fact that false consciousness itself appears as a necessary form of the objective process which holds together society. Socialization itself takes place through this ideology. Here, the issue of the problem of ideology becomes very serious. Even if we see through illusion, this does not change the fetish character of the commodity: every business man who calculates has to act according to this fetish. If he does not calculate in this way he goes broke.

– Adorno 1962 Seminar on Marx