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That Hideous Pagan Idol: Marx, Fetishism and Graven Images

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The importance of the idea of fetishism in Marx's work hardly needs to be argued, especially in light of the famous passage in Capital concerning commodities. However, the extent of Marx's engagement with fetishism has rarely been explored in full, nor has its complex relationship with the religious idea of idolatry. In order to explore both issues, this article is divided into two parts. The first traces Marx's initial encounter with the idea in the work of Charles de Brosses and then the various modifications of the idea in Marx's hands in order to provide new angles on alienation, labour, money, commodities and then capital as a whole. The second part picks up the persistent religious analogies in Marx's treatments of fetishism and then backtracks in order to uncover the connections with idolatry. We visit de Brosses once again, encounter Marx's Ethnological Notebooks, come across a striking connection the biblical critique of idolatry, and explore the way the new category of fetishism absorbs and transforms idolatry. This second part closes by critiquing the efforts by liberation theologians to appropriate Marx's use of fetishism for a renewed theological critique of idolatrous capitalism. Promising in some respects, what liberation theology misses is the sting in the tail of the Marx's development of fetishism.
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Keywords: Alienation; Bible; Capital; Idolatry; Karl Marx; Labour; Liberation Theology; Money; fetishism

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2010

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