Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism
While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:
“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”
“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”
Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen “wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”
In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:
“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”
Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls
Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:
“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”
Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.
A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.