Under capitalism, the unique abilities of the individual are effectively liquidated because they are expressed in terms of human labor in the abstract. As workers’ inner essence is subjected to this radical exteriorization, they become estranged not only from their fellow producers, but from their own labor. The human labor in the abstract that derives from this liquidation of each individual’s uniqueness congeals in the commodity. In a sense, when workers purchase commodities, they are buying their own labor back, but in alien form. Seeing part of themselves mirrored back to them in these commodities, they confront them as living beings. Inanimate objects like the "magical" wooden table Marx describes take on human qualities to the extent that workers are estranged from their own.Central to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is the idea that a fetish is something people psychologically invest with powers it does not really have. As W.J.T. Mitchell makes clear, this act of investing is not something people consciously intend to do. “The magic of the fetish depends on the projection of consciousness into the object, and then a forgetting of that act of projection.” Although Sigmund Freud’s work on fetishism deals with entirely different subject matter, it helps to shed light on this process. In his account, the fetish substitutes in the male mind for the penis that the mother was once imagined to have but has now been revealed to lack. Believing that if his mother has been castrated he can suffer the same fate, the boy attempts to disavow his perception that she is lacking. What is unique about fetishism is that the perception of lack persists in the face of these attempts to keep the belief in her penis alive. As Freud puts it, “he has retained that belief, but he has also given it up.” By substituting for the mother’s penis, the fetish allows him a psychological compromise. The fetish “inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor.” However, “this interest suffers an extraordinary increase as well, because the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in the creation of this substitute.” The fetish thus “remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” It also has an added benefit in that it “is not withheld from him: it is easily accessible.”
Two aspects of Freud’s account here are useful for understanding of commodity fetishism. First, the fetishist imaginatively invests what is usually an inanimate object with power he has found to be lacking in a human being. Second, the fetish is a suitable substitute for what is lacking because it is not susceptible to the same sort of lack. To put this another way, a shoe fetishist is never going to make the horrifying discovery that a shoe lacks a penis, since he knows from the outset that, as an inanimate object, it can neither have nor lack one. This is why the fetish is “a token of triumph over the threat of castration.” As different as the commodity fetish is from the sort of sexual fetish Freud describes, it functions in analogous fashion. To the extent that workers under capitalism are estranged from their own labor, part of their human essence is "cut off" and transported away from them. This process generates a lack in them, for which they compensate by investing the commodity with the human qualities of which they themselves have been deprived. Since commodities are usually inanimate objects that cannot labor and are thus incapable of being estranged from their own labor, they cannot suffer the workers’ fate and take on “an extraordinary interest” for those workers. Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is rigorously materialist, for it assumes that there are no higher powers except the ones that people create. Human beings have themselves devised the chains that bind them. In traditional religions they serve a god or gods that are mere projections of their own collective power; under capitalism they ‘worship’ commodities that congeal their collective labor power. Whatever mystery appears to emanate from the commodity is mystery that they themselves have invested in the commodity as a response to their self-estrangement. Cult value does not derive from an object’s inherent properties, but from the way in which people perceive their relation to it.