Commodity Fetishism: A Concept for Organizing against Sweatshop Labor and Neoliberal Globalization

Two URPE Insights

First, I should start by assuring you that I have not gone round the bend. I am not about to suggest that we dust off our volumes of Capital, corner some poor unsuspecting soul, and then launch into some long-winded exegesis of the concept of commodity fetishism. That sounds more like a remedy for sleeplessness than a concept for organizing against anything.

Rather I want to explain why I believe that commodity fetishism — most simply the notion that commodities are the bearers of social relations — is a key concept for organizing resistance to neoliberal globalization. Two URPE sources convinced me of this.

URPE Insight Number One: a Night With an URPE Friend

I remember sitting up late one night with an URPE friend of mine and fellow political economist. “How often do you see students protesting the exploitation of labor?” he asked. “They deserve our support,” he insisted. We spent the rest of the evening talking about how we might effectively plug into the anti-sweatshop movement and about writing and teaching about sweatshops.

The more we talked and the later it got, the more convinced we became that Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism was what made the anti-sweatshop movement so effective. Even in the sober light of morning, I still thought that understanding commodity fetishism plays a key role in the anti-sweatshop movement. 

Let me say a word or two about what Marx meant by commodity fetishism.

In The Theory of Capitalist Development, Paul Sweezy summarizes Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism in Volume One of Capital this way:

In commodity production, the basic relation between men [people] assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relationship between things.  This reification of social relations is the heart and core of Marx’s doctrine of Fetishism.

The anti-sweatshop movement, likewise, is built on the understanding that purchasing commodities brings us in contact with the lives of the factory workers who manufacture them. 

Buying jeans, t-shirts, or sneakers made in Los Angeles, Bangkok, or Jakarta, or the export zones of southern China and Latin America, connects us to the women and men who are working long hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions for little pay in the apparel and athletic footwear industries. 

Without having slogged through Marx’s Capital, students in the anti-sweatshop movement understand that connection and seek to improve the lives of the workers who make their clothes and sneakers .

URPE Insight Number Two: Your Reaction to Medea Benjamin

The second source of this insight comes from the URPE plenary on sweatshops several years ago which included me and Medea Benjamin, the Director of Global Exchange. She began her plenary address about sweatshops by asking the audience to look at the tags of their t-shirts and find out where they are made. I remember the room was transformed, as that year’s group of aging political economists helped each other sort through their clothing.  

The effectiveness of the exercise is well known.  That it is recommend by the Rethinking Schools curriculum on sweatshops and the Smithsonian sweatshop exhibit “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” convinces me that sweatshop organizers appreciate how to reveal the social relations underlying the exchange of commodities. The global production game, as the Smithsonian website calls it, always gets my course on Sweatshops and the Global Economy off to a good start.

Exploiting Commodity Fetishism

Exploiting initial connections


by commodity fetishism is much of what teaching about sweatshops is about. 

In my course, workers’ personal testimonies and other readings acquaint us with the lives of apparel and athletic footwear workers in China, Indonesia, and Mexico, as well as Los Angeles and New York City in the United States: e.g., China’s Workers under Assault by Anita Chan; “Made in China,” the National Labor Committee (NLC) pamphlet; and Zoned For Slavery: The Child Behind the Label, a video, in which National Labor Committee director Charles Kernaghan holds up to the camera a newspaper advertisement with a picture of a young woman at work on a factory sewing machine.  The ad reads, “Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador.  You can hire her for 57-cents an hour.” Then Kernaghan holds up the same ad, published one year later, but which now reads, “you can hire her for 33-cents a hour.”

Taking on Neoliberal Globalization, Not Just Sweatshops

But I have made this sound too easy.  I often worry just how anti-capitalist the anti-sweatshop movement is and to what extent it really challenges neoliberal globalization.  

Campaigning against sweatshops, of course, is not explicitly anti-capitalist. It targets the bad apples from the corporate barrel.

For instance, labor economist John R. Commons, in the early 20th century, argued that the solution to the sweating system was to bring workers onto the factory floor, where they “can be seen by the factory inspectors and where they can organize.”

Economists Kimberly Ann Elliot and Richard Freeman in their excellent 2003 book, Can Labor Standards Improve Under Globalization?, depict the anti-sweatshop activism as correcting a market failure.  As they see it, anti-sweatshop activists are the intermediaries who make the market for labor standards by forcing corporations to report accurately the working conditions of those who make their commodities.

I was less worried, however, after I read a recent interview with Milton Friedman in BusinessWeek (15 August 2005).  Friedman wasn’t backing down from the position he took in his famous 1970 New York Times Magazine article “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” Asked if still considers the doctrine of social responsibility subversive, Friedman responded:

Absolutely.  It is just as subversive as it ever was.  The idea that the resources of a company should be distributed by people on some basis other than ownership and by people who are not elected for that purpose — surely, that is a socialist concept.

Boy, I hope he is right. And I do believe that, every time we put people before profits, we are advancing a socialist concept, or at least a subversively anti-capitalist one.

Surely the struggle for international labor standards that attempts to make workers’ right to be treated like human beings, to work in healthy and safe conditions, and to organize unions inviolate is an example of putting people first that curbs the prerogatives of capital.

The anti-sweatshop movement has scored recent victories that subvert global capital. Here are two recent examples:

1. In 2003, the union at the BJ&B hat factory in the Dominican Republic, one of the largest factories in the free-trade zones of the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, scored an impressive victory. A coalition of U.S. college students, labor activists, and brand-name-conscious employers such as Nike and Reebok pushed the factory to negotiate a labor contract that provides their workers, who make hats emblazoned with college logos, with “raises, scholarships and other benefits that are unheard of among the country’s 500 foreign-owned plants.”

2.  In April 2005, after a decade and a half of refusals to bow to pressures from anti-sweatshop activists, Nike revealed the location of 750-odd factories it uses to make shoes, clothes, and other sporting goods. Nike also released a comprehensive corporate responsibility report that revealed a pattern of worker harassment, excessive overtime, and unpaid wages throughout its contract factory base. 

Why Factory Workers?

Still, the anti-sweatshop movement needs to challenge neoliberal globalization and its devastating effects on workers across the global economy.  By not doing so, the movement has left itself open to the criticism that it has failed to focus on those worse off in global economy.

The world’s poor are disproportionately located in rural areas.  Most scratch out their livelihood from subsistence agriculture or by plying petty trades, while others on the edge of urban centers work in the informal sector as street-hawkers or workers in small shops, not in large export factories. In fact, today, the informal economy accounts for one half to about three-quarters of non-agricultural employment in developing countries and is an especially important source of employment for women

The question becomes, “Why factory workers?”  Paul Krugman, a long-time critic of the anti-sweatshop movement, puts the question in a very pointed way (“In Praise of Cheap Labor,” Slate, 21 March 1997):

Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land, or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap?

Krugman’s fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who once co-authored a column entitled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops” (New York Times, 24 September 2004), adds one more barb: “If sweat is the issue, agricultural work, hoeing the field or working in paddies, often involves more perspiration than factory work” (“Asia’s Crisis Upsets Rising Effort to Confront Blight of Sweatshops,” New York Times, 15 June 1998).

So why hasn’t the plight of these rural and informal-sector workers, who are more often poorer and sweat more than workers in the world export factories, inspired a first-world movement dedicated to their betterment?

“Fastidiousness” is Krugman’s answer. “Unlike the starving subsistence farmer,” says Krugman, “the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit — and this makes us feel unclean.  And so there are self-righteous demands for international labor standards” (21 March 1997).  

Ironically, Krugman’s snotty answer itself points out how activists exploit commodity fetishism, i.e., commodities as the bearers of social relations in a capitalist economy. Purchasing commodities brings students in contact with the lives of the factory workers who manufacture them and whose lives students, as consumers and citizens, have sought to improve through their anti-sweatshop activism, by changing the employment practices of U.S. corporations and their subcontractors.

Maybe you could dismiss these criticisms if they came just from the usual suspects, first-world neoclassical economists. But many development economists from the Global South, feminists, and progressives of various stripes who are opposed to neoliberalism have raised similar questions, especially about linking labor standards to trade agreement.  

For instance, Ann Zammit and Ajit Singh, from the South Centre, argue that imposing labor standards might improve working conditions for some formal-sector export workers in the developing world and lessen wage competition with first-world workers, but it would do little to improve conditions for workers in the informal economy who toil at jobs that offer few protections and who often endure more abusive conditions than those faced by formal-sector export factory workers. Worse yet, imposing labor standards would, in Zammit and Singh’s opinion, reduce labor demand in the formal sector and expose more workers to the unregulated and precarious conditions as the unemployed to seek employment in the informal sector. They urge activists instead to fight against neoliberal austerity policies and for policies that promote employment.

What Zammit and Singh and other progressives from the Global South have to say makes clear that the plight of sweatshop workers needs to be seen in the context of pervasive poverty and gaping inequalities of the global economy.

Revealing the Connections of the Global Economy

To the extent that we live in a truly unified market place, the global economy connects us not just with sweatshop workers, but also with oppressed workers outside the factory gates. We need to make those connections visible as well if we are to build a movement that would demand more for working people across the multiple dimensions of the world economy. 

Campaigns to improve conditions in the world export factories should of course be part of such a movement. But the movement must also tackle the often worse conditions of low-wage agriculture workers, poor farmers, street vendors, domestic servants, small-shop textile workers, and home-based workers.

Can exploiting commodity fetishism make those connections visible in the same way it has exposed our connections to the lives of factory workers? It is a hard assignment but some have done it.  Barbara Garson’s 2001 book Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy, from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back, which unfortunately will not be reprinted by Penguin, does an admirable job of establishing the connections of even a small investor to the global economy as she follows her money to Southeast Asia and back to Maine and Tennessee, through the construction, shrimp framing, and finance industries.


A movement that demands more for all working people would pursue an agenda of reforms such as these:

1.  In 2001, the Study Group on Women Workers and Child Labour in India submitted to the National Commission of Labour a recommendation to extend national Labour legislation to informal women workers.  That meant broadening the definition of work so that:

2. Push for labor standards that address first the needs of the most distressed workers. For instance, Anita Chan insists that migrant workers in China have yet to enjoy even more basic rights than the ILO core labor standards:

  1. To be paid regularly, on time, and at least $U.S. 2 a day;
  2. To retain their human dignity at work.
  3. To have the right to rest one day a week;
  4. To be free of occupational hazards that threaten their lives and limbs;
  5. And to be free from fear of being put into detention centers for not having the right papers.

Common Ground and The Race to the Bottom

Seeing our connections to all the citizens of the global economy should push the anti-sweatshop movement to join in the fight for fairer rules for global economy, where there is common ground on which progressives from the Global South and anti-sweatshop activists from the Global North can stand. 

For instance, “the race to the bottom” needs to be seen not so much as wage competition among countries of the Global South or between workers in the Global South and the workers in the industrialized North. “The race to the bottom” is better viewed as the result of the neoliberal rules that govern the global economy, enhance the bargaining power of MNCs at the expense of citizens in both the rich countries of the North and poorer countries of the South, and thereby push down wages across the global economy. (For a fuller discussion of this point, see URPE economists James Burke and Gerald Epstein’s article: “Threat Effects and the Internationalization of Production,” Political Economy Research Institute, April 2001.)

There is common ground that allows progressive forces in the Global South and North, including anti-sweatshop activists, to join together in a fight for a new set of international rules which severely limit the prerogatives of capital, reverses the macroeconomic forces of austerity and instability let loose by neoliberalism, and fights the informalization of labor markets throughout the global economy, which has, in the words of Lourdes Beneria, shifted the risk away from employers onto workers.

Understanding those connections, exploiting commodity fetishism if you will, can be the basis for involving first-world consumers, students, workers, citizens in a movement based on William Greider’s words in One World, Ready or Not: “the recognition that human dignity is indivisible should be the bottom line of the global economy, not profits per se.”

John Miller teaches economics at Wheaton College and is a frequent contributor to Dollars & Sense.  He also writes about sweatshops and the anti-sweatshop movement and about globalization in Southeast Asia.

John Miller
Dollars and Sense