Understanding India’s Migrant Workers’ Crisis through the Prism of Commodity Fetishism

odisha migrants

As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies in India, migrant workers are returning back to their villages. Imposition of new restrictions to contain the virus – like the announcement of a night curfew in Delhi – has instilled fears in workers that they will be rendered jobless and get stuck in the industrial centres where they are precariously employed. Migrant workers in several states have been seen waiting to board buses and trains bound for their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as their source of income dries up because of Covid-related curbs. The Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai, from where trains to UP and Bihar depart, saw a surge in the number of passengers, as was the case in the automobile manufacturing hub of Pimpri-Chinchwad on the outskirts of Pune.

In 2020, the period from March to May witnessed millions of Indians returning to their villages, many of them making the journey on foot, as businesses abruptly shut because of the nationwide lockdown, leaving them without money and shelter. Walkers struggled with exhaustion and hunger, with many dying alongside the roadways (in early May, sixteen workers in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district found refuge at night on railway lines and were crushed to death by a freight train). India did not see such an exodus since 1947-1948, when the British partitioned South Asia into India and Pakistan, leading to the relocation of 13 million people. Although official figures were not announced for the exodus, that number is expected to dwarf those from the 1940s. It is this bitter experience that has prompted workers to go home even before any comprehensive restrictions on travel are imposed.

The case of Indian migrant workers is representative of how capitalism works on the ideological plane. These workers are extremely poor, earning less than $6 a day, which is much below the minimum wage. They live without a social safety net, continuously facing dislocation. To make matters worse, these laborers are victims of intersectional discrimination: 16% of migrants are members of Scheduled Castes and 8% belong to the Scheduled Tribes and the sum of these two is equivalent to their percentage of the total population. These workers had moved, over the last decades, from their home villages to seek work elsewhere in the country. They form the backbone of the economy, contributing around 10% to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Until the pandemic, they lived a life of invisibility – their exploitation concealed from the gaze of others through what Arundhati Roy calls the “erasure of the poor from the imagination”. With the arrival of a poorly planned lockdown, the workers were thrust forward on the terrain of visibility, drawing widespread attention to the ugly underside of India’s post-1990s neoliberal “miracle”.

We need to look at the migrant workers’ experience of invisibility-visibility through the prism of commodity fetishism. In a section of “Das Kapital” entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”, Karl Marx writes: “A commodity is…a mysterious thing…because in it the social character of men’s 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. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.” Two main points can be deduced from the textual extract. First, in commodity production, the basic relation between people assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relationship between things.  This reification of social relations or the compartmentalization of human individuality into a collection of discrete things disguises our social relation to the laboring activities of others in the relationships between things. The exchange relation, which is a relation between the amounts of social labour embodied in the commodities in question, appears to be a relation that exists between the commodities themselves, without reference to the producers. Second, Marx writes that “the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.” To put it differently, our sensuous experience of the commodity as use-value has nothing to do with its value. That is why commodities are both perceptible and imperceptible by us.

It is important to note that commodity fetishism or the displacement of social relations between people into material relations between people and social relations between things is not an illusion. Marx writes: “Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things [emphasis mine].” Here is the explanation of the passage.

The form in which the capitalist mode of production manifests itself cannot be reduced to an opposition between the real underlying essence and the illusory appearances. Rather, it is a process in which the capitalist mode of production is both presented and concealed in one movement; the result is not pure illusion – it is a necessary feature of that mode of production. The fetished appearance that the mode of production takes on results from mechanisms that are the necessary conditions for the functioning of the system. Commodity fetishism arises from the fact that commodity-producing labour is not directly social. Commodities are produced by individuals working independently of one another. Although the total of these individual labors is the total social labour devoted to producing the total social product, these producers do not come into contact with one another until they exchange their products. Hence, the social character of their labour only appears in exchange, and they exchange their labour for that of others only by exchanging products. In a nutshell, commodity fetishism has an objective basis in reality because the economic relationships among commodity producers are necessarily mediated by the exchange of their products on the market.

Commodity fetishism is extremely important to analyze because it forms the ideological foundations of capitalism. Since in a commodity producing society the social relationships among the producers, the fact that they are all members of a society in which they produce for other members of that society, take on the form of a “social relation between the products of labour”, the value of the commodity, which is an expression of the portion of social labour embodied in the commodity, appears to be an inherent and natural property of the commodity, its price. Michael A. Lebowitz expounds on the wider effects of the price-form on the constitution of capitalist hegemony: “Price is the form in which that chain of human activity and human relationships appears to us. This knowledge comes in monetary units. We know the prices of the things we need. We know the price we have ourselves received. And, now we must take that knowledge and make individual rational decisions…as consumers, as capitalists – we’re all the same, maximizers on the basis of the knowledge we have, maximizers on the basis of money.” In other words, the price-form entails a wide-ranging transformation in how we view others: for the capitalist, the worker exists only as labour-power, for the worker, the capitalist only as capital; for the consumer, the producer is commodities, and for the producer the consumer is money.

Commodity fetishism – and the price-form by extension – played a singular role in erasing Indian migrant workers from the imagination insofar that the social character of their private labour was completely concealed, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them transparently. With the onset of the pandemic, the structurally-inscribed logic of effacement was disrupted as factories, construction industry, roadside restaurants/tea shops and street vending temporarily shut down. Driven out by their employers, millions of impoverished workers – existentially dried out by what Marx calls capital’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labor” – began a long march back to home, carrying with themselves the obscenity of the ruling class’ hunger for profit. These workers are again being tossed about by the capitalist system as the dirty dregs of society.

Originally published in Orinocotribune.com

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].



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