Devilish Transactions: Atlantic Slavery and the Fetishism of Commodities in West Africa

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center)
Andrew Apter, University of California, Los Angeles
Although West African “fetishism” has long been recognized as the inspiration for Marx’s critique of the commodity form, the character of the connection remains mysterious.  Was Marx merely invoking the language of idolatry to highlight the false coin of classical political economy, or was “fetishism” historically implicated in the rise of capitalism itself?  Building on the work of William Pietz to pursue the latter line of inquiry, I focus on the complex system of fetish institutions that regulated Afro-European mercantile relations on the Guinea Coast, and access to hinterland captives in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Examining the variety of “fetish” practices, ranging from simple oaths of allegiance and alliance, to pawning, gift-giving, and elaborate sacrifices in settling palavers, I argue that fetishism became central to the political economy of Atlantic slavery by maintaining control over the sphere of circulation.  As Europeans and Africans “made fetish” in competition over pathways of trade, they  converted humans into commodities, and living labor into capital, thus giving birth to those forms of alienation that would characterize the extraction of surplus value.
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