Fetishism is the belief that natural objects have supernatural powers, or that something created by people has power over people. The concept was coined by Charles de Brosses in 1757 and was originally used in the 18th century by French and German scholars to characterize the earliest stages in the evolution of religion. In the 19th century anthropologists and historians of religion such as E.B. Taylor and J.F. McLennan developed the theories of animism and totemism to account for fetishism. The concept of "fetishism" allowed historians of religion to shift attention from the relationship between people and God to the relationship between people and material objects; moreover, it established false models of causal explanations of natural events as a central problem for historians and social theorists.

In the 19th century Karl Marx appropriated the term to describe "commodity fetishism" as an important component of capitalism. Later Sigmund Freud appropriated the concept to describe a form of paraphilia where the object of affection is an inanimate object or a specific part of a person. See sexual fetish for more details on this concept.

Marxian theories of fetishism

The concept of fetishism implied a difference, and distance, between so-called "primitive" societies (that had false models of natural events) and modern societies (that did not). Marx's use of the term effected a reversal of this opposition; rather than critique "primitive" religions, he used the term to critique modern societies. Marx observed that people in capitalist societies often fetishized material objects: any product that is advertized as having magical or mystical powers that it can impart to the consumer (such as certain brands of clothing, perfumes or colognes, and foods) are fetishes. Marx's theory of commodity fetishism proposes to explain this phenomenon.

According to Marx, people value objects that they can use (i.e. they have "use-value"), and most things people can use are produced through human labor. In market societies, however, people can use an object to acquire another through exchange; goods thus take on "exchange-value." In capitalist societies, moreover, there is a labor market; rather than being seen as the source of use-values, labor itself becomes another commodity and takes on an exchange-value. Thus, labor is devalued, and commodities are seen as having power over the people who produce them.

A simple example will illustrate this process: the person who owns a Cadillac (or Lexus or Bentley) has more prestige than the people working on the assembly-line that produced it. But commodity fetishism refers to more — the belief that the car (or any manufactured object) is more important than people, and confers special powers (i.e., beyond the power to travel sixty miles in an hour, or flatten hedgehogs) to those who possess it.

See also: idolatry; totemism; conspicuous consumption, Growth Fetish