Marxism and Mimetic Desire

Karl Marx in his work Das Kapital describes the fetishization of commodities that he thinks are typical in capitalist societies. At first glance, observes Marx, there is nothing extraordinary about commodities. But if we penetrate deeper, we find strange distortions.

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

Karl Marx, Das Kapital

            In Marx’s view, objects take on a mysterious value in the eyes of consumers, one that is completely untethered from any kind of intrinsic value in the object itself. 

Price bubbles work like this. Market bubbles occur when there is escalating mimetic rivalry between people who want the same asset (art auctions, the stock market, and the housing market are full of them). Participants lose perspective on the value of the asset itself while they are caught up in the mimetic rivalry—beating the rival and claiming ownership becomes the real object of desire.

Nobody likes to acknowledge the real mechanism behind a price bubble. Internal mediation is a world where our mimetic rivalries prefer to remain hidden. In 2005, while the housing bubble was expanding to the point of popping, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan famously refused to call it a bubble. “Without calling the overall national issue a bubble, it’s pretty clear that it’s an unsustainable underlying pattern,” he said. Then, he told legislators on capitol that he saw “froth” in housing—not a bubble. 

A bubble is an acknowledgement that mimetic rivalries have spiraled out of control, and there has to be a reckoning. But by this point in the process, the distortions are so numerous and so powerful that it’s hard for anyone to clear his eyes and see reality for what it is. 

The genius of capitalism is that it channels mimetic desire and rivalries into a wildly generative process that fuels our economy. 

Objects are not scarce because there are not enough things to go around. Objects are scarce because we learned to want them from somebody else who wanted them first (who themselves learned to want them from somebody else). 

In the world of internal mediation, all objects are scarce. They have to be. We wouldn’t want them if they weren’t. Their entire value is derived from how much someone else wants them. The greater the rivalry, the greater value the object takes on in our eyes.

Especially when the objects exist nowhere outside of our own imaginations.