The word fetish refers to any object that people fixate on or are fascinated by and that keeps them from seeing the truth. According to Marx, when people try to understand the world in which they live, they fixate on money—who has it, how is it acquired, how is it spent—or they fixate on commodities, trying to understand economics as a matter of what it costs to make or to buy a product, what the demand for a product is, and so on. Marx believed that commodities and money are fetishes that prevent people from seeing the truth about economics and society: that one class of people is exploiting another. In capitalism, the production of commodities is based on an exploitative economic relationship between owners of factories and the workers who produce the commodities. In everyday life, we think only of the market value of a commodity—in other words, its price. But this monetary value simultaneously depends on and masks the fact that someone was exploited to make that commodity.

The concept of commodity fetishism applies both to the perceptions of normal people in everyday life and to the formal study of economics. Economists, both then and now, study the economy in terms of the movements of money, goods, and prices, which is essentially the point of view of the corporation. From this point of view, the social dimension of economic life is considered unscientific and unworthy of discussion. Marx argues that this commodity fetishism allows capitalists to carry on with day-to-day affairs of a capitalist mode of production without having to confront the real implications of the system of exploitation on which they depend.