At the heart of Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness is the three part essay, 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat'. It is an important piece of work and a landmark in Marxist philosophy because Lukacs was able, through a close reading of Marx's Capital to reconstruct his theory of reification and alienation a decade before Marx's youthful writings were first published in Moscow. Before Lukacs and the Paris Manuscripts, this aspect of Marx's thinking had more or less been lost, and it would not be until after WWII before either demanded wide attention. This piece discusses the first part of Lukacs' essay, 'The Phenomenon of Reification'.
What does reification mean? To recap, according to Gajo Petrović in the 1991 edition of A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, reification is the "act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man-produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also the transformation of human beings into thing-like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing-world" (p.463).
The act of reification is imminent to the structure of the commodity. For Lukacs, it is "a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a 'phantom objectivity', an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people" (Lukacs 1968, p.83). This is simultaneously the starting point for investigating the problem of ideology in capitalist societies, and it is a problem specific to them. As we have recently discussed, commodity production has only been an episodic and marginal feature of pre-capitalist societies. It is only when the commodity has become the universal category and successfully subordinated the social fabric to its will can we properly speak of reification. The commodity is the God particle of the whole process. Through it the sum total of the labour of any given society appears not to be expressed by social relations but by relations between things, and therefore the great kaleidoscope of commodities appears to have a life of its own. What makes this alienation all the more effective is the necessity for working class people to sell their labour power in return for a wage. Our thoughts and actions are purchased for a time and set in motion by the employer. In effect what is immediately and obviously ours is alienated from us for the duration of the work day - it becomes the property of an alien power, capital.
The alienation of labour, the control of the labour process that capital possesses enabled it to remake the division of labour in its image. In pre-capitalist societies social production, in as much as it existed, was tied together by serfdom, fealty, guilds, etc. But the emergence of the propertyless wage labourer, particularly in England after the enclosure of the commons, removed any obligation the rulers had toward the ruled beyond the payment of a wage in exchange for their labour time. Because capital owned the means of production it determined how that labour was disposed. As agrarian capitalism gave way to its industrial successor, competition between capitals were compelled to refine their labour process to maximise surplus value. Acts of labour were broken down into their component atoms through time and motion studies. Optimum times for every single aspect of labour were worked out and combined with other actions to determine the most time efficient way of doing absolutely everything. Any organic unity labour once had was scattered to the four corners of industry. Workers were threaded out along the tapestry of production, each labouring on their part before passing down the line for another to contribute something else.
If the labour process and the division of labour are considered in the abstract, it can appear as a finely tuned machine, as a stunning achievement of the application of the principles of rational organisation. It is ironic that alienated labour, the condition/process that makes such social engineering possible appears next to it as faulty and error prone. Every moment of the work day has been scrutinised and agonised over - any problems that occur in the process have to be individual failures. For Lukacs, the worker finds this machine "already pre-existing, and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not" (p.89). The worker is but a cog in a vast enterprise, and this cannot but help have an impact on the habits of mind. If the mental energy required by the work process fails to rise above a set of continually repetitive activities, consciousness runs the risk of becoming socially disengaged and assuming a contemplative stance via a vis the rest of society. This "atomisation of the individual is ... only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the 'natural laws' of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that for the first time in history - the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws" (pp.91-2).
Commodity exchange, the separation of the labourer from the means of production, wage labour, the division of labour are all parts of the same capitalist whole that provide the limitless fuel for reification, which in turn conspires to atomise the proletariat as it is scattered throughout the various branches of production. But the atomised, reified mind is not an unfortunate and irrelevant by-product, it feeds back into the system as the form of consciousness most appropriate to the economics of exchange. Its contemplative state of mind tends to passively accept the fruits of alienated labour as inalienable facts of life. Commodities are produced for sale first, not use. Production for profit is the normal state of affairs. Selling one's ability to labour is just the way things are. But it does not end there. Because reified consciousness accepts all these things without question, and because the worker is alienated from themselves at work, the search for authenticity lies outside it - in the commodities churned out by the production process. In short the reified mind finds itself in the outcomes of reified acts of others, coveting them and contributing to the hold reification has over the (false) social consciousness that exists.
What of consciousness? Though Lukacs never used the term, it is taken here to refer to the process of imprinting reified stories about the social onto popular consciousness. Because rationalisation is made possible through reification, because the production process can be organised on a vast scale, the social can also appear as the coherent expression of one or a few principles. Reified thought spends much time debating the systems and philosophies that are erected on this foundation; indeed, the continual specialisation of the division of labour encourages it. For instance, as tasks become more specialised they are increasingly separated out from the work process and subjected to more rationalisation, albeit one that starts to follow its own unique set of logics. This is the necessary condition for expert knowledge and the various status groups that grow up as gatekeepers around it. They jealously guard their privilege (in a manner superficially similar to the mediaeval guilds) against the claims of other status groups and the proletarianising pressures exerted on them by big capital. They too formulate a reified world view that is ultimately rooted in their social being.
Take for example the development of scientific discourse since the Renaissance. As the tempo of technological development has got more rapid, science, as the pinnacle of applied rational thought, has similarly accelerated and cast its net wide and has founded disciplines, disciplines within disciplines, and specialisations within specialisations. Furthermore it has mainly been the preserve of particular status groups who control access to the status of practitioner through formal systems of qualifications and expectations. In other words, science is as reified as any other form of consciousness. This does not negate its findings, but explains why it is a series of highly specialised areas, despite the occasional fashionable nods toward interdisciplinary practice. Specialisation sees science develop sophisticated methodological approaches to the problems determined by disciplinary concerns. But what it does not do is turn its gaze on the material interests that sustain it, its conditions of possibility, and how it came into being. The history and sociology of science are, well, not treated as relevant to its core function. It is not an issue. Science simply is.
Returning to capitalism in (reified) popular consciousness, as far as Marxism is concerned, the laws that can appear to govern everyday life are formalities that give capitalism a more organised air than is really the case. In times of crisis these can and do easily dissolve and the natural laws of the system, of chaotic competition in markets (and especially labour markets at moments of high unemployment) and dog eat dog survival are more exposed. For Lukacs there is a tension between how capitalism likes to present itself to the world and is actual operation. Rational organisation may have achieved previously undreamed of levels of production by harnessing the competitive energies between capitals to force a dizzying pace of technological advance, but it is extremely limited. Rationality is strictly limited to the level of the individual and/or the enterprise. To organise the whole of production according to the same principles it applies to workplaces would mean challenging commodity exchange. Therefore a qualitative difference exists between the principles that organise the sum and the parts of capitalism, which Marx summed up as the contradiction between the tyranny of the factory and the anarchy of the marketplace.
There are a number of issues that are yet to be answered. If reification is the result of commodity fetishism, how can the veil be drawn aside and things seen as they really are? How is class struggle possible when consciousness is reified? And if we are alienated, what is not properly ours? What constitutes our authentic self? These and other issues will be tackled over the next couple of essays.
A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.