Friday, 21 November 2008

Commodities and Reification

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

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.


Phil BC said...

Forgot to mention, previous posts on History and Class Consciousness are below:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

hysperia said...

Thanks. You have the art of making the complex simple, without simplifying.

Roobin said...

It's a tough old chapter (it's really a book all of itself), but worthwhile.

"The commodity is the God particle of the whole process."

It's good to see you landed on what struck me as the key idea. The way I looked at it was, commodities often come in boxes, which are often stacked. A commodity can only make sense if the things its comes into contact with start to take on its attributes, in the same way a box can only be stacked with other boxes.

A commodity can only become a commodity if there is something it can be exchanged with. By definition the object of exchange becomes a commitity too.

You can see why Lukacs latched onto Luxemburg's key idea in the Accumulation of Capital, that capitalism needs a 'non-capitalist' hinterland, beyond its immediate circuit, to expand into.

Phil BC said...

Thanks Roobin, I would agree with you this chapter has proved trickier than its predecessors. Going through my notes while I was writing this, I was struck by how disjointed they appeared - was this because the first section is less coherent? When I've read the other two parts I'll know for sure.

But one thing that is striking about History and Class Consciousness is how fresh it is - not bad for a book that's 85 years old! I can't recommend it enough.

Roobin said...

Lukacs is an expert in Kant, and Kant is hard going. I think he does justice to Kant's thoroughgoingess (is that a word, it is now) and the arguement that he represents the outerlimits of bourgeois thought. Kant stops at the barrier that straightforward apologists blunder through - how can the pure individual know and comprehend reality?

That's what I think:-)

Phil BC said...

I had a quick flick through the next section earlier and saw Kant cropping up quite a bit. It's going to be a job writing a commentary on a critique of someone I know bugger all about! (I never did get round to reading Kant for Beginners, humph).

Roobin said...

I've never read more than the Kant that cropps up literary theory anthologies. Lukacs does a good job explaining Kant.

H&CC is a bit like Capital or Finnegans Wake. You'll have difficulty reading it if you treat it as sequential logic. Just read, absorb, reflect, repeat process until satisfied. The motif soon becomes clear. Get that and you get most of what he's talking about.

Dominic Smith said...


I'm an SP member from Southampton and Winchester branch, I've been reading you series on Georg Luckacs's 'History and class Consciousness' and been enjoying it immensely, well done comrade! I'd seriously consider informally making a crude printed edition of the whole series when you've finished, it does not need to look good, I'd want it for the ideas.

I first came across Lukacs when I brought a MASSIVE sociology book from an Oxfam bookshop and found that it quoted and referred to him constantly when making reference to the 'Marxist' interpretation in each section.

I liked what I read and though he made some good or at least interesting points, at least relative to the alternative viewpoints that were being put forward. Anyway I later came across 'History and class Consciousness' in a very big second hand bookshop in a town called Petersfield and spent a good while reading bits of it, I did not buy it then as I had no money...but recently on the strength of your comments I decided to make getting it a priority.

Funny thing was, I went back to that same second hand shop and it was still there...3-years later! Guess people don't know a good thing when they see it. Anyway I plan on reading it soon and maybe even speaking on Luckacs's ideas at some point at a branch lead off, certainly in the future I am going to set up a Marxist reading group, although that would not be an early one to read, many more 'classic' Marxist texts coming first, Rosa in particular needs to speak for herself before getting bashed senselessly in the section about her and the Russian Revolution you have coming up.

However a few things puzzle me about Lukacs, in his 'anti-Stalinism' he seems very, abstract and more akin to a liberal-Stalinist than having a coherent, worked out posision on the subject. I came across a lengthy article by him on 'Democratisation Today and Tomorrow' 1968, of which only part II was available to read,

In this article we find some of the most dismissive comments regarding Trotsky,

"With the three other elected numbers, definitely in the cases of Trotsky and Pyatakov, and somewhat indirectly in the case of Stalin, he saw them as representing a serious danger to the future evolution of Russia."

I mean, really, Stalin, indirectly? While it is true Lenin make criticisms of all three, Stalin and ONLY Stalin gets the accusation of being unloyal to the party and therefore the revolution in the postscript and recommended for removal.

Then later the sweeping statement is made,

"Above all it was Lenin’s successors who abandoned the priority of historic-strategic considerations. They all considered themselves as facing situations that required immediate decisions and in which theoretic-historical perspectives had no place. In so far as tactical decisions were connected with a long-term perspective, these also remained without a genuine Marxist theoretic-historical grounding in most cases."

I found myself blinking in surprise, whatever can be said about some of Trotsky's analysis's, on the specific analysis of the Soviet Union for for example (I know from reading Phil that your not an rigid and 'orthodox' Trotskyist) on this and some other issues there are still areas open for debate, even if currently I'm pretty 'orthodox trot' myself, but you cannot argue that Trotsky did not proceed without 'historic-strategic considerations' such a claim flies in the face of his body of works that show an extremely accurate grasp of the world situation and the general trends, his wirings on the fascist movement in particular set him apart form the Stalinists who reacted empirically.

Perhaps the most disturbing though, is Lukacs dismissal of the prospects for international revolution and his comment about Trotsky's Marxist internationalism being 'rhetorical.'

"Trotsky always proceeded from a universal revolutionary perspective which, given the waning of the worldwide proletarian revolution after 1921, remained rhetorical."

In 1921 comrade! I found myself slamming my palm against my forehead, even if we write off the, honestly difficult and complex position the Chinese revolution had found itself in by 1927...we're forgetting one of single most important revolutionary opportunity presented to the workers in the advanced counties for taking power since the Russian revolution, 1924 in Germany!

It is not merely the opinion of Trotsky that had the wavering German CP leadership been given the 'push' it needed by the Communist International and the authority of the Russian leaders but active participants in Germany with a solid background in the revolutionary movement like Victor Serge gave that opinion too. Sadly, it appears that Lukacs could never break himself free from some of the idealogical baggage of Stalinism.

Still, if he contributed ideas worthy of study he can still make some valid contribution to the moment and I can stop myself form viewing him in a completely negative light.

I have one question though, I assume the copy of the book you have contains his 1967 introduction to it? If not, it can be found here,

The reason I ask is, considering it is actually a lengthy introduction that is far more than just a quick recap but a serious theoretical contribution itself where he not only goes over many these articles with the experience he had acquired but makes some, frankly appalling and indefensible political statements that I don't think he should be let off so lightly for. The worst perhaps and also exposing an almost schizophrenic confusion where, after essentially concluding with Trotsky's condemnation of the Stalinist doctrine of 'social-fascism' he then goes on to proclaim his support for Stalin 'in Russia' while rejecting him 'outside Russia' unable to see the dialectical connection between the two and then, in spite of appearing to agree with Trotsky's criticism as I said earlier suddenly dismisses Trotskyism out of hand! This from a Marxist who had lived and fought on the ant-stalinist side of the barricades during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. to give the relvent quote in full,

“...In 1922 the march on Rome had taken place and in Germany, too, the next few years brought a growth in National Socialism, an increasing concentration of all the forces of reaction. This put the problems of a United Front and a Popular Front on the agenda and these had to be discussed on the plane of theory as well as strategy and tactics. Moreover, few initiatives could be expected from the Third International which was being influenced more and more strongly by Stalinist tactics. Tactically it swung back and forth between right and left. Stalin himself intervened in the midst of this uncertainty with disastrous consequences when, around 1928, he described the Social Democrats as the ‘twin brothers’ of the Fascists. This put an end to all prospects of a United Front on the left. Although I was on Stalin’s side on the central issue of Russia, I was deeply repelled by his attitude here. However, it did nothing to retard my gradual disenchantment with the ultra-left tendencies of my early revolutionary years as most of the left-wing groupings in the European parties were Trotskyite – a position which I always rejected...”

So, after you have finished all the chapters, will you do a post on the introduction? I think you should, in addition to serious political problems outlined above such comments he makes at the beginning, in his opening lines in fact need claying in my mind,

"...and on no account to suggest that they have any topical importance in the current controversies about the true nature of Marxism..."

Given the extent to which quasi-Marxists attempted to distort his own ides in an attempt to break Marxism from any economic base and his strong opposition to this, his above comments could be seen in that context, or he may have been referring to the problems of Stalinism being key, something that obviously was not touched upon at that time in his essays with it still then only being something in the process of formation. Although if the later was him primary concern and it is true he wrote much of the issue of Stalinism as he understood it, I think failing to properly comment on or even consciously ignore Trotsky's detailed and lengthy analysis of Stalinism is pretty foolish, to quote Celia Heart, who left the ranks of Trotskyism so very suddenly, when she was still only just beginning her political journey,

“The 20th century has not finished speaking to us. The vicissitudes that revolutionary practice experienced remain hidden from view. And if there is someone who can be a witness to the 20th century, it is certainly Leon Trotsky.
Ernest Mandel put it much better: “Of all the most important socialists of the 20th century, Trotsky was the one who most clearly recognised the fundamental tendencies of development of the principal contradictions of the epoch, and it is also Trotsky who most clearly formulated an adequate strategy of emancipation for the international workers’ movement”. [1]
Yes, we need Lenin, who will only come back on condition that we listen to what Trotsky has to say to us. They defended the same thing, except that Trotsky survived him and was able to interpret in his life and in his death the forces that were exterminating socialism. I challenge, at this point in time, any thinker who is sincerely trying to understand what happened, to ignore the experiences of Trotskyism, even if only to refute them. Those who avoid them, those who leave them to one side, are not real Leninists.”
Anyway, sorry for the lengthy post, if you could do a post on the intro at the end, that would be sweet! If only for completeness sake ;)

Daisy said...

Interesting comparisons to the old guild system(s). Here in the USA, megacorporations are joining with colleges to make this even worse. You can't even get educated now in certain fields, unless you pass muster with these corporations.

For instance, in my backyard: Clemson University ICAR--a joint development between Clemson University, Microsoft, BMW and various other businesses such as Michelin, who stand to profit from automotive industry expansion.

You basically get an automotive engineering PH.D straight from bug business.