Wednesday 24 December 2008

Overcoming Reification

The third and final part of Lukacs's essay on reification and alienation, 'The Standpoint of the Proletariat', deals with the experience of reification and how it can be overcome.

As we have seen in the previous posts, reification is only possible on a mass scale with the coming of capitalist society. As commodification draws in more and more social relations and subjects them to its thrall, this not only makes possible the phenomena of mass consciousness, but also its immediate impregnation and moulding by reification. However, reification is experienced differently across the classes. For the bourgeoisie reification feels reassuringly familiar. The abstract position of the individual vs an object-oriented social world can easily be read off from the competitive relationships between capitals and the relation capital has with the inputs that enable accumulation. Reification for the bourgeoisie endows them a subjective position that broadly corresponds to their objective relationships and allows them to function in them. It is different for the working class. Its experience of reification engenders a sense of disempowerment and being-dehumanised. In as far as the reified subjectivity of proletarians matches that of the bourgeoisie it is fleeting and transient.

Lukacs argues the difference in how reification acts upon the classes can be illustrated by philosophy; by comparing their respective methods of historical inquiry. Utilising the example of the machine, for Lukacs bourgeois economics traditionally conceptualises it as a discrete, autonomous entity. But the functions machinery discharge in the production process reappear in bourgeois thought in a contorted form: as its immutable, individual essence. From this reified perspective the production process appears as a series of disjointed independent objects whose meanings and roles derive not from the part they play in production, but from their internal essences. The solution, as Lukacs puts it:
If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these 'relations' and the 'objects' to the same plane of reality. The greater the distance from pure immediacy the larger the net encompassing the 'relations', and the more complete the integration of the objects within the system of relations, the sooner change will cease to be impenetrable and catastrophic, the sooner it will become comprehensible. (Lukacs 1968, p.154).
This is precisely what bourgeois thought cannot do. It is predisposed toward prising apart subject and object, and dissolving reality into rival perspectives whose main 'achievements' are a celebration of the irrational of the real; or a subsumption of everything to highly abstract and over-theorised formal rules; or the development of pretty shallow concepts content to describe the immediate appearances of capitalist society without excavating beneath the surface. In short, bourgeois thought is trapped within the terms of reification, which in turn is fulled by the (unconscious) collective experience of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class.

Lukacs demonstrates above the fundamental difference proletarian thought has vis its opposite number. It proceeds from an understanding of the position the class occupies in history in the present, and the process by which it came into being. As far as Lukacs is concerned, it is a philosophy dependent on conceiving history as an interconnected process, as a totality. But there's more. Immediacy is the limiting horizon of bourgeois thought. Empiricism, the worship of accomplished fact, is as far as it can go. But the first move of proletarian philosophy is to puncture immediacy. As the subaltern class in capitalism, workers are subject to the full force of the system. Employment/unemployment, enfranchisement/disenfranchisement, development/underdevelopment, sexism, racism, homophobia, inequalities and environmental despoliation is the concrete experience of our class as a collective. But for the bourgeoisie, cosseted as they are at the pinnacle of their system, in general the struggle of the working class with these forces exist as abstractions for them.

In a sense, the working class exists as a hypothesis where the bourgeoisie are concerned. They are things-in-themselves akin to Kant's noumena and belong to the system of objects, no different to any other resource that can be manipulated to meet their ends. But labour is qualitatively different to the other elements of accumulation. Labour can be trained to produce commodities and fulfill the tasks desired by their employers, in return for a wage. But it can become conscious of its situation. Labour power is the only commodity that can create value, and simultaneously conscious of itself as a commodity. For Lukacs this introduces something new into commodity relations - what is the objective other outside capitalist experience is the social reality, the terrain of concrete, sensuous experience for the working class. Therefore, as the bourgeoisie works to expand the universe of commodity production, the proletariat emerges with its distinctive interests and modes of thought that reflect this experience.

What this means for reification is a tension between proletarian existence and the forms of thought the former engenders. It is limited by the extent to which labour power is commodified. Consciousness, for the majority of wage earners, is not sold in the same way as it is for bureaucrats, stratas of management and salaried professionals - "the more deeply reification penetrates into the soul of the man who sells his achievement as a commodity, the more deceptive appearances are" (p.172). Their work demands they submit more totally to reified thought. They are about administrating the system, which requires they adopt the habits of reified thought typically associated with their masters. These layers are blind to reification too and are likely to lapse into status consciousness.

However, returning to the working class and reification, Lukacs is careful to avoid suggesting that the positioning of the proletariat under capitalism means an automatic overcoming of reification. Throwing the working class together in social production is an essential prerequisite, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. The consciousness arising from the proletarian standpoint has to be deepened by developing its understanding of history. From this point of view, what appears as the effect of irrational behaviour or forces of nature for the bourgeoisie are grasped as products of human activity, and can be understood as such and worked upon to transform them. This possibility requires not only the abolition of the immediacy of reified relations in thought, but also recognising the possibility and desirability/necessity of their supersession through practical activity. Once this position is achieved, if the latter is discarded there is always a danger of a slip back into fetishised thought. The struggle to retain this is to keep the fusion of theory and practice going, which is simultaneously the act of history becoming conscious of itself. And it is the working class that is the material agent embodying this consciousness, which by its efforts as a conscious agent can put it into practice through the construction of socialism:
Reification ... can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development (p.197)
The wedding of theory to working class political practice is the master key for overcoming reification. Theory, derived as it is from the totality of proletarian experience, plots the coordinates of action by judging where it can be best applied. Therefore, proletarian thought is eminently practical and pragmatic. Truth is tested by practice, and its ultimate success is determined by the extent the proletariat is formed into a class for itself, that is the first class in history not only conscious of its circumstances, but conscious of what needs to be done to transform society according to its interests. This is the point where the subject and object of history, a split that runs through bourgeois thought, is reconciled in practice. In Lukacs's phrase, when the working class is fully conscious, it is the identical subject-object of history.

'The Standpoint of the Proletariat' is a treasure trove of insights and arguments about the lacunae of classical philosophy, the relation between species being and nature, and the place humanism occupies in Marxism. But Lukacs's fusion of theory and practice is his enduring message, and one that has become more timely as we enter the present period of crisis.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.


Phil said...

Previous discussions of History and Class Consciousness are as below:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

And the two preceding posts on 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat':

Commodities and Reification

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

Madam Miaow said...

Phil:The abstract position of the individual vs an object-oriented social world can easily be read off from the competitive relationships between capitals and the relation capital has with the inputs that enable accumulation. Reification for the bourgeoisie endows them a subjective position that broadly corresponds to their objective relationships and allows them to function in them.

That's all very well, Phil. But we see that this outlook is deeply embedded in the left groups, especially the SWP.

How can all this theory be turned into practice when this goes unchallenged? Even in the current debate I see few trying to tackle the bedrock mindset that perpetuates exploitation of working-class activists in the movement.

Its experience of reification engenders a sense of disempowerment and being-dehumanised.

Yet when real flesh and blood challenges the status quo we run into all sorts of rationalisations and other devices that maintain power within an elite.

You write great articles, Phil, and I know you're a great activist on your turf. But I don't see you applying this to the experience of a real comrade whose case you know about.

BTW, I have on several occasions (such as in A Bad Case of the Trots) defended the SP, especially as I saw how the fight went in the SA. But, in common with many other leftists, you seem to want to keep your lily-whites lily-white.

Why is that? Just asking as a proven comrade, like.

Anonymous said...

Does Lukacs talk much about how socialism overcomes reification?

What jumps out at me is (as I say in my latest post) that if reification is the dominance of people-understood-as-things, then non-reification means the dominance of people-understood-as-people, i.e. human beings relating to each other by discourse and discussion. And for that to control the economy would have to mean humans discussing their economic needs and collectively deciding on the allocation of resources - i.e. a 'rational plan'. So economic planning in a certain sense is the necessary antidote to reificaton.

Is that roughly what Lukacs means? He doesn't seem to talk that much about the positive un-reified sort of society, from my very brief scan.

Phil said...

MM, I agree reification is a potential problem for full time layers of revolutionary left organisations, and there is no magic bullet for dealing with it. As reification is a process, not a condition, there needs to be a constant struggle against it. As I discussed in my post below on John Rees's factional document, the SP try and balance the distortions that can afflict the position by grounding full timers in branch life. The friendships and comradeships that grow up in this setting with comrades not immersed in the party full time (mostly) mitigate the effects of having to adopt instrumentalist habits of thought, IMO. As Lukacs argues, widening socialist political practice helps us overcome reified relationships produced by capitalism and it can do the same on the left too. Unfortunately, this is lost on Rees - a man who's read and written about Lukacs, but appears not to understand him. If he did he wouldn't be harping on about "bending the stick" or have promoted a profoundly alienating culture in the SWP.

Re: your remaining comments, these posts on History and Class Consciousness are written to help me understand my reading of the book, and as such are a bit on the rough side. The apply-side of things will come later in future blog posts and perhaps some academic work. As part of my PhD is about engagement and commitment, in future research I will be looking at 'independent' activism, 'dropping out' and disengagement. This will necessarily involve elaborating a critique of the left's culture, backed up by accounts of why so many comrades drop out of far left groupings. This will, with our comrade's permission, be informed by theirs as well as others' experiences.

Phil said...

Hi directionless, yes, the society of associated producers is about the conscious regulation of the social forces human activity produces through various levels of democratic planning. Reification in the Lukacsian sense would not be able to exist because society is no longer in thrall to the independent existence reified forms take.

I haven't finished the book yet. None of the remaining essays are about reification, but some of the themes might crop up. I will talk about them if that is the case.

Anonymous said...

In that case, what occurs to me is how this analysis applies to the USSR and other Stalinist/Leninist/Maoist countries. On the one hand they don't have market economies but rather planned ones, but on the other hand they hardly seem like inspiring examples of what 'overcoming reification' means.

I'm wondering both what Lukacs thought, given that I understand he had an ambivalent but very close relationship to the USSR, and what you/I/anyone else thinks.

For what it's worth, I would suggest that overcoming reification, seeing people as people, their actions as human actions, can take a variety of forms. I relate to someone as a person if we interact as equals, but also if they give me an order that I have obey.

Consequently there can be planned economies based on dictatorship or planned economies based on radical democracy, and they can both to some extent remove the material basis for reification, but what they replace it with is different.

This makes me wonder if there isn't (a) parallel process(es) to reification that are based not on the specifics of commodity production and the market economy but on the relative constant of state oppression.

Phil said...

Reification certainly existed under Stalinism, but in all likelihood operated in different ways than say the advanced capitalism of the West. For example, the "decentered" character of capitalist reification that comes through commodity fetishism could not pertain in regimes where bureaucratically "planned" property relations held sway. Here, I would suggest reification was rooted more in the division of labour, in the separation of the working class from the surplus product. But because the party is the very visible insitution responsible for this state of affairs, the social pathologies associated with reification in capitalist societies (but attributed, in the most part, to everything but commodity fetishism) are more likely to be laid at the door of the ruling party, which makes Stalinist social formations very unstable indeed.

I don't know if anyone ever wrote anything about alienation in Stalinist socieites from a Marxist perspective, but I would imagine some similar themes crop up in emigre/anti-communist philosophical attacks on the USSR and its ilk.

Madam Miaow said...

Phil: As reification is a process, not a condition, there needs to be a constant struggle against it.

But what form does that take? When we are actually in struggle against it and get no back-up, debate or even an acknowledgment that you are engaged in that struggle then these words seems empty.

Yes, great in theory but heaven forfend we should experience the real thing in action.

BTW, I find your writing very clear and now have a better handle on wtf Lukacs is on about.

Anonymous said...

I like this idea:

"because the party is the very visible insitution responsible for this state of affairs, the social pathologies...are...more likely to be laid at the door of the ruling party, which makes Stalinist social formations very unstable indeed."

One might say, rather paradoxically, that the dictatorial nature of the party makes it more 'democratic', because it 'responds to the popular will' by collapsing when things go badly, because people see it as the source of their problems and throw it off.

Phil said...

MM, you're entirely correct. Socialist struggle without developing bonds of solidarity and comradeship isn't a very attractive option. How to beat reification if your interest in your comrades is strictly instrumental? As our deputy general sec is fond of saying, the party must be the germ of the future in the present. Nice sentiment, but lip service if comrades are left to hang.

Madam Miaow said...

Cheers, Phil.

I remember many an SWP rally when Chanie R would get up on the platform and tell us how every comrade was like gold dust — each one precious to the movement. Yet this did turn out to be lip-service.

Sadly, I see no sign that they are ever going to reverse this.