Thoughts on Reification


How to account for the abrupt onset of the current crisis of capitalism according to the interests of the working class, knowing that historically the constitutive components permitting the functioning and reaction against exploitation no longer play the same role today as they did in the past?

Why are these reactions so timid, despite the importance and impact of the crisis, despite the appeals of all those who claim to speak in the name of the class? Clearly, the “classic” explanations of the crisis are no longer sufficient to explain the actual events. What, then, is going on? Has the proletariat been integrated into the logic of capitalism?

It is initially necessary to understand the changes that have taken place within capitalism and their effects on the proletariat. Several theorists, including Hans-Georg backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Werner Bonefeld, Moishe Postone, and Anselm Jappe have sought to respond by wielding the concept of alienation.

This concept of alienation is not new. Various claims about it exist. Raymond Carver, Harold Brodkey, Michel Houellebellcq also use this term. In ethics, Martha Nussbaum terms reification the instrumental treatment of other people. One can thus regard it as a transgression of moral principles. It is about human behavior highlighting the pretence of feelings, opportunism, auto-manipulation, the management of emotions, highlighted in contemporary works. Moreover the strictly naturalist approaches that explain human affects and actions by the analysis of neural connections in the brain are described as reifying.

But before them, Marx used the concept of alienation to explain the evolution of the proletariat as a function of the social relations transformed by capitalism, and the effect of the development of value. He considered reification as a specific phenomenon, that by which relations between human beings assume the form of relations between things. Lukács also took up this concept and theorized the action of the proletariat as a response to reification. This led to a critique of the Frankfurt School in the 1950’s, which had theorized the insufficiency of the efforts to overcome reification and had led to a questioning of the possibility of a revolutionary movement of the proletariat.

This is an important discussion, and we need to again take up, and sharpen, these concepts. In capitalism, human relations dissolve into value relations, but while capitalists gain power and wealth, and become the willing agents of capital, wage-workers live this relation as a loss, a mode of self-alienation, a form of enslavement. We have here an historical process that has assumed different forms as a function of the very development of the relations of production. Reification is a process that transforms the subject into an object. It is an ongoing process within capitalist accumulation.

It is consequently important to appreciate the evolution of the concept:

This will permit us to situate our present level of understanding in terms of the actual evolution of capitalism, and to understand the response of the working class. This article constitutes a framework, on the basis of which we can go further.

1. Reification according to Marx

The concept of reification appears in Marx in 1859, where he says: “social relations between people appear as inverted, as social relations between things”. Later, in the first volume of Capital, he claims: “the materialization of the relations of production comes from the internal structure of the commodity economy. Fetishism is not only a phenomenon of social consciousness, but of social being.”

But in the work of Marx, this concept assumes various forms. At first, Marx speaks about alienation or estrangement. Later, when he develops the theory of commodity fetishism, he uses the concept of reified labor, fetishism or the theory of value. These three formulations are approaches to the same problem, the determination of the creative activity of workers in the capitalist form of the economy.

The first approach by Marx to the analysis of social relations in capitalist society is done through the concept of alienation or estrangement. In 1844, Marx poses alienation as inherent in the social relations of a capitalist society, where one class appropriates the work of another, alienated, class. While defining by analysis the critique of the alienation of man from himself, alienation from the product of her work and even of from his own activity, Marx raised the question of the abolition of these forms of dehumanization, and the possibility of restoring a human society. In certain passages of the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx even identified communism with a restoration of human nature, a restoration of the essence of man. Marx borrowed this concept from Hegel, while criticizing the content that the latter had given it.

However, in 1845, in his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx criticizes those according to whom the essence of man remains isolated, outside of history, and, abstract. For Marx “the essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in the isolated individual. In its reality, it is the whole of social relations” (Theses on Feuerbach). According to Marx, Feuerbach, “... never arrives at the really existing active men, he knows no other human relationships of man to man than love and friendship, and even then idealized…he never manages to grasp the sensual world as the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it.”

In The German Ideology (1845-46), then in The Poverty Of Philosophy (1847), Marx considers man in much more concrete terms, i.e. he considers the world of objects as a world of concrete human activities, creative activities: “by acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production and by changing the mode of production… they change all their social relations…”

So, Marx brings the human “essence” back into history, which means that man has no essence other than his historical existence. Concerning the historical project: “men have each time attained the degree of emancipation that the existing productive forces prescribed and allowed, but not their ideal of man”. Marx resolved man’s essence into the historical conditions in which he lived and was thus led to abandon the conflict between the alienated man of capitalist society and an a-historical human non-alienated essence.

Later, in the first volume of Capital, he affirms that the materialization of the relations of production comes from the internal structure of the commodity economy. Fetishism is not only a phenomenon of social consciousness, but of social being. Marx says “the sum of the forces of production, of capital, of the forms of social relations that each individual and each generation finds as a given, is the concrete basis of what the philosophers represented as the “substance” and the “essence of man.” To transform the theory of the alienation of human relations into a theory of the reification of social relations, Marx poses the question of the connection between alienation and commodity fetishism. He believes that it is there that the foundation of the reification (materialization or objectivation) of social relations resides. It is in that sense, that Marx will use the concepts of reified labor, commodity fetishism, and the theory of value. These three formulations are approaches to the same problem, the determination of the creative activity of the workers in the capitalist form of economy. Fetishism, then, is not only a phenomenon of social consciousness, but social being.

In adopting that problematic, Marx went beyond utopian socialism, which remained stuck in a negation of reality in the name of an ideal, and instead posed the necessity for an immanent comprehension of that reality, of its concrete developmental tendencies, and its actual movement. He indicated that the link between the concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism lay in the concept of reification and its resulting “thing-ification” of social relations.

2. Reification and Lukács

On the bases of Marx, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel, Lukács elaborated a definition of reification. He developed it in his monumental History and Class Consciousness, specifically in the chapter on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Lukacs sees reification as a relation between people that takes on the character of a thing. Reification designates the cognitive process by which a human being is seen as a thing. It is an elementary definition that considers that a human being who possesses nothing is considered a thing. For Lukács, reification is not seen as a violation of moral principles, but as a failing in the recognition of human praxis, of human rationality. Lukács, then, articulates a certain social ontology. This elementary explanation must, for Lukács, be placed in a social context as a function of the extension of commodity exchange, which with the establishment of capitalist society became the dominant mode of human activity.

For Lukács, with the mode of capitalist exchange, relations between individuals are evaluated as functions of particular interests. It is commodity exchange that, with the establishment of capitalist society, became the dominant mode of the inter-subjective activity. With the evolution of Capitalism, subjects are constrained to inscribe their relation to society in a reified mode; as “things” from which a profit can be made. One speaks, then, about thing-ification, when the object, as an instrument, has her personal capacities transformed into economically profitable components.

So, Lukács assembles these elements to explain the causes of reification: the quantifying apprehension of the object, the instrumental treatment of the “other,” the transformation of her qualities into opportunities to pursue the quest for profit. This is something other than a simple phenomenology, inasmuch as Lukács links the description of phenomena to the fetishism of commodities. When the process of reification is in place, the subject no longer participates in an active manner in the way in which she interacts with the environing world. He seems disinterested in it.

Lukács believes that with the expansion of commodity relations, men abandon their position as subjects, because related to social life they are constrained to behave as distant observers. In the ever-expanding sphere of commodity exchange, subjects are constrained to act, with respect to social life, in a contemplative fashion, rather than as active participants. It is the quest for profit that rationalizes behavior. As a result of socialization, the reified system of behavior develops. The instrumental treatment of others is a social fact, before being a moral one.

How, then, to extricate humankind from reification? How, then, to overcome thing-ified social relations? All of modern education leads to reified social relations. The capacities of the subject are developed so that he/she can participate in the commodity world as a quantifiable and “useful” object. It is necessary that these subjects, in their turn, see the world as a thing-able entity. Lukács, by contrast, believes that reification has its limits in the consciousness of the proletariat, through the critique of the commodity form.

3. The Conception of the Frankfurt School

The question that the Frankfurt School asks is: why, contrary to Marx’s forecasts, has class polarization and the proletarian revolution not happened. If Lukács thought that reification would find its limits in the consciousness of the proletariat, as a critique of the commodity form, the Frankfurt School rejected that vision as based on idealist principles. For the Frankfurt School, then, the Lukácsian thesis that claims that the proletariat is an identical subject-object, making it possible to overcome reification, is itself idealist. The critique of the Frankfurt School, then, leads to the negation of the revolutionary character of the proletariat. For the Frankfurt School, capitalist society is headed towards total reification.

But let us first present the ideas of the Frankfurt School Critical theory was elaborated in the years 1920-1930, specifically by Horkheimer and Adorno, the other principal participants in this current, are Benjamin and Marcuse.

Critical theory is a new critique of reason, of its dead ends, its aporias, and its antinomies. The Frankfurt School opposed Neo-Kantianism (which separated judgments of fact from value judgments), as well as the realism of Lukács, socialist realism, the phenomenology of Husserl, as well as both Stalinism and fascism politically. There was a certain return to Kant, via a detour by way of Nietzsche, who had made a critique of reason, but not on behalf of the understanding and judgment. Nietzsche also developed a critique of civilization and progress, but that needs to be deepened.

As Assoun and Raulet showed in “Marxism and Critical Theory,” critical theory is also an integration of Kantian concepts within a new historical framework. Reason becomes one of the essential referents of Critical Theory; reason which alone can arm the historical subject with a critical consciousness, with a self-awareness as subject of History and a consciousness of the world as object, both an obstacle and an instrument of emancipation. But if reason is émancipatory, it also founded the emergence of capitalism, through a rational appropriation of nature. And that led to catastrophe. That opposition, paradoxical in itself, would lose its dialectical character, and reveal itself to be the instrumentalized obstacle propelling the world towards the reproduction of holocausts.

The critical way at an impasse

The contact, often critical, with phenomenology and existentialism made it necessary for the Frankfurt School to take a position not just about the deviations of an existentialist philosophy diverted for purposes of the legitimization of the authoritarian state, and more particularly of the Stalinist state, but also on the fundamental question of the relation of being in the world, notably through the critique of irrationalism and the refusal to over-value the singularity of individual existence, in a step that reintroduced an idealism that had lost contact with the historical material world.

The critique of identity between reason and the real

“The fundamental philosophical thesis of ‘critical theory’ is the challenge to ‘identity theory,’ to which Hegel had given its accomplished form. It is Horkheimer who expresses it most clearly in his 1932 text on “Hegel and Metaphysics” (Assoun and Raulet). Since Hegel, Horkheimer says, reason and reality are regarded as identical: reason permits access to reality, it apprehends reality in an objective and positive way. There is an identity of subject and object. It is this identity that Critical Theory will attempt to déconstruct and then to reject:

“To deny the Identity doctrine, is to reduce knowledge to a simple demonstration, conditioned by multiple aspects of the life of determinant man […]. Now] the assertion of identity is only an act of pure faith […]. We know from units of an extremely diverse nature and in the most diverse domains that the identity of ‘to think’ and ‘to be’ is nothing other than a philosophical ‘dogma,’ even as it presupposes that each of its moments is one: thus ‘to think,’ ‘to be,’ ‘history,’ ‘nature.’” (Horkheimer, “Hegel and Metaphysics”) The Frankfurt School must then follow a narrow path. It is necessary to propose a critique and a reflexivity of knowledge without falling into “the erroneous modes of a resolution of a panlogicism of identity,” of irrationalism and of positivism among other dangers. It is necessary, at the same time, “to confirm rationalism while renewing it.” The bringing to light of irrationalism

The examples of domination are many and appear to be found in all areas of life to illustrate the following arbitrary enumeration: domination of woman by man in bourgeois marriage, of animals through experiments, of wages within a company sometimes directly by the intermediary of standards of output associated with the work process, the citizen in the State, the landscape by the tourist industry, the ecosystem by industry, musical research by its immediate reception or its profitability, etc

For Adorno, this vision of domination, which is expressed initially In “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” written in collaboration with Horkheimer during the Second World War, is present in other works as an extension into the various fields of the critical analysis of reason, which presents the dual character of developing the potential of freedom at the same time as the reality of oppression, via the distinct instances of reason and nature. The dialectic of reason as a negative dialectic

To positivism, The Frankfurt School opposes the “negative dialectic,” that is, the awareness of the world as a negation of the historical subject and of this critical moment of the spirit that tends, by utopia or social revolt, to deny this negation so as to overcome all alienation.

“The Dialectic of Reason” is an apocalyptic description of (self) destructive reason. Far from clarifying the world, enlightenment and reason ineluctably lead it to catastrophe. The totality of the system of the thought of modernity is a carrier of that catastrophe. This central theme of Adorno’s is coupled with that of “Aufklärung”, Enlightenment, or as the opening of the volume puts it: “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.”

The human species, driven by its principle of self-preservation, or conservation, stripped of dialectic because of the contradiction persisting between its pretensions and its realizations, its concept and that which is reality, works partly, in the contrary direction of progress towards generalized happiness, especially in substituting the means put in place by reason, to the goal, the finality of these means. That results in the irrationality of the activity of man as blind natural history. So, humankind is led to develop this negativism, which explains the catastrophes, the Shoah.

The goal of rationality, happiness, is forgotten. If it names the ensemble of the means defined to dominate nature, its goal remains a means, and reason non-rational. Self-preservation fixed on its means, impoverishes the life of the subject and mutilates the world, in particular the human faculty for differentiation, its qualitative side, its capacity to experience the world and others, which little by little is no longer practiced and is replaced by pre-established schemas of thought, seeking to utilize and standardize individuals and their impulses on the commodity model, and this so they work for the perpetuation of society such as it is. The task of philosophy is, then, to criticize this spirit of self-perpetuation, so as to aid in the development of a consciousness that is a prelude to a possible transformation of the conditions of life determined by the capitalist mode of production, Adorno, here, being one with Marx.

Critical theory will seek to refute the theory of class consciousness developed by Lukács

We thus witness, in Critical Theory, a drift from a revolutionary Marxist position towards a melancholy left Weberianism or a mere critical sociology of communication subsequently developed by Habermas.

It is obvious that in a Lukácsian theory, from which the concept of class consciousness has been amputated, and especially if the proletariat as an emancipatory force is not replaced, the negation of reification becomes problematic. Indeed, if the proletariat is no longer a vector of consciousness that can overcome reification, then it could only be a victim of domination, of repression. Moreover, even as the social process leads to extreme reification, there always remains the social space for disobedience. The Frankfort School, rather paradoxically does not take into account the dual dialectic of social classes, and fails to see, that historically, a dominated class is also always a rebellious class, rather than a reactionary class. While rightly criticizing the identity between reason and the real, the Frankfurt School thinks that this is a fixed entity. It no longer makes a distinction between subject and object, alleging that everything is reduced to domination.

The Frankfurt School ran afoul of this dilemma, and sought to transcend it by finding an answer, for Horkheimer in religion, for Adorno in aesthetics, for Marcuse in ecology. The abandonment of a theory of class consciousness opened the way to a left pessimism, which Walter Benjamin would exemplify.

But if these authors criticize the difficulties of the proletariat to overcome reification, they in no way oppose the concept of reification. On the contrary, they develop a universalizing, absolute, and ontological, vision of reification. The conclusion imposed on them, is that reification is total. But what can one think of such a conclusion? If reification is total, critique itself becomes impossible. This conclusion is a self-refutation of critical theory.

4. What We Keep.

How to overcome the dilemma? Our approach

The discussion that we want to open is about the implications of reification. If this concept makes it possible to understand the evolution of the proletariat within the framework of the changes in capitalism, then it’s also a matter of overcoming the impasse of Critical Theory. The capitalist system

Capitalism is a system that from its onset has dehumanized social relations by establishing the monetary relation and value. This value relation has historically and dialectically evolved in tandem with that of the productive forces. That development has been characterized by an ever-stronger penetration of the value form, accentuating the inhumanity of capital, reification. That situation has brought in its wake a cortege of violence orchestrated to defend the valorization of capital against the tendential fall in the rate of profit, itself exacerbated by the ever-increasing competition between rival capitals.

Historically, capitalism arises from a long struggle to assure the freedom to buy and sell. The struggle of the rising bourgeoisie was limited to the defense of free markets. If the law of value, theorized by Marx, is a constant feature of capitalist relations of production, its actual movement, its extension, is the product of a class situation, which in the nineteenth century did not yet completely seize hold of the possible field of accumulation, thereby leaving space for diverse social classes which bore the frontal attack of the capitalist social relation.

The intrusion of the law of value

That process affected all of capitalist society. It meant that the operation of the capitalist law of value little by little penetrated society as a whole; that every pore of society was invaded and transformed by the operation of the law of value; that all the domains of social existence were tendentially invaded by the law of value. What prevents such a totality shaped by the law of value becoming a totalization from which there is no escape is the fact that the law of value has its own contradictions – contradictions that provide the bases for its own overthrow.

The question that is posed is, then, the possibility of resistance, which can only be resolved by a dialectical stance making it possible to overcome the metaphysical vision of an historical mission of the working class. Metaphysics and positivism are the essentialist methods that look at humankind from the outside, and seek on the basis of such a starting point to elucidate its being and its nature. Their investigations pertain to being “in-itself.” That corresponds to the Leninist approach, which sees that only an external power, the Party, can draw the revolutionary movement in its wake.

The dialectic, by contrast, is necessarily and deliberately a praxis, because it rests on the recognition of the change in consciousness by the world itself, and vice versa. Every dialectical process consists of a regular and uninterrupted evolution of one determination by another, of one pole by another; which makes possible such an overcoming, permitting the accession of new integrations and new provisional synthesizes at an ever-higher level. The dialectic entails a constant development of consciousness of the necessity of a breakthrough of human reflection through its own practice.

Either reality is accepted as an immutable object, essentially always identical to itself, or it is recognized as an object ever changeable by conscious practice, by the action of a subject. Either we confront a world that for all eternity will be opaque and definitively inhuman, only susceptible to modification by a power that alienates man, or we see ourselves in the world, and acting on the world, which in its turn acts on us, as Lukács claims.

To raise that issue, it seems critical to go back to the first definition that Lukács proposed. He situated the problem in terms of totality, in terms of the becoming of the totality of the world, that is to say, of the process of social and historical experience constituted by praxis. That method rejects separation, the fragmentation of the labor process into parts; the atomization of society into individuals. For Lukács – and here, we follow him – this principle of the category of totality is the bearer of a fundamental dialectical principle, which suggests a dynamic relation between subject and object, between the subjectivity of the actor and the concrete fact, between the world of culture and the world of nature.

Marxism is a basic critique of the consciousness upon which metaphysical systems and religious certitudes rest. It is clear that the knowledge of the “laws” of society is by itself revolutionary, and that the political theory possible in a given society describes less the possibilities of another politics than the limits of the political thinking of the existing society.

Fundamentally, it’s a question for man, the worker, to overcome the condition to which capitalism has subjected him. If that overcoming is limited to the conditions of economic or political struggle against the effects of the system, then one could content oneself with a good strategy to mobilize the masses. That conception, inherited from Leninist ideology, is bankrupt when one takes into account the phenomenon of alienation that makes man hesitate before the task of autonomization; when one takes into account the tendency of humankind to re-produce the prevailing social relations, to re-create identical, re-assuring structures: fear of the unknown, of risk, fear reinforced by the dominant ideological discourse, where everything is mobilized to accentuate the need to perpetuate the alienated social structures. So, illusion and truth clash, anxiety and assurance provoked by a concrete reality shaping the symbolic representation of forms of action act in concert to assure the survival and determine the forms of power that historically emerge. It’s a matter of a basic framework that makes it possible to apprehend what humankind can be, its evolution, and perhaps its involution. In the “German Ideology,” Marx clearly summarizes the matter of the survival of humankind: At the outset, humans found conditions favorable to their development. In producing their means of existence, they transformed nature and transformed themselves. Science thus makes it possible to understand and to explain the functioning of nature, of the world at first, incorporating – little by little – the relations created by the life of man itself.

And reification?

It is no longer a matter of developing the productive forces through an unbridled growth of production. Like much else, the production of goods, economic logic, the technicization of the world, engenders an enslavement of man. Such servitude is a submission to the imperative of a “rational” domination exercised by things, by the products of human labor that constitutes an interface, at once an obstacle to and a means of interaction between humankind and nature. To satisfy one’s needs, is to accept and confirm one’s dependence vis ŕ vis an economy that, in order to function, must produce machines and tools, and master the earth by exercising a domination without fault over nature. The overcoming [dépassement] takes place within the struggle engendered by the recognition of the subject, which, for the proletariat, can only be collective. But its outlines arise by grasping the individual interactions opening the way to other social practices, to creativity and solidarity. That vision has been developed in my article,“An Inquiry into Class Consciousness” in IP # 50 (December 2008).


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