The Value Form, Reification,
and the Consciousness of the Collective Worker


Marx’s critical theory exposed a mode of production, a civilization, based on value, which he described as a “deranged” or “perverted form” [verrückte Form], in which social relations between persons are inverted and appear as relations between things. It is the abstract labor of the working class that produces and reproduces this deranged form. As Max Horkheimer, in 1937, put it in “Traditional and Critical Theory:” “… human beings re-produce [erneuern], through their own labor, a reality which increasingly enslaves them.” (1) It was Georg Lukács, in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in the collection History and Class Consciousness (1923), who had first elaborated a theory of reification through which the effects of the value form, that perverted form, and the commodity fetishism that was integral to it, seized hold of society. Lukács’ accomplishment, even before many of Marx’s own vast “economic” manuscripts had been published, was a theoretical breakthrough upon which Marxism as a negative critique of capitalism is still based. As Lukács persuasively argued:

However, Lukács’ concept of reification also entailed the claim that the proletariat, as identical subject-object, could escape the enslavement of reification to which Horkheimer would later point. For Lukács, while the consciousness of the bourgeoisie is “imprisoned” within the reified forms imposed by capital, capable only of grasping the immediacy of its social situation, the worker can become “aware of himself as a commodity,” in which case “the fetishistic forms of the commodity system begin to dissolve: in the commodity the worker recognizes himself and his own relations with capital.” (3) In short, for Lukács, despite the reification to which the worker is subject, the possibility of escape for the working class is inherent in the capitalist labor process itself. Indeed, Lukács asserts that the proletarian is compelled to “surpass the immediacy of his condition.” (4) But what, then, really permits the proletariat to escape that reified consciousness? Lukács’ answer, a theoretically and sociologically unsatisfactory answer in my view, is:

But can the “need” to be aware of the dialectical nature of its existence really explain how the proletariat can escape the effects of reification? Indeed, Lukács’ “explanation” seems more a leap of faith, almost a Pascalian bet, rather than a theoretically rigorous account of the potential that exists within the capitalist labor process, and is instantiated in the “collective worker,” the Gesamtarbeiter.

Nearly a century after Lukács wrote his essay, the question of both whether and how the collective worker can escape that enslavement to which Horkheimer pointed, can overcome the reifying tendencies of capitalism, can break through the chains of the commodity fetish, and -- through its praxis -- abolish the value form, urgently demands an answer, and has once more become the pre-eminent theoretical and practical question confronting Marxism.

It seems to me that the basis for an answer to that burning question may lie in Marx’s economic manuscripts that were for the most part unpublished in Lukács’ time, e.g. the Grundrisse, the 1861-63 draft of Capital (which included the “Theories of Surplus-Value”), “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” and the first chapter and appendixes and supplements to the first (1867) German edition of Capital, in which the double nature of the commodity (abstract value and use value), and of the labor that produces it (abstract labor and concrete labor), are explicated. It is there that the bases of what Lukács would later term reification [Verdinglichung] are analyzed, where the effects of reification on the consciousness of the “collective worker,” its impact on the subjectivity of the worker, is revealed through the explication of the commodity fetish, which is integral to the social relations of capitalism. All these issues have been theoretically elaborated by value form theorists, such as Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Werner Bonefeld, Moishe Postone, and Anselm Jappe.

Jappe has posed the issue in a way that directly challenges Lukács’ own assertions, when, in discussing the prospects for the working class extricating itself from its subjectification by capital, he tells us that:

To have freedom of decision, subjects must be outside the commodity form …. But in a fetishized society, there cannot be such an autonomous and conscious subject. …. Value is not limited to being a form of production; it is also a form of consciousness …. it is an a priori form in the Kantian sense. It is a schema of which the subjects are not conscious, because it appears as “natural” and not historically determined. Put another way, everything that the subjects [shaped by] value can think, imagine, want or do already shows up under the form of the commodity, money, state power, [legal] right. (6)

What does seem clear in Jappe’s analysis is that -- contra Lukács -- there is no subject, including the proletariat, which “in itself” is ontologically opposed to capitalism, to which it is subjugated just in an external way. But if Jappe poses a powerful challenge to Lukács’ claims about the impact of reified consciousness on the proletariat, has he also theoretically precluded the working class from ever developing the consciousness necessary to overthrow the capitalist social form; from destroying the fetishized social relations that the commodity form has imposed? Commodity fetishism is not just a mystification, a matter of “false consciousness,” a veil that the worker, spontaneously or through the Party, can just tear off. Commodity fetishism is a facet of social being in capitalist society, a determinant of social reality itself, of the actual capitalist social relations. The fetish does not just distort or cover up the value form; rather it is integral to the processes of real abstraction that occur in social being itself, in the actual capitalist production process by which concrete work is transformed into abstract labor. The fetishism of commodities, then, consists in “seeing” the socially constructed properties of commodities as naturally belonging to things, and as their a-historical properties or features. Inasmuch as commodity fetishism entails the worker “seeing” the Verdinglich [thing-like] social relations as “objective,” indeed “natural,” not social and historically specific, what basis can there be for the development of the consciousness necessary to abolish the value form? And is such a conclusion the logical outcome of a value form analysis of capital?

Within value form theory, there seems to be a clear division when the effects of the fetishized social relations of capitalism, and its reifying tendencies, on the working class are analyzed. Jappe and Postone articulate a vision in which wage-labor, a wage-working class, and its class struggle, is “…a driving element of the historical development of capitalist society,” but its struggles are “capital-constituting, rather than capital-transcending, forms of action.” (7) Indeed, for both Jappe and Postone, capital itself is an “automatic subject,” and wage-labor, the working class, both constitutes it and is trapped within it. For them, class struggle can produce changes and modifications within the capitalist social relations, affecting its specific economic and political forms, but cannot overturn them.

Such a vision seems to echo a danger that can arise from Adorno’s analysis of the trajectory of capitalism: a totalizing vision of a world from which there appears to be no exit. Such a vision reaches mythic dimensions in the work of Günther Anders for whom the technology brought to perfection within the framework of capitalism risks making humankind, including the working class, superfluous, obsolescent. (8) In his two-volume Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Man] not only have humankind’s own creations, technologies, and social relations, assumed a life of their own, and become Verdinglich, escaping human control, but they now threaten the very annihilation of the human species itself, in the form of ecological and/or nuclear destruction. With respect to the capitalist labor process, Anders argues that the worker is not just robbed of the fruits of his labor, and excluded from any control over the production process, but the collective worker now lacks any sense of what it is doing, or making, because the production process has become both fragmented, in time and space, and so subordinated to the imperatives of machines and technology – themselves in the service of abstract value -- that the labor process has become completely opaque to the workers, occurring, so to speak, behind their backs.

Indeed, for Anders, today, the worker does not “use” the machine, but is used by the machine, subordinated to its requirements and subject to it. The result, for Anders, is that the collective worker of modern capitalism is transformed into a “mass-man” [Massenmensch], incapable of autonomous action. While Anders’ negative philosophy of history leaves no room for escape from catastrophe, his analysis of the actual labor process, and the relationship of worker to machine and technology cannot simply be ignored because it is too pessimistic. But neither can it be refuted simply by recourse to a positive philosophy of history in which the working class inevitably breaks the shackles, physical and mental, of capitalism. To “refute” Andersian pessimism, a concrete analysis of the actual possibilities ensconced within the collective worker and the modern capitalist labor process is needed. (9)

But for Jappe, the way out of such a totalization, if that is to be, lies not in the struggles of the collective worker, but in two other factors. First, that never before in human history has the perpetuation of fetishized social forms “threatened the very existence of the human species.” (10) That claim bears an uncanny resemblance to Lukács’ claim that awareness of the stakes of capitalism’s continued existence has become a “matter of life and death.” Second, that commodity society “is the first society to have recognized the existence of fetishized forms as such,” to have such a consciousness, which is a pre-requisite to overcome fetishism, “pour sortir du fétichisme.” (11) This last claim leaves undecided just who, which social class, possesses that consciousness. Indeed, both these arguments fail to locate the consciousness needed to abolish the value form in the actual praxis of a subject, for example, in the life-world of the Gesamtarbeiter and its struggles. As such, these claims themselves lack the historical and social concretization that would be necessary to make them compelling in the face of the impact of the reified social forms generated by the reign of capital.

This is also the case with Postone’s analysis, despite the power of his critique of “traditional Marxism.” For Postone, “…the proletariat is not, in Marx’s analysis, the social representative of a possible non-capitalist future.” (12) This is because Postone sees the proletariat only “as the source of value, but not of material wealth.” (13) Thus, the abolition of the value form entails the abolition of proletarian labor, though the determinate negation of capitalism, for Postone, is represented by “no existing social form.” (14) For Postone, then, “… far from constituting the socialized productive forces that come into contradiction with capitalist social relations and thereby point to the possibility of a post-capitalist future, the working class, for Marx, is the essential constituting element of those [capitalist] social relations themselves.” (15) The working class does, indeed, produce and reproduce those self-same social relations, but does it only produce them, or does the Gesamtarbeiter also create, “produce,” the possibility of overturning those social relations? Indeed, according to Postone, that possibility “depends … upon the underlying contradiction of capitalist society.” (16) And for Postone, that underlying contradiction lies in the disconnect between the creation of abstract value and the production of real or material wealth, the former being the “basic foundation of the capitalist mode of production….” (17) Postone refers to that seminal point in Marx’s Grundrisse where he shows that:

Marx has shown that while for a whole historical epoch the value form was a condition for the enormous development of real wealth, despite the alienated forms in which it manifested itself, and the horrors to which primitive accumulation and the capitalist production process itself led, the very trajectory of capital would inevitably result in a contradiction between the valorization process and the expansion of real wealth. We now live in an epoch in which that contradiction becomes ever sharper with each passing day, in which the continued existence of the value form condemns humankind both to the massive destruction of real wealth and to ever more rigid limits to its further creation. The value form has long passed from being a condition for the creation of real wealth to becoming an insurmountable obstacle to it. (19) The actualization of Marx’s “must,” a political must, however, requires human action, and a human subject that can instantiate the historical possibility to which Marx points, and it is precisely here that Postone fails to link the historical possibility and necessity for the abolition of the value form, to such a subject. But can the negation of capitalism be actualized without a determinate social form? Doesn’t the underlying contradiction of capitalism have to have an expression in an actual social force? And isn’t that social force, the productive power of the class – the collective worker – that produces, not just value, but material or real wealth?

Backhaus, Reichelt, and Bonefeld, by contrast, do focus on what seems missing in Jappe and Postone: human action and labor – to cite Bonefeld – “as a constituting power,” in which “labour exists against itself in the form of the perverted world of capitalism.” (20) These thinkers, then, explicate those aspects of the “life” of the collective worker that point to its capacity to explode the fetishized social forms within which it lives. That human action, including that of the collective worker, produces and reproduces the fetishized social forms of capital seems clear. As Bonefeld shows in several places, capital is not self-valorizing; as valorizing value, it is produced by the labor of the collective worker. But isn’t human action, the praxis of the collective worker, also productive in another sense, doesn’t it also possess creative possibilities that can smash the capitalist social relations and transfigure the Gesamtarbeiter? It is those possibilities, those aspects of labor, and the collective worker who instantiates them, that hold out the prospect of exploding the commodity form and the reified world that it has created. That form and that world, produced by abstract labor, can only be shattered – if shattered they are to be -- on the bases of properties ensconced within social labor [gesellschaftliche Arbeit] itself. The double nature of the commodity, value and use value, corresponds to a two-fold character of labor: a use value is the objectification [Vergegenständlichung] of concrete labor, while value is the objectification of abstract labor. As Marx shows in the first German edition of Capital (Volume I) this does not mean that “… there are two different types of labor lurking in the commodity, but rather the same labour is specified in differing and even contradictory manner -- in accordance with whether it is related to the use-value of the commodity as labour’s product or related to the commodity-value as its merely objective expression.” (21)

To the question of how labor produces and reproduces the capital relation, the value form, in which it is enmeshed, there is another burning question for Marxist theory, the question linked to class consciousness: how can the historically specific productive power of labor in capitalism concretely shatter the reified modes within which capital has imprisoned it. This is not a metaphysical question about a purported human essence, or a question of a philosophical anthropology; nor is it an ontological question, unless one re-functions ontology in the mode of a historical ontology. For Reichelt: “The human essence, the unity of the individual with its species being, exists only in inverted form, which has to be eliminated through revolutionary praxis.” (22) The human essence and species being to which Reichelt here points is not an a-historical given or fixed human nature, but rather a project to be actualized by the praxis of the collective worker; it is prospective. And that praxis, instantiated in social labor, is no more transhistorical in nature than is the labor that produces value. Given the historicity of capitalism and the value form, then, what powers slumber within the social labor that produces both the abstract value and the use value contained within the commodity form that have the potential to explode it? We have to look at those elements of human praxis, the praxis of the collective worker, that capitalism requires both for its valorization and for the production of “real wealth,” elements that are indispensable to the accumulation process, but which also contain the prospect of destroying it.

In 1970, Hans-Jürgen Krahl raised a question which Marxism, and value form theory in particular, still needs to theoretically answer: Can “…the dialectic of work, namely social labor not only be a misfortune of its utilization by capital, but also a capital negating [ kapitalnegatorische] productive force for emancipation ….”? (23) For Bonefeld, “the fundamental contra-diction of capital is its dependence on labour.” (24) But while capital is dependent on labor, for Bonefeld the relation of social labor to capital is far more complicated: “ ‘Capital’ can not autonomise itself from living labour; the only autonomisation possible is on labour’s side. …. Labour exists in and against capital, while capital, however, exists only in and through labour. …. The social practice of labour exists against capital and also as a moment of the latter’s existence.” (25) Bonefeld’s claim that the social practice of labor exists against capital is a seminal insight, but only a first step in responding to Krahl’s challenge, which then requires a level of concretization that is far more detailed, and to which my own text can do little more than point. In Capital, Marx has provided us with key elements for such as response:

It is precisely Marx’s claim that social labor as a mode of praxis does not simply have a goal external to itself, but is both action meaningful in itself and a mode of self-creation, the production of one own subjectivity, that must have stimulated Krahl’s own line of thinking. Marx’s own powerful claim that labor does not just produce value but is a “living, form-giving fire” (27) is another point of departure, albeit a critically important one. We need to investigate the specific modes that this “form-giving fire” assumes, under the conditions of the real domination of capital, modes which contain the prospect of threatening the form of value itself, and which cannot simply be subjugated to the needs of capital alone. The very creative faculties and processes, for example – not reducible to instrumental rationality – that unleash the productive powers of labor, are necessary not just in the competitive struggles of capital entities, but also potentially escape reduction to the imperatives of capital. Those creative faculties, including the imagination, of the collective worker, are essential to the innovation that capital entities require in their struggle against rivals; innovation through which surplus profits accrue by virtue of their ability to produce their commodities below the socially average necessary labor time required in a given branch of production. That same capacity to imagine new forms and modes of human action constitutes a potential danger for a capitalist world that is also increasingly driven by a need for devalorization, and the expulsion of masses of workers from the processes of value creation, as a means to assure the continuation of the accumulation process.

But the creativity and imagination, that can potentially explode the value form, does not lie in the forms of creativity and imagination through which capital has historically transformed the world. It does not lie in modes of creativity and imagination bound to the forms of science and technology that have been integral to the very development of the value form over the past several centuries, forms linked exclusively to quantification, to instrumental reason; to what Ernst Bloch termed Kalkül-Natur, nature as an object of calculation. What is needed is to explore the possibilities of linking Marx’s “living, form-giving fire” in the praxis of social labor to a project aimed at what Bloch designated as an “alliance technology” [Allianztechnik], one based on a very different conception of science, a “science of tendencies” [Tendenzwissenschaft] which can expand the metabolism between humankind and nature, in contrast to the science yoked to capital. That science, integrally linked to the value form, threatens that metabolism and portends ecological catastrophes on an unparalleled scale.

What is at stake here is no ideology of neo-Luddism, no updated version of machine wrecking, or longing for a pre-capitalist world. The stakes are far more profound than that. It is not the machines or techniques that are in question as we contemplate the threat to the eco-system upon which human life depends. It is rather the way in which nature, reality, “shows up” for human beings. Capitalism and its science and technology are predicated upon the exclusive quantification and instrumentalization of the whole of reality in the service of production and its expansion as an end in itself. The real abstraction of value and of labor, the secrets of which Marx began to penetrate, have their bases in the very same modes in which reality shows up for modern, i.e. capitalist, science and technology. Bloch forged that link between capitalist production as the endless accumulation of abstract value and the science and technology which underpins it:

Against this, however, Bloch posits a “principle of hope” today concretized in both the present incarnation of social labor, that of the collective worker, and the possibility of an alliance technology, and a new relationship of humankind to nature. Such a relationship has as its presupposition that nature, matter, is no longer conceived as a dead, inert, object, upon which humans simply work their will; what Bloch terms Klotzmaterie, a block or lump. Instead Bloch posits a “co-productivity” of humankind and nature, in which the potentialities contained within nature and matter can be unlocked through a dialectical relationship between matter as inherently processual and human praxis; where the standpoint of a new science is not to control, to “explain,” nature, but to relate to nature hermeneutically (through what Bloch terms an “objective-real hermeneutic”) whose task is to interpret, to understand, and not to master, it. Indeed, a relation of humankind to nature based on quantification and mathematization, and the mode of rationality that propels it, results in a crisis, an ecological crisis, as surely as social relations based on the exploitation of living labor results in socio-economic crises. And, it is the same rationality that treats nature as an object that also attempts to objectify the collective worker and transform him/her into a “thing.”

If, on the basis of a value form analysis we acknowledge that there is no Marxist political economy, no Marxist economics, it is because Marx’s project was a critique of political economy, a critique of economics, and its claims to be a “science.” As Hans-Georg Backhaus has argued:

But it is not just the social sciences, like economics, that suffer from what Backhaus terms this “scientistic prejudice;” (30) it is the whole of the natural sciences too. And that is where Bloch’s claim for a different science and technology in the face of the devastation – social and natural -- wrought by capitalism assumes its importance. The possibilities of such a technology and science need to be sought in the actual life-world of the collective worker if the project of a human Gemeinwesen or community is to be realized. One facet of that is the re-cognition that beneath the apparent objectivity of economic relations upon which political economy, and its economic categories, is based lay relations between human beings, albeit in alienated forms. To explode the value form, then, entails seeing through or past the estranged modes within which the immediate reality of social relations appear, to see that they are human-created, perverted [verrückte], forms of relations between humans -- modes of self-alienation. I have indicated that the totalization towards which capital moves, a completely reified world, in which, as Günther Anders has said, humankind becomes “obsolete,” may have a limit in capital’s own need for the creativity and imagination of the collective worker, to which I would add the impact on the worker of the social and natural catastrophes which capitalism’s own insoluble contradictions produce. These are issues that need to be pursued, as does the role of revolutionary memory ensconced within the collective worker; the heritage of past class struggles and revolutionary upheavals, the traces of which have not been lost and might be reactivated.

The human being has a paradoxical existence: he/she shows up at one and the same time as determined and determining. Social and economic relations, and cultural objectifications, materialize through determinate forms, the outcome of specific, albeit contingent, historical trajectories. In capitalist civilization, it is through the value form that the decisive social relations and cultural objectifications materialize. The mode of subjectification of the human being in capitalism, then, is determined by the value form. Indeed, the historical trajectory of capitalism has entailed the penetration of all domains of human existence by the value form. The task of communist revolution, then, has its point of departure in a counter-movement on the part of a determinate social or class bearer [Träger], the collective worker, Marx’s Gesamtarbeiter, to the reification instantiated by the value form and its totalizing logic – a counter-movement that is grounded in the experiential reality, the actual life processes of that collective worker. Such a counter-movement must have a basis in the contemporary labor process itself, and its investigation is an urgent theoretical task today. One primordial task of Marxist theory, then, is to locate just where that spark of revolution is to be found in the experiential life of the collective worker today, where Marx’s “form-giving fire” can burst into a revolutionary flame. If, as I claim, the modal category of possibility [Möglichkeit] has priority over actuality [ Wirklichkeit], then where in the life processes of the collective worker are we to find the possibility of exploding the value form, of overturning the reified world of capitalism and creating what Marx termed a human community [Gemeinwesen], of making the leap from “is” [Sein] to “ought” [Sollen]? One task, then, is to locate that “ought” – communism -- and the conditions for its appearance within the possibilities immanent to the prevailing “is”, capitalism; to locate the possibility of the negation of capitalism, the abolition of proletarian labor, in the actual contradictions of that order and in a determinate subject of revolution. That is the issue with which Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch first grappled at the dawn of what Lukács designated as the “age of absolute sinfulness” provoked by the outbreak of World War One, and with which we still grapple today at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Mac Intosh


Notes

1. Max Horkheimer, “Traditionelle und kritische Theorie” in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Shriften, Band 4, (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988), p. 186.

2. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), p. 93.

3. Ibid. p. 168.

4. Ibid. p. 166.

5. Ibid. pp. 164-165.

6. Anselm Jappe, Les Aventures de la marchandise: Pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur (Denoël, 2003), p. 170.

7. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 319 and 371.

8. Unlike Adorno, Anders was not a Marxist, but his analysis of the impact of the industry and technology linked to capitalism on the human subject cannot be overlooked by Marxist theory.

9. Within the framework of the present text, that is an urgent task to which I can only point.

10. Jappe, Les Aventures de la marchandise, p. 234.

11. Ibid.

12. Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination, p. 355.

13. Ibid., p. 357.

14. Ibid. p. 358.

15. Ibid. p. 357.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid. p. 25.

18. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (Penguin Books, 1973), p. 705.

19. For an analysis of the modes in which the crisis of value now manifests itself, see Sander, “A Crisis of Value”

20. Werner Bonefeld, “Capital as Subject and the Existence of Labour” in Open Marxism, Volume III, Emancipating Marx, Edited by Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, John Holloway, and Kosmas Psychopedis (Pluto Press, 1995), p. 184, my emphasis.

21. Value: Studies by Marx (New Park Publishers, 1976), p. 16. Helmut Reichelt claims that Marx’s formulation of this same point in the second edition of Capital aimed at making the text more accessible, though it also had the effect of substantializing abstract labor, making it a “thing,” rather than a social phenomenon. See Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories: Reflections on the Problem of validity in the Dialectical Method of Presentation in Capital” in Historical Materialism, Volume 15, Issue 4, 2007.

22. Helmut Reichelt, “Social Reality as Appearance: Some Notes on Marx’s Conception of Reality” in Human Dignity: Social Autonomy and the Critique of Capitalism (Ashgate, 2005), p. 38.

23. Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Konstitution und Klassenkampf: Zur historischen Dialektik von bürgerlicher Emanzipation und proletarisher Revolution (Verlag Neue Kritik, 1971), p. 387.

24. Bonefeld, “Capital as Subject and the Existence of Labour,” p. 204. 25. Werner Bonefeld, “Human Practice and Perversion: Beyond Autonomy and Structure” in Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics (Autonomedia, 2003), p. 78.

26. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I (Penguin Books, 1976), p. 283, my emphasis.

27. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 361.

28. Ernst Bloch, “The Anxiety of the Engineer” in Ernst Bloch, Literary Essays (Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 306-308.

29. Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Some Aspects of Marx’s Concept of Critique in the Context of his Economic-Philosophical Theory” in Human Dignity: Social Autonomy and the Critique of Capitalism, p. 15.

30. Ibid.


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