Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Lukacs, commodification and historical nihilism in "History and Class Consciousness"

Lukacs on commodification in "History and Class Consciousness"

Lukacs leaves us in no doubt about the importance of commodification. As he puts it in History and Class Consciousness (HCC): "It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities ... [for] at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure." To clarify, he says that " the structure of commodity-relations [can] be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them."

The claim that the entire structure of society revolves around the phenomenon of commodification is a very strong one.

According to "History and Class Consciousness" commodification is the defining phenomenon of what could be called bourgeois society or capitalism. Of course commodities did not appear for the first time with capitalism. What is new with capitalism is organising society so that the highest end is the production of commodities. Other ends are pursued but only insofar as they do not interfere with the markets on which things can be commodities.

There is a second crucial feature of a society in which commodification is the universal structuring principle: the creation of a labour market in which labour also exists as a commodity. Lukacs quotes Marx: "What is characteristic of the capitalist age is that in the eyes of the labourer himself labour-power assumes the form of a commodity belonging to him. is only at this moment that the commodity form of the products of labour becomes general."

One consequence of this analysis is that commodification beomes THE political issue. Hence, Lukacs says little about unpleasant working and living conditions or inequality in wages or inequality of opportunity and access to education, health care, etc. No, the top issues are the commodification of labour and the organisation of society for the production of commodities, and whatever flows from those phenomena.

Lukacs' objection to commodification

Lukacs has two objections to this in "History and Class Consciousness". Firstly, it is inhuman. This seems to imply a concern for the individual and the alienating effect of the mechanically rationalised labour process exemplified by the factory assembly line. He refers to "a mechanical existence hostile to life and a scientific formalism alien to it." And again, of the labourer he says, "he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it 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." He also has an interesting reference to the "journalist's 'lack of convictions', the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs" entailing that "his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic par of his personality." On the mathematical rationalisation of work processes in factories and offices he agrees with Marx that "Time is everything, man is nothing." And in relation to commodification: "this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation."

There are many such comments in the earlier parts of "History and Class Consciousness" where Lukacs seems to be motivated by a humanistic concern for the quality of the individual's experience of life in a capitalist society, and the comments which often include references to an organic unity that has been lost imply a retrospective view of aspects of life that need to be recovered from the pre-capitalistic past.

However, this is a misleading impression because Lukacs ends up affirming the alienating effects of both the labour market and of rationalisation in the workplace. So his real objection must lie elsewhere.

It arises out of Lukacs' underlying concern with history. More important than the alienation of individuals is the alienation of history - an alienation which might be redescribed as history not being true to itself, or as historical agents not yet understanding the true nature of history - not yet seeing that everything in society is historical. Although capitalism disrupts settled communities and frees up the historical process, the idea still prevails that there is a natural order (the market with its atomised players and its apparently natural laws of supply and demand, etc) that should not be disturbed (or distorted as Milton Friedman would have it). The objectification involved in commodification goes along with a view of society as a system governed by quasi-natural laws.

The idea that there is an economic system that can be studied scientifically and that political decisions must conform to the insights of the science of economics is the intellectual correlate of the practice of commodification. But if historical agents still see themselves as having to conform to some kind of natural order, then the historical process has not yet achieved what might be called authenticity - it is not yet for itself what it is in itself.

What is reification?

The reified view of society is one which is - for Lukacs in "History and Class Consciousness" - insufficiently historical. Instead of seeing the social as utterly historical, some aspect is assumed to be 'natural' or prescribed by some moral imperative that limits historical action.

The reified attitude treats history as if it were a part of nature, governed by laws that are not themselves historical and subject to change. This is the objectification implicit in the term 'reification'.

For there to be no reification people would clearly have to believe that there is no natural substratum to society - no natural order and no fixed rational order that might put an end to history. Although our particular society has its quasi-objective historical tendencies that historical agents need to understand and work with, these are relative to our society with its particular history and they will doubtless cease to be effective once the prevailing social order has been overturned.

What is good about capitalism?

For Marx capitalism was a necessary stage in the development of the forces of production - especially important since a liberated society requires an advanced system of automated production so that people are not obliged to spend the best part of their lives doing unfulfilling tasks in the production process. For Lukacs capitalism succeeds in producing the kind of subjectivity needed for a genuinely historical movement.

What initially appear to be the worst aspects of capitalism are, for Lukacs, the necessary preconditions for the emergence of a new class that will allow history to achieve its authentic form:

"On the one hand, this transformation of labour into a commodity removes every human' element from the immediate existence of the proletariat, on the other hand the same development progressively eliminates everything 'organic', every direct link with nature from the forms of society so that socialised man can stand revealed in an objectivity remote from or even opposed to humanity."
This might sound like a criticism but actually it is a process that Lukacs affirms. Lukacs' ideal historical agents must have no vested interests in the status quo. Hence, the value of the way capitalism destroys the settled communities that might give proletarians affective ties to a particular social order. Hence also the value of industrial labour and urban life that remove workers from the connection with the soil and the countryside felt in agricultural communities. Although some would call this alienation, according to the Lukacs scheme of things it is the liberation of subjectivity necessary for the emergence of the first authentically historical society.
Beyond this, capitalism also produces just the kind of class that will enable history to come into its own: the proletariat.

Why the proletariat?

Any authentic historical movement must have a collective subject that understands itself as such. For Lukacs, the bourgeoisie is a collective subject but it is trapped in an individualistic self-understanding. Workers, on the other hand, tend to be forced by conditions at work to see themselves in collective terms and readily see that they need to join forces in order to defend their interests.

The significance of the proletariat follows partly from the idea of history as a process of becoming. Since it is not an act of pure creation it involves both objectivity and subjectivity. We don't create ourselves anew with each generation, rather we find ourselves as objects in a process that also involves our subjectivity (the way we see ourselves and the world around us).
Lukacs' idea of the proletarian combines this moment of objectivity and subjectivity. The proletarian is an object insofar as his labour power is treated as a commodity and as something to be calculated and rationalised and fitted into a mechanistic process. The proletariat is the collective subject of the capitalistic process insofar as proletarian labour is the source of all exchange value (assuming the truth of the labour theory of value).

As Lukacs puts it in "History and Class Consciousness": "By becoming aware of the commodity relationship the proletariat can only become conscious of itself as the object of the economic process. For the commodity is produced and even the worker in his quality as commodity, as an immediate producer is at best a mechanical driving wheel in the machine. But if the reification of capital is dissolved into an unbroken process of its production and reproduction, it is possible for the proletariat to discover that it is itself the subject of this process even though it is in chains and is for the time being unconscious of the fact. As soon, therefore, as the readymade, immediate reality is abandoned the question arises: "Does a worker in a cotton factory produce merely cotton textiles? No, he produces capital. He produces values which serve afresh to command his labour and by means of it to create new values.""

Another important factor for Lukacs is that "The proletariat "has no ideals to realise." When its consciousness is put into practice it can only breathe life into the things which the dialectics of history have forced to a crisis; it can never 'in practice' ignore the course of history, forcing on it what are no more than its own desires or knowledge. For it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious."

If the proletariat could become conscious of itself as both the object and the subject of history, and see itself as simply realising a historical potential (as opposed to imposing an ideal on the historical substratum) then it would be the first subject in history with "an adequate social consciousness." In his famous phrase it would become the "identical subject-object of history" - one that understands society as thoroughly historical (with no natural substratum) and one that is capable of changing society in accordance with historical tendencies.

History would then be "uncontaminated by any trace of reification", allowing "the process-like essence to prevail in all its purity" - and this is the process which "should represent the authentic, higher reality."

A critique of Lukacs

The standard criticism - which Lukacs also made in 1967 looking back at what he had written in "History and Class Consciousness" - is that he failed to distinguish between reification and objectification. In a nutshell, the objectification involved in having your own house, for instance, is an essential part of human self-realisation, whereas reification only refers to alienating forms of self-objectification.

For me this is too much of a technical issue. The more disturbing issue comes out when I try to imagine what Lukacs' proletariat would do. An authentically Lukacsian proletariat would have to overthrow the bourgeois order because it allows blind market forces to shape social life. But once the negation is taken care of what might give them a positive orientation?

The proletariat are to have no ideals, which presumably includes principles of justice. They are to have no vested interests in or attachments to the prevailing order: property, savings in pension funds, entitlement to health care, kids in schools that they don't want to disrupt, etc. They must presumably value their identity as proletarians of the world over and above their local identities as family members and neighbours, for instance, implying that local ties lose their value. They must also have lost any deep feeling for nature, partly because urban industrial life has cut them off from it but also because they have learnt that nature is an utterly social and historical category and not something that might be a source of value standing in a critical relationship with the urban industrial order - as it does for the utterly unLukacsian Romantic ramblers.

With no ties to anything and with no feeling for something other than the alienating industrial order, and with no ideals beyond the idea of history at last gathering momentum and sweeping all before it, what is there to fight for?

Lukacs says there will be some quasi-objective historical tendencies that the proletariat will instinctively want to realize. But what will they be if the proletariat has nothing positive to defend?

This is where objectivity becomes a problem. The supposedly identical subject-object of history seems to have no genuine feel for objectivity. Commodification - the only form of objectification that has really come into view - is seen as a living contradiction that must be overcome in practice. Doesn't that overcoming, though, seem as if it would just be an annulment? Doesn't it seem as if the inevitable historical tendency of an authentic Lukacsian subject of history would be to revolt against anything that tried to fix or settle or root that revolutionary subjectivity? And since the proletariat must act as the proletariat to fulfil its historical destiny, must it not turn its revolutionary energies against any expression of eccentric individuality and against anyone who suggests that the claims of the proletarian collectivity need to be balanced against the claims of individuals, families, neighbourhoods, regions and other lesser collectivities?

At the time Lukacs was writing it was still possible to imagine immiserated proletarians with nothing to lose but their chains identifying utterly with their economic class. But why think that this provides a model for the desired reconciliation of the individual and society? And after the revolution when there is no longer the historical force of capital to struggle against and unite against, what forces will have to be put in place to ensure that individuals put aside their individuality and maintain the unity of the new historical subject?

What about our feelings for others and for nature? Do these have no cognitive significance whatsoever? Are they to be dismissed as bourgeois - as reactionary?

The prospect of a global levelling - of, for instance, the disappearance of the last traces of pre-modern, rural communities - is thoroughly unpleasant. Isn't this feeling for the value of difference and variety a source of insight? Of course nature is a social and therefore historical category, but can't certain experiences of nature throw a critical light on other cultural assumptions and practices?

The image of rootless Lukacsian proles with no feeling for anything but the white heat of history is a very disturbing one.

In contrast to this, the great strength of Adorno's work is the way it does justice to the experiences of alterity that call into question not only the bourgeois order but also the kind of revolutionary nihilism that we see in Lukacs.

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