Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 20 November 2011

Lukacs and Weber: Rationalisierung and the Capitalistic Use of Machines

A lifeless machine is congealed spirit. It is only this fact that gives

the machine the power to force men to serve it and thus to rule and

determine their daily working lives, as in fact happens in factories.

This same congealed spirit is, however, also embodied in that living

machine which is represented by bureaucratic organisation with its

specialisation of trained, technical work, its delimitation of areas of

responsibility, its regulations and its graduated hierarchy of relations

of obedience. Combined with the dead machine, it is in the process

of manufacturing the housing of that future serfdom to which, perhaps,

men may have to submit powerlessly, just like the slaves in the

ancient state of Egypt, if they consider that the ultimate and only value

by which the conduct of their affairs is to be decided is good administration

and provision for their needs by officials (that is ‘good’ in the ‘pure' technical

sense of rational administration). Bureaucracy achieves this, after all,

incomparably better than any other structure of rule.

(Max Weber, Parlament und Regierung, in "Collected Political Writings, p.158)

What “in fact happens in factories” is that “the daily working lives of men” are “determined” by the “congealed spirit” of the “lifeless machine”. The means of production are the “lifeless machine”: as such, they cannot have a “will” of their own. Nevertheless, their “function”, shape and form - their technological attributes are determined by the “material needs and wants” of “the men” who in their operari, in the “objectification of their needs and wants” must utilize the “lifeless machine” that therefore only appears to have “the power to force them to serve it”, but in reality possesses this power “only” (!) because it is the “resultant objectification” – “operated” by the “living machine” of rational and systematic bureaucratic rule of private capitalists or state administration - of their conflicting , opposed and irreconcilable self-interests as these are “filtered scientifically” and optimized, for the present and for the foreseeable future, by the market mechanism! Only in this sense can a “lifeless machine” become a “congealed spirit” or a “crystallised spirit”.

Weber borrows this expression from Marx and Simmel, but infuses it with Nietzschean meaning. Marx had intended (in ‘The German Ideology’ and in the ‘Grundrisse’, for instance) that machines embody the social relations of production of a particular society; but in Weber machines objectify the ‘need-necessity” of human instincts in conflict with one another. Whereas in Marx technology re-produces (reflects and preserves) the existing power relations between producers in a process that can be resolved or be super-seded dialectically – through the growing “socialization” (again, Simmel’s notion, understood philosophisch here by Weber) of human needs and the spreading inter-dependence of social labour, for Weber instead this “socialisation” reflects only the “rationally calculable” and efficient provision for the antagonistic needs of workers and capitalists both within and across the class divide.

In Marx the means of production embody the political command of the capitalist who seeks “to divide” the ineluctable “interdependent interaction” – the inter esse – of social labor into the false “homogeneity” of “individual labors” remunerated in accordance with an “extrinsic quantitative metre” (dead objectified labor) in the form of the wage. The capitalist exploits politically the ineluctable “sociality” of the labor process in the attempt to reproduce its artificial “separation” both from the means of production and from labor interaction. The “mystique” of capitalism is the legitimation of this act of violence – the reduction of living labor to mere “abstraction” both collectively from the means of production and individually from the “sociality” of human labor. For Marx therefore the “congealment”, the “crystallization” of labor-time consists precisely in the political continuity of this “capitalist design”, this “project of domination” over living labor through dead labor or “crystallized labor”. For Marx, in other words, the “crystallization” of labor-time, the “reification” of human experience has little to do with “mysticism” or “fetishism” but purely with sheer and abject political “violence”!

Marx’s “crystallized labor” corresponds to this congealment of living labour into “labor power” or “labor time” (Marx refers specifically to Arbeits-zeit) or “dead objectified labor” imposed coercively and enforced in the factory by the authoritarian command of the capitalist over workers in the labor process. The antagonism of the wage relation over the distribution of surplus value – the ratio between the “necessary” portion of the working day and its “surplus” portion that constitutes the “exploitation” of workers – is “mediated” by the means of production that “embody” or “crystallize” the socially necessary labor time or “value” that went into their original production. The means of production therefore are not mere “lifeless machines” but “embody” or “crystallize” value that is extracted by the capitalist in the process of production and that is to be “realized” later by means of the sale of goods on the market. The problem will arise when Marx (and the Weberian Lukacs) will try to find a “scientific proof” of “exploitation” in the very possibility of “socially quantifying” this “crystallized labor-time” in the concept of “surplus value” or “theft of labor-time”, which, as we will show soon, is a contradiction in terms as far as Marx’s “critique” of political economy and of capitalism goes for the simple reason that “reification” is a political practice that can in no way shape or form or manner be “transmuted” into the “measurable value content” of produced commodities – Marx’s “socially necessary labor time”! Differently put, if, as Marx himself avows, it is “the market” that decides ultimately what “labor-time” is “socially necessary” and what is not, then clearly it is not the production process (Marx’s “process of valorization”) that determines “value”, but rather the process of “realization” of value through the “sale” of goods, which is entirely dependent on the “subjective valuations” of “autonomous or spontaneous market demand” – in blatant contradiction of Marx’s thesis! And if, conversely, “market demand” is itself determined by the “amount of value” (of “crystallized labor-time”) in possession of market agents or “purchasers” in the form of monetary media, then these “monetary media” and the “amount of value” they represent must themselves have been determined by the “amount of value” already produced in the production process! And here we have the perfect circulus vitiosus exposed by Bohm-Bawerk!

The thought process by which Marx passes erroneously from the “reification” of the experience of the labor process by individual workers to its “reification” as “labor time” that is “quantifiable”  in terms of “output per unit of time” (productivity) is usefully illustrated by Lukacs in his exposition of “Reification” in the Geschichte:

If we follow the path taken by labour in its development from the handicrafts via cooperation and manufacture to machine industry we can see a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker. On the one hand, the process of labour is progressively broken down into abstract, rational, specialised operations so that the worker loses contact with the finished product and his work is reduced to the mechanical repetition of a specialised set of actions. On the other hand, the period of time necessary for work to be accomplished (which forms the basis of rational calculation) is converted, as mechanisation and rationalisation are intensified, from a merely empirical average figure to an objectively calculable work-stint that confronts the worker as a fixed and established reality. With the modern 'psychological' analysis of the work-process (in Taylorism) this rational mechanisation extends right into the worker's ‘soul’…

Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' (the reified, mechanically objectified 'performance' of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality: in short, it becomes space. (GuK, pp.89-90)

It is entirely evident here what atrocious non sequitur Lukacs has committed! Simply because “time [Lukacs should say “the worker’s experience of time] sheds its qualitative…nature” under the capitalist command of “the regular discipline of the factory” for workers, this does not even remotely mean that therefore “time…freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’…[whereby] it becomes space”! It does not and cannot do so! Time remains time! And the material products of living labor do not thereby become “quantifiable ‘things’” in terms of “value”!  No matter how much a capitalist may oppress a worker, time does not “freeze”, it does not “congeal” or “crystallize”! Nor does it “become space”! Yet this is precisely the mistake that Marx himself makes in his conceptualisation of “value” as “socially necessary labor-time”, as “crystallized labor-time”. Lukacs quotes directly from Marx’s Kapital:

Through the subordination of man to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has becomes as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man's hour is worth another man's hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most the incarnation of time. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything: hour for hour, day for day ....

Marx needed this notion of “crystallized labor-time” to serve a dual purpose: - first, to enable him to claim that he had successfully “quantified” value and therefore to establish his labor theory of value on a “scientific” footing; but, second, he needed it also to be able to retain the “political and social” foundations of capitalist “social relations of production”, and therefore as “historical” phenomena that were not immutable (sub specie aeternitatis) but subject to human action. The seeming oxymoron of “historical materialism” encapsulates this constant search by Marx for a way to reconcile science and politics or history. Given that this is equivalent to “squaring a circle”, it is not surprising that Marx failed in the attempt.

But Marx was certainly intelligent and competent enough on “economic theory” to realize that the “quantity” of “things” produced in the capitalist process of production has nothing to do with the “value” of that production which is determined instead by the extent to which that production is done by employing “socially necessary labor-time”. (Contrast this with how Lukacs instead is clearly all at sea when dealing with matters that are not immediately philosophical – as is evinced by the remarkable difference between the clearly incompetent discussions in “Reification” of “economic matters” [especially Marginal Utility Theory] as against the sure mastery of his philosophical critique in the section on “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought”.) In other words, for Marx capitalist production contains “value” only to the extent that the value potentially contained in commodities is actually ratified and “realized” by means of their sale in the market! If this is so, however, then it is “the market” and not the process of production that finally determines which commodities embody “socially necessary labor time” and which commodities are a total waste of labor-time! Yet this simple “realization” completely demolishes Marx’s “labor theory of value”, for the simple reason that we will never be able to know exactly what is “socially necessary labor time” and what is instead a complete waste of time until after the commodities have been sold on the market! Hence, we have the classical circulus vitiosus! The “value” of commodities is determined by their socially necessary labor time which is determined by the exchange value in monetary form that they can command on the market which, in turn, is determined by “the socially necessary labor time” needed to produce those very monetary “means of exchange” or “purchasing power”! (Of course, Marx falls into this “scientistic trap” in Das Kapital, but not in the Grundrisse which are therefore much to be preferred as the exposition of Marx’s overall theory of capitalism.)

Given the necessary failure of this “critique” of capitalism to prove in “quantitative” terms – in terms of “value as a quantity”, of surplus value as “theft of labor time” – the existence of “exploitation”, it must then turn to the “political” analysis of capitalist “social relations of production”. But here, ironically, both Marx and Lukacs can offer no greater objection to capitalism than the fact that it extends Weberian “rationalization” to every aspect of social life – even if this is only founded on “an illusion”!

But this implies that the principle of rational mechanisation and calculability must embrace every aspect of life. Consumer articles no longer appear as the products of an organic process within a community (as for example in a village community).They now appear, on the one hand, as abstract members of a species identical by definition with its other members and, on the other hand, as isolated objects the possession or non-possession of which depends on rational calculations. Only when the whole life of society is thus fragmented into the isolated acts of commodity exchange can the 'free' worker come into being; at the same time his fate becomes the typical fate of the whole society…. Of course, this isolation and fragmentation is only apparent… However, if this atomisation is only an illusion it is a necessary one. (pp.91-2)

Neither Marx nor Lukacs understand the “powerlessness” (Ohnmacht) of a critique that describes capitalism as “a necessary illusion”! If an “illusion” is “necessary”, then it cannot be dispelled except by changing the conditions that make it necessary. But Marx and Lukacs are clearly arguing here that it is the “illusion” of commodity fetishism, and not the “violence” of capitalist command over living labor, that constitutes the “necessity” – the “freezing”, “congealment”, or “crystallization” of labor-time into “value” – of capitalist production! This explains why Lukacs in the Geschichte comes so close to sharing Weber’s analysis of capitalism almost word for word! (See pp.95ff where Lukacs quotes Weber at length from Parlament und Regierung, without hint of criticism!)

Lukacs’s incomprehension of the utterly “reactionary” aspect of his “artisanal nostalgia” – “the village community”! - against “specialization” is quite breath-taking! In this regard, Weber’s contemptuous dismissal of the “socialist” charge of “separation” against “capitalist rationalization and mechanization” is entirely understandable and condivisible. Amidst the mystique surrounding this late-romantic Lukacsian notion of “reification” (which has spawned lamentably an entire industry of useless philosophes), Lukacs himself does have time to perceive the “necessity” of crisis in capitalism. Yet he interprets it uncritically as merely a “moment” in which “the anarchy of capitalist production” leads to the “collapse” of the “system”: it is an echo of the infamous Zusammenbruchstheorie – the “theory of final collapse” – that will preoccupy and distract the political strategy of the Linkskommunismus. (The nexus between “crisis” and “critique” is drawn in fn. 155 of R. Koselleck’s Kritik und Krisis.) Lukacs therefore completely misunderstands the “strategic importance” of Weber’s own analysis of the Rationalisierung in the precise context of drawing up a specific political project of trans-formation of bourgeois political institutions around the Verfassungsfrage, the new Constitution of the Weimar Republic! Weber understands, having learned from Schumpeter, what Lukacs “totally” ignores: the inevitability of crisis as a “decisive moment” of the utilization of class conflict in the Entwicklung – “creative destruction”, trans-crescence, “growth-through-crisis” – of capitalist industry and society.

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