Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 10 March 2012

Habermas And Reification

Marx’s inability to determine “value” and “prices” independently of the market “mechanism” induced him to seek the “objectification” of value in the “fetishism of commodities” which served the same purpose as Weber’s “rationalization” – that of “measuring” the social synthesis, which is what Lukacs translated into the concept of “reification”. Just as with Weber’s “rationalization”, the Marxian concept of “commodity fetishism” or the Lukacsian equivalent of “reification” simply cannot account for “the social synthesis”. Marx and Lukacs understand that if this “social synthesis” is objectively valid – if, in other words, it is possible “to measure” value independently of political institutions, of violence -, then capitalism would be made “scientifically legitimate” and the only “objection” to it would rest with its “efficiency” as a mode of production of social wealth. If, on the contrary, this “social synthesis” is achieved through a “necessary illusion” (fetishism of commodities, reification, formalism), then we have a contradiction because no “illusion”, – let alone a “necessary fiction”, which is an oxymoron! - can keep a social system in “reproduction”! (We dealt before with Lukacs’s description of “necessary illusion” – which is an oxymoron because “illusions” cannot be “necessary” and “necessity” cannot be “illusory”.)

Lukacs perceives this problem when he asserts, albeit still from the viewpoint of the opposition of “fragmented alienated labor” against the “(lost!) totality of artisanal labor”, that “the limit to reification is its ‘formalism’” (in HCC, p.101). Habermas understands Lukacs’s statement to mean that workers are aware that the “reification” of labor time is “an illusion”, however “necessary” it may be “objectively” and that therefore the bourgeoisie cannot be “the individual subject-object of history”. As if “history” required anything like “individual subject-objects” for exploitation to occur! (Nietzsche would have a fit if he ever read Lukacs!) Quite obviously, Lukacs’s analysis does not deal with the problem because, as Habermas rightly notes, this “formalism” can be overcome only “philosophically” – through “class consciousness”, which entails opposing one “illusion” with another, because it is hard to see how the “necessary illusion” of reification could ever become “un-necessary”! (The old Frankfurt School realized this, only to preserve the idolatry of “[Instrumental] Reason”). [See Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Vol.1.]

The only way to lend validity to Lukacs’s position is to reflect that the “formalism” of reification, of the mythical law of value, will defeat capitalism for the precise reason that what makes it possible is a reality of “antagonism”, of capitalist command over living labor that ensures the “abstraction” of living labor. In other words, there is no “real” or “necessary” illusion behind reification but the naked blunt violence of the capitalist – “the discipline of the factory”. This is why “formalism” is the limit of capitalism: - because “rationalization” is not an “objective” (Weber) or merely “ideological” (Marx-Lukacs, then Heidegger-Marcuse) phenomenon, but rather (with Nietzsche’s invariance, the “unreality” of values) an “arbitrary” one that responds to a strategy of command and exploitation.

Lukacs does in fact, at the page reference cited by Habermas, seem to indicate “formalism” as the internal limit of the wage relation in terms of the fact that “the market mechanism” metamorphoses living labor into a “thing” but only “formally”, only “abstractly” – not “in reality” or “necessarily” – and must therefore succumb to the “reality” of class antagonism! It is true that both Marx and Lukacs ultimately fall into this vicious circle of “market competition” leading to “abstract labor” and then to “value” as a “necessary illusion” – an operation that is impossible because “competition” cannot automatically turn living experience into a “thing”. Habermas, however, completely fails to see that this is the real political problem and engages instead in a critique of Lukacs on the ground that the reality of “reification” (which Lukacs has rendered identical with Weberian “rationalization” because of his erroneous acceptance of “market competition”) cannot be “dispelled” by a mythical “class consciousness”! By so doing, Habermas demonstrates how little he has understood where the actual problem with the wage relation and with Lukacs’s concept of “reification” (and Marx’s “fetishism”) really lies: - that is to say, in the impossibility of “reification” or “fetishism” as a “necessary illusion”! – Certainly not in Lukacs’s residual Hegelian “idealistic objectivism”!

The oxymoron of “necessary illusion” to describe the “fetishism of the commodity” and “reification” is the mirror-image of the Marxian notion of “historical materialism”: on one side the phenomenon of “value” is an “illusion”, that is, it is a subjective product of human “history”, whilst on the other side it is “necessary” because it exemplifies the objective and material “economic laws of motion of society”. Because Habermas accepts the “scientific” basis of “historial materialism” based on the mistaken distinction he draws between “instrumental action” and “interaction” or “reflection”, he can then accept this oxymoron as indicating the “historical necessity” of the “commodity form” at a given stage of “the natural history of society”! Here is the proof in his own words:

Marx did not adopt an epistemological perspective in developing his conception of the history of the species as something that has to be comprehended materialistically. Nevertheless, if social practice does not only accumulate the successes of instrumental action but also, through class antagonism, produces and reflects on objective illusion, then, as part of this process, the analysis of history is possible only in a phenomenologically mediated (gebrochen) mode of thought. The science of man itself is critique and must remain so. (K&HI, ch.3, p.62)

What this reveals, of course, is the ingrained “transcendental objectivism” – derived mainly from Neo-Kantian sources, chiefly Simmel’s “social forms“ – that afflicts Habermas’s own analytical framework! Here is Habermas again:

To the degree that the commodity form becomes the form of objectivity and rules the relations of individuals to one another as well as their dealings with external nature and with internal subjective nature, the lifeworld has to become reified and individuals degraded – as “systems theory” foresees – into an “environment” for a society that has become external to them, that has consolidated for them into an opaque system, that has been abstracted from them and become independent of them. Lukacs shares this perspective with Weber as with Horkheimer; but he is convinced that this development not only can be stopped practically, but, for reasons that can be theoretically demonstrated, has to run up against internal limits: “This rationalization of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate to the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature; but it finds its limit in the formal character of its own rationality”. [HCC, p.101]

The burden of proof that Marx wanted to discharge in politico-economic terms, with a theory of crisis, now falls upon a demonstration of the immanent limits to rationalization, a demonstration that has to be carried out in philosophical terms,” (Habermas, TCA, Vol1, p.361).

Again, Habermas is wrong because the context in which Lukacs discusses this “limit” to rationalization is precisely that of Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis induced both by antagonism in the labor process and by inter-capitalist competition in the “market”! As a matter of fact, on p.102, very shortly after the passage cited by Habermas, Lukacs goes on to cite Marx on this very point!

Division of labor within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, who are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. The division of labor within society brings into contact independent commodity producers who acknowledge no other authority than that of competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their mutual interests,” (Marx, Capital III, quoted in Lukacs, HCC, p.102.)

Of course, neither Marx nor Lukacs will ever succeed in showing how “the market mechanism” can “function”, how “competition” between capitalists on can ever provide “the social synthesis” for the reproduction of capitalist society in any form whatsoever, least of all that of “value”! For this reason, they rely on the notions of “fetishism” and “reification”, respectively, to provide the foundation for that comprehensive “irrationality” constituted by the capitalist wage relation – which is why Lukacs can then fall prey to and swallow wholesale the “formal rationality” of a Weber, albeit to denounce its “formal limits”! It is much simpler for us, instead, to attribute the social synthesis of the society of capital to the sheer violence of the wage relation, imposed through a network of capitalist political and social institutions all of which answer ultimately to the stability of money-wages and the price and monetary system. But this does not mean that Habermas has identified this real apory in Marx’s and Lukacs’s theories – the aporetic notion of “labor value” as the foundation of the social synthesis of capitalist reproduction through market competition! And this failure, we argue, is a direct result of Habermas’s persistent wrong focus on the “philosophical”, “idealistic” and Neo-Kantian theorization of the whole quaestio of “reason and rationalization” as a discrepancy (Missverhaltnis) between “laws of nature” or epistemology and “laws of society” or social theory, rather than on the political antagonism of the wage relation!

Habermas is entirely right to chide Lukacs’s “idealistic” reconciliation of theory and practice in the “class consciousness” of “the individual subject-object of history”, namely the proletariat (p.364). But he completely misses the point that the “contra-diction” in capitalist social relations is not predominantly one that concerns “communicative action or competence”! Instead, it is one that is intrinsic to the politics of the wage relation itself! Perhaps the worst that can be said of Habermas’s “meta-critique” of Marx and Lukacs is that his own notion of “communicative action” remains trapped in the voluntarism of “consciousness”, of morality and aestheticism:

It is characteristic of the pattern of rationalization in capitalist societies that the complex of cognitive-instrumental rationality establishes itself at the cost of practical rationality; communicative relations are reified. Thus it makes sense to ask whether the critique of the incomplete character of the rationalization that appears as reification does not suggest taking a complementary relation between cognitive-instrumental rationality, on the one hand, and moral-practical and aesthetic-practical rationality, on the other, as a standard that is inherent in the unabridged concept of practice, that is to say in communicative [p.364] action itself,” (TCA, Vol.1, pp.363-4).

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