Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 24 July 2020


“The specialization of skills leads to the loss of any image of the totality,” (Lukacs, HCC, p.103)

In just one sentence, the entire substance of Lukacs’s theory of reification and the fundamental flaw at its core lie pitilessly and irreparably exposed. The separation (Trennung) of the worker from the means of production through the violent expropriation operated by the capitalist bourgeoisie deprives the worker of the product he produces (“theft of labour-time”), and removes the worker from decisions regarding when, how and what is produced, in such a manner that the worker’s living activity is reduced to the mere labour-power of his activity, to the sheer blind and bestial “effort” (Schmerz, pain – Leid in Schopenhauer) of this activity. All human production is a process of objectification of a mental image through the application of human effort (Hegel, Marx). But when this “effort”, this abstract “power” is removed from the mental image, the worker necessarily loses all connection between his will and the ultimate product of his labour or living activity. The mortifying outcome for the worker is that his living activity becomes pure “form”, mere passive “contemplation” because the worker does not make any decision about the process and outcome of production. This de-cision – literally in German, this Ent-wicklung (!), this “development” or “growth” of the productive process and the consequent creation of wealth, of the pro-duct - has now been seized by and lies entirely within the will and control of the capitalist who owns the means of production - which include not just the tools and the raw materials used in production but also the labour-power, the naked force or effort, the “brawn”, that the worker utilizes in production and that the capitalist purchases with wages. In reality, however, the wages that the capitalist pays the worker for his naked soul-less labour-power are nothing but a monetary claim on part of the dead, objectified labour embodied in the “pro-duct” of the worker’s own living labour.

The reduction of the worker’s living activity to mere “effort” or “power” (as in “horse-power”) entails the reduction of time to space, of living reality to a “thing”, a quantity that can be measured. And of course, the more a human task is “specialized” - the more it is reduced and fragmented into smaller and more specific tasks -, the easier it is to measure human living activity in terms of labour-power by simply comparing the “output” of different workers over a unit of time. Just as human living activity can be “specialized” into measurable tasks in terms of output, so can the labour-time experienced by the worker be “spatialized” into chronological time units as measured by the capitalist employer. It is the “employer”, the “work-giver” (in German, the Arbeit-geber) who literally gives labour to the “employee”, the “work-taker” (Arbeit-nehmer)!

Thus, time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’…: in short, it becomes space, (p.90).

Capitalism is the true “civilization of labour” because the accumulation of capitalist claims on living labour through expanded production is the engine and the rationale of this mode of production. The ultimate outcome of this “specialization” of human labour and of the “spatialization” of human experienced time is that workers lose “any image of the totality”, of the “whole-ness”, of the “integrity” of their living activity – and therefore of their entire experience of social reality, which is thereby turned into a homogeneous quantity of products or “things” that can be exchanged according to the “labour-power” embodied in them. This is the meaning and social reality of “reification” or “thing-ification” (Ver-ding-lichung). Specialization of human tasks and spatialization of human time in terms of “output” or “productivity” can be achieved in a capitalist society only through the “exact calculation” that the industrial capitalist enforces violently on workers by means of the Taylorization of industrial production. (On Taylorism, see H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, as well as A. Gramsci, Americanism and Fordism.)

But here Lukacs’s genial categorization and theorization of the process of capitalist reification of social reality runs against a fundamental difficulty. The difficulty is that capitalist industrial production does not involve the production of a single, homogeneous product; nor does it involve a single homogeneous production process! On the contrary, social production – capitalist or otherwise – involves a myriad products and a myriad industrial processes that are entirely heterogeneous and whose products therefore cannot be compared. Worse still, the labour power that goes in the production of these products cannot be calculated with any degree of “exactitude” for the simple reason that the living labour that goes into the production is as heterogeneous and incapable of homologation as are the productive processes and the products to which living labour is applied!

Lukacs’s own characterization of the Rationalisierung, adopted almost word for word from Weber’s own presentation in his Munich lecture, Politik als Beruf, exposes irredeemably the very “emptiness” of his formalistic understanding of the Weberian concept!

We are concerned above all with the principle at work here: the principle of rationalization based on what is and can be calculated….(1) [I]n the first place, the mathematical analysis of work processes denotes a break with the organic, irrational and qualitatively determined unity of the product. Rationalization in the sense of being able to predict with ever greater prediction all the results to be achieved is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements and by the study of the special laws governing production….rationalization is unthinkable without specialization….(2) In the second place, this fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject [that is, the worker]. (pp.88-9)

The insuperable problem with Lukacs’s contention here is that however much the product itself may be subject to “exact calculation” or to rationalization, the reality remains that the living labour of workers needed to produce this product is not and cannot ever be made amenable to any calculation except the arbitrary one determined politically through politically established market institutions – precisely because labour power is not a “quantity” but rather a human experience that can never be turned into a quantity! Living labour can be “quantified” as labour-power only monetarily, in terms of its “price” once it is reduced politically to the status of a commodity like any other that can be “purchased” by the capitalist “in the market”. The only way to compare and measure this labour power is as a “totality”, that is, once the products are actually sold and priced “in the market”. But this is an evident vicious circle! A tautology! Because evidently we cannot make the “exact calculation” that we argue the capitalist operates for the price of labour-power until after the capitalist has sold the products on the market. But, as we saw, the prices of products on the market are determined supposedly (ex hypothesi) by the labour power that goes into their production. And yet we know that the “price” of labour power, on which its exact calculation depends, is also determined by the market! Hence, the market price of products is determined by the amount of labour power needed to produce them – but then the price of labour power is also determined by the market because labour power is a commodity like any other bought and sold on the market! This circulus vitiosus is obvious and irrefutable.

The reason why Lukacs cannot see or detect the circularity of his argument is that he constantly relates the homogenization of human living labour (its reduction to labour-power) to the “totality” of capitalist production and to the absolute generalization or “universality” of capitalist commodity production, and therefore of “reification”. He fails to perceive that “generalizing” a subjective cultural form will never turn it into an objective, measurable entity!

Thus, the universality of the commodity form is responsible both objectively and subjectively for the abstraction of the human labour incorporated in the commodities, (p.87).
But this implies that the principle of rational mechanization and calculability must embrace every aspect of life (p.91)

In fact, it is not “human labour” that is “incorporated in commodities” – it is “human labour-power”! But this “labour-power” is not a quantity at all – because it remains always and everywhere a political category. Clearly, Lukacs confuses labour-power – the violent constriction or real subsumption of living labour to capitalist production – with human living labour itself! Because of this confusion, Lukacs then needs to show that human living labour can objectively be reduced to labour-power by means of the Rationalisierung – the specialization and spatialization of human living labour through Taylorist industrial methods.

However, if this atomization [rationalization] is only an illusion, it is a necessary one, (p.92).

Once more, Lukacs obstinately confuses political coercion with objective necessity! If indeed rationalization is “only an illusion”, then there is no way in heaven or on earth how it can be turned into “a necessary one”, because an illusion is just that – an illusion, a fantasy whose only “necessity” is the coercion of capitalist political violence. Lukacs forgets that necessity and coercion are vastly different notions! He fails completely to see that this is not possible – that no “exact calculation” of human living activity is possible (let alone necessary!) except politically, by means of sheer naked capitalist violence! Labour-power is not an “objective” social category capable of objective measurement: to the contrary, labour-power is “objective” – it can be assigned a “market price” - only as political coercion!

The problem with Lukacs’s notions of reification and rationalization is that he wishes to elevate them from mere sociological descriptions of political coercion and violence into inflexible objective “laws” or “forms” of capitalism. Yet, Lukacs’s very “formalization” of the violent expropriation of workers and their removal from the decision-making process of social production under capitalism (the Ent-wicklung, the process of development of social production) empties the notions of reification and rationalisation of all political content. In effect, they reify and hypostatize the very  political reality that Lukacs intends to denounce! Hence, Lukacs’s critique of reification turns out to be “reification to the second degree”!

Of course, it is possible to sheet home this hypostatization of the notion of Rationalisierung to Weber himself. Indeed, Lukacs adopts piecemeal (in a long quotation on p.96) Weber’s own characterization of the Rationalisierung in Politik als Beruf – and he does so quite uncritically, ad litteram, word for word! – something that Marx himself would never have done and steadfastly eschewed and denounced as the sheer blind hypostasis of human reality! Again and again, Weber reduces the capitalist mode of production to a pure “machine”, to empty “exact calculation”, to “rational technology”, to “predictability”. What Lukacs is denouncing, therefore, is not the political violence of the bourgeoisie through “the enforced discipline of the factory” (Weber) but rather its imposition of the Ent-zauberung – the dis-enchantment of human living labour. Lukacs decries nostalgically, late-romantically the “lost totality”, the soul-lessness (Weber again, in Politik) of the industrial process – the contemplative detachment of the Taylorised industrial worker from the process of production and from the product – from the labour process. In effect, Lukacs could not accept the extinction of a stage of capitalist industrial production that, especially in Germany, relied on highly skilled quasi-artisanal workers – the Gelernte – who were being largely supplanted by the new mass workers of assembly-line production organized around Taylorist and Fordist principles. These were the workers behind the social-democratic and communist parties that led revolutionary movements throughout central Europe at the end of the Great War.

Did Max Weber detect the problem with this tautological (circular) argument? We suspect that he did, unlike Lukacs or indeed Marx. Unlike the philosopher Lukacs, the sociologist and historian Max Weber was entirely aware of this uniquely political process by tying the “exakte Kalkulation” of capitalist market pricing of commodities to the “capitalistic organization of labour” – and specifically, and most important, to the existence of “free labour”, and then again finally to “the regular organization of free labour under the regular discipline [of the factory]”!

However, all these peculiarities of Western capitalism have derived their significance in the last analysis only from their association with the capitalistic organization of labour. Even what is generally called commercialization, the development of negotiable securities and the rationalization of speculation, the exchanges, etc., is connected with it. For without the rational capitalistic organization of labour, all this, so far as it was possible at all, would have nothing like the same significance, above all for the social structure and all the specific problems of the modem Occident connected with it. Exact calculation—the basis of everything else—is only possible on a basis of free labour.' [23] And just as, or rather because, the world has known no rational organization of labour outside the modern Occident, it has known no rational socialism. Of course, there has been civic economy, a civic food-supply policy, mercantilism and welfare policies of princes, rationing, regulation of economic life, protectionism, and laissez-faire theories (as in China). The world has also known socialistic and communistic experiments of various sorts: family, religious, or military communism, State socialism (in Egypt), monopolistic cartels, and consumers' organizations. But although there have everywhere been civic market privileges, companies, guilds, and all sorts of legal differences between town and country, the concept of the citizen has not existed outside the Occident, and that of the bourgeoisie outside the modern Occident. Similarly, the proletariat as a class could not exist, because there was no rational organization of free labour under regular discipline. Class struggles between creditor and debtor classes; landowners and the landless, serfs, or tenants; trading interests and consumers or landlords, have existed everywhere in various combinations. But even the Western mediaeval struggles between putters-out and their workers exist elsewhere only in beginnings. The modern conflict of the large-scale industrial entrepreneur and free-wage labourers was entirely lacking. And thus there could be no such problems [Problematik] as those of socialism. (Weber, Intro. to Protestant Ethic, pp.22-3.)

Of course, this regular discipline of the factory is exacted over their respective workers by the capitalists in competition with one another! In other words, whereas for Lukacs the Rationalisierung - the reification of human living activity - is made possible by “the universality of the commodity form” in capitalist society, for Weber this reification is the institutionalised product of direct capitalist violence in the production process (valourization) and then in the sale of the products of human living labour in the “market” (realization) – where market is understood not as a self-regulating mechanism but as a specific politically-regulated institutional form of violence exerted by capitalists over the working class!

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