Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 20 July 2020


The problem of beginning, of course, appears first in thought
and speculation about the origin of the universe, and we know
the Hebrew solution for its perplexities - the assumption of a
Creator God who is outside his own creation in the same way as
the fabricator is outside the fabricated object

In other words, the problem of beginning involves directly and completely that of creation or, in economic terminology, that of production. All human production involves the objectification of an idea or mental project through living labour and the utilization of means of production (tools and raw materials). Yet, as Arendt reminds us, the very act of objectifying an idea through our living labour to take shape as a pro-duct (something “brought forth”) entails our physical distancing ourselves from what was a much more intimate, subjective entity – an idea – into what is now an external, objective product – something that literally “stands against” us, a product op-posed to us. This poses a serious problem, indeed, it erects a wall and opens a chasm between two aspects of creation as production: the first aspect concerns the causal relation between the act of production and its categorization as either “creation” or else as simple “trans-mission” of the production of objects; and the second aspect concerns the ownership of the product on the part of the putative “producer”. These aspects are crucial to the Marxian notion of Trennung or “separation” between the worker and the product – in Arendt’s words, “the fabricator and the fabricated”. Marx’s entire critique of political economy is founded on the notion of “the theft of labour time” by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and on the constitutent concepts of “necessary labour” and “surplus value” on which, in turn, his theory of (absolute and relative) exploitation depends. This theory stands or falls on the assumption that the product of labour belongs to the labourer, on the notion that the labourer must not be “separated” from the means of production and from the final product “of his labour” – where the genitive preposition “of” stands both for the causal creative relation between worker and product as well as for the “legal and moral right of ownership” of the labourer to the product!

Marx’s critique of political economy moves from this fundamental correction and enhancement of Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness that results in the duality of Lordship (Herrschaft) and Servitude (Knechtschaft). Whereas for Hegel this antithesis of Master and Slave is merely a necessary moment of the dialectical evolution of self-consciousness – and therefore a necessary phase of human objectification and social development – derived from the objectification of human living activity – of labour or Arbeit -, for Marx the moments of objectification and of Trennung are quite distinct in that the latter is the result of the specific historical antagonism between social classes in the process of social reproduction and production. Unlike Hegel, Marx distinguishes therefore between objectification which is a necessary moment of human existence and alienation which is a specific historical outcome of the forcible and violent expropriation and therefore forced separation of workers from the means of production on the part of dominant social classes. Hence, whereas objectification is for Marx an ontological aspect of human existence whose analysis belongs to philosophy, alienation is an aleatory or contingent diachronic aspect of human society that pertains to history.

Although Marx never refers to Kant’s transcendental idealism, it is obvious that his critique of Hegel’s dialectical or absolute idealism and his replacement of it with historical materialism – the inversion or “standing on its head” of Hegel’s philosophy – contains an implicit critique of the Kantian opposition of human experience and the impenetrable “thing in itself”, the qualitas occulta. Hegel overcomes the Kantian formal opposition of Subject and Object by means of the dialectical antithesis of Spirit and Nature evolving in space and in time through the historical extrinsication or unfolding of the Idea in the three stages of Spirit (subjective, objective, and absolute). Yet, nowhere in Marx’s oeuvre is there any direct critique of Kant’s ontology and epistemology. Specifically, Marx does not attack the all-too-obvious parallelism between the opposition of perceiving Subject and inscrutable “thing-in-itself”, on one side, and the capitalistically imposed separation (Trennung) of the worker from the means of production and the product, on the other side. Of course, this latter side of the parallel is perhaps the most imponent pillar and foundation of Marx’s entire critique of capitalist society. This task, this specific analysis of the mirror-image of the Kantian antinomy between Subject and Object and the bourgeois separation or alienation of worker from production and product, is instead what constitutes the essence of Lukacs’s restatement or reformulation of Marxian ontology and epistemology in History and Class Consciousness.

The formalism of Kantian ontology and epistemology – its staticity – is what Hegel assailed from the earliest formulation of his philosophy in the Phenomenology. So taken was Marx with the Hegelian dialectic of self-consciousness as the supersession of Kant’s critical idealism and as the philosophical framework for his own historical materialism that he neglected to address the evident apories and antinomies of Kantian epistemology. Indeed, this is all the more remarkable given that Kant’s formalism, its static character whereby the Subject simply stands, stands opposed to the impenetrable, opaque “thing-in-itself” – this static quality resembles and parallels Adam Smith’s equally static theorization of the capitalist economy as one of simple exchange and static equilibrium. Just as Kant is incapable of moving beyond the static opposition of Subject and Object to the Dynamik attempted by Hegel’s dialectics, so Smith’s analysis of a capitalist market economy in simple equilibrium, where produced goods are simply “exchanged” in a market mechanism that determines their prices, represents a Kreislauf – a “circular flow”, a Statik that Marx first, then Schumpeter, exposed as quite inadequate to explain the Dynamik of capitalist development, the Ent-wicklung (trans-crescence) that breaks the stagnant circularity of the market mechanism to explain the existence of profit, and therefore of capital accumulation, that is the defining feature of a capitalist economy. In Smith, there is only a static circulus vitiosus in that labor determines market prices, but then the market determines the price of labor!

We must treat Hegel as Marx himself treated Ricardo: ‘With the master what is new and significant develops vigorously amid the "manure" of contradictions out of the contradictory phenomena.’ (Lukacs, Ontology.Hegel, p.3)

The real challenge to Kant’s social ontology, then, does not come from, it is not to be found in, Marx: it is in Lukacs. From the outset, Lukacs states his intention to avoid the “economic” aspects of the capitalist production of commodities and to concentrate instead on the sociological manifestations of it. Clearly, Lukacs believes that the two aspects can be analyzed separately – and specifically that the reification of social reality operated by the commodity-form is indeed not only separable from the production of surplus value and the realization of profit by the capitalist class, but also, although he would never admit this, that the analysis of reification is ultimately more important than the production of surplus value in terms of the critique of capitalist industry and society because it is objectively more central or essential to this critique. (This last point, which we shall elaborate soon, is crucial to our own critique of Lukacs’s elevation of the phenomenon of reification to the most potent objection against capitalist industry and society.) For Lukacs, the Kantian inability to perceive the fundamental unity of Subject and Object, Kant’s dichotomic “screen” between the perceiving Subject that is limited to the perception of “mere appearances” and to whom the Object – the thing-in-itself – is categorically inaccessible and inscrutable – this Kantian antinomy between Subject and Object occasioned by the evident logical impossibility of an inscrutable “thing” to generate “appearances” in the perceiving Subject is due to the inability of bourgeois thought to penetrate and comprehend the fact that this “impenetrability” of the Object, this chorismos or separation of Subject and Object is entirely the philosophical outcome of the real separation of human beings as workers from the means of production and from the product (the Trennung) – a separation that is quite obviously imposed violently by the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the antinomic separation of Subject and Object is the ideological philosophical expression of the hypo-critical inability on the part of bourgeois thought to overcome and abolish the reality of alienation that it imposes on the proletariat and from which the capitalist class manifestly benefits materially.

This 'manure of contradictions' makes its first appearance in Hegel as knowledge of the contradictory character of the present, not just as a problem of thought, but equally as a problem of the reality itself; as a problem, however, which, primarily ontological, points far beyond the present, in so far as it is conceived as the dynamic basis of reality as a whole, hence the foundation not only of reality but also of any rational ontological thought about this. Thus, the penetrating emergence of contradiction in his own time was henceforth for Hegel the culmination of a dialectical process starting from inorganic nature and pressing forward, via life and society, to this summit. This already gives us the first moment of this 'manure of contradictions'. The dynamic of dialectical contradictions is not simply a general becoming, as with Heraclitus, nor a succession of stages in the comprehension of the world in thought, as with Cusanus, but rather - if we leave aside the internally inconsistent attempts of the young Schelling - the first unification of dialectical sequence and real historicity. In this way alone, the dialectic already obtains an ontological importance, as the real vehicle of history, which it could never have had before. (p.3)

Simply put, it is not that reality itself is divided into Subject and Object. Rather, it is the inability of the bourgeoisie to embody and realize fully the Totalitat, the totality of social reality – the fundamental unity of Subject and Object – as a historical agency that can lead to the emancipation of humanity, to communism. It is this objective social debility of the bourgeoisie to be the carrier (Trager), “the real vehicle of history” leading to social emancipation that induces it into the ideology of Kantian and indeed of all past philosophical reflection. The reality on which the ideology of the bourgeoisie rests is that of the Trennung – of the violent expropriation of the working class and its separation from the product of living labour. It is a purely synchronic, formal, spatial reality – one entirely devoid of dialectical development, of ontological becoming, of transcrescence, of evolution – of history. Critical to Lukacs’s assault on “the antinomies of bourgeois thought”, on the capitalistically induced reification of human social reality is this inability to grasp the fundamentally historical nature of all reality, including that of “nature” as only humanity can comprehend it.

There are two aspects to Lukacs’s notion of Totalitat, one formal-logical or synchronic, the other dialectico-teleological or diachronic. The first concerns the metaphysical status of perception and is based on Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant’s epistemology; the second relates to the teleological interpretation of history which, in Lukacs as in the young Marx of the Paris Manuscripts is strictly eschatological in nature (communism is the end of human history, the regained paradise after the “fall” constituted by the Trennung), and is developed from Hegel’s philosophy of history as revised and “inverted” by Marx, of course. For Schopenhauer, the flaw in Kant’s epistemology is evident: if indeed all we can ever perceive are “mere appearances” of supposed “things-in-themselves”, it is then a pure and perfect irrelevancy to refer to these inscrutable “things” when in fact all we have are a variety of so-called “appearances” or “representations” from which we can and we do – and indeed we must, because they are all the sense data available to us! – build all of our scientific knowledge! In effect, Kant’s schism between appearance and reality is entirely unnecessary and quite simply redundant: it is the task of the human intellect to select and order the available appearances into a more enduring theory of reality. Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. There is no reality separate from what matters fur uns (for us, Hegel); there is no “in itself” (Kant), only being-for-itself (Hegel again). What matters is how reliably and predictably the percepta we experience can be connected with one another.
Lukacs’s trenchant attack on “the antinomies of bourgeois thought” and the consequent fragmentation of human and social reality is unimaginable without Schopenhauer’s original devastating diatribe against Kant’s ontology. 

Yet, just like Kant’s doctrine, Schopenhauer’s own critique remains purely two-dimensional – static and formal just like the position it attacks. For a theoretician like Lukacs whose formation was aligned with the descendants of the German Historical Schools, Simmel and Weber, and emboldened by his later Hegelian turn, this synchronic approach could not suffice. The “reality” that Kant and Schopenhauer theorize is frozen in time – it is formalistic and essentialist, not dialectical. Not only must sense-data be connected reliably and predictably to constitute a science, but also this science must answer to and satisfy the historical phylogenetic needs of humanity. Historical time is the socio-ontological third dimension that is missing in both Kant and Schopenhauer.

We have already noted that Hegel's philosophy sought to fulfil itself in the adequate comprehension of its own historic present. This led not only to the disappearance of the [10 ONTOLOGY] ambiguous natural 'ought' [Kant’s Sollen as against Sein, reality], but also to a very critical relationship to an 'ought' of any kind. Hegel rejected any kind of priority of the 'ought' over the 'is'. This does not just give his treatment of society and history an imposing objectivity, superior to mere wishes and desires. The new ontology is already expressed in this, the ontology whose adequate comprehension is the project that charges Hegel's whole thought: i.e. the central and top-most position of reality in the whole system of categories, the ontological superiority of the facticity of the real world to all other categories, whether subjective or objective. It is not the least of Hegel's magnitude as a thinker that he occasionally recognized this ontological problem in an extremely clear manner, and sought to grasp it in its full consequences. ….(pp.9-10) The dialectical criticism of the 'ought' thus forms, as it were, a kind of preliminary skirmish to this decisive battle for an ontology contemporary with the present. This struggle over the meaning of the 'ought' is part of Hegel's life-long polemic against Kant. For Kant, it is exclusively the moral 'ought' that gives man's ontological position a true (transcendental) reality. Only by fulfilling the categorical imperative, as an unconditional and abstract 'ought', can man raise himself above the world of phenomena, which in his theory is insuperably given, and relate himself to the (transcendental) reality as homo noumenos. For Hegel, however, the whole of morality is simply a part of human practice which leads on to a more genuine ethics, and the only real significance of the 'ought' is in so far as it expresses a discrepancy between the human will and 'anything that is'; in the ethical sphere the will becomes identical with its concept, and the central position of the 'ought' is thus overcome, even in the world of [10 HEGEL] practice. (pp.10-11)

It is the Kantian inability to penetrate the essence of Being (Sein), impenetrably shielded behind the inscrutable, unknowable “thing-in-itself”, that insuperably impedes human action from determining its own destiny, its historical pro-ject. Kant’s idealism is relegated to the sphere of “critique” precisely because the only justification or rationale for action (ethical or practical) is a sterile, barren transcendental “Ought” (the Sollen). Kant’s logic is formal; his Schematismus is merely classificatory, his ontology contemplative. In denouncing the antinomies of bourgeois thought, Lukacs will insist on this contemplative character of Kantian bourgeois philosophy. (Cf. also Hannah Arendt’s contrast of vita activa and vita contemplativa in her The Human Condition.) Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach is indeed far more applicable to Kant’s “transcendental idealism” than to many other philosophies: Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point here is to change it. For both Schopenhauer’s World, where the Body is “the objectification of the Will”, and Hegel’s phenomenology, where the objectification of self-consciousness opposes the moments of Knechtschaft (servitude) and Herrschaft (Lordship), the Subject belabors or works on the Object, on Nature, and so objectifies itself. But for Schopenhauer this Arbeit is a Sisyphean struggle leading nowhere, it is mere Leid (pain) fruitlessly aiming for Lust (pleasure), and the only remedy to this futility is the Entsagung (renunciation of worldly pleasures) orWeltflucht (withdrawal from the world), whereas for Hegel self-consciousness dialectically interposes the Arbeit between Master and Serf and through this mediation (meiosis or midwifery) supersedes this social antagonism to clear its path to Freiheit (freedom) through the various stages of Spirit. Furthermore, whereas Schopenhauer’s Will remains either a solipsistic or at best an ontogenetic qualitas occulta (the subjective answer to Kant’s “thing”), in Hegel the Spirit or self-consciousness is an unquestionably phylogenetic notion.

Now it is clear on the one hand that individual processes of this kind do exist, even if always in a relative manner; both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes of life have a character that is to a large extent similar, if not absolutely so. But it is just as certain on the other hand that the tendencies that govern the existence of individual patterns can in no way just be given a generalized validity for the overall process of reality as a whole. (p.4)

Clearly, then, the historical task of emancipating humanity from class exploitation rests with the social class that is the (Hegelian) antithesis of the bourgeoisie – with the proletariat. Only the proletariat, only the working class as a politically conscious class is able to bridge and overcome the socio-ontological separation of Subject and Object (the Trennung), to understand reality in a dynamic, phylogenetically historical as against a static, ontogenetically anatomic dimension; and finally to affirm the unity of this social “reality as a whole”, its totality (Totalitat) and to serve the supreme task of being “the individual subject-object” of human history. The proletariat is the individual subject-object of history only because it alone represents the negation of the bourgeois fragmentation of social reality and it alone can lead humanity to its supersession, to the end of alienation (Entfremdung) and reification (Entausserung) because it alone has access to the conscious comprehension of the Totality of social ontology. For Lukacs, Hegel failed precisely in this task, because he believed that the present could be reconciled with the need of humanity, through the antagonistic push of the proletariat, to overcome its enforced violent separation from the object of its living labour:

What is already evident at this stage is that both what is correct in Hegel's philosophy, as well as what is questionable, is related to the central position of the present in his ontology. When that which exists in itself in the present takes a form appropriate to the ethical sphere, then the ontological distance between the subject of practice and its essence is abolished, and hence also the 'ought', which means that this is overcome both objectively and for the subject. But is the central position that Hegel gives the present an ontologically tenable one?

Of course, the apotheosis of the Arbeit as the essential phylogenetic attribute of humanity will emerge in the Marxian inversion of the Hegelian dialectic. In Marx, the Arbeit stands for Hegelian objectification but in a materialist dimension where the distinguishing feature of human being is the Gattungs-wesen (species-conscious being). Marx attacks both the life-world and truth in Vichian fashion from this active, historical perspective – verum ipsum factum. Indeed, Marx may well be said to have been “the last of the Schoolmen” (R.H. Tawney, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism) in that living labour, like the johannine Logos embodied by Jesus in the Gospel according to St. John, constitutes the hodos, aletheia, zoe (“the way, the truth, the life” – John 14:6).
How, then, does Lukacs intend to complete the theoretical task of overcoming alienation and reification already outlined and set in Marx’s critique of capitalist society?

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