Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 17 August 2020

Part Two of FREEDOM AND POLITICAL ECONOMY (to be continued)



The net effect of the scientization of the Economic is, as we have pointed out, to confine the concept of freedom to the human emancipation from economic “necessity”, ultimately from “labour-as-toil”, by making necessity rather than coercion the opposite of freedom, and therefore to remove freedom from the Political; and then consequently to bind freedom to the psychological rubric of human interiority, to the “freedom of the will” and to “freedom of thought”. This neat scientistic and ideological reification of “economic science” as “necessity” – “the dismal science” – pits human beings as Subjects against a static Object, Nature, in that it reduces the essential objectification of human being as living activity to an immediate opposition that is frozen in time – or rather, a conceptual opposition that freezes historical time, one that becomes an opposition of a logical and philosophical character removed from any real sensuous historical mediation or “interaction” (Habermas) between human beings on one side and their environment on the other. Just as the Kantian Subject cannot penetrate the inscrutable “thing” that is locked “in itself”, so Pure Reason cannot com-prehend Practical Reason, which is the Kantian sphere of freedom, without that transcendental “leap of irrational faith” (Fichte’s projectio per hiatus irrationalem) that gives rise to what Lukacs disdainfully labelled “the antinomies of bourgeois thought”.


It is evident that once again we are approaching – this time from another angle – the fundamental problem of bourgeois thought, the problem of the thing-in-itself. The belief that the transformation of the immediately given into a truly understood (and not merely an immediately perceived) and for that reason really objective reality, i.e. the belief that the impact of the category of mediation upon the picture of the world is merely ‘subjective’, i.e. is no more than an ‘evaluation’ of a reality that ‘remains unchanged’, all this is as much as to say that objective reality has the character of a thing-in-itself…. Even more important, however, is the other side of the question, viz. that the thing-in-itself character of the form-content relation necessarily opens up the problem of totality….We see the unhistorical and anti-historical character of bourgeois thought most strikingly when we consider the problem of the present as a historical problem. (G. Lukacs, HCC, passim, pp.150-1)

For her part, and much to her credit, Arendt was keenly alive to the difficulty with Kant’s idealism – and indeed suggested a practical, immanent path out of the antinomic impasse, similar to what we are espousing here:

To the question of politics, the problem of freedom is crucial,

and no political theory can afford to remain unconcerned with the

fact that this problem has led into "the obscure wood wherein

philosophy has lost its way." It is the contention of the following

considerations that the reason for this obscurity is that the phenomenon

of freedom does not appear in the realm of thought at

all, that neither freedom nor its opposite is experienced in the

dialogue between me and myself in the course of which the great

philosophic and metaphysical questions arise, and that the philosophical

tradition …has distorted, instead of clarifying, the very idea of freedom

such as it is given in human experience by transposing it from its

original field, the realm of politics and human affairs in general, to

an inward domain, the will, where it would be open to self-inspection. (ibidem)

Yet, just as causal determinism has no bearing on the concept of freedom (because, once again, as Arendt attests, if all is determined, then we may safely assume or pretend that nothing is), then also the Lukacsian notion of historical totality – one that he borrowed from the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic – has all the pre-destined irrelevancy of eschatology: in short, it is not history (Geschichte) that Lukacs canvasses but destiny (Schicksal; Heidegger will later harp on history as a destiny “sent” [Geschick, and Geschenk, as in “present, gift”] by Being) itself through “the individual subject-object of history”, the proletariat and its “class consciousness”. For Lukacs, not only does the proletariat overcome the antinomies of bourgeois thought by removing the immediacy of the subject-object opposition through its “consciousness” of the historical dialectic of class struggle (Marx), but also in overcoming this bourgeois reification or hypostasis of historical reality – the present as history (cf. Paul Sweezy’s homonymous work) – it achieves an authenticity – a “true” rather than “false” consciousness – to which the partial one-sided interests of the bourgeoisie cannot gain access.

But this insistence on the socio-psychological or, if you like, the philosophico-anthropological aspect of Marx’s theory of alienation and the ensuing fetishism of commodities leads straight to the existentialist riposte along Kierkegaardian lines advanced and formulated by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. The insuperable objection raised first by Kierkegaard against Hegel and then by Heidegger against Lukacs, quite possibly as a direct rebuttal of the Hungarian (see L. Goldmann, Lukacs et Heidegger), is that once we subject present social reality to a psychological critique – as distinct from, say, a scientific or economic one -, then we come across the problem of the Unicum, that is, of the uniqueness of human individual experience which no psychological theory can ever hypostatize into social categories. The Heideggerian Da-sein, in fact, exasperates the Lukacsian late-romantic critique of capitalism from a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical and revolutionary position to one that is intensely existential and even religious: Heidegger openly conceded that he was “a lay priest” and that his Being was only a secular substitute for the Divinity whilst the Dasein stood for a convoluted version of Duns Scotus’s “living Spirit”. And with this we have reverted back to our starting point – the Johannine concept of the Logos.

So let us resume our discursive trajectory of the relationship between the political concept of freedom as opposed to coercion, and the attempt of bourgeois “economic science” to establish “objective economic necessity” as the true contrary of freedom, as its limit. It is Habermas’s great merit to have shown that Lukacs’s notion of “class consciousness” cannot serve as “the individual subject-object of history” because indeed this notion is too abstract and teleologico-eschatological to be of any concrete use in the critical analysis of capitalism and its eventual supersession. To recapitulate, 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”. To be sure, Marx and Lukacs did 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. What they failed to consider, however, is that 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 illusion”, which is an oxymoron! - can ensure this “social synthesis”, that is to say, the material reproduction of that social system !

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 labour 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 of capitalist coercion because, as Habermas rightly notes, Lukacs attempts to overcome this formalism only philosophisch – through “class consciousness”, which entails substituting one “illusion” with another, because it is hard to see how the “necessary illusion” of reification could ever become “un-necessary” and clear the way to true “class consciousness”! (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 class antagonism, of capitalist command or coercion over living labour that ensures the abstraction of living labour as a marketable commodity, as labour-power. In other words, there is no “real” or “necessary” illusion behind reification but the naked blunt violence of the capitalist – Weber’s “regular 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.

We shall deal with the process whereby capitalist command can be administered or directed “rationally” according to “the laws of economics” presently. 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 labour 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 instead of seeking to explain what in fact can achieve this transformation he engages 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 comprehended what is the actual problem posed by the wage relation and, consequently, also with Lukacs’s concept of “reification” (and, we must add, Marx’s “fetishism”). The actual problem, the Gordian knot of capitalism to be untied is how living labour can be coercively reduced to the commodity labour-power by means of “market forces”, that is, through the violence of the wage relation that has been institutionalised into a predictable – “rational-scientific”! - framework of “market competition” or, worse still, of “the self-regulating market mechanism”!


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” (Marx in the “Preface to A Contribution”). Because Habermas accepts the “scientific” basis of historical 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 Habermas’s ingrained “transcendental objectivism” – derived mainly from Neo-Kantian sources, chiefly Simmel’s “social forms“ – that afflicts his 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 “formalistic limit” to rationalization is precisely that of Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis induced both by class antagonism in the labour 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 would ever succeed in showing scientifically, as opposed to politically, how “the market mechanism” can “function”, how “competition” between capitalists can ever provide “the social synthesis” for the reproduction of capitalist society in any form whatsoever, least of all that of “value”! Value is either a political notion or it is nothing at all, of no value whatsoever! 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 (word for word, really) the “Rationalisierung” 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 “labour 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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