Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 7 June 2022



The task of the capitalist is to accumulate capital, which can be done only through “the theft of labour time” from the worker which, in turn, can be achieved only through the forced separation (Trennung) of the worker from his entitlement to the means of production and to the product. But the separation of the worker from his objectified labour – this alienation in the double sense, of the worker from his work, and of the worker’s product by the capitalist – leads to the intensification and homogenization of the labour process to the point where there can be an “exact calculation” of the labour time and therefore of the value produced for the capitalist. When generalized to most social interactions, this alienation leads to the widespread mis-perception of living labour as a temporal experience into labour power as a spatialized quantifiable entity.

This is the reification that Lukacs denounces: it is this universal distancing of human beings in the objectification of their living activity, in their work, from the process and the product of their work – this reduction of concrete labour to abstract labour removes the activity of the worker to mere contemplation, to his abstraction (separation and removal) from his living activity. Deprived of this intimate connection with the object of their living labour, human beings are drawn, are encircled by and imprisoned within their “subjectivity” whereby the “object” is not only separated from them in a sensuous dimension, but also it becomes utterly in-com-prehensible, un-graspable by them as a separate reality “standing against” them. The tragedy of Western philosophy is encompassed by and encapsulated within this simple and devastating insight. The ubiquitous transcendentalism and idealism of Western philosophy – its fatidic chorismos - from Plato to Kant is all here. For Lukacs, it is the separation of human living labour, living activity, from the object of this activity that is the real historical source of the “dilemma…of bourgeois rationalism”:

This dilemma can be seen most clearly in the strange significance for Kant’s system of his concept of the thing-in-itself…[According to Kant] “the sensuous faculty of intuition…is in reality only a receptive quality…The non-sensuous cause of these ideas [received by intuition] is wholly unknown to us and we are therefore unable to intuit it as an object”…[Thus, t]here is, firstly, the problem of matter…and there is secondly the problem of totality and the ultimate substance of knowledge…(p.115)

If, indeed, the object of our knowledge is impenetrable and inscrutable – if it is a qualitas occulta (Schopenhauer), a thing in itself, incapable of being known to us except as mere appearance – then it is clear that “we”, the Subject, will never be able to reconcile rationally these appearances in a “totality” that can unify the various branches of science as “substantial knowledge”, as properly-called science rather than mere opinion or empeiria (empiricism). Through this “separation” of human intuition from the real source of the ideas that constitute our knowledge, Kant makes human knowledge entirely static or “immediate”, and thereby also stultifies its undeniably historical-metabolic character born of the real human interaction with the “object”, with the life-world.

We know that in the Critique of Pure Reason it is emphatically denied that [questions concerning the totality of knowledge] can be answered… [and Kant even suggests in the Transcendental Dialectic that] they are falsely put, and [seeks] to eliminate them from science. (p.115)

It is this transcendental schism in human knowledge between purely subjective human science and the absolute knowledge that only the penetration of the thing-in-itself could afford us that led to Schopenhauer’s trenchant critique of the separation between thing-in-itself and “mere appearances”. Schopenhauer demolishes Kant’s crucial distinction of the two, of noumena and phenomena, by pitilessly exposing the futility of the “thing-in-itself”. If indeed such a “thing” existed, the very fact that it is wholly unknowable and imperceptible to us means that it is utterly redundant! In reality, given that human knowledge is necessarily based entirely on “mere appearances”, then there is no need to distinguish these “appearances” – which Schopenhauer calls now “representations” (Vorstellungen) -from the entirety of our “reality”! It is the appearances – the representations -, not the unknowable “Thing”, that are our reality! Full stop! In other words, there is no separation between Subject and Object because human beings are the Subject-Object of the world. Clear is the debt, then, that Lukacs’s critique of “the antinomies of bourgeois thought” - which he exemplifies with Kant’s idealism – owes to the author of The World as Will and Representation. Even more important, Lukacs inherited from Schopenhauer the notion of “individual subject-object of history” which, to his mind, was embodied by the proletariat as the true carrier (Trager) of that historical Marxian-Hegelian Totalitat that alone could ultimately lead to the abolition of the Trennung – of the separation of living labour from its object – and to the abolition of alienation and reification and therefore to the complete emancipation of humanity.


There are a few conclusions to be drawn from our critical analysis of the Lukacsian notion of reification. First of all, reification is a purely socio-psychological phenomenon that cannot give rise to any form of “measurement” in economic terms, that is, in terms of the quantification of human living labour. Second, the only quantification possible for human living labour is as “labour-power”, as a marketable commodity that can be given a purely monetary measurement (a price) on the labour market – where market is understood not as an objective self-regulating mechanism but as a specific political institution based on political coercion. Third, as Weber himself establishes in the very locus quoted by Lukacs (the lecture Politik als Beruf ), the separation of worker from means of production is almost a constant in history in all areas of social activity; it is not specific to capitalism; it is not its discrimen or differentia specifica. Fourth, the mere fact that workers produce products by means of their living labour does not in the least establish (a) that they create the product, and least of all (b) that the product belongs to them or that the capitalist employers engage in “theft of labour time” (Marx).

We have established in our Schumpeter-buch that Marx never took account of the environmental effects of capitalist industry, in part because he presumed that environmental inputs (water, air quality, for instance) were so plentiful as to have no exchange value (although they certainly had use value for all classical political economists). All economic theories of value and of development have either taken the metabolism of human production with the environment as being exogenous to economic theories, or else they have made allowances for environmental degradation as “externalities” (Alec Pigou, The Economics of Welfare) notably in neoclassical economic theory – that is, as costs that are “external” to economic theory and therefore irrelevant to it. For all foregoing economic theory, classical and neoclassical, economics concerns exchanges between human beings inter se (between or amongst themselves); it is entirely irrelevant to the phylogenetic interaction of humanity as a species with its environment. Our book on Schumpeter sought to establish instead that human interaction with the environment is metabolic and is therefore essential to the economic analysis of human productive activity.

Yet another aspect of Marx’s critique that contained an insurmountable contradiction concerned the very notion of “exploitation”. In Marx, this notion is tied to the difference between the surplus value produced by workers and the value of the labour-power “embodied” in the goods paid to workers as real wages – both of which are determined by “the socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of capitalist society which, in turn, is determined by the technological level of the society. Of course, quite apart from the fact that (as we saw earlier) it is impossible to determine what “socially necessary labour time” is, this surplus value for Marx is the entire substance of capitalist “profits” (in other words, profits are the monetary expression of surplus value), and thus the difference between surplus value and the value embodied in commodities produced represents the “theft of labour time” that is the basis of capitalist profits and accumulation.

The evident contradiction in this proposition lies in the fact that, given that for Marx, as for Rousseau and Proudhon, all property is theft (see, among other works, his The Poverty of Philosophy), then the notion of exploitation has no possible relation to the factual or scientific finding that workers receive in wages less than what they produce. Even if we were to concede the validity of Marx’s propositions and analysis, there is no intrinsic connection between the notion of “theft”, which is a legal notion, and therefore of “exploitation”, and the difference between surplus value and the value paid in wages to workers which is a quantitative notion. The insuperable difficulty with Marx’s critique of capitalism lies precisely in this – that Marx saw his theory both as a politico-ethical or practical critique and as a scientific analysis based on objective value-neutral findings. To put it in his own words, Marx sought to judge the economic base on which the legal, political and ideological superstructure depended – on the basis of this very “superstructure” that could be the only source of any “judgement” whatsoever!

This could be possible only on the ground of a “scientific” inconsistency between the scientific foundations of the forces of production and the politico-ethical nature of the social relations of production. Yet, even assuming that such an inconsistency or “contradiction” exists, it is still impossible to judge the “social relations of production” or superstructure on the ground that it is doomed to be superseded by “the forces of production” or economic base – because then this entire “supersession” would imply an ethical value judgement based on the teleological (Hegel) and historical or biological (Darwinian)  “inevitability” of the development of the forces of production! But an “inevitable” process, eo ipso, by its very “scientific necessity”, negates the very value-based assessment of its “inevitability”! “Inevitability” is a value judgement – a prediction, a prophecy - that contradicts our “consciousness” or “awareness” of it because no human being is capable of foretelling the future as a “destiny”. And if indeed there could be any absolute certainty about such a destiny, not only would any moral judgement in its regard be superfluous and irrelevant, but also and above all else we could have no “awareness” or “knowledge” of it! Awareness and knowledge necessarily imply not just contingency and possibility, but also, as reflection and conscience (con-scientia), also the possibility of averting what would be otherwise an inexorable fate. The notion of destiny is incompatible with the aleatory character of human action, of human history.

It follows quite demonstrably that Marx’s entire dissection of human social history into a dialectical interaction between economic base and political superstructure amounts to nothing more than an eschatology. Essentially, as a true post-Hegelian and fervent admirer of Darwin (to whom he intended to dedicate Das Kapital), Marx wished to turn history (Ge-schichte) into destiny (Schick-sal). But destiny, unlike history, does not allow for value judgements. Nor does it allow for free will. Marx suggests that “men make history, but not through their will” (in the famous “Preface to A Contribution”). This may be valid for individuals, - because they are constrained by society (coercion) and by the environment (necessity); but it cannot be true for society as a whole where coercion itself is a political constraint, and therefore open to our collective will (cf. Rousseau’s volonte’ generale), and necessity is only an external, extrinsic constraint on the will that in no guise can be said to negate its freedom to initiate action. Once again, as we established earlier (following Hannah Arendt) the opposite of freedom is coercion, not necessity. In the event, Marx managed only to dress up a moral condemnation of capitalism as a scientifically inevitable evolution.

Of course, Schopenhauer’s absurd suggestion (in On the Freedom of the Will, seconded by Spinoza in the Tractatus, and recently re-affirmed by Cacciari) that even our will is not free because we cannot be certain that our “choices” are not the effect of prior causes is just a pitiful false infinite (an argumentum ad infinitum).


If we accept the conclusions arising from our foregoing study, what do they comport for the understanding and critique of capitalist industry and society? Put bluntly, if we accept these conclusions which undermine much of the Marxian critique of capitalism, what then can we say is “wrong” with capitalism and how can we say it? In other words, why should we discard this system and with what may we hope to replace it?

The first overall determination we may make from the set of conclusions outlined above is that we cannot adopt Marx’s theory of exploitation, from a material point of view, or that of reification, from a socio-psychological one, as the ultimate bases for our critique of capitalism. This is so for the overriding reason that Marx’s theory of exploitation – the difference between “surplus value” and “real wages” or between profits and money wages – is unfounded because it is quite impossible, categorically impossible, to determine what is “socially necessary labour time” without going into a definition of human needs. But any definition of human needs, as Marx himself averred (notably in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy ) must involve – by definition! - social and cultural elements that are “materially” impossible to determine quantitatively in terms of “labour time”, that is, the time needed to produce the goods needed to satisfy those needs even allowing for an accepted fixed technological level of production. Once this is accepted, and given that there is no strict unique or necessary link between (a) reification and capitalist production and, (b) reification as a social and cultural phenomenon and material production of goods – given these premises, neither the Marxian theory of exploitation nor that of reification offer sufficient foundations for the phylogenetic critique of capitalism (at the level of the human species) - although they are necessary for its ontogenetic critique (at the individual level).

Where, then, should we look for these foundations of a critique of capitalist industry and society? It is obvious that we can no longer rely solely on the notion of exploitation because, first, this is confined to workers taken as individuals - or, even if taken as a class (the working class or the proletariat), as an entity whose exploitation can be quantified in individual terms, or worse still as an entity that is extremely hard to define in any precise sociological terms. Indeed, it is possible to argue that in a capitalist society even capitalists are workers (managers and entrepreneurs, for instance, excluding financiers and rentiers) and even workers can be capitalists (as shareholders or small business owners). Because Marx’s critique of capitalism is founded almost exclusively either on the “injustice” of distribution of production (of “wealth” or “income”) and on the psychological effects of alienation, it fails to address the phylogenetic impact of human interaction with the environment, our metabolism with nature itself. As we argued above, the notion of exploitation is strictly a moral one because it is based on the premise of equal exchange or equal deserts – what are known otherwise as commutative and distributive justice. Furthermore, as we also argued earlier, we cannot rely on the notions of alienation and reification because these are sociological descriptions that are not unique to capitalism and that have psychological and cultural aspects that are impossible to attribute to a particular system of production.

What is needed for the critique of capitalism, then, is first a theory that identifies the specific difference, the essential characteristics of capitalist production that distinguish it from other modes of production; and second, a demonstration of how the specific essence of capitalism entails and engenders the destruction of the environment, which is to say the unsustainability of human social reproduction on earth. The merit of this novel way of assessing capitalism is that it is no longer based on commutative and distributive justice – equal exchange and equitable distribution of human production – but rather on human interests – on the needs of being human, the highest of which must be the sustainable reproduction of society. (On the matter of human needs and interests, see J. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, and A. Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx.)

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