Lukács Beyond Lukács

a lecture

Fetishism, reification, spectacle — are they categories of thought, or categories of practice?

There has been considerable confusion on this point, and some variance as to how Marx, Lukács, and Debord utilize these categories. As usual, it’s best to start with Marx.

For Marx, fetishism is first of all a category of practice. It describes a process that really occurs through social practice, and is a necessary aspect of generalized commodity production. In a developed capitalist economy, production is form-determined from the outset as production for exchange, as commodity production, thus the process of production has a dual character just like the commodity: not only a process of production of concrete useful goods, but also a process of production of value, the form of abstract wealth that expresses labor-as-such measured by the average time socially necessary to produce a given commodity. Thus although production is carried on privately in independent firms, it is latently social, but its social character is only ‘validated’ post festum through the exchange of commodities against a universal abstract equivalent: money. Capitalism is historically unique in that, instead of being constituted by direct, personal domination, production relations between people quite literally take the form of relations between things, and the products of their own activity dominate the producers themselves. It is the total system of production and exchange that blindly determines who has a job, who’s put out of a job, how fast we have to work, whether more or less of a given product is produced.

This fetishism has two sides. One is the personification of things — Marx calls the capitalist merely the character-mask of her capital. Her actions are dictated by the need to turn her money into more money, whether she likes it or not — if she does not obey the logic of her things, she goes broke. The other side is the reification of social relations, the basics of which I just mentioned. Crucial here is the exchange abstraction, by which qualitatively incommensurable forms of labor are made commensurable. This is not a conscious process, Marx takes care to emphasize: “when we bring the products of our labor into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labor. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labor, the different kinds of labor expended upon them. We’re not aware of this, but we do it.” In  the everyday practice of exchange, we proceed as if a commodity’s value, the property of exchangability in a given proportion determined by the labor socially necessary for its production, were a natural property of the commodity as a thing. But it’s not: value is purely a social relation, though through commodity exchange that social relation takes the form of a thing. In this fetishistic total social process, we are the slaves of our own products, and what is ultimately the interconnected sum of our own productive activity acts upon us like a natural law over which we have no control, because in our daily practice, we actually don’t.

Read generously, what Lukács primarily discusses in his essay is a form of consciousness that corresponds to this state of affairs. This consciousness could be called a false consciousness because it is unaware of the historical transience of capitalist production relations, and considers them as a kind of fate or natural law rather than as human activity that could be otherwise if humans organized their social reproduction differently. However, it might be better to call this a socially-necessary false consciousness, or even better, a consciousness of a world that’s truly false. Because as Marx made clear, the personification of things and the reification of social relations is an objective total social process. We can shed our false consciousness of the ahistorical eternality of this process, and recognize a web of human actions behind the law-like domination of economic forces, but we’re still in practice helpless before the force of the false world. So long, that is, as we don’t do away with these sorts of production relations in practice.

Lukács is himself actually quite clear about much of this: “There is both an objective and a subjective side to this phenomenon. Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power. The individual can use his knowledge of these laws to his own advantage, but he is not able to modify the process by his own activity. Subjectively — where the market economy has been fully developed — a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.” Although his understanding of it is a bit weak and problematic, Lukács claims that he is basing himself on Marx’s theory of the objective process of fetishism, and considering its implications for consciousness, which was an incredibly novel and innovative undertaking in 1923. So long as one remembers this, it is not then fair to criticize Lukács’s theory as ‘idealist’ in toto, as some have done. That said, there are some problems with his proposed solution to the problem of reification: the proletariat’s coming to consciousness of itself as identical subject-object of history.

But before we get there, let’s pause a moment to consider a few of the richest aspects of Lukács’s theory. Though rooted in the basic problem of fetishism, that is, the law-like quasi-autonomous dictatorship of blind economic forces glossed above, Lukács scrutinizes other aspects of capitalism that he claims contribute to the reified consciousness’s enforced contemplative stance in relation to the apparent self-movement of man-made ‘second nature.’ First and foremost, there is the fact that the proletarian herself is quite literally reified to some extent in that she is forced by material necessity to treat her own capacity for activity as if it were an object foreign to her that she must sell on the market. The measure of this commodity that she sells is time — her own time which is no longer hers. We have here an objective concept of the alienation of labor. (It’s worth noting here that Lukács anticipated many themes of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts at least ten years before they were published. As an aside clearly relevant to Debord, who was influenced by these manuscripts, I would argue that, while Marx himself obviously considers the deleterious effects of this alienation on consciousness, Marx’s concept of alienation is by no means a strictly socio-psychological one. It in the first place refers simply to the abstract compulsion to sell one’s own labor as a commodity, the separation of one’s labor from oneself for a price. He uses the same word to refer to capitalists selling commodities on the market.)

Alienated labor, wage-labor, thus necessitates the precise quantification and, as Lukács puts it, ‘spatialization’ of time, because this is the only way it can serve as the ‘measure’ of abstract labor expressed in value. Lukács, who was as familiar with Bergson and with Hegelian notions of human, historical time as our French Hegelians were, clearly sees this as a radically dehumanizing process that affects consciousness’s ability to grasp historicity, an insight that will be remarkably developed by Joseph Gabel. Lukács then segues into a discussion of the rationalization and mechanization of the labor process that is as indebted to Weber as it is to Marx. Somewhat unfortunately, Lukács does not elaborate on why the labor process must of necessity be increasingly mechanized and rationalized, but it is an element very much worth revisiting, as it has to do with those laws of the capitalist economy that Lukács is always mentioning but never describing. At any rate, he suggests that a labor process in which the workers are increasingly subordinated to the machines they use intensifies the ‘contemplative stance’ of the reified consciousness (with clear links to the concept of spectacle). This was part of the reason why his book was so controversial with the Bolsheviks, who were at that point beginning their ruthless industrialization program and were positively mad about Taylorism. Unfortunately, he does not fully follow up this insight as the essay progresses.

The proletariat is that dispossessed class which is compelled to sell its own labor-power as a commodity. If it’s the system of generalized commodity-production that causes reification and the domination of the blind laws of second nature in the first place, how could the proletariat be an identical subject-object as proletariat? This critique is today widespread, and Lukács’s theory is here opposed to the Neue Marx-Lektüre, Postone, Kurz, or another such theorist who argues that capital is the identical subject-object. This arguement seems to forget a crucial fact. Proletarian labor is a moment of capital, the value-forming substance, without which there is no capital. So it seems that both proletariat and capital are subject-object. The issue is that while the proletariat, as living labor, is in some sense the ‘subjective’ moment, and dead labor the objective, it is dead labor that domiantes living labor: this is what fetishism is, subject-object inversion. Since labor/capital form one contradictory unity, the proletariat can become conscious of the fact that their labor is the value-forming substance, but remain in practice dominated by dead labor so long as they remain the wage-labor proletariat.

Lukács realizes more of this than his critics admit, but there remain a number of serious holes in his reasoning. He begins with what I would consider the accurate contention that “the objective reality is in its immediacy the same for both proletariat and bourgeoisie:” they share “the reification of every aspect of [their] li[ves].” I would add that this is because the actions of both classes are compelled by the same actually effective fetishism, that their immediate consciousness is reified as well. Lukács states as much that “in his social existence the worker is immediately placed wholly on the side of the object,” dominated by the apparently ‘natural’ laws of the system. He contends, however, that the differing social positions of the proletarian and bourgeois mean that the objective economic forces which dominate both are reflectively mediated differently. For the bourgeois, everything remains an issue of quantitative relations between things — for example, the necessity of raising productivity under the coercive pressure of competition is experienced solely as a calculation of input costs and output quantatities. But for the proletarian that necessity is experienced qualitatively, as, say, the speeding up of the production line to a physically and emotionally straining rate. Lukács claims that the proletarian, precisely as object, as living commodity, as direct victim of fetishism, is thus able to see what the bourgeois sees as a quantative relation between things as a qualitative relation between people, as a social process. Because Lukács admits that “inasmuch as he is incapable in practice of raising himself above the role of object his consciousness is the self-consciousness of the commodity.”

But what Lukács cannot see or admit is that this is the only consciousness the proletarian is capable of so long as her pratice does not point beyond the proletarian condition. Even if the proletarians take action based on this temporarily seemingly dereified consciousness — say they go on strike — if they demand either a reduction in the pace of work, or a wage increase to compensate for the increased toil — the upshot of their practice is reified, it’s ossified back into relations between things again. This is because the fetishism of the economy itself is practically effective, regardless of consciousness. We know Lukács was thinking bigger than just ‘economistic’ measures like strikes — let’s suppose the proletariat makes a revolution and nationalizes industry in the hands of the state, as it actually did in 1917. So long as the proletariat remains proletariat, that is, sellers of the commodity labor-power valorizing capital, it will remain under the objective thrall of fetishism and reification will settle back into its consciousness. That’s because, contrary to what Lukács seems to suggest, the class relation really is reified in practice — it’s constituted not by a direct relation of domination of people over people like the caste relation between a lord and a serf. Rather, it’s an abstract form of domination constituted by the relation of people to things, their relation to the means of production, to means of subsistence, to money, and it becomes social only through an equivalent exchange of things — the wage transaction, the exchange of the wage for labor power as a commodity. Thus all struggles over the wage or the management of abstract labor remain on reified terrain. A “bourgeois class” as such can disappear and the class relation will continue. The only “dereification” of the class relation possible is its destruction, which means the process of communisation.

This is quite the pickle, and Lukács skirts the issue entirely.

His evasion is related to the slippages in his theory — is the root of the matter merely that the reified consciousness misrecognizes social processes as things, the historical as the natural and inevitable? Lukács often seems to suggest so, but then at other times relates the reified consciousness back to Marx’s theory of the objective fetishism inherent in the structure of the commodity economy, but he struggles to think this through, and tends to subordinate his understanding of fetishism to the reification of consciousness, when I would contend that the reification of consciousness must be seen as derivative of practically effective socio-economic objectivity. Lukács does admit that “however clearly we may have grasped the fact that society consists of processes, however thoroughly we may have unmasked the fiction of its rigid reification, this does not mean that we are able to annul the ‘reality’ of this fiction in capitalist society in practice. The moments in which this insight can really be converted into practice are determined by developments in society. Thus proletarian thought is in the first place merely a theory of praxis which only gradually (and indeed often spasmodically) transforms itself into a practical theory that overturns the real world. The individual stages of this process cannot be sketched in here.” This leaves a gaping hole in his argument — an objective, unconscious, fetishistic process has supposedly placed one group of people in a position in which they can not only come to consciousness, but overthrow the world in practice, and we just have to take his word for it. He notes that “it could easily appear at this point that the whole process is nothing more than the ‘inevitable’ consequence of concentrating masses of workers in large factories, of mechanising and standardising the processes of work and levelling down the standard of living.” But then he adds that these are only “the indispensable precondition for the emergence of the proletariat as a class.”

In his very language here we see what might be the biggest problem with his theory. He views class as itself a subjective category, something that only really emerges with class consciousness, whereas in Marx, and in reality, it is clearly not. It is an objective product of the production process — the proletariat is the proletariat because it is dispossessed, forced to sell its labor-power for wages and valorize capital, not because it knows this, and all these factors that make it objectively proletarianized can still be the case even if it is no longer primarily concentrated in large factories, as indeed it is not. Lukács is quite right to note that the proletariat “can only be transformed and liberated by its own actions.” But his limit is that of nearly all the Marxists of his day — he didn’t see this liberation as a liberation from the proletarian condition, but the liberation of the class as a class, which we can now recognize as a patent absurdity. He speaks of the proletariat “substituting its positive content” for the “emptied and bursting husks” of “bourgeois culture.” In the other essays of History and Class Consciousness, we can see where this all leads — the practical, positive consciousness of the class is the Party. In a way, we have to read Lukács as a deleriously Hegelian theorization of Lenin’s distinction between immediate trade-union consciousness and mediate class consciousness. While the “Reification” essay seems somewhat heretical because it suggests that the proletariat can reach “class consciousness” on its own because of its objective situation rather than have it brought ‘from outside’ by socialist intellectuals as the Lenin of “What is to Be Done?” claimed, read in conjunction with his other work, it still claims that this class consciousness must be manifested in the Party. This merely exacerbates the fact that the problem of ‘trade-union consciousness vs. class consciousness’ is wrongly framed because its telos is the positive existence of the class, whereas a more important distinction would be between what the young Postone calls class-constituting vs. class-transcending consciousness. It’s worth noting that the failure to see this results not from a theoretical error but from an historical limit.

But Lukács provided a way to begin to think through at least certain aspects of this limit. He points out that the reified immediacy of the everyday existence of the class must be reflectively mediated. He claims elsewhere that this practical mediation is the Party. But he points out many instances of various kinds of what he calls ‘mythologies’ which constitute “simply the reproduction in imagination of the problem in its insolubility. Thus immediacy is merely reinstated on a higher level.” This is a decent summary of what Debord would call spectacle, and it’s also a decent description of that subspecies of spectacle, the Party. Lukács notes that “in every aspect of daily life in which the individual worker imagines himself to be the subject of his own life he finds this to be an illusion that is destroyed by the immediacy of his existence.” But what if that image of himself as a subject assumed an independent form? That’s what the Party is — it doesn’t overcome the immediacy of the proletarian as object of the social process, it merely displaces it to a higher level, which is a representation of her subjectivity, just as immediate and in a sense doubly false. The Party does not reveal the proletariat’s mediate place in the total social process, it rather projects an immediate image of absolute subjective effectivity, while remaining itself a reified object totally under the sway of the fetishism of the economy.

It’s clear that Debord’s theory is an implicit (and at times explicit) critique of this aspect of Lukács. It is an advance on Lukács in that it bases itself on a category of practice, not a category of thought, and then integrates the moments of truth in Lukács’s theory of consciousness. Debord’s concept of spectacle functions as a kind of general field theory of humanity’s powerlessness before its own separate social powers; as such, it encompasses both an objective social condition and a subjective stance corresponding to it. Debord often emphasizes that he’s describing “a world that is really turned upside down,” and I see this as him insisting that spectacle refers not only to a passive attitude, but to a real inability to shape historical life. This is how the theory is able to describe an objective social condition, but to insist on a primary role for consciousness in its overcoming, precisely because it must be the overcoming of a socially unconscious process, what Debord even calls “economic id.” But because he starts from a category of practice (or non-practice as the case may be), it’s made clear that what is required is a truly radical transformation of social practice and material reproduction that must be self-conscious and self-determinate, but is certainly not reducible to a change in consciousness alone. Here he embraces Lukács’s notion of the identical subject-object, but is able to develop it more adequately, since a subject and an object can only truly be identical at the level of consciousness, whereas a subject and its objective activity can be united in practice — Lukács himself later points out this defect in his earlier conception, its “inability to think objective activity as such,” which therefore confuses any objectification with the alienation or fetishistic autonomization of social powers — something neither Marx nor Hegel does — thus resulting in what he calls his attempt to “out-Hegel Hegel.”

What neither the mature Lukács nor his other critics seem to grasp is that there is more at issue here than a defective, idealist philosophical conception, but how he defines his proletarian ‘subject’ and exactly what kind of praxis he advocates. Debord implicitly corrects for this by recognizing that while the commodity labor-power may be able to become self-conscious of the fact that it produces surplus-value, and thus ‘produces its world,’ it still has “no control over its own time,” thus the proletariat could only be a subject-object unity, in the sense of practically taking its own activity as its object in an historical process, not in its role as labor, certainly not as wage labor, but only in revolutionary struggle. The young Lukács might agree with this, but stops short of stipulating (at least in this essay) exactly what kind of revolutionary struggle this must be, and what its object, its content, must be — in fact, for all his talk of dialectics revealing social relations and historical processes, he says next to nothing about what these relations and processes really are, and in fact assumes rather than deduces that beneath their reified immediacy, they are dialectical (this is what Hegel would call a “dogmatic assurance”). This is why Debord must turn to French Hegelianism, Lefebvre, and Marx to work out his own conception of how the emergence of a dialectical historicity can be derived from an empirical account of the evolution of material social reproduction.

Debord has the great merit of recognizing that behind what appear to be problems with Lukács’s metaphysics stand problems with his Bolshevik politics, and located his own left-communist revision of Lukács at this level. Debord understood from his extensive critique of Stalinist state-capitalism, informed by Korsch, Pannekoek and the council communists, and Socialisme ou Barbarie, but in crucial ways going beyond them, that the proletariat’s struggle must be to totally abolish wage-labor and classes, that is, itself: “the very core of the revolutionary nothing less than the suppression of labor...and of the proletariat.” The proletariat cannot install itself as “positive content” (here we can read between Lukács’s lines and fill in “productive labor”) but rather, for Debord it is “negation at work in society.” Thus the proletariat could only become a subject-object unity to the extent to which it had succeeded in abolishing itself as proletariat. The subject-object unity that would emerge could only be humanity qua classless society. This of course undoes precisely the objective ground of reification, i.e., commodity production, wage labor, and wealth in the form of value, that is, quantified, spatialized, alienated time — a problem that Lukács came close to framing, in the first section of his essay, but then dropped for a positive affirmation of the class qua class. If the commodity economy is the cause of fetishism and reification as Lukács claims (and it is, though his account of this is not satisfactory), then shouldn’t we focus on the abolition of commodity-production, instead of speaking about subject-object dialectics in abstracto as Lukács ends up doing? Debord, on the other hand, addresses this question of what must be the product of the struggle for subject-object unity and the precondition for its continuance: communism, that is, free time, self-determinate human time, qualitative, variable and flowing. Debord was one of the first to realize this since Marx.

Whatever the problems with his metaphysics or his politics, Lukács’s luminous invocation of a reality that “is not, but Becomes” must remain a guide to any emancipatory movement — what he hinted at in theory is nothing but the pulse of freedom. Throughout the third section of his essay, he spends much time addressing Marx’s theory of praxis as elaborated in the “Theses on Feuerbach” and how it overcomes the antinomic problem of the thing-in-itself, and the status of historical dialectic, that is, how all objective historical processes in fact consist of relations between men, albeit heretofore unconscious, and how static anthropologies cannot truly grasp this because they do not see man herself as a process. But he remained bound by the limits of his time. There is a flaw in his process-thinking. It’s ironic that the great thinker of totality does not here think totalistically enough, and stops at bourgeoisie and proletariat, when they are but moments of a total process that must be overcome in totality — Lukács cannot really think capital-as-process. Debord did not entirely overcome the antinomies of class-affirming thought either, but by putting aside the bourgeoisie to focus on an objective total process, and by reconceiving the revolutionary proletariat as pure negativity, he came far closer than almost any other theorist of his time, and this was achieved at least in part by reading Lukács beyond Lukács.

A New Institute for Social Research