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Theories of Marx and Lukács: The Reification of Laws of Nature and Social Labor

One of the chief achievements of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production, is describing how the commodity form penetrates the relations of men and the products of their own labor. For Marx, this question is beyond merely an economical one, but one that entails a structural contradiction within the fabric of human society itself. Under these contradictory relations within society, arises a process that Lukács refers to as the phenomenon of "reification" [Versachlichung], where human relations within a commodity producing society become alienated due to the manner in which the value of human labor is expressed. For Lukács, reification arises out certain relations within society; one of these aspects is what Marx refers to as "commodity fetishism" [Warenfetisch], in which every product of human labor is expressed through a uniform, quantifiable, and determinable value form. On one hand, this expression of the commodity form permits trade to take place among different communities since the market value of an any given commodity can be set to an agreeable price. In practice however, the commodity form conceals a state of domination and servitude that reflects the antagonistic class relations of a society—a relation that is well concealed by the phenomenon of "reification" itself. In this essay, I will attempt to exemplify the extents to which the phenomenon of reification penetrates not just human relations, but also the most fundamental human conceptions about the laws of nature.

A foundation for any social relation within a society, must rely on some principles that attempt to make sense of the world, which is the foundation on which social organisation can be established; it guides individuals to perform actions in accordance to this commonly accepted understanding of the world. The investigation into the fundamental human understanding about the world, is a crucial step that Marx first makes before proceeding in defining the social relations that emerge out of a particular understanding about a societies’ condition in the material world. For Marx’s materialist view of the world, "all the phenomena of the universe, whether produced by the hand of man or indeed by the universal laws of physics, are not to be conceived of as acts of creation but solely as a reordering of matter."1 The way in which matter is decomposed and re-ordered, is not an act of creation that possesses a form of divinity; but is either a causal change the follows the laws of physics, or a deliberate attempt of the human mind to re-structure matter according to some deliberate action. Any deliberate manipulation of matter relies on the exertion of a certain amount of human labor-power necessary for the creation of an end product, which "is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, and sense organs"2. Because the deliberate restructuring of matter can also occur in a more efficient manner—and if the human mind deems necessary to do so—the labor-power of the human bodily organism can be reduced to the bare minimum necessary for the creation of a particular commodity: an amount of human labor-power necessary to reorder matter into a specific commodity. This bare-minimum of human labor, which defines the exchange value of a given commodity, is based on the amount of labor-power that must be exerted during the creation of a commodity.

It is precisely this discovery on which Marx bases his theory, namely, that the value of a commodity can be entirely determined by the amount of labor-power expended during its production process. In this case, the value of a commodity is determined by what Marx refers to as exchange-value, and not according to the naturalistic qualities of a commodity that defines its use-value. Since the value of every commodity within a commodity producing society is expressed through an exchange-value, exchange of commodities can be facilitated more easily since exchange-value can determine the price of any given commodity based on the amount of labor-power that was expended during its production process. It is this elaboration that Marx made which revealed the manner in which the evaluation process of any commodity, suppresses its use-value in favour of an imposed exchange-value—a value expressed through a relation that a commodity has with other commodities.3 The use-value of a commodity, is expressed as a value based on the qualitative features of a commodity, and its usefulness. Marx himself proclaims that his chief achievement was to be the first one who examined and discovered this twofold character of labour and the way it is expressed in the value of commodites.4 It is precisely this aspect of suppression of the use-value of any given commodity that propels the commodification of men’s labor. Since commodities are products of men’s labor, and since the relation between commodities is based on the amount of social labor exerted during their production process; commodities become alien from their own physical features, while men become alien from the products of their own labor.

As demonstrated, any product of men’s labor entails a value with a twofold character: one of which (the use-value of a commodity), becomes suppressed by the commodity form; while the other predominates (the exchange-value of a commodity). Marx would call this mysterious character commodity fetishism—mysterious because commodities are equated to one another in a way that is not based on their inherent sensuous qualities, and are instead, equated to one another based on an outside force that transcends the properties of commodities themselves.5 In his Das Capital I, Marx describes the way in which the commodity form is abstracted to such an extent, that it no longer can be perceived by the human senses:

The impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.6

Although Marx uses an allusion that sounds allegorical, it nevertheless points to an abstraction of the commodity form that does not correspond to the immediate perception of it. This abstracting force, is an innate part of the fetishistic quality that attaches to the products of men’s labor. With this force at play, commodities no longer relate to one another in accordance to their material properties and the way they act on human sense perception, but are instead, related to one another other based on a fetishistic quality that is artificially ascribed onto commodities. Since Marx considered himself a scientist of social relations, he found no hesitance in pointing out how this relation between commodities is expressed in a manner that is fundamentally un-empirical, since the physical nature of a commodity is disregarded in favor of a mystical, fetishized attribute. Because commodities are products of men’s labor, men become alienated from one another precisely because the products of their own labor become alienated from (but not necessarily defiant of) the laws of physics. Commodity fetishism penetrates not just the substratum of society, but also on the empirical aspects of commodities and their relation in the world and society; this elucidating elaboration is crucial for the foundation on which Marx grounds his understanding and critique of the capitalist mode of production.

For Lukács, Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production starts with the commodity for a very important reason; it captures the social relations within a commodity producing society in its totality. The commodity form is the foundation of the analysis of the more intricate social processes that emerge out of a society, whose relations are predominantly based on commodity production and exchange. In these particular relations, emerges a very particular way in which a society seeks to organize its social relations based on the circumstances of its material reality. In a commodity producing society, the process of "reification" transforms social relations into something quantitative, and not qualitative—since the process of commodification in itself presupposes a relation based on quantity (exchange-value), and not quality (use-value). It is for this reason that commodity exchange within a society cannot be treated solely in quantitative terms since it will fall into the same "modes of thought that are being eroded by the reifying effects of the dominant commodity form"7—which alienate from the empirical reality of a commodity. The process of commodity exchange cannot be merely analyzed in terms of value relations, but must be understood in qualitative terms, which would allow one to penetrate into the nature of these social relations. Within this analysis, one will find that the relations between men assume an alienating form, in the same way that the relation between things assume a fantasmic form; where relations between men, men and things, and things themselves, all become subject to the nonhuman objectivity of these reified laws within a commodity fetishized society8.

The form of objectivity that these reified laws of society gain, is what propels the commodification and economization of human labor; the transformation of the qualitative into the quantitative; and the prevalence of alienated relations within the fabric of society. These are direct causes by what Lukács refers to as "rationalisation"—a characteristic inherent in the phenomenon of reification itself. This continuous trend toward rationalization seeks to ignore individual attributes of human labor in favour of certain principles, which through the aid of mathematical analysis, seek to atomize and break down the organic quality of human labor and transform every aspect of it into something that can be quantified, counted, and determined.9 The sole purpose of this process of reification is to transform man into a mechanical part that can be easily incorporated into the mechanical system of commodity production10. For this process to occur, the worker’s labor must be objectified into a quantitively determinate value form; human labor-power must be transformed into a commodity form that can be calculated and more easily incorporated into the relations of a commodity producing society. Once a worker’s labor-power is commodified, it gains a uniform quality, which makes it qualitatively indistinguishable from the labor of other workers; the value of worker’s labor is now determined by the quantified value, expressed through the process of commodity exchange.

The way in which the value of a commodity is determined through the phenomenon of reification and rationalisation, penetrates not just the social organisation of human labor, but also the human conceptions about the laws of nature. Lukas outlines time as being the most predominant measure according to which the value of commodified labor gains a uniform, qualitatively indistinguishable value form; where the dimension of space is stripped from all its qualitative aspects, and becomes entirely subservient to the measure of time. Hence, the dimension of space and time itself is reduced to the mere mechanical measure of time; in other words, the value of men’s labor becomes entirely determined by the clock’s pendulum. This process however, runs contrarily to Marx’s formerly mentioned material conception of the world: where "all the phenomena of the universe, whether produced by the hand of man or … the universal laws of physics" is entirely determined by the way in which matter is reordered11. The thesis of Marx’s statement in itself presupposes a qualitative emphasis of reordering of matter; it suggests that the way matter is reordered is prioritised more than the amount of matter re-ordered under a given amount of time. Rationalisation of space and time however, is a deliberate attempt of the human mind to make sense of these universe’s laws, and come up with a principle according to which a socially organised re-structuring of matter can be made, based on a quantified amount of human labor employed. Through the use of human labor-power, the process of rationalization and reification no longer emphasises on the qualitative way in which matter is re-arranged, decomposed and re-ordered—but on a calculable amount of human labour that is necessary to transform matter into a commodity. This exemplifies how the process of reification penetrates not only the social relations of a commodity producing society, but even its understanding about its material world—and the most fundamental concepts through which human understanding attempts to make sense of the world: the dimension of space and time itself12.

To fully understand how the phenomenon of reification penetrated into the fabric of society, it is not sufficient to merely point out that a society is acting according to these reified principles, but also investigate the class of people who (directly and/or indirectly) advocate for and establish this phenomenon of reification within society; and the class of people that becomes mostly affected by this phenomenon. For Lukács and Marx, a commodity producing society does not incorporate the same class under these two predispositions; there is always the bourgeois class that benefits from these principles, while the proletarian class suffers from alienation and the commodification of its own labor. In other words, the transformation of man into a mechanical part that can be easily incorporated into the mechanical system of commodity production, is something that favors the bourgeois class, more than it does the proletarian class—since it is the worker class that is forcedly incorporated into the reified production process. This bourgeois process of rationalisation is based on economic calculation, which through the division of labor, seeks to organise the labor-power of every worker in a manner that is most efficient for the production of commodities13. Once a commodity is produced and becomes the property of the bourgeoise, the commodity owner engages in a process of exchange that is even further reified engaging in a "rational", calculating exchange of commodities within the market. The commodities exchanged within the market, are products of human labor that had been successfully appropriated by the bourgeois class, while the proletariat suffers from this form of appropriation and rationalisation.

Lukács makes one important elaboration on rationalisation, quantification, determination, and all other forms of rationality that fall under the bourgeois form of calculation; it is an emphasis on a fundamental difference between rationality and reason.14 Since bourgeois rationality seeks to transform all social relations into something that can be counted and probabilistically determined, the process in itself can be proven to be un-emeprical and un-reasonable—especially due to the contradictions that arise within the social classes of society. Lukács states that the bourgeois consciousness does not possess the reason necessary to question its own reified concepts, the fetish of which, penetrates the most fundamental miscued understandings about the empirical world.15 It is the worker class who possesses the philosophy, reason, and consciousness necessary for dismantling the bourgeois mode of thought by noticing the contradictions that occur within the empirical reality of a society. Unlike a commodity, a worker can become conscious of his position within a society as a commodity—and it is only under this realisation that the worker can become truly consciousness.16 It might turn out to be a big surprise to the bourgeoises to discover that the worker whom they reduced to a mere commodity, has the capacity to become more conscious and reasonable than the bourgeoises can become themselves. But this is precisely what for Lukács is the consciousness of the proletariat, which has the capacity to overcome the process of reification, and the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of thought.

  1. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 133, note 13. 

  2. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 164. 

  3. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 154. 

  4. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I,p. 132 

  5. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 163. 

  6. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 165. 

  7. Gottlieb, Roger S. An anthology of western Marxism, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.75 

  8. Gottlieb, p.78 

  9. Gottlieb, p.79 

  10. Gottlieb, p.80 

  11. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 133, note 13. 

  12. Lukács takes Marx’s idea (from The Poverty of Philosophy, pp.58-59) that under the process of rationalisation of human labor, the dimension of space and time becomes entirely contingent on the quantity of time; that is, it priorities on the amount of labor that can be performed in a given amount of time. Therefore, every worker’s labor-power is quantitatively equal to the labor-power of other workers based on the same amount of time. However, it is not outside the scope of reality that space, just as time, can also be rationalised, counted and determined. But even in such a case, Lukács’s distinction between qualitative and quantitive still holds: the phenomenon of rationalisation and reification in itself, cannot transform space, nor time—into something qualitative. 

  13. Gottlieb, p.91 

  14. Gottlieb, p.97-99 

  15. Gottlieb, p.98 

  16. Gottlieb, p.105