Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 1

I’ve been wanting for some time to toss up some notes on Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” from History and Class Consciousness (note that the version of this text online at marxists.org suffers from a number of OCR issues, most of them just nuisances, but some more significant, including omitted phrases and sentences – the text version is preferable).

Each time I sit down to post something on this text, I find myself hesitating over how to approach this work, without quite understanding the basis for my hesitation. I think part of my difficulty is that the text strikes me as often tantalisingly sophisticated in its details, while frustratingly superficial in its overarching perspective. I’m not sure how to capture its contradictions, without myself becoming mired in minutiae. We’ll see how I go… As with the other posts in the “Marxes” category, this one will consist mainly of notes and sketches – written internalistically to myself. I’ll revisit a slice of this material more formally soon, as Lukács is the focus of one of the papers I will be presenting in Europe. For the moment, though, I want to speak in a more tentative voice, and wander through the text in a nonsystematic way… I’m low on laptop battery at the moment, so just the barest of preliminary thoughts here, without even getting into the text at all – just opening the curtain, with more to follow.

One of the problems that confronts Marxist theory is how to understand the relationship of its own categories – which appear to be “economic” categories – to social phenomena that are not generally taken to be “economic” in nature. The stereotypical “vulgar” solution to this problem is reductionism: those dimensions of social life that are taken to be “economic” are posited as ontologically or causally primary in some sense, and other dimensions of social life are taken to be epiphenomena – caused by, or expressive of, an “underlying” economic reality. This reductionist impulse can extend into fairly sophisticated forms of theory, which grant various kinds of relative autonomy and/or reciprocal causal power to “non-economic” dimensions of social experience. Regardless of the epicycles permitted around the reductionist core, critique tends to be understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of an “underlying”, more “essential” reality, in order to target more epiphenomenal or artificial dimensions of social experience.

Lukács is, among other things, an attempt to think this problem in a different way – to do away with the dualistic question of how to relate the “economic” categories of Marxist theory to other social dimensions, by rendering apparently “economic” categories into descriptors of a distinctive form of social life. Within this framework, the theory of capitalism becomes, not an economic theory, but a theory of modernity, and apparently economic categories are reinterpreted as categories of the distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity characteristic of modern society. Modern society itself is conceptualised as a totality – and critique is understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of the totality, in order to realise the potentials of that totality.

My own work shares the sense that Marx’s own categories should not be understood as “economic” categories in the conventional meaning of that term – that these are categories of distinctive forms of social practice, intended to describe the practical rituals through which indigenous members of capitalist society collectively (and largely unintentionally) enact distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity. My analysis, however, does not rely on a notion of “totality” (and tends to view the perception of capitalism as a “totality” as a false, albeit plausible, extrapolation from hypostatising a small subset of the potentials generated by the process of the reproduction of capital), and regards the process of the reproduction of capital as only one dimension of modern social experience, albeit a dimension whose global reach and peculiarly abstract properties render it plausible to experience this slice of social experience as a “background” within which other dimensions of social life unfold. This form of theory attempts to grasp a specific kind of critique – a critique of the process of the reproduction of capital – and attempts to give voice to the conflictual practical orientations that social actors routinely adopt in the process of enacting the reproduction of capital, in order to show that the process of the reproduction of capital is precisely not a totality, but a conflictual assemblage that can potentially be reassembled in different ways, unleashing different potentials for personal and social experience. The standpoint of this form of critique is that diverse constellation of potentials that are being partially enacted, and yet also abridged, by the current configuration of the reproduction of capital. The goal, following Benjamin, is to make our own history citable in more of its moments…

More very soon…

6 responses to “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 1

  1. pedro April 9, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    last few lines sound awfully like axel honneth’s declaration of intent. and i like that; in particular, i think there’s some a lot of potential in a theory connects this particular vision of marxism with honneth’s theory of recognition. especially if we take into account the materiality of the world via bruno latour’s work (particularly his work with callon).

    i’ve always thought that marxism’s ultimate claim about the preeminence of the “economic” is highly problematic precisely because of this idea of an isolated “economic” sphere. poulantzas sort of tackles that kind of issue i guess- he highlights the fact that the _social_ relations of production are decisive, which means a privileged ground for politics and ideology – precisely because the relations are social and not purely technical.
    and, alas, “objective class interests” can only be ascribed to actors if we subscribe to a somewhat utilitarian antropology (honneth also highlights that)

    anyway, these are my (also) unsystematic .02

  2. N Pepperell April 9, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Hey there – sorry you were held in moderation – should happen only the first time you post. I was running short on time when I wrote the post above, and should have added the disclaimer that I don’t take the sort of programmatic comments I’m making above about my own intentions, to be marking territory that originates with me – I’m trying to fumble through to a clear way of expressing what I’m doing (thus the first person), rather than claiming any particular originality – hopefully that isn’t too occluded in the voicing above. And, of course, I’m not trying to claim that the three options sketched above are the only ways theorists have tried to square the circle left behind by Marx…

    The connections you’ve made above are very nice – and I’ll hopefully get back to at least some of this more adequately in later posts. I tend to read Marx (in Capital, at least) as an attempt – in part – to account for why it becomes tempting (but incorrect – or, at least, only partially or situationally correct) to see aspects of our collective practice as “objective”, or as lying “behind”, other aspects – as a critique of such positions, rather than an endorsement of them. This reading alters the sense of both the standpoint and the target of critique, and positions Capital as something like an anthropological study of a distinctive form of collective practice, in order to denaturalise and open up the immanent possibility for the transformation of that practice. But this is all something I would need to write about in a much more adequate way – mainly at the moment just thinking alongside what you’ve written above…

    Take care…

  3. Praxis April 10, 2008 at 3:57 am

    I haven’t read Lukacs (really must), so sorry for ignorantly barging in. But on Marx and economics (/economic reductionism): I sometimes worry about the way in which some Marxist or post-Marxist thought tells us that it’s a mistake to read Marx’s categories as ‘economic’. Marx is of course not only an economist – but it sometimes seems to me that part of the reluctance to read Marx as an economist comes from an understanding of economics in terms of the ‘vulgar’ economics Marx criticised. Reading Marx’s theory of capitalism as a theory of modernity in general could erase the most distinctive and specific aspects of Marx’s work (not that I’m saying Lukacs does that – ignorance ignorance). I mean – by moving Marxism away from actual economic analysis, Marx’s attempt to expand and transform the discipline of economics can be betrayed. Which would be political (and theoretical) bad news.

    Two (among many) strands of Marxist thought (perhaps): one emphasises Marx as economist in the strict or limited sense, which can lead to the kind of economic reductionism you discuss. The other sees Marx’s critique of political economy as a reason to try to separate Marx from political economy – ‘rescue’ him from it – in order to emphasise the apparently more profound and interesting aspects of his work. This division a ghastly caricature. But we perhaps don’t adequately respond to Marx’s legacy unless it’s possible to carry on his work of criticising political economy/economics – placing it within a broader social and philosophical mode of analysis – while still maintaining the detailed economic analysis that characterises so much of Marx’s work. In a word: I’m worried about Marx as an economist being neglected, because economics is seen as inherently reactionary or superficial.

    None of this meant as a criticism of what you say in the post, obviously. Just a train of thought set off by what you say about reinterpretting economic categories. I suppose I mean (to rephrase the same dumb point for the fourteenth time): what concept of ‘economics’ requires us to reinterpret Marx’s apparently economic categories? Is this a Marxist (/post-Marxist) concept of economics? Or is it a concept of economics that has failed to incorporate Marx’s vision of economics? Might our attempt to distinguish Marx from vulgar, reductionist economics be driven, in part, by our residual adherence to the economic categories Marx repudiates?

    One of these days I’ll know what I’m talking about when I write this stuff. Apologies for blather.

  4. N Pepperell April 10, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    There are several different issues that run through the way in which I try to describe Marx’s work, which may be a little bit different from other concerns that might be in play, in other attempts to “claim” Marx, whether for “economic” or other forms of theory.

    I tend not to call Marx an “economist” because I think the most common intuitive meaning of that term is deeply misleading, as a characterisation of what Marx is doing. I tend to describe Marx as something more like an anthropologist who is constructing a theory of the distinctive – and, Marx thinks, fairly bizarre – sorts of behaviours and beliefs through which we collectively and unintentionally enact the reproduction of capital. I share what I would take to be your interest in digging in to the close details of economic theory and practice, but the reason I don’t equate this close examination of “economic” issues with Marx’s being an economist, is that I don’t think he digs into these details the way an economist would, or with anything like the same intention. From Marx’s point of view, “economists” presuppose what he is trying to grasp – the frame of their analysis, their analytical lens, won’t be able to bring into view, what he is trying to understand. When I say that I don’t read Marx as an “economist”, my intention isn’t to keep Marx from getting his hands dirty, so to speak, but to be a bit clearer what sort of earth he’s digging around in, and what sort of spade he is using…

    So I do think his critique of economics needs to be understood within the framework of a broader theoretical system within which he was attempting to embed classical political economy (and a number of other interpretive systems and forms of practice) – but this doesn’t point in the direction of being less thorough in the analysis of our “economic” beliefs and practices – it’s just an attempt on my part to be clearer about the form of thoroughness required, and the different objectives involved.

    I’m a little confused by the question: “what concept of ‘economics’ requires us to reinterpret Marx’s apparently economic categories?” It’s not a concept of “economics” that drives me to attempt to reinterpret Marx’s categories, but instead a sense that many readings of Marx force these categories into a mould Marx is explicitly (if obscurely) attempting to criticise. As I’ve said before, I don’t think Marx does himself many favours with the style of presentation he adopts in the first chapter of Capital, but I do think he is ultimately explicit that the economic categories he outlines there are the targets of his critique, and that the form that his critique takes, is an adaptation of a Hegelian “science”. This methodological commitment has complex presentational implications that make the text unusually difficult to interpret. One of the things I’ve argued and at least tried to begin to show elsewhere, is that the categories with which Capital opens, can’t be understood at the outset – that the initial definitions or “determinations” unfolded in the text, will gradually be revealed to be partial, as further determinations are added by the gradual reveal that the initial categories presuppose other categories, which in turn have to be analysed in order to grasp a whole network of relationships. It’s a strange methodology, and personally I wouldn’t choose to present the sort of argument Marx presents, in this particular way (Marx would reply that this is the only form of presentation that adequately expresses his substantive claims; I would respond that I think the whole “let’s make the form adequate to the content” thing is overrated, particularly when compared to the desire that someone might actually understand your argument… ;-P).

    So my personal answer about why we would need to reinterpret the categories is that I think this is necessary, in order to understand what Marx was trying to do, in a situation in which his intentions are greatly obscured by a lingering commitment to a Hegelian mode of presentation.

    The issue I was trying to thematise above, though, when talking about the dilemma posed by the “economic” nature of Marx’s categories, was intended more as a comment on intellectual history, rather than as a personal endorsement: one of the (many many many – not being comprehensive in any sense here) tensions between different Marxist traditions, is a tension between approaches that want to read Marx as someone who theorises this bounded sphere of social existence called “an economy”, a strategy which then generates the question of how “the economy” relates to other sorts of things, that are taken to be not the economy; versus other approaches that attempt to sidestep this question by taking Marx, from the beginning, as someone who is theorising “capitalist society” – so, as a social theorist of “modernity”, rather than a theorist of “the economy” – a strategy that then raises the question of why, if Marx wanted to theorise “modernity”, he wrote all this material that certainly appears, on its face, to be about the economy… ;-)

    My own approach isn’t quite either of these. I do think Marx is best seen as a social or anthropological theorist – but I also think he takes the process of the reproduction of capital as his specific object of analysis – but I also don’t think the process of the reproduction of capital strictly lines up with what most people think of, when they think of “the economy” – but I also don’t think the process of the reproduction of capital is “everything”, or that this process can be divorced from what people think of, when they think of “the economy” in a narrow sense (although more needs to be analysed than just “the economy”, to grasp the sort of argument being made)… Confusing enough? ;-P

    Sorry not to do a better job with this response – it’s been a very draining day, and I’m writing while fending off wistful thoughts of curling up and going to sleep… ;-)

  5. Praxis April 12, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Yeah, sorry, not a helpful comment. I (think I) am totally on side with your reading of Marx as embedding political economy in a broader theoretical system; critiquing economics by trying to understand the social, practical production of the categories economists take as their starting points; etc. I just meant that by saying ‘Marx, when he does x y z, is not, despite appearances, doing economics (in its intuitive or normal sense)’, we may be in danger of ceding the terrain of ‘economics’ to those who practice it in that intuitive or normal sense. Which would be a tactical error. But this isn’t, I’m pretty confident, what you’re proposing. And in any case it’s an almost empty thought, focussed on pointless discipline-boundary wrangling, and very much not worth losing literal sleep over. :)

  6. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

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