Whatever the elements
(it’s urban/it’s pastoral,
it’s empty/it’s open), the theory says
it could always be worse.
Until it is. Then theory fails, [...]
~ Mary Jo Bang @2004 “Catastrophe Theory II”
At the opening of the “Reification” essay, Lukács puts forward the bold claim that:
It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.
Lukács emphasises the word “structure” in “commodity-structure” – highlighting that, in Capital, the category of the commodity is intended to describe, not simply a thing, a discrete good, but instead a distinctive kind of relationship – a relationship whose peculiar qualitative characteristics are then read off into the intrinsic properties of goods. This conception of the commodity allows the category to do much more work than might be expected: the category of the commodity figures, not simply as a category of our economy, but a category of our society – in Lukács’ terms, a “model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.
Is Lukács’ conception of the commodity-structure, though, quite the same as Marx’s? In the paragraphs immediately following this opening, Lukács refers to “commodity exchange”, and to the subjective and objective relations corresponding to such exchange, as though these were the relationships at stake in understanding the commodity-structure. Here Lukács runs into a problem: he stipulates that “commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism” – and hence is historically specific. Simple commodity production and exchange, however, is ancient: how does an ancient practice somehow transform into the dominant and distinctive problem of modern society?
Lukács’ answer is that the quantitative expansion of commodity exchange at some point reaches a scale where quantitative increase yields a qualitative transformation. This answer suggests that the commodity-structure is founded on the the same sort of social relationship – the exchange relation – in modern and ancient times. Lukács argues that modernity is distinguished by the extension of exchange relations beyond their earlier bounds, to the point that the commodity-structure becomes totalising. Lukács characterises this as a quantitative expansion that yields a qualitative shift: his argument does not attempt to explain qualitatively distinctive forms of subjectivity or (social) objectivity with reference to the emergence of a qualitatively new social structure or historically distinctive form of social relation, but rather with reference to a kind of supersaturation of the social context by a kind of social relation whose historical origins lie in the distant past. The key social structure – the central social relation – in Lukács’ account, is therefore not historically coterminous with the form of society whose characteristics Lukács wants most to explain.
One consequence of this move (and I won’t develop this point adequately in this post) is a flattening of the qualitative characteristics of the “forms of objectivity and subjectivity” for which Lukács tries to account. The focus on exchange relationships drives him to criticise various types of formalism and quantification – forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity in favour of quantitative comparisons. Lukács argues that what is left out of this relation – what, therefore, cannot be grasped by bourgeois forms of consciousness – is the use value dimension – qualitative specificity, characteristics not amenable to formalisation. Lukács includes in this category production – and thus the proletariat – setting up for his argument that the proletarian class can generate a unique standpoint that can capture the perspective of the totality by grasping those dimensions of capitalism that are occluded by the bourgeois focus on exchange relations.
I will try to develop this summary more adequately in later posts – completely exhausted today, so I am just tossing up placeholders for myself now. What I wanted to suggest, however, is a certain path not taken in Lukács’ approach – a path that, I have previously suggested, is central to Marx’s argument in Capital: the treatment of the category of the commodity as a fully historically specific structure, expressing a form of social relation specific to, and definitive of, capitalism – and therefore as a category that intends to express something more than simply the exchange relation. I have suggested in previous posts that Marx understands both the exchange value and use value dimensions of the commodity as historically specific terms – use value, far from being something that “bourgeois” forms of thought cannot grasp, is a category integral to capitalism, one that grasps phenomena no less central to the reproduction of capital, than the phenomena grasped by the category of exchange value. At the same time, both use value and exchange value occupy a specific place within the overarching category of the commodity: a space of phenomena that can be directly empirically observed. As the first chapter of Capital unfolds, we quickly learn that the first “presupposition” or social “condition” of these empirically-observable categories, is a third category whose existence must be deduced or intuited, because it cannot be directly perceived by the senses: the category of value. This entire tripartite structure – not simply the “exchange relation” – is the “commodity-structure” in Marx’s account, and this structure, however much it may encompass and repurpose earlier forms of social practice, is understood as historically distinct – as temporally coterminous with the process of the reproduction of capital.
Marx’s argument does involve a complex discussion of phenomena that can directly be seen through immediate empirical observation, versus abstract patterns of social practice whose existence must be deduced through an analysis of distortions or patterns that flow through empirically-observable phenomena. Within Marx’s framework, however, both use value and exchange value fall on the side of what can be perceived directly by the senses. Neither of these categories provides access to a privileged standpoint accessible only to a particular social class: both refer to “overt” aspects of social experience for social actors engaged with the process of the reproduction of capital. And the “non-overt” dimension of social practice – the realm of the mysterious social substances like “value” that Marx argues we unintentionally enact in our collective practices – is no more emancipatory, for all that it is more difficult to perceive or understand. The question of how to understand the standpoint of critique – of how to identify a possibility for emancipatory transformation – is therefore much more complex in Marx’s work, than it is for Lukács.
If I were less tired, I would develop this contrast in much greater detail. That more developed post will have to wait for another day. Apologies for these inadequate mini-posts on Lukács – I’m essentially taking notes for myself here, but will hopefully be able to pull things together more adequately before I’m done…
Previous posts in this series on Lukács:
Seeing What Was Already There
Reification, pt. 1