The Adventures of Reification


The Adventures of Reification


Comment on the book “Capitalismo e reificação” by José Paulo Netto.

It is true that each book has its history and its destiny, but, above all, it also has its value. Capitalism and reification has withstood time and, therefore, has been attracting the attention of new readers. Part of this interest is certainly due to the erudition of José Paulo Netto combined with the didacticism of someone who intends to introduce the reader to difficult topics without, however, trivializing them. Rereading the work more than thirty years later, it remains alive and offering clues to be explored.

About the first part, especially the chapters directly dedicated to fetishism in Marx, there is little to add to what has been pointed out: finally, we now have reliable translations of the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and floorplans, as well as the Ontology of the social being by Lukács.

The second part, however, the one dedicated to the theory of “capitalist positivity”, is marked by “a discreet underlying pessimism”, as the author recognizes. This “weakness”, as he observed, did not go unnoticed by Carlos Nelson Coutinho, who, in the first edition, asked the author to explain the “counter-tendencies that oppose the extension and triumph of the phenomena of reification”.

The author's pessimism, in 1981, the result of the vicissitudes of “real socialism” and the false alternatives gestated in the West, had, however, something premonitory. With the breakdown of that experience, there was a stampede in the Marxist camp. I remember a report in Folha de São Paulo in which it was claimed that Marx's books were stranded in bookstores. The same report asked various “Marxologists” what would be left of Marx's legacy (something like “What is alive and what is dead in Marx?”, to parody the title of a book by Croce on Hegel). The surprising response of one of them was: the chapter dedicated to commodity fetishism as a starting point for the critique of reification. The rest – the dynamics of the mode of production, the critique of political economy, the class struggle – collapsed along with the Berlin wall.

The appreciation of the chapter in which Marx spoke of mercantile fetishism has lost its political dimension of criticism of what exists (be it real socialism or late capitalism). It began, in our recently depoliticized academic life, a tendency to study, among the few who were still willing to do so, The capital of Marx from History and class consciousness, and this work by Lukács based on Adorno's ideas. In this way, Marxism became a cultural criticism and no longer a scientific and revolutionary theory.

If we pay attention to this theoretical course of academic Marxism, we will see that its north is given by the junction of the critique of commodity fetishism (and the corresponding reification) with Weber's theory of rationalization. It was Merleau-Ponty who first spoke of History and class consciousness as the book that inaugurated “Weberian-Marxism”.

Evidently, there are analogies between Marx's and Weber's theories. Michael Löwy has recently written an interesting and well-informed book pointing out the “elective affinities” between the two, the steel cage. But wouldn't it be more productive to talk about “dangerous connections”, since resorting to analogy does not enjoy a good reputation in dialectics? Hegel already criticized studies of “comparative philosophy” aimed at discovering similarities and differences. Such a procedure, Hegel said, condemns us to remain on the surface, “in the external and indifferent differentiability” that never reaches the essence of the philosophical ideas studied.

To shorten the subject, it is convenient to remember, as José Paulo Netto points out, that reification concerns the dominion of things over men, objectually mediated relations. In Weber, we might add, rationalization is the result of the domination of means over ends, whose most elaborate expression is the triumph of bureaucracy. Here, we are not talking about exploitation, but about domination.

The future projected by Weber could not be worse: “it is not the bloom of summer that awaits us, but the polar, glacial, dark and rude night”. The growing predominance of rationality, therefore, will make us prisoners of the “steel cage”, a prison that includes everyone and benefits no one. Men, then, all of them, will remain in a state of "deaf semi-consciousness".

This resigned pessimism Weber shared with other thinkers: Nietzsche in the first place, and also Thomas Mann, Spengler, Tönnies, etc. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, we witness the resumption of cultural pessimism in Frankfurt theorists who add Lukács's ideas about reification to the theory of rationalization (although this theory, in Lukács, coexists with a messianic optimism...).

Evidently, the “discrete pessimism” of José Paulo Netto, at the time, was based on the stagnation of real socialism on the eve of its collapse and the impasses of the left in Western countries. In any case, the author, today, repents of the vision “not very dialectical of the processes of manipulation of the social conscience by the bourgeois order”.

Perhaps the question of manipulation can be raised again and asked about its limits. Has the process of reification been completed in modern capitalism? Are men condemned to live in a world governed by the automatic movement of goods? Can one still speak of the existence of a subject of the historical process? And who would he be: scattered individuals, social classes, humanity?

The rereading of Capitalism and reification it encouraged me to reflect on the theme and return to the work of Marx.

Class-subject or automatic subject?

Marx, in his juvenile texts, suffering the dual and contradictory influence of Hegel and Feuerbach, formulated a conception that held together the first's philosophy of consciousness and the second's humanism.

The well-known pages on alienated work (or, to be more precise, on estranged work) Economic-philosophical manuscripts are reminiscent of the master-slave dialectic described by Hegel in phenomenology of the spirit. In its journey towards self-consciousness, self-consciousness, says Hegel, alienates itself: master and slave thus become opposing “figures” of consciousness struggling for recognition – both prisoners of the split and experiencing this alienation in different ways. (independence from the master; dependence on the slave). In the pilgrimage of consciousness, alienation has a positive content: it is a necessary step in the process of exteriorization and enrichment. At the final moment, in self-awareness, recovery takes place, the reconciliation between consciousness and the substance that had separated from it.

The odyssey of consciousness, which is lost in alienation to recover in the final moment, in the Absolute Spirit, receives a secularized and negative treatment in Marx. Class struggle, in the last stage of prehistory, prepares the conditions for overcoming alienation and realizing the “total man”. But, first, the proletariat lives its ordeal, as described in the pages dedicated to alienated work. The influence of Feuerbach's theory of religious alienation appears in them: the believer transfers his own attributes to the celestial sphere. The more powerful God is, the more man empties and weakens. In the same way, the more wealth the worker produces, the more he impoverishes and the more his executioner becomes richer.

It is from this extreme situation, based on the theory of “absolute impoverishment”, that the proletariat can redeem itself and overcome alienation – not only its own but that of the whole society, since only a class that embodies “the complete ruin of man” can , through the social revolution, to accomplish the “complete renewal of man”. Without much effort, one perceives the analogy with the martyrdom of Christ as a necessary moment for redemption...

In his mature works, as José Paulo Netto shows us, the theme of alienation is placed on another level. It is no longer about Feuerbach's anthropology transposed into a binary relationship: the worker and the capitalist. Capitalism is then seen as a totality, a developing mode of production. Within this rich context of determinations, fetishism and reification, as our author observes, inaugurate “a new and unprecedented form that alienation acquires in constituted bourgeois society”. It is now an “object relation”, whose ultimate secret is found in the “commodity-form” assumed by the products of human work, a form that hides the social character of production through the objective appearance of an automatic world regulated by movement. of things (commodities) already forgotten of their human origin.

The historical realization operated by Marx contrasts with the transhistorical thesis defended by the Frankfurtians, who see alienation as a secular version of original sin – the result of the manipulation of nature carried out by instrumental reason. It also undoes the theoretical framework that sustains it: the identification between alienation and objectification, as it appears in History and class consciousness.

Once the identification is removed, one can think of the first form of objectification, work, as the founding category of human sociability and, at the same time, one can understand capitalism's own positivity – objectually mediated sociability.

This distinction was not always noticed. It is enough to remember the “critique of work”, present in authors such as Moishe Postone, Robert Kurz and Anselm Jappe and reproduced in the well-known Manifesto against work from the group “Krysis”.

All these interpreters start from a common diagnosis: the terminal crisis of the “labor society”, of the commodity-producing society, or, as Kurz says, the “collapse of modernization”. With the advancement of science, expressed by the microelectronic revolution, human work is no longer the source of value. Therefore, the militants of the Krysis group unite in criticizing “traditional Marxism”, which clung to denouncing surplus value and not value itself and its substance, work. For them, work under capitalism became an activity separate from other activities, a tool at the service of value in its endless race to realize an irrational end: its own valorization.

Interestingly, no distinction is made here between work, abstract work and concrete work. Such a procedure allows one to criticize “traditional Marxism”, because it saw the fundamental contradiction of capitalism in the relations between capital and work, between living work and dead work. This opposition, says Jappe, is internal, that is, intrinsic to capitalism: “wage labor and capital are nothing more than two states of aggregation of the same substance: abstract labor reified in value”. Consequently, the workers' struggle, until today, would have had the sole result of favoring the development of capitalism and mercantile fetishism: workers and capitalists meet and unite as accomplices in maintaining a social order centered on work. Labor and capital, says the Manifesto against work, are two sides of the same coin, the opposition between them is just an opposition within the logic of valorization, therefore, a logical identity circumscribed to the fetishistic form that surrounds them.

This reconciliation in favor of the logic of valorization does not correspond to the description that Marx makes of the encounter between the capitalist and the worker, seen as characters in a “drama”: “The former owner of money now marches ahead as a capitalist; the owner of labor power follows him as his worker. The first with an important air, a roguish smile and avid for business; the second timid, self-conscious, like one who has sold his own skin and is only waiting to be flayed”.

The transformation of drama into a relationship of complicity has as its counterpart the abandonment of the “work point of view”, of the praise of the gay faber and the fetishized categories derived therefrom: value, money, merchandise, State, democracy, etc. The proposed emancipation project proposes a rejection of the “capitalist way of life in general”. Such a project remains, however, vague and generic in its great refusal. The discarding of the working class as a subject places hopes on the “collapse of modernization”: the depletion of value, as a measure, brought about by the very movement of capital. History, without real subjects, makes the realization of value the “automatic subject” that mechanically conducts everything. The critique of work, therefore, has as its horizon a new society in which work and value no longer exist: in it, as in the primitive communities studied by Marcel Mauss, an economy of gift, of Potlach.

One can see in all these theorists the shadow of Adorno. Although they criticize this author, they remain trapped in his negative dialectic by replacing the “ontology of work” of “traditional Marxism” with the ontology of the false state, thus denouncing the untruth of the world we live in without, however, finding within it the agents interested in emancipation.

A radically opposite position has been defended by several authors who, not infrequently, seek inspiration in the Ontology of the social being by Lukács. The importance of work, its perennial role as a mediator between men and nature and between men themselves, consecrated the expression “centrality of work” to demarcate materialist and ontological interpretations and differentiate them from the various idealist strands.

This new version of “traditional Marxism” faces an absence and a challenge.

Social classes and class struggle, curiously, do not appear in the Ontology by Lukács. The historical process is seen in this work as “the explanation of the being-for-itself of the human race”, a view basically centered on the relations between the individual and the species – without the mediation represented by social classes and their struggles.

An author sympathetic to Lukács' ideas, such as the German Hans Heinz Holz, one of the organizers of the book Chatting with Lukács, when examining the Aesthetics and Ontology of the social being, he found perplexed: “in the more than three thousand pages, the issue of class struggle is no longer addressed”.

Along the same lines, the Brazilian Michael Löwy, who does not accept the path followed by Lukács from History and class consciousness, observed: “what seems to me to be lacking in this type of statement (…) is precisely that form of suspension of everyday life, of social objectification, of passage from the singular to the generic, which occupies the central place in History and class consciousness: collective action, liberating praxis, the transformation of the exploited into conscious historical subjects”.

The discussion about the absence of classes and their struggles did not inhibit the diffusion of the slogan “the centrality of work”, which migrated from its original status as a “protoform of social praxis”, as Lukács wants, to a dogma to be defended in disputes about the production process in modern capitalism.

The absence of classes is not restricted to the Ontology of the social being by Lukács: it is also a controversial subject when studying Marx's main work, The capital. It is only in the last, unfinished chapter that Marx intended to study social classes. And in the three previous volumes, are they posited or presupposed?

Ruy Fausto takes the second possibility, stating that classes “are put in inertia, therefore, not in struggle”.

A radically different position is defended by Hector Benoit. According to his colorful opinion, “The capital, as a critique of bourgeois economics, is nothing more than the theoretical systematization of the class consciousness of the working class, that is, of the consciousness developed by and in the class struggle itself”. Marx, according to the author, seems to owe nothing to classical economics, and what differentiates him from it is to have perceived “the struggle of the working class itself, to listen to the murmur of the factories, to hear that dramatic criticism of the class itself, in short, to learn theoretically from the class consciousness of the working class”.

This workerist interpretation of a scientific work produced an interesting and uneven debate between Benoit and Francisco Teixeira. Turning against unreasonable attacks on his work Thinking with Marx, Teixeira found that his critic “falls into the extremism that denies the importance of criticizing political economy, which translates the modus operandi of the system, to assert the will of the working class, as an autonomous will, which transcends any conditioning imposed by capital”.

The absence of conditioning can be observed among theorists of Italian “operaismo”. The thesis that guided this current is the understanding that all technological transformations produced by modern capitalism are capital's responses to the inventiveness of work and to the challenges of the class struggle. Technological progress is thus a reactive attitude and not the result of the development of science and the need to realize value.

Mario Tronti, for example, states that Marxists began “by seeing capitalist development first and workers' struggles only afterwards. It is a mistake. The problem has to be reversed, change its sign, start over from the beginning: and the beginning is the struggle of the working classes (...) capitalist development is subordinate to the workers' struggles, it comes after them...”. Capital, thus conceived, becomes “a function of the working class”. For this reason, he concludes, one must start from “workers' thinking” in its opposition to the “science of the bosses”.

The end result of the undertaking, many years later, was the glorification of immaterial labor and the “knowledge class”, carried forward by Antonio Negri.

A challenge still remains: how can one speak of “the centrality of work” when the work process has come to be commanded in modern capitalism by the production process? Is it correct to see the working class as a subject after Marx wrote in the floorplans that value has become the automatic subject in modern capitalism?

To dispel misunderstandings, it is necessary to separate the plans: at first, work and other forms of objectification (art, science), started the process of humanization and, since then, have accompanied our history. At a certain point, however, the process suffered a short circuit: alienation and fetishism began to block humanizing possibilities. But, despite this, the work continues, even in adverse conditions, leading the historical process, the “retreat of natural barriers”. Likewise, true art coexists in an increasingly unfavorable correlation of forces with alienated and commercial art.

With this in mind, we avoid attaching to the thesis of the “centrality of work”, with a clear anthropological connotation, conceived as an indisputable truth to be reaffirmed without taking into account the metamorphoses of work submitted to the production process.

It doesn't hurt to remember that in the dialectical syllogism the terms are interconnected in their uninterrupted movement of transformation. Furthermore, work is mediation, and mediation is not a fixed, crystallized point on which one can comfortably support oneself in the craft of criticism. Hegel already warned that “everything is mediated”. Marx, in turn, was very clear in pointing out the perishing of value and the transformation of the worker into an “appendix of the machine”. The tendency of modern capitalism, therefore, is the complete submission of the labor process to the production process. How, then, is the “centrality of work”? There is nothing to discuss when we focus on the eternal metabolism between man and nature, but clinging to the thesis of the “centrality of work” as a dogma, giving it the dimension of a watchword in the ideological struggle and transferring it, without further ado, , to the heart of modern industry can only breed misunderstanding.

After all: is the subject the working class or, on the contrary, are we facing an “automatic subject”, the value, which in its iron determinism leads the historical process?

Prudence advises against taking sides in the face of unilaterally posed questions. The working class, as an object of capitalist exploitation, can rebel and turn against it, seeking emancipation. At that moment, who was an object becomes a subject, because a subject is the one who acts on an object (and not a being, an essence, predestined to carry out a mission).

Similarly, at the other end of the explanation, the “automatic subject” is not guided by the process of rationalization-reification, conceived as a continuum which will progressively imprison everyone – both exploited and exploited – in a “steel cage”. Marx already warned that capitalism is rational within the productive sphere, but outside it, in the whole of social life, the “anarchy of production” reigns and, Mészáros would say, the “destructive logic”. That is why, in moments of crisis, contradictions become visible and the “animated commodity”, the working class, can revolt against exploitation.

“Our hopes are in contradictions”, said Brecht; “Capital is contradiction in motion,” wrote Marx in the floorplans. The reification process is accentuated, but the “animated commodity”, the negative of capital, dwells and is debated inside. Against the pessimism of intelligence there is the optimism of the will and this has always been a characteristic present throughout José Paulo Netto's public life.

Pessimism aside, Capitalism and reification, in 1981, it was a pioneering book dealing with a theme that, soon after, would bring about so many fruitful controversies. Today, it continues to be a safe guide for young and old readers to return to the matrix of controversies in the tortuous evolution of Marx's thought.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).

This text served as the basis for the postface to the book by José Paulo Netto, Capitalism and reification. São Paulo: Instituto Caio Prado Jr., 2015.


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