Reification (Marxism)

Reification (Marxism)

Reification (German: "Verdinglichung", literally: "thing-ification" (from Latin "Res" meaning "thing") or "Versachlichung", literally "objectification" or regarding something as a business matter) is the consideration of an abstraction, relation or object as if it had human (pathetic fallacy) or living (reification fallacy) existence and abilities; at the same time it implies the "thingification" of social relations.

Typically it involves separating out something from the original context in which it occurs, and placing it in another context, in which it lacks some or all of its original connections yet seems to have powers or attributes which in truth it does not have. Thus reification involves a distortion of consciousness.

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete "thing", or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

Marx argues reification is an inherent and necessary characteristic of economic value such as it manifests itself in market trade, i.e. the inversion in thought between object and subject, or between means and ends, reflects a real practice where attributes (properties, characteristics, features, powers) which exist only by virtue of a social relationship between people are treated as if they are the inherent, natural characteristics of things, or vice versa, attributes of inanimate things are treated as if they are attributes of human subjects.

This implies objects are transformed into subjects and subjects are turned into objects, with the result that subjects are rendered passive or determined, while objects are rendered as the active, determining factor. Hypostatization refers to an effect of reification which results from supposing that whatever can be named, or conceived abstractly, must actually exist, an ontological and epistemological fallacy.

The concept is related to, but is distinct from, Marx's theories of alienation and commodity fetishism. Alienation is the general condition of human estrangement. Reification is a specific "form" of alienation. Commodity fetishism is a specific "form" of reification.

Five quotes from Marx showing the use of the concept

Quotation|"Commodities, which exist as use-values, must first of all assume a form inwhich they appear to one another nominally as exchange-values, as definitequantities of materialised universal labour-time. The first necessary movein this process is, as we have seen, that the commodities set apart aspecific commodity, say, gold, which becomes the direct reification ofuniversal labour-time or the universal equivalent." []

Quotation|"Capital employs labour. The means of production are not means by which hecan produce products, whether in the form of direct means of subsistence, oras means of exchange, as commodities. He is rather a means for them, partlyto preserve their value, partly to valorise it, i.e. to increase it, toabsorb surplus labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is an inversion,a personification of the thing and a reification of the person, for whatdistinguishes this form from all previous ones is that the capitalist doesnot rule the worker in any kind of personal capacity, but only in so far ashe is "capital"; his rule is only that of objectified labour over livinglabour; the rule of the worker's product over the worker himself." []

Quotation|" [B] ecause as a result of their alienation as use-values all commodities areconverted into linen, linen becomes the converted form of all othercommodities, and only as a result of this transformation of all othercommodities into linen does it become the direct reification of universallabour-time, i.e., the product of universal alienation and of thesupersession of all individual labour." []

Quotation|"The production of capitalists and wage-laborers is therefore a majorproduct of the process by which capital turns itself into values. Ordinarypolitical economy, which concentrates only on the objects produced, forgetsthis entirely. Inasmuch as this process establishes reified labor as what issimultaneously the non-reification of the laborer, as the reification of asubjectivity opposed to the laborer, as the property of someone else's will,capital is necessarily also a capitalist. The idea of some socialists, thatwe need capital but not capitalists, is completely false. The concept ofcapital implies that the objective conditions of labor—and these are itsown product—acquire a personality as against labor, or what amounts to thesame thing, that they are established as the property of a personality otherthan the worker's. The concept of capital implies the capitalist. However,this error is certainly no greater than that of, e.g., all philologists whospeak of the existence of capital in classical antiquity, and of Roman orGreek capitalists. This is merely another way of saying that in Rome andGreece labor was free, an assertion which these gentlemen would hardly make.If we now talk of plantation-owners in America as capitalists, if they arecapitalists, this is due to the fact that they exist as anomalies within aworld market based upon free labor. Were the term capital to be applicableto classical antiquity—though the word does not actually occur among theancients (but among the Greeks the word arkhais is used for what the Roman'scalled the principalis summa reicreditae, the principal of a loan)—thenthe nomadic hordes with their flocks on the steppes of Central Asia would bethe greatest capitalists, for the original meaning of the word capital iscattle." []

Quotation|"Capital employs labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is apersonification of things and a reification of persons. But the relationbecomes still more complex—and apparently more mysterious—in that, withthe development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, not onlydo these things—these products of labour, both as use values and asexchange values—stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confronthim as "capital"—but also the social forms of labour appear as forms ofthe development of capital, and therefore the productive powers of sociallabour, thus developed, appear as productive powers of capital. As suchsocial forces they are "capitalised" vis-à-vis labour. In fact, communalunity in cooperation, combination in the division of labour, the applicationof the forces of nature and science, as well as the products of labour inthe shape of machinery, are all things which confront the individual workersas alien, objective, and present in advance, without their assistance, andoften against them, independent of them, as mere forms of existence of themeans of labour which are independent of them and rule over them, in so faras they are objective; while the intelligence and volition of the totalworkshop, incarnated in the capitalist or his understrappers(representatives), in so far as the workshop is formed by the combination ofthe means of labour, confront the workers as functions of capital, whichlives in the person of the capitalist. The social forms of their ownlabour—the subjective as well as the objective forms—or the form oftheir own social labour, are relations constituted quite independently ofthe individual workers; the workers as subsumed under capital becomeelements of these social constructions, but these social constructions donot belong to them. They therefore confront the workers as shapes of capitalitself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities,belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it. Andthis assumes a form which is the more real the more, on the one hand, theirlabour capacity is itself modified by these forms, so that it becomespowerless when it stands alone, i.e. outside this context of capitalism, andits capacity for independent production is destroyed, while on the otherhand the development of machinery causes the conditions of labour to appearas ruling labour technologically too, and at the same time to replace it,suppress it, and render it superfluous in its independent forms. In thisprocess, in which the social characteristics of their labour confront themas capitalised, to a certain extent—in the way that e.g. in machinery thevisible products of labour appear as ruling over labour—the same thing ofcourse takes place for the forces of nature and science, the product ofgeneral historical development in its abstract quintessence: they confrontthe workers as powers of capital." []

Development and significance of the concept

After Marx, the concept was developed in extense by Georg Lukács in "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat", part of his book "History and Class Consciousness". The concept of reification has also been present in the works of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, for example in Horkheimer and Adorno's, Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in the works of Herbert Marcuse. Others that have written about this point include Gajo Petrović, Raya Dunayevskaya, Raymond Williams, Axel Honneth and Slavoj Žižek.

Petrović, in "A Dictionary of Marxist Thought", defines it as:

The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society. [ Gajo Petrović, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 411-413; [] ]

Reification occurs when specifically human creations are misconceived as “facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will”. [Berger, Peter, & Luckmann, Thomas. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor/Doubleday. ]

Examples include the creation of false desires by the real labor of advertising. This is the construction of nouns naming parts of reality as intrinsically desirable "products", where the legal system of the capitalist country provides in "fit for use" presumptions and legislation allows the entrepreneur to create, for example, a reified and indeed fetishised noun, from "Hula Hoop" to "Windows Vista".


French philosopher Louis Althusser criticized in his 1965 article "Marxism and Humanism", what he called "An ideology of reification that sees 'things' everywhere in human relations" [Althusser, Louis; "Marxism and Humanism" in "For Marx", p. 230 - endnote 7, [] ] . Althusser's critique derives from his theory of the epistemological break, which finds that Marx underwent significant theoretical and methodological change between his early writings and his mature ones.

The concept of reification is used in Das Kapital, Marx's most mature work; however, Althusser finds in it an important influence from the similar concept of alienation developed in The German Ideology and in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Frankfurt School philosopher Axel Honneth reformulates this key "Western Marxist" concept in terms of intersubjective relations of recognition and power in his recent work "Reification" (Oxford, 2007). Instead of being an effect of the structural character of social systems such as capitalism, as Karl Marx and György Lukács argued, Honneth contends that all forms of reification are due to pathologies of intersubjectively based struggles for recognition.


Further reading

* Althusser, Louis: [ "Humanism and Marxism"] in "For Marx", The Penguin Press, 1969.
*Arato, Andrew: "Lukács’s Theory of Reification", Telos, 1972.
*Bewes, Timothy 2002: [,+Timothy+2002:+Reification,+or+The+Anxiety+of+Late+Capitalism+&ots=uAzOjVVMBk&sig=VA6x6L8kFm4fTK8fl8xuEYUReMY Reification, or The Anxiety of Late Capitalism] , Verso, 2002, ISBN 1859846858.
* Burris, Val: [ "Reification: A marxist perspective"] , "California Sociologist", Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 22-43.
*Dahms, Harry: "Beyond the Carousel of Reification: Critical Social Theory after Lukács, Adorno, and Habermas." "Current Perspectives in Social Theory" 18 (1998): 3-62. (See Harry Dahms)
* Dunayevskaya, Raya: [ "Reification of People and the Fetishism of Commodities"] , in "The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection", pp. 167-191.
*Gabel, Joseph : "False consciousness : an essay on reification". New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
*Goldmann, Lucien 1959: "Réification", in "Recherches dialectiques", Gallimard, 1959, Paris.
*Honneth, Axel: [ "Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View"] , "The Tanner Lectures on Human Values", delivered at University of California-Berkeley, March 14–16, 2005.
*Kangrga, Milan 1968: ‘Was ist Verdinglichung?’
*Löwith, Karl 1932 (1982): Max Weber and Karl Marx.
* Lukács, Georg 1923: [ "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat"] in "History & Class Consciousness", Merlin Press, 1967.
* Petrović, Gajo: [ "Reification"] in "A Dictionary of Marxist Thought", edited by Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 411-413.
*Rubin, I. I. 1928 (1972): Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.
*Schaff, Adam 1980: Alienation as a Social Phenomenon.
*Tadić, Ljubomir 1969: ‘Bureaucracy—Reified Organization’. In M. Marković and G. Petrović eds. Praxis.

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