’ Reification And Heller’s Theory Of Needs In Marx Essay, Research Paper
1. A little over a decade after the “collapse of Communism”, it might appear that Marxist theory has been relegated to little more than an historical or even archeological artefact with little relevance to or influence over an ever encroaching and expanding, globalising capitalism. Socialism “proper”, as a state economic model and ideology seems to have been banished to the margins of the world scene. The disastrous results in terms of the dictatorships and totalitarianism that have ensued wherever an attempt has been made to implement a socialist model; the Fukuyaman proclamation of the “end of history” after communism collapsed, this end being equated with the eschatological triumph of free-market capitalism; and the insistence of multinational enterprises and capitalist governments on the expansion of global capital appear to some extent to have marked the death of socialism and marxist critique.
2. However, it cannot be denied that fundamental contradictions remain and are increasing in intensity. Recent events, such as often violent demonstrations whenever and wherever bodies seen to be representative of global capitalism, such as the World Trade Organisation, meet, and the upsurge in anti-western sentiment, especially in Islamic middle-eastern nations, point to a trend that now denies the triumphant mood in the West during the early nineties. Magnus and Cullenberg referred to these already in 1994 in their Introductions to Derrida’s Specters of Marx:
Given the difficulties some democratic, free market economies are experiencing – including the plight of the homeless, the lack of adequate health care, environmental degradation, and enormous debt burdens – what sort of model for the future do we have? And what is one to make of the destructive, even violent “nationalisms” which have followed in the wake of the collapse of communism, not to mention virulent forms of ethnocentrism and xenophobia perhaps not seen since Hitler’s Germany? What does this imply then for?the global economy and life throughout our shared world? (viii)
Derrida also takes note of the economic contradictions undermining the “end” of history:
And how can one overlook, moreover, the economic war that is raging today both between [the United States and the European Community] and within the European Community? How can one minimize the conflicts of the GATT treaty and all that it represents, which the complex strategies of protectionism recall every day, not to mention the economic war with Japan and all the contradictions at work within the trade between the wealthy countries and the rest of the world, the phenomena of pauperization and the ferocity of the “foreign debt”, the effects of what [Marx's] Manifesto also called “the epidemic of overproduction” and the “state of momentary barbarism”?it can induce in so-called civilized societies, and so forth? (1994: 63)
3. We have seen the effects of the GATT conflicts in cities like Seattle and Melbourne, with large-scale demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation. Much more powerful, shocking and consequential a symbol of late capitalist contradictions, however, is the destruction of the towering World Trade Centre in New York by suicide bombers earlier this year and the ensuing “War on Terrorism” waged by the West upon Afghanistan.
4. It seems though, that with the “end” of history, the West has also experienced the loss of history. A truly critical (self-)analysis, requiring at least a depth consistent with that of the Marxian tradition is patently lacking in light of the virtually automatic and instant response of what has been widely dubbed as the “War on Terrorism” (as opposed to, say, ” Yet another War in Afghanistan”).
5. What of the ‘reality’ of socialism though? Feher, Heller and Markus (1983) have argued that, whatever else they have been, those countries which have defined themselves as socialist have been anything but. Socialism has not yet actually existed:
The new society, the ‘dictatorship over needs’, is neither a novel, modified form of (state) capitalism, nor is it socialism – it is ’something else’. It is a social formation completely different from any that has existed in European or world history to date and it is equally different from any relevant conception in terms of which socialism, either ’scientifically’ or in a utopian manner, has ever been conceived (221).
As they go on to explain, one of the reasons for this spectacular failure of socialism to become a real social formation is that,
Marxism (and socialist theories in general) were much too self indulgently value-free, in the positivistic sense typical of nineteenth-century theories, to make unambiguously clear the conditions, the fulfilment of which would constitute socialism (and conversely, the conditions, the want of which constitutes an anti-capitalist formation, which however cannot and should not be identified with socialism) (Feher, Heller & Markus, 1983: 229).
6. Both Lukacs’ concept of reification and Heller’s analysis of the Marxist theory of needs, which I attempt to elucidate here, are themselves attempts to counter this positivism inherent in Marxism, which has tended to plague socialism to its extreme detriment wherever it attempts to engender itself as a social reality. This type of curbing of positivism in Marxian critique has appeared elsewhere also, for example in Baudrillard’s [Symbolic Exchange] which tends to criticise the valorisation and naturalisation of the concept “work” over and against that of (excessive) “play”, and in Derrida’s already cited Specters of Marx (1994), which highlights particularly that historically sited Marxism and communisms are mediated by the societies, cultures and traditions in which they appear and argues for a plurality of Marxism(s) and even of the proper name Marx.
7. Concepts such as Lukacs’ ‘reification’ and Heller’s ‘dissatisfaction’ are still valid, especially in light of the triumphant ’self-indulgence’ and ‘positivism’ of capitalist theories, such as globalisation and economic rationalism, which are now attempting in a similar manner that appears to many people as more dictatorial than democratic, at the least in a ’sinister’ manner, to become global social realities. For this reason I have digressed somewhat: too often university essays can seem abstract exercises, with little relevance to the ‘real’ world, but in digressing onto recent historical contradictions, I want to highlight that Marxist theory need not die peacefully at all, or simply be an academic exercise in a theory which is only of historical interest.
8. Both Lukacs in his analysis of reification and Heller in her analysis of needs in Marx posit as central effects of commodifaction the fact that the worker becomes dominated by and alienated from his own activity and labour power – the effect of commodification is fundamentally one of estrangement and alienation. Heller (1974: 48) defines this as follows:
In alienation (and particularly in capitalism) the end/means relation inherent in labour is turned upside down and becomes its opposite. In commodity producing society, use value (the product of concrete labour) does not serve to satisfy needs. Its essence consists, on the contrary, in satisfying the needs of the person to whom it does not belong. The nature of the use value that the worker produces is all the same to him; he bears no relation to it.
Hence, the worker in modern capitalism is alienated from his labour as concrete because its product serves to satisfy the needs of someone else, not his own. What the worker performs for himself is ‘abstract labour’ (48) which he performs for another in exhange for money in order to satisfy his own necessary needs, which labour appears then as an obectivated commodity when rendered as concrete. The result is that “capitalist industry and agriculture do not produce for needs, nor for their satisfaction. The end of production is the valorisation of capital, and the satisfaction of needs (on the market) is only a means towards this end” (49).
9. Lukacs renders this alienation in terms of the reification of the commodity:
What is of central importance here is that because of this situation [commodity reification] a man’s own activity, his own labour becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man (1971: 86,87).
10. Although Lukacs sources his analysis of reification in the section in Marx’s Capital entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof’ (Lukacs, 1971: 86), we can see the essence of both of the above citations in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In these, in a much stronger tone than is used in, say, Capital, Marx already develops the themes of alienation, commodity reification and the concept of the worker’s needs and their satisfaction, or the impossibility of satisfying these under capitalism. In terms of reification and the alienation of man’s labour, Marx writes:
?the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities?the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production? The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates? Labour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general (Marx, 1997: 60-62).
This process has the direct effect of alienating the labourer from the object in the capacity of the product of his labour:
The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Whatever the product of his labour, he is not. Therefore the greater this product, the less he is himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him? (62)
This is a process of instrumentalisation that is affecting the worker. It results in “estrangement, the loss of the object, of his product” (63), which in turn directly affects the needs of man and how they are satisfied, which is the focus of Heller’s analysis. As a result of alienation, man’s need becomes ever greater, but the only way he can respond to his need is in the selfish objectification of the other:
Man becomes ever poorer as man, his need for money becomes ever greater if he wants to master the hostile power [which is the need as alien power placed in him by the other, so that the other may attempt to satisfy his own need - which turns humans into mere means towards an alien end: that of profit]. The power of his money declines in inverse proportion to the increase in the volume of production: that is, his neediness grows as the power of money increases (82).
The culmination of the alienation of labour and subservience of man to alien, ‘imaginary’ (82) needs is the triumph of money [defined in 'The Fetishism of Commodities?' as the ultimate form "of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers" (Marx, 1954: 76)], as virtually omnipotent, taking the natural place of the human being, relegating humans to something like the “mist enveloped regions of the religious world” (72) from wich, by analogy, the Fetishism itself was originally derived:
The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being. Everything [taken] from you in life and in humanity, [is replaced] for you in money and in wealth; and all the things you cannot do, your money can do. It can eat and drink, go to the dance hall and the theatre; it can travel, it can appropriate art, learning, the treasures of the past, political power – all this it can appropriate for you – it can buy all this: it is true endowment (84).
However, the one thing it specifically cannot do, is fulfil human need, for money only wants to create and multiply itself, whilst the worker, finally, may only own as much as will make him want to go on living, needing always more, in a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.
11. Lukacs’ concept of reification is particularly elucidated in the essay ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ especially in the section ‘The Phenomenon of Reification’ which appears in History and Class Consciousness (1971). The term ‘reification’, however, is a rather unwieldy one, and suffers from a symptom that foreign terms often tend to suffer when translated into English: the tendency to use uncommon or obscure terms in English. (We note a similar fate in the translation of Freud’s “das Ich”, literally “the I”, rendered as “the Ego”; and “das Es”, literally “the it”, rendered as “the Id”.) The term “reification” is hardly an everyday word, and its verb form “to reify” is defined by the Encarta World English Dictionary as, “to think of or treat something asbtract as if it existed as a real or tangible object”. The original German term is “Verdinglichung” (Lukacs, 1923), which conveys the sense of the process of being changed into a thing. That which is changed is the “relation between people” (Lukacs, 1971: 83) which “takes on the character of a thing” (83).
The key impact of Lukacs’ analysis lies in his invocation of the word consciousness. As Johnson (1984: 10-11) draws out, Lukacs locates the revolutionary dynamic in the social existence of the worker, as opposed to mechanical economic laws which are supposed to inevitably and automatically transform capitalism into socialism. Lukacs consequently relates consciousness to the whole of society (1971: 51) in order to infer or impute consciousness to the proletariat “as if they were able to assess” (51) their objective situation. This is may be identified as the anti-positivist strain in Lukacs’ thought, which is later specified in his criticism of “vulgar Marxism”, which “bases itself on the ‘natural laws’ of economic development which are to bring about these transitions by their own impetus and without having recourse to a brute force lying ‘beyond economics’” (239). However, because – as argued above – humans are, in capitalism, become completely subservient to and in thrall to perpetually generated imaginary needs (which might be defined as ‘luxuries’) which they are all too busy attempting to satisfy, the worker is continually persuaded of his subjective value in terms of his consumptive power mediated by money – even if this subjectivity is only in the end a ‘false consciousness’. Therefore the proletariat cannot become aware in order to analyse its situation with a view to achieving true consciousness and revolution. In the end, Lukacs is forced to rely on the Communist Party as a mediating power for the imputation of a revolutionary class consciousness.
12. Heller’s analysis of needs in Marx on the other hand, specifically the analysis of radical needs, proposes that “the worker becomes conscious of the contradiction between the need to develop his personality and the “accidental” character of his subordination to the division of labour” (Heller, 1974: 90). This consciousness is precipitated by the emergence of radical needs, which are needs which capitalism is structurally incapable of satisfying. However these needs “cannot be ‘eliminated’ from capitalism because they are necessary to its functioning? it is not the Being of radical needs that transcends capitalism but their satisfaction” (76). Where dissatisfaction of radical needs then becomes a historical reality, the possibility of transcending capitalism also becomes real. Take for example the notion of ‘free time’:
[The worker] is convinced that from a certain point onwards capitalism is incapable of shortening labour time any further: the need for free time then becomes in principle a radical need, which can only be satisfied with the transcendence of capitalism. When related to the need for free time, the character of “radical needs” is brought out in a particularly striking manner: it is produced by capitalism itself, by its contradictory character, and thus belongs to the very functioning of capitalism? At the same time, need itself mobilises the working class into transcending capitalism (91).
Heller’s analysis of needs in Marx thus offers the possibility of the working class becoming conscious of its own situation and revolting against it in a manner which Lukacs’ theory of reification cannot. Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness is forced to arbitrarily and unconvincingly rely on the party as mediator of the revolution – however the question remains, If the proletariat is incapable of coming to consciousness, what will guarantee that the Party is any more unfalsely conscious than the proletariat it is supposed to represent? It would appear that the history of the Communist Party has shown that there is no guarantee of this whatsoever. As Heller reminds us:
As yet, history has not answered the question as to whether capitalist society in fact produces this “consciousness exceeding its bounds”, which in Marx’s day did not exist, and whose existence Marx therefore had to project (1974: 95).