Reification: Beyond the Machine

Oct 17, 2011 by

Yesterday I drove my brother to work twenty minutes later than I usually do. The ordinary crush of traffic had already past and I was amazed the difference a mere twenty minutes made in the commute. The following day I made an experiment and left twenty minutes earlier than usual. Again, the traffic was much thinner, the commute was much easier, and I have been left wondering why the majority of the population all leaves for work and return home at approximately the same time.

Commodities are the central problem in capitalist society. In fact the entire society reflects commodity relations in its very structure. The tempo of societies’ metabolism is measured according to commodity reification. By reification I mean the application of market structures to all other aspects of society. The persistence of this application, the extent of the reification of market values onto societal virtues is so broad and so deep that it has become our own de-facto human nature.

The central question for Georg Lukacs is: “How far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?” The most intimate aspects of our lives have been reduced to commodities, our teeth are required to have a certain whiteness that is uniform with everyone else’s, even our sexual expectations are determined much less from the inner impulse of our hearts and much more from what society tells us is the ideal sexual commodity.

A manufactured widget is not just the use value of the widget. As a commodity the widget is a product of social relationships; the relationship of employee to employer for instance. “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing,” argues Marx, “simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appear to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour. The employer does not employ the man per se; he hires the man’s labour. In this we clearly see a human relationship between two human beings metamorphosed into the purchase of an abstraction known as human labour. “…Because of this situation 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” (Lukacs 87).

As mass production became more complex through the nineteenth century it was made more efficient through science and rationalization. Labour was continually broken down into constitutive parts. The worker was no longer responsible for any complete aspect of production; instead he became a line worker on an assembly line culminating in “…the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker” (Lukacs 88).

Even to this day, this is what distinguishes an Aston Martin from a Ford. The Aston Martin is manufactured by a highly skilled group of workers. They construct the automobile from the ground up and oversee every aspect of production: This is not science as much as art. The Ford on the contrary is produced on an assembly line. Each worker only oversees one particular aspect of production; the screwing in of lug nuts on the left tires for instance. The worker is completely divorced from the product, or from the use of judgment and initiative. The worker is not hired to be a thinking human being. He is hired to be an extension of the assembly line, the extension of the machine. Production then, “…must declare war on the organic manufacture of whole products based on the traditional amalgam of empirical experiences of work: rationalization is unthinkable without specialization (Lukacs 88).

Increasingly we live in a society controlled by experts and technocrats; not because they make wiser or better decisions, but because it is what we are made accustomed to as being extensions of production. Humans must conform to the system of the assembly line; they must set their alarm clocks not to suit the natural rhythms of the body but to ensure optimal economic production. Humans must all be on the highway at the same time twice each day, because economic efficiency demands it. They must all sit with docile attention behind a desk from the age of five to eighteen, in order to prepare themselves for a life of docile abstraction: Half human, half cog.

Freedom today is no longer the freedom to act. Freedom is the ability to take one’s labour to market and commodify one’s self, to reify the values of the market place onto the virtues of the human condition and to confuse utterly one for the other. We will learn to satisfy all of our desires through commodity exchange; our social relationships, our loves and our hates are based on utility or lack thereof: The cold calculation of scientific management and Taylorism.

But this is not the fault of capitalism. Capitalism is only a description of the optimally efficient market: The market that gets the most material goods for the least material expenditure. If we have become abstracted from our humanity, if business operates according to value and not virtue it is because we have chosen to become one dimensional figures. Just because the marketplace is looking for efficiency does not mean that capitalists must act without social responsibility. Only when we see the machine we have created can we step beyond it. In the end I have no doubt that capitalism will still be the most efficient economic system, but we must gain the wisdom to act as human beings and not as a mere extensions of the system.

Works Cited

Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: MIT, 2002. Print.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011. Print.

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1 Comment

  1. Athena

    What do you think the essential drive was to this idea of mass production and efficiency that you claim started all of this in the 19th century? Why have we created this machine and how did we let it get so out of hand?

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