Notes on Objectification and Alienation

Notes on Objectification and Alienation

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Here we need to focus on the process of the objectification of human labour  – i.e. the specifically human form of movement, form of energy which is human labour – in the history of social relations of production. The application of this human power in the form of labour- energy in order to transform Nature into socially useful products. Humanity objectifies this ‘essential power’ (labour) in the labour process in order to wrest its needs from Nature by transforming it in the course of its relationship with it. Marx revealed that it is only under certain historically-derived social relations of production that this process of objectification takes alienated forms. This is the positive, forward-looking, moment in his analysis, namely that the process of objectification is not inherently a process of alienation but rather takes a specific alien form in the epoch of the rule of capital as a function of capital’s rule.

In contradistinction, Hegel ahistorically and absolutely identifies [this is a formalistic moment in Hegel’s conception] the process of the actual objectification of human labour energy with its alienation and, as a consequence, for Hegel, the realm of the ‘Absolute Idea’ and religion is the only sphere in which the problem of the transcendence of human alienation can be addressed and resolved. For Hegel, because objectification is ultimately thinking’s creation identical with alienation itself, it can only be overcome in thought which ‘returns out of this alienation into itself’ as the Notion, Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s conception of human alienation flows from his idealist position which necessarily locates the supersedence of alienation in the realm of a theism rather than understanding that theistic praxis is itself a socio-historical product of the evolution of alienated humanity. Implicitly, Hegel’s conception is that alienation can only be overcome in thought itself or rather by thought somehow establishing some form of determinate relationship with social being. Herein is posited the theistic character of Hegel’s outlook which was critiqued by Marx in The Holy Family and The German Ideology i.e in his critique of the Left Hegelians.

Marx locates the overcoming of alienation in the elaboration of a revolutionary human praxis wherein the prevailing forms of alienation are grasped as integral products of the character of social relations in bourgeois society. He understands the determinate tendency towards the transcendence of alienation as only becoming fully and comprehensively realised in communism. The theistic roots of Hegel’s system are clearly exposed in his analysis of alienation which, in Hegel, ultimately finds itself in the circularity of a theological cul-de-sac.

Thus, for Hegel, alienation can only be transcended in thought independently of social relations (theistically). For Marx, it is these relations which must be transformed (revolutionised) in real practice in order to create the social conditions for the transcendence of alienation which is, by its very nature, an enduring, unfolding, continuously deepening, historical process of realisation. Herein lies the major difference between the perspective of Hegel and that of Marx on the question of alienation.

The objectification of human labour energy is an absolute relation running through the history of all previous societies. Where capitalism is the dominant mode of production, this objectification takes the form of the continual and necessary reproduction of the social relation of capital which stands opposing the producers as a hostile social relation of their own making. Labour power itself becomes a commodity which the producer (owner of the commodity of labour-power) is forced to sell to the owners of capital in order to survive. The producers become alienated from their own activity and the results of this activity which wholly belong to capital. In the capital-wage labour relation, the exercise of this ‘essential power’ (labour power/labour in which the potential power is continuously becoming actual living labour) is alienated and belongs to the capitalist as an integral part of his capital (variable capital). In this relation of alienation, the estrangement of the wage worker from others and from self (from ‘his own essential species-being’ Marx, Paris Manuscripts of 1844) is implicit and comes to its fullest, most complete realisation with the global dominance of capital. With the historical genesis, establishment and social domination of the capital relation, humanity becomes comprehensively ‘opposed by a hostile power of his own making, so that he defeats his own purpose’ (Meszaros, I., Marx’s Theory of Alienation, p. 313).

In the capitalist mode of production, it is wage labour which engenders the primary social relation (although it appears invertedly that it is capital which is the productive power) which serves to oppose the realisation of the free social labour of the associated producers wherein the process of objectification gradually ceases to take alienated form as society evolves on the basis of common ownership. Wage labour engenders its opposite in the form of capital which then necessarily enslaves the former as a pre-condition and presupposition for its own existence. Wage labour becomes the necessary presupposition for the existence of capital and thus, in so doing, mediates the perpetuation of its own historical existence as long as the capital relation continues as the dominant relationship of production and distribution.

In feudal society –where the dominant mode of labour was bond labour – the serf was compelled to perform labour duties on the lord’s land. The mode of appropriation of surplus labour (not surplus value) took a very direct, transparent form in that there was a spatio-temporal fragmentation of labour time between the serf’s plot of land and that of the feudal lord. Essentially, labour on the lord’s land was appropriated directly as surplus labour in the form of material produce for direct consumption by the lord’s retinue. All labour on the lord’s land was surplus labour. On his “own” land, the serf’s labour was that necessary for the maintenance of his own/family existence. Hence, there was a spatio-temporal division between necessary and surplus labour time. Later, the increasing encroachment of commodity production and exchange (and hence money economy) increasingly forces this appropriation in money payments (as patterns of land tenure and ownership start to alter towards early capitalist forms) so that as this stage opens up and unfolds (in England, roughly the 14th and first half of the 15th century) feudal economy is already irredeemably sinking into the quicksand of history. One of the major demands of the revolt of the English “peasantry” (the revolt was led by rural artisans, small traders and radical preachers who were struggling to be free of feudal obligations) in 1381 was the abolition of serfdom. An irreversible process had commenced within which the peasantry were not only starting to work as agricultural day wage-labourers on the lands of a rising class of agricultural landowning commodity producers but sections of the peasantry had themselves started to develop into a self-employed class of artisans, producers and traders  independently of the feudally-mediated guild. The continuation of feudal obligations merely interfered with the development of this unstoppable historical process and hence the clamour during the 1381 revolt for the abolition of feudal obligations. It was this growing class of petty artisans and traders (still bound by feudal obligations) that led this revolt in the towns and countryside, especially in the more developed south-eastern region of the country at the end of the 14th century. Feudal obligations had become a fetter on the free development of commodity production and exchange which presupposes wage labour in this and the subsequent post-medieval period.

The spatio-temporal division of labour time characterises bond labour on the lord’s land as ‘thine’ and the time in which the serf reproduces his needs on his plot by domestic subsistence labour as ‘mine’. The political hierarchy of crown, church and nobility which evolves on the basis of these feudal relations (the triadic parasitic excrescence and expression of these relations) confronts the class of serfs as divinely ordained and instituted in hostile opposition to them. Here Catholicism plays its historical ideological role.

In the slave societies of Antiquity, the producers are themselves owned as chattels, being the property of the slave owners, differentiated from the oxen and the donkey by virtue of being ‘speaking tools’. The whole physical and social mode of being of the producer is subject to the will of the slaveowner who can sell or exchange the producer as a form of movable property. The slave is the property of the slaveowner. The one is at the unconditional service and disposal of the other and belongs wholly to this other.

The purpose of the existence of the slave is to be the object of use for the slaveowner. The slave is appropriated by the owner as an object for a prescribed purpose. The slave-master relation is maintained by the institutions of state of ancient societies in order to defend the parasitic mode of life of the slaveowning and landowning classes and thus of the existence of the state itself.

In the final centuries of the Roman empire, the colonus replaces the slave as the major producer. Contrary to the assertions of some scholars, the colonate was not a form of feudalism and the colonus was not a serf in the feudal meaning of the conception. Most of the land in feudal society was owned by the crown and by a process of investiture and subinfeudation the land was tenanted out to the king’s retinue and they, in turn, to their retinue, etc, until parcelled out to villeins and serfs. The pyramid-like social structure was propped up ideologically by the church. Crown-owned land and land held in fief was not alienable; it could not be sold unlike in the Roman colonate where the coloni were permanently attached to the land and so went with it when it was actually sold. The Roman Patroni could buy and sell land independently of the imperial edict and bureaucracy and in the later empire landed estates grew to colossal proportions through conglomeration. Private ownership, such as we see in the Roman and post-feudal periods, did not actually exist under feudalism proper.

The decline and end of the Western Roman Empire was mediated by the extreme exploitation of the rural population (to maintain the army and bureaucracy) which constituted about 90% or more of the total inhabitants. In the age of global capital, we can observe patterns of ‘superexploitation’ being repeated on a global scale. Many of the so-called Bacaudic revolts of late empire were responses to this extreme exploitation by the ‘tax farmers’ and bureaucracy, organised by ‘outlaws’ and ‘brigands’ in alliance with the local populations. There were such revolts in Gaul, Spain, Britain and North Africa.

The eastern ‘Hellenised’ part of empire was distinct from the ‘Latinised’ western part in both economic and cultural respects. Each area had its own lingua franca, Latin in the west and Greek in the east. In the west, the institution of slavery became more systematised and the colonate (based on the labour of the colonus which becomes the generalised form of labour in this period of late antiquity, superseding the earlier slave form.) that replaced it in the later period became more firmly established and rooted in the west. In the eastern empire, pre-Roman, asiatic forms of production continued throughout the Roman period into and beyond late antiquity in the Byzantine period. Engels remarks that the colonus of late antiquity was the forerunner of the medieval serf. But feudal relations in western Europe only start to emerge later after the Frankish conquest of Gaul in the late 5th and 6th centuries. In Frankish Gaul, feudalism only becomes established as a determinate mode of production in the course of the 8th century after more than two centuries of development.

The colonus was, therefore, not a serf as a such. He was essentially a sharecropping tenant who actually paid rent either in kind or in coin from the sale of his produce and was taxed and intimidated by the ‘tax-farming’ bureaucracy of the Roman state of late antiquity. Unlike in feudal society, labour services to the patronus were peripheral and subsidiary. What remained after paying the patronus and the state, he used to feed himself and his family. The superexploitation of the landowners and Roman bureaucracy meant that many starved or fled, often to the so-called ‘barbarian’ encampments. This superexploitation of late empire was a fundamental relation operative in its final collapse and disintegration.

The serf, on the contrary, had no powers of alienating his produce like the colonus. Rather he laboured on the demesne of the lord for part of the time and for subsistence on his ‘own’ plot for the other part. Money never passed through his hands except when feudalism started to decline and serfs were freeing themselves to become day labourers for commodity producers or self-employed hawkers and tinkers in one form or another; a nascent free petit-bourgeoisie in medieval England and France, for example.

Marx, in volume one of Capital, analogises the fetishism of commodities with the ‘mist-enveloped regions of the religious world’ revealing that in the world of religion ‘the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life’ which enter ‘into relation with both one another and the human race’. (Capital, Vol. 1, p 77). In this ‘religious reflex of the real world’ (p 84) ‘man is governed by the products of his own brain’ (p 582) just as in the fetishism of commodities he is governed by the productions of his own hand.

During the epoch of the rule of capital, the ‘general social form of labour appears as the property of a thing’ so that ‘social relations between men…assume for them the fantastic form of a relation between things’ resulting in ‘the action of objects which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them’: commodity fetishism. (Marx, Vol. 1 Capital).

Capital confronts the producers as an alien power and yet is reproduced daily by the producers in the continuous process of the production and circulation of capital; in the augmentation of its value [surplus labour time], realisation and accumulation.  The capitalist mode of production presents itself as a ‘natural’ rather than as a ‘socio-historical’  formation. It is true that commodities are ‘things’ in so far as their material use-values are inseparable from their existence as commodities. However, as the outcome of capitalist production, a thing cannot be made available as socially useful without simultaneously being a commodity, i.e. as being the material embodiment of exchange-value. It is not its concrete ‘thinghood’ as a specific use-value which is fundamental for capital. What, a priori, animates and determines the movement of capital is rather the social character of commodities as embodiments of “socially necessary general labour, utterly indifferent to any particular content” (Marx, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, appendix to Volume 1 of Capital, Penguin Edition). Capital and the world market are likewise reified as ‘natural-born things’ rather than understood as historically-determinate, social relations created and reproduced by humanity.

Money itself is ‘an objectified relation between persons; …it is objectified exchange value, and exchange value is nothing more than a mutual relation between people’s productive activities.’ Money ‘can have a social property only because individuals have alienated their own social relationship from themselves so that it takes the form of a thing’ (Marx, Grundrisse, p160. see also p161 ff., chapter on money).

Labour is that form of human energy which creates value but it only does so under those historical conditions created by capital, conditions which it has created and reproduces daily in order to serve the constant augmentation of its value (valorisation) and accumulation. Labour creates value but itself as a form of human energy has no value. Under different conditions this form of human energy can serve different ends where objectification ceases to take the form of alienation.

Under the conditions of the domination of capital, the human source of this energy is compelled to alienate it. The potentiated form of this energy – labour power – is a commodity. It becomes reified as a material component in the composition of the total value of capital with all its dehumanising consequences for the labourer. The social relation between wage labour and capital is reified as ‘a relationship between things’, material components which enter into the process of the production of material ‘goods’ which are simply ‘sold’ on the market ‘place’ for that ‘thing’ money, hopefully at a profit. These historically-determinate, social relations become buried under a dungheap of reification. The wage-worker – alienated from self, from others, from his activity and its product – experiences the exercising of his ‘essential power’, and himself, merely as an object of use for self and others. (Utilitarian doctrines – Bentham, Mill, etc). Work is not lived as an intrinsic, meaningful part or ‘activity’ of life but merely as a painful means towards it. For the worker, life commences after labour, as Marx writes in Wage Labour and Capital (1847), “at table, in the tavern, in bed”. Who would dispute the enduring truth of this latter conception, today, in 2014?

A need or desire can be said to be reified if ‘it assumes an abstract, isolated character, if it confronts me as an alien power, if, therefore, the satisfaction of the individual appears as the one-sided satisfaction of a single person’ (Marx, The German Ideology, Vol. 5, Collected Works, p 262). Whether this happens ‘depends not on consciousness, but on being; not on thought, but on life; it depends on the individual’s empirical development and manifestations of life, which in turn depends on the conditions obtaining in the world. If the circumstances in which the individual lives allow him only the one-sided development of one quality at the expense of all the rest, if they give him the material and time to develop only that one quality, then this individual achieves only a one-sided, crippled development’ (Ibid, p 262). Marx writes further that ‘our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature’ (Marx, Wage Labour and Capital. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p. 83

The revolutionary transformation of social relations (“praxis”- Marx, Theses on Feuerbach). The transcendence of the capital relation is the utter transformation of humanity in Nature. The relationship of human individuals  [human individuality as the “ensemble of social relations” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, VI)] to each other and to Nature becomes “communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism”. (Marx, 1844 Paris Manuscripts)

Shaun May

October 2013

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