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Marx and Reification

November 26, 2010

“Commodities, which exist as use-values, must first of all assume a form in which they appear to one another nominally as exchange-values, as definite quantities of materialised universal labour-time. The first necessary move in this process is, as we have seen, that the commodities set apart a specific commodity, say, gold, which becomes the direct reification of universal labour-time or the universal equivalent.”

“Capital employs labour. The means of production are not means by which he can produce products, whether in the form of direct means of subsistence, or as means of exchange, as commodities. He is rather a means for them, partly to preserve their value, partly to valorise it, i.e. to increase it, to absorb surplus labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is an inversion, a personification of the thing and a reification of the person, for what distinguishes this form from all previous ones is that the capitalist does not rule the worker in any kind of personal capacity, but only in so far as he is “capital”; his rule is only that of objectified labour over living labour; the rule of the worker’s product over the worker himself.”

“The production of capitalists and wage-laborers is therefore a major product of the process by which capital turns itself into values. Ordinary political economy, which concentrates only on the objects produced, forgets this entirely. Inasmuch as this process establishes reified labor as what is simultaneously the non-reification of the laborer, as the reification of a subjectivity opposed to the laborer, as the property of someone else’s will, capital is necessarily also a capitalist. The idea of some socialists, that we need capital but not capitalists, is completely false. The concept of capital implies that the objective conditions of labor—and these are its own product—acquire a personality as against labor, or what amounts to the same thing, that they are established as the property of a personality other than the worker’s. The concept of capital implies the capitalist. However, this error is certainly no greater than that of, e.g., all philologists who speak of the existence of capital in classical antiquity, and of Roman or Greek capitalists. This is merely another way of saying that in Rome and Greece labor was free, an assertion which these gentlemen would hardly make. If we now talk of plantation-owners in America as capitalists, if they are capitalists, this is due to the fact that they exist as anomalies within a world market based upon free labor. Were the term capital to be applicable to classical antiquity—though the word does not actually occur among the ancients (but among the Greeks the word arkhais is used for what the Romans called the principalis summa reicreditae, the principal of a loan)—then the nomadic hordes with their flocks on the steppes of Central Asia would be the greatest capitalists, for the original meaning of the word capital is cattle.”

“Capital employs labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is a personification of things and a reification of persons. But the relation becomes still more complex—and apparently more mysterious—in that, with the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, not only do these things—these products of labour, both as use values and as exchange values—stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”—but also the social forms of labour appear as forms of the development of capital, and therefore the productive powers of social labour, thus developed, appear as productive powers of capital. As such social forces they are “capitalised” vis-à-vis labour. In fact, communal unity in cooperation, combination in the division of labour, the application of the forces of nature and science, as well as the products of labour in the shape of machinery, are all things which confront the individual workers as alien, objective, and present in advance, without their assistance, and often against them, independent of them, as mere forms of existence of the means of labour which are independent of them and rule over them, in so far as they are objective; while the intelligence and volition of the total workshop, incarnated in the capitalist or his understrappers (representatives), in so far as the workshop is formed by the combination of the means of labour, confront the workers as functions of capital, which lives in the person of the capitalist. The social forms of their own labour—the subjective as well as the objective forms—or the form of their own social labour, are relations constituted quite independently of the individual workers; the workers as subsumed under capital become elements of these social constructions, but these social constructions do not belong to them. They therefore confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it. And this assumes a form which is the more real the more, on the one hand, their labour capacity is itself modified by these forms, so that it becomes powerless when it stands alone, i.e. outside this context of capitalism, and its capacity for independent production is destroyed, while on the other hand the development of machinery causes the conditions of labour to appear as ruling labour technologically too, and at the same time to replace it, suppress it, and render it superfluous in its independent forms. In this process, in which the social characteristics of their labour confront them as capitalised, to a certain extent—in the way that e.g. in machinery the visible products of labour appear as ruling over labour—the same thing of course takes place for the forces of nature and science, the product of general historical development in its abstract quintessence: they confront the workers as powers of capital.”

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