Habermas’s moral theory is meant to address a particular historical situation in which morality may appear to be on shaky ground. Broadly speaking, the situation in question is a modern, liberal society in which the older, metaphysical understanding (that could, for instance, assume that natural rights were moral absolutes) has collapsed and given way to a more historical and sociologically sophisticated understanding that all our categories, including the moral ones, are social constructs.

The task Habermas sets himself is to reassure the post-metaphysical pluralist that – despite the apparent collapse of all grounds – there is a foundation for morality in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse itself. Morality doesn’t need a metaphysical ground because one is provided by the nature of language itself.

The morality in question is characterised by the concern to accord everyone equal respect – and this is treated as an uncontentious principle that virtually everyone in a post-traditional society accepts. It is fair to call this morality Kantian, and it is fair to say that Habermas has been trying to bring Kant’s moral philosophy up to date in a way that ditches Kant’s solipsism.

Habermas’ neo-Kantian moralists recognise that their deliberations can only get going because of a background of inherited values that are part and parcel of the particular culture that they belong to, and they accept that partly because of their own fallibility the truth about moral rightness is something that can only be established through dialogue. In the place of Kant’s description of a moral solipsism, Habermas describes morality as a collective endeavour of a society with a historically specific culture

Instead of the Kantian moral subject trying to work out in a solipsistic way which policies would meet with universal agreement, the concern for universality is played out through a dialogue about moral norms which is open to everyone. The dialogue concretises the Kantian concern for universal respect as long as no voice is excluded and the norms that come out of it are those that everyone can agree to.

In Habermas’s words: Kant’s principle of universal respect – known as the categorical imperative – “receives a discourse-theoretical interpretation in which its place is taken by the discourse principle, according to which only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agreement of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.”

In addition to this reinterpretation, Habermas wants to come up with a better justification as to why we ought to uphold the principle of universality that is at the core of our morality in a pluralistic society.

The justification begins from the idea that anyone who says anything about what is moral or immoral participates in a form of (discursive) action that has a particular set of pragmatic presuppositions. It is worth clarifying that this is a not a discussion in which people express what they want and try to come to a compromise – it is a discussion in which people try to establish what norms it is right for society to follow. To put the crux of Habermas’s argument as simply as possible: Anyone who claims to say something true about morality implicitly raises an issue that can be criticised and in order for this claim to win out it must meet with the rational assent of those who join the discussion. Whether the speaker realizes it or not, if truth is the issue here, the speaker is obliged to appeal equally to the rational assent of everyone else. In this way the discourse ethic is uncovered by identifying  what debates about moral norms presuppose, and Habermas’s claim is that something very similar to Kant’s categorical imperative is presupposed by the discursive act of saying what is or is not moral. Speakers concerned to establish the truth about morality are inevitably obliged to accord equal respect to all those whose assent must be relied on in the collective endeavour to establish what the truth of the matter is.

(Note: the use of “truth” in this reconstruction of Habermas’s argument is misleading since Habermas draws a distinction between the truth of claims that refer to an independent objective reality – as is the case in science – and the validity of moral claims that do not refer to some reality indpendent of our history and culture. However, in the context of the critique we want to develop here the distinction is irrelevant. The important point is that the morality of the discourse ethic is all about debating moral norms with all the impartiality and the concern for the strongest arguments that characterise the endeavour to establish the truth of the matter.)

Having found a ground for the principle of universal respect in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse Habermas restates how significant this discourse ethic ought to be in our current historical situation:

“The discourse principle provides an answer to the predicament in which the members of any moral community find themselves when, in making the transition to a modern, pluralistic society, they find themselves faced with the dilemma that though they still argue with reasons about moral judgments and beliefs, their substantive background consensus on the underlying moral norms has been shattered. They find themselves embroiled in global and domestic practical conflicts in need of regulation that they continue to regard as moral, and hence as rationally resolvable, conflicts; but their shared ethos has disintegrated.”

Habermas also acknowledges that it is possible for the pluralist to give up on morality, accepting perhaps that man is a wolf to man and believing that within the framework provided by liberal society pretty much anything goes. He also acknowledges that people can resolve their differences without recourse to moral discussion. It is still not uncommon for those who are not expected to agree with us to get shot or bombed before being given a chance to participate in the kind of discussion Habermas describes. Interestingly, the discourse ethic does not call this into question because it implies nothing about what ought to be discussed or what ought to be seen as a moral issue. We can quite consistently observe the principle of universal respect when trying to establish the truth about morality on Monday and then resume shooting on Tuesday because, apparently, national interests are at stake, not moral principles.

Interestingly, Habermas envisages the possibility that some unworlded individuals in this pluralistic society might want to collectively work out a shared ethical framework as rich as the older one but now with a secular basis. Quite bluntly he says that “such an effort is doomed to fail.” The problem is that without an old-fashioned ethical life it seems inconceivable that there could be agreement about what constitutes a good life or what ought to be our highest aims.

Although the members of the pluralistic society cannot agree on whether football is a sin (because they can’t agree whether the word “sin” has a meaning any longer) they can agree on the morality of keeping the discussion open and respecting everyone’s point of view.

Habermas wants to go beyond this because anyone wanting to participate in this discussion will soon face the question of how people are to judge what, in reference to any particular practice, is the right thing to do. Okay, they must keep the discussion open so as not to sacrifice the search for truth/validity, but how are they to come to any agreement in a pluralistic society in which agreements are so hard to reach?

Habermas proposes the principle of universalisation:  “A norm is valid when the foreseeable consequences and side effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion.” Presumably this is derived from an interpretation of what is required by genuine respect for the other parties to the moral debate. From his clarification of the reference to coercion here, it is clear that any kind of emotive language or rhetorical arm-twisting or spin is prohibited to ensure that it is the truth (or validity based on the strongest argument) that holds sway, not, for instance, the charisma of personalities or the power of images. As he puts it, if this principle is followed, “nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favor of the acceptance of a controversial norm.”

Habermas is not adamant about that particular formulation of the principle of universalisation, but he insists that some such principle will have to be adopted in order to ensure that norms capable of commanding universal agreement are selected.

Footnote: There is an excellent section from: The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory. Jürgen Habermas. MIT Press, 1998 available on the marxists.org website. It sums up perfectly the point of Habermas’s communicative ethics.


First of all it has to be admitted that there is something quite neat about the discourse ethic. It very neatly fits the Kantian concern with the universalisability of our norms into a modern understanding of truth as socially and historically mediated. However, despite the neat updating of Kantian morality and despite the way the discourse ethic is able to make connections with a contemporary democratic and human rights discourse, there is still so much that makes it ethically irrelevant.

First of all there is the practical irrelevance of the principle of universality when people actually discuss moral issues. As Habermas points out, the discussion always relies on a background of shared beliefs and this means that on most, if not all, substantive moral issues it will be impossible to reach agreement with everyone who might have an opinion about the matter. Hence, for a decision to actually be reached some points of view will have to be disregarded. In practice boundaries have to be drawn, meaning that we specifically do not seek the agreement of everyone.

Furthermore, Habermas’s universality is not as universal as it might at first appear. He acknowledges that the discourse ethic says nothing that would unsettle those who still belong to traditional ethical communities. As he puts it: “To be sure, structural features of communicative forms of life alone are not sufficient to justify the claim that members of a particular historical community ought to transcend their particularistic value-orientations and make the transition to the fully symmetrical and inclusive relations of an egalitarian universalism.” So the pluralist is not looking for the agreement of anyone who still feels bound to a traditional way of life. The all important debate is a debate for commited pluralists – a debate which will inevitably involve dismissing the views of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists for whom the principle of universality can not yet mean very much.

Another feature of the discourse ethic that renders it well-nigh irrelevant is its formalism. By simply describing the ideal form of a moral debate it cuts itself off from saying anything whatsoever about substantice moral issues. Most of those who are concerned about morality in the modern world are probably concerned with the withering of ethical life – the way in which morality is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is one of many trends that those who are concerned about morality might well want to criticise. In relation to these concerns the discourse ethic is completely irrelevant.

One of the advantages of the discourse ethic for Habermas is its neutrality. Only a neutral principle (one that is all form and no content) can provide a sure basis for consensus in a pluralistic society. The theory is also supported by a narrative of increasing universality, which is his answer to the question of how the transition to a post-traditional morality can be justified. Older forms of ethical life were limited to the family, the tribe or the city, but Kantian morality in its discursive incarnation surpasses all such limitations in the direction of a pure universality. Because in practice there is no universal community to address, the claim to universality can only be made good if the universal principles achieve neutrality, and this is what squeezes out all the substance of the culturally specific ethical life. Habermas seems to say: If the substance has to go in order to achieve universality, so be it. But for many of us it is that very lack of substance – the withering of ethical life – that is the primary issue.

It is becoming harder and harder to say anything meaningful in public about morality. Anyone who tries to speak out about the morality of short selling on the stock market, for intance, sounds like some quaint relic from the past rather than someone raising a claim to truth that must be taken seriously and debated impartially. The detailed arguments of economists about the beneficial effect of short selling on the liquidity of the markets sound much more authoritative, and these purely technical considerations completely brush aside the issue of the morality or immorality of the practice. The discourse ethic is silent here, having nothing to say about that marginalisation of a substantive matter like this.

Another reason for the irrelevance of the discourse ethic springs from the sort of rationalism entailed by the claim that norms must be agreed upon solely because of the rational force of better reasons. This just doesn’t connect with, for instance, the concern about the degradation of the environment. Those concerns are based not on some kind of theoretical knowledge but on a recognition of things like the beauty of nature, the power of the sublime in nature, the value of diversity and the significance of maintaining some semblance of harmony. People have to be brought up to recognise and appreciate these values. If they don’t “see” them, there won’t be the necessary shared background for meaningful arguments about particular environmental policies.

Then there is the problem of the apparent irrelevance of action for the discourse ethic, even though moral discourse is all about what ought to be done. Older forms of ethical life were guided by, for instance, the hope for salvation, which helps to motivate moral action. Hopes like this are excluded from the procedural morality of discourse. Those who participate in the discourse are presumably motivated to find the truth, or something resembling it, but this is not a motivation which would then inspire action once a norm has been agreed upon. Whether or not one actually does anything seems to be completely irrelevant.

Habermas is aware of this: “uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a
motivational deficit…Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse. There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action. Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that “plagues” us when we act against our better judgment. But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail.”

An example: We might have a discussion about war and decide that no war is ever moral because it is never in anyone’s interest to be shot, and then we might just go home and mow the lawn while the shooting continues in some suitably distant land. There is no contradiction in believing that war is immoral and doing nothing to stop it.

Even speaking out against war seems to be pointless because that kind of speech is not directed at identifying the truth but at forcing the immoral to pay attention to the voice of morality even while they dismiss the relevance of the arguments. 

Although Habermas passes over this as if it were a minor hitch, but it is surely a damning indictment of a moral theory if it makes talking about morality seem to be the only morally valuable pursuit.

Part of what makes action seem irrelevant is the absence of any concern with particulars. The discourse in question is always a discourse about generalities: “Is abortion morally acceptable?” “Is human cloning acceptable?” etc, etc. It is a discussion of the norms society is to recognise, not a discussion of what ought to be done in the particular cases that we find ourselves involved in. this is really where the greatest irrelevance of the discourse ethic becomes apparent. If I am called up to fight I must take a stance with respect to my country, the war and the reasons for it, the death and suffering that will be caused, my own possible death and the way my actions will be judged. This situation in which I have to act one way or the other is far removed from the debate about when a war might be considered just and under what circumstances.

To put it bluntly, the discourse ethic is not an ethic for life but just for the practice of talking about life. What could be more irrelevant that an ethic that has nothing to say about life?

So many of our ethical concerns are concerns with the fate of particulars caught up and abused by various social systems – they are not concerns with a lack of universality. The concerns for the environment are concerns with the fate of this very particular earth and the very particular places of value that it still has. In a similar way, we are more concerned with the disappearance of indigenous cultures than we are with the fact that so few of their beliefs could ever gain universal agreement. We are concerned about them in their particularity not as mere instances of the universal. For Habermas, though, the universality of reason is everything and the particulars pale into some prerational insignificance.

In a sense, the central moral issue of the age is the reconciliation of the social universal and particularity. Apart from the environment there are issues about the disintegration of (very particular) communities and their increasing powerlessness in the face of globalised economic forces, the increasing irrelevance of history and a loss of a sense of identity and rootedness. From the perspective of the prevailing forces of rationalisation (that insist upon the removal of distortions from an increasingly global market) these fail to register as issues that might call the rationality of a liberated market into question. Habermas’s one-sided concern with universality affirms this, making it irrelevant to those of us who see that there has to be some other rearticulation of the universal and the particular.

This is not to say that discourse is irrelevant – far from it – but our discourse, like our action, will largely be concerned with certain particulars so it won’t be quite the kind of discourse described in Habermas’s moral theory. We will also see that a long process of education encouraging people to appreciate the intrinsic value of more of their world is more important than rational argument. In this process the impulse towards a more transcendent universality will change its form. Perhaps it will appear in a more meaningful respect for other communities and other forms of ethical life – a respect for them in their difference which might even include a wish for them to remain different, and might include a recognition that we have something to learn from them. In this way we open the particularity of our way of life without demeaning particularity. We will also accept that there is no universal community to address ourselves to. We will continue to have to draw distinctions and boundaries, and the negotiation of those boundaries is likely to be difficult since there are no neutral principles that we can all agree on.

Unfortunately, Lukacs says nothing in “History and Class Consciousness” about what happens to sex once the identical subject-object of history comes onto the world stage. Will it be better?

Although Lukacs is quiet on this subject he does point out how awful the reified view of sex can be, and as an example he quotes Kant’s comments about marriage:

“Sexual community”, says Kant, “is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another . . . marriage … is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for’ the duration of their lives.”

Here is the reified fragmentation of the subject (the person signing the marriage contract and claiming possession of various kinds of property) and the object (the body). Sex would seem to be a merely bodily need – an urge that must be satisfied sooner or later with all the necessity of the natural laws observed by the scientist.

The question is whether the identical subject-object of history will inevitably overcome this fragmentation and also become the identical subject-object of love (assuming love combines both sex and something more mental, intellectual perhaps even spiritual). Will proletarians necessarily become better lovers?

I can find nothing in “History and Class Consciousness” that implies they will.

The proletarian identity with which the new historical agents must identify utterly is a very abstract one with no connection to gender. Since the proletarian identity is the only one that matters there is plenty of scope here for excluding any more meaningful definition of the feminine and the masculine. But then the proletarian becomes indistinguishable from the Kantian. Two heroic proletarians marry to ensure that their sexual needs will not disrupt the heroic course of the proletarian revolution.

What characterises the Kantian is an instrumental approach to things that ought to be part of that organic unity that Lukacs refers to so often in the earlier sections of “History and Class Consciousness”.  Unfortunately a similar kind of instrumentalism seems to be implied by later sections of “History and Class Consciousness.” The revolution is supposed to overcome it, but only for the proletariat considered as a whole as the proletariat ceases to be the passive object of blind market forces, industrial rationalisation and the machinations of the ruling class, becoming instead the subject of history. But since the class is everything won’t individuals be treated in an instrumental way? To maintain the power of the proletariat individuals will have to make sacrifices – perhaps (heaven forbid) some individuals will have to be sacrificed. Will not the ends justify the means (especially since a defining feature of the proletariat is that they have been shorn of ideals and presumably have no commitment to the bourgeois principles that protected the rights of individuals)? Seen from the standpoint of the individual the revolution appears as the apotheosis of instrumental reason, not its overthrow.

If instrumental reason runs rampant and if gender roles pale into insignificance with the rise of a proletarian uniformity, there is little reason to think that the number of sexual Kantians will drop after the revolution.

The fact that the course of history was so different from the one envisaged by Lukacs gives some indication that something was missing from the scheme of things in “History and Class Consciousness.” One of these was surely love.

We will deal with sexual love in the next post. Here the issue is love of a more political nature – like the love of the patriot. According to Lukacs’ scheme of things patriotic love must be dismissed as irrational or bourgeois or counter-revolutionary. It must be dismissed because there is no place for it in the concept of the identical subject-object of history. Now there is the question of whether patriotism really is irrational, but what interests me here is more the question of whether love must not be part of the revolution.

Unfortunately Lukacs says nothing about the love of the revolutionary in “History and Class Consciousness.” Revolution seems to arise as a matter of necessity as the proletariat struggles for its very survival against a ruling class that insists on squeezing more and more out of it. At a moment of crisis the working class might fight back to defend itself, but for this to spill over into a revolution that would be sustained in the way that is envisaged in “History and Class Consciousness” wouldn’t people have to start to love being proletarians or revolutionaries?

In “History and Class Consciousness” it all sounds completely intellectual once the crisis forces the proletariat to fight back. The philosopher-historians in the party help the workers to understand how they are the real source of all value in capitalism whilst being treated as an expendable resource and whilst being denied any power. And the workers are also supposed to gradually understand their role as the first historical agents who are guided by an insight into the real essence of history (the insight that history is absolutely unconditioned because all categories are historical to their very core). But this is all so theoretical, however true it may be. Once the crisis is past, will the revolutionary momentum be sustained simply by the idea that now history has achieved its true form? Must there not be an affective tie to the revolutionary movement? Must we not love being proletarians? Must we not love the revolution and the situation it creates where nothing any longer seems to be solid or fixed – where everything is up for negotiation or reform or obliteration by the party?

But doesn’t revolution appear to be chaotic, and is it not difficult to love revolution? There are many other things to love – things that the white heat of the revolution might jeopardize. These stand in the way of the revolution, and Lukacs would need to come up with a persuasive critique of them. He seems to say so little about them in “History and Class Consciousness” because of the assumption that the proletariat are being pushed into such a desperate situation that these other objects of love cease to be of much significance. The struggle for survival, which has to be waged collectively to match the power of the ruling class, is the only priority. But are these people who have nothing to love but the revolution the people we would want to hold up as exemplary?

Lukacs on commodification

Lukacs leaves us in no doubt about the importance of commodification. As he puts it in History and Class Consciousness (HCC): “It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities … [for] at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure.” To clarify, he says that ” the structure of commodity-relations [can] be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.”

The claim that the entire structure of society revolves around the phenomenon of commodification is a very strong one.

Commodification is the defining phenomenon of what could be called bourgeois society or capitalism. Of course commodities did not appear for the first time with capitalism. What is new with capitalism is organising society so that the highest end is the production of commodities. Other ends are pursued but only insofar as they do not interfere with the markets on which things can be commodities.

There is a second crucial feature of a society in which commodification is the universal structuring principle: the creation of a labour market in which labour also exists as a commodity. Lukacs quotes Marx: “What is characteristic of the capitalist age is that in the eyes of the labourer himself labour-power assumes the form of a commodity belonging to him. …it is only at this moment that the commodity form of the products of labour becomes general.”

One consequence of this analysis is that commodification beomes THE political issue. Hence, Lukacs says little about unpleasant working and living conditions or inequality in wages or inequality of opportunity and access to education, health care, etc. No, the top issues are the commodification of labour and the organisation of society for the production of commodities, and whatever flows from those phenomena.

Lukacs’ objection to commodification

Lukacs has two objections to this. Firstly, it is inhuman. This seems to imply a concern for the individual and the alienating effect of the mechanically rationalised labour process exemplified by the factory assembly line. He refers to “a mechanical existence hostile to life and a scientific formalism alien to it.” And again, of the labourer he says, “he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.” He also has an interesting reference to the “journalist’s ‘lack of convictions’, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs” entailing that “his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic par of his personality.” On the mathematical rationalisation of work processes in factories and offices he agrees with Marx that “Time is everything, man is nothing.” And in relation to commodification: “this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation.”

There are many such comments in the earlier parts of “History and Class Consciousness” where Lukacs seems to be motivated by a humanistic concern for the quality of the individual’s experience of life in a capitalist society, and the comments which often include references to an organic unity that has been lost imply a retrospective view of aspects of life that need to be recovered from the pre-capitalistic past.

However, this is a misleading impression because Lukacs ends up affirming the alienating effects of both the labour market and of rationalisation in the workplace. So his real objection must lie elsewhere.

It arises out of Lukacs’ underlying concern with history. More important than the alienation of individuals is the alienation of history – an alienation which might be redescribed as history not being true to itself, or as historical agents not yet understanding the true nature of history – not yet seeing that everything in society is historical. Although capitalism disrupts settled communities and frees up the historical process, the idea still prevails that there is a natural order (the market with its atomised players and its apparently natural laws of supply and demand, etc) that should not be disturbed (or distorted as Milton Friedman would have it). The objectification involved in commodification goes along with a view of society as a system governed by quasi-natural laws.

The idea that there is an economic system that can be studied scientifically and that political decisions must conform to the insights of the science of economics is the intellectual correlate of the practice of commodification. But if historical agents still see themselves as having to conform to some kind of natural order, then the historical process has not yet achieved what might be called authenticity – it is not yet for itself what it is in itself.

What is reification?

The reified view of society is one which is – for Lukacs – insufficiently historical. Instead of seeing the social as utterly historical, some aspect is assumed to be ‘natural’ or prescribed by some moral imperative that limits historical action.

The reified attitude treats history as if it were a part of nature, governed by laws that are not themselves historical and subject to change. This is the objectification implicit in the term ‘reification’.

For there to be no reification people would clearly have to believe that there is no natural substratum to society – no natural order and no fixed rational order that might put an end to history. Although our particular society has its quasi-objective historical tendencies that historical agents need to understand and work with, these are relative to our society with its particular history and they will doubtless cease to be effective once the prevailing social order has been overturned.

What is good about capitalism?

For Marx capitalism was a necessary stage in the development of the forces of production – especially important since a liberated society requires an advanced system of automated production so that people are not obliged to spend the best part of their lives doing unfulfilling tasks in the production process. For Lukacs capitalism succeeds in producing the kind of subjectivity needed for a genuinely historical movement.

What initially appear to be the worst aspects of capitalism are, for Lukacs, the necessary preconditions for the emergence of a new class that will allow history to achieve its authentic form:

“On the one hand, this transformation of labour into a commodity removes every ‘human’ element from the immediate existence of the proletariat, on the other hand the same development progressively eliminates everything ‘organic’, every direct link with nature from the forms of society so that socialised man can stand revealed in an objectivity remote from or even opposed to humanity.”

This might sound like a criticism but actually it is a process that Lukacs affirms. Lukacs’ ideal historical agents must have no vested interests in the status quo. Hence, the value of the way capitalism destroys the settled communities that might give proletarians affective ties to a particular social order. Hence also the value of industrial labour and urban life that remove workers from the connection with the soil and the countryside felt in agricultural communities. Although some would call this alienation, according to the Lukacs scheme of things it is the liberation of subjectivity necessary for the emergence of the first authentically historical society.

Beyond this, capitalism also produces just the kind of class that will enable history to come into its own: the proletariat. 

Why the proletariat?

Any authentic historical movement must have a collective subject that understands itself as such. For Lukacs, the bourgeoisie is a collective subject but it is trapped in an individualistic self-understanding. Workers, on the other hand, tend to be forced by conditions at work to see themselves in collective terms and readily see that they need to join forces in order to defend their interests.

The significance of the proletariat follows partly from the idea of history as a process of becoming. Since it is not an act of pure creation it involves both objectivity and subjectivity. We don’t create ourselves anew with each generation, rather we find ourselves as objects in a process that also involves our subjectivity (the way we see ourselves and the world around us).

Lukacs’ idea of the proletarian combines this moment of objectivity and subjectivity. The proletarian is an object insofar as his labour power is treated as a commodity and as something to be calculated and rationalised and fitted into a mechanistic process. The proletariat is the collective subject of the capitalistic process insofar as proletarian labour is the source of all exchange value (assuming the truth of the labour theory of value). 

As Lukacs puts it: “By becoming aware of the commodity relationship the proletariat can only become conscious of itself as the object of the economic process. For the commodity is produced and even the worker in his quality as commodity, as an immediate producer is at best a mechanical driving wheel in the machine. But if the reification of capital is dissolved into an unbroken process of its production and reproduction, it is possible for the proletariat to discover that it is itself the subject of this process even though it is in chains and is for the time being unconscious of the fact. As soon, therefore, as the readymade, immediate reality is abandoned the question arises: “Does a worker in a cotton factory produce merely cotton textiles? No, he produces capital. He produces values which serve afresh to command his labour and by means of it to create new values.””

Another important factor for Lukacs is that “The proletariat “has no ideals to realise.” When its consciousness is put into practice it can only breathe life into the things which the dialectics of history have forced to a crisis; it can never ‘in practice’ ignore the course of history, forcing on it what are no more than its own desires or knowledge. For it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious.”

If the proletariat could become conscious of itself as both the object and the subject of history, and see itself as simply realising a historical potential (as opposed to imposing an ideal on the historical substratum) then it would be the first subject in history with “an adequate social consciousness.” In his famous phrase it would become the “identical subject-object of history” – one that understands society as thoroughly historical (with no natural substratum) and one that is capable of changing society in accordance with historical tendencies.

History would then be “uncontaminated by any trace of reification”, allowing “the process-like essence to prevail in all its purity” – and this is the process which “should represent the authentic, higher reality.”

A critique of Lukacs

The standard criticism – which Lukacs also made of himself in 1967 – is that he failed to distinguish between reification and objectification. In a nutshell, the objectification involved in having your own house, for instance, is an essential part of human self-realisation, whereas reification only refers to alienating forms of self-objectification.

For me this is too much of a technical issue. The more disturbing issue comes out when I try to imagine what Lukacs’ proletariat would do. An authentically Lukacsian proletariat would have to overthrow the bourgeois order because it allows blind market forces to shape social life. But once the negation is taken care of what might give them a positive orientation?

The proletariat are to have no ideals, which presumably includes principles of justice. They are to have no vested interests in or attachments to the prevailing order: property, savings in pension funds, entitlement to health care, kids in schools that they don’t want to disrupt, etc. They must presumably value their identity as proletarians of the world over and above their local identities as family members and neighbours, for instance, implying that local ties lose their value. They must also have lost any deep feeling for nature, partly because urban industrial life has cut them off from it but also because they have learnt that nature is an utterly social and historical category and not something that might be a source of value standing in a critical relationship with the urban industrial order – as it does for the utterly unLukacsian Romantic ramblers.

With no ties to anything and with no feeling for something other than the alienating industrial order, and with no ideals beyond the idea of history at last gathering momentum and sweeping all before it, what is there to fight for?

Lukacs says there will be some quasi-objective historical tendencies that the proletariat will instinctively want to realize. But what will they be if the proletariat has nothing positive to defend?

This is where objectivity becomes a problem. The supposedly identical subject-object of history seems to have no genuine feel for objectivity. Commodification – the only form of objectification that has really come into view – is seen as a living contradiction that must be overcome in practice.  Doesn’t that overcoming, though, seem as if it would just be an annulment? Doesn’t it seem as if the inevitable historical tendency of an authentic Lukacsian subject of history would be to revolt against anything that tried to fix or settle or root that revolutionary subjectivity? And since the proletariat must act as the proletariat to fulfil its historical destiny, must it not turn its revolutionary energies against any expression of eccentric individuality and against anyone who suggests that the claims of the proletarian collectivity need to be balanced against the claims of individuals, families, neighbourhoods, regions and other lesser collectivities?

At the time Lukacs was writing it was still possible to imagine immiserated proletarians with nothing to lose but their chains identifying utterly with their economic class. But why think that this provides a model for the desired reconciliation of the individual and society? And after the revolution when there is no longer the historical force of capital to struggle against and unite against, what forces will have to be put in place to ensure that individuals put aside their individuality and maintain the unity of the new historical subject?

What about our feelings for others and for nature? Do these have no cognitive significance whatsoever? Are they to be dismissed as bourgeois – as reactionary?

The prospect of a global levelling – of, for instance, the disappearance of the last traces of pre-modern, rural communities – is thoroughly unpleasant. Isn’t this feeling for the value of difference and variety a source of insight?  Of course nature is a social and therefore historical category, but can’t certain experiences of nature throw a critical light on other cultural assumptions and practices?

The image of rootless Lukacsian proles with no feeling for anything but the white heat of history is a very disturbing one.

In contrast to this, the great strength of Adorno’s work is the way it does justice to the experiences of alterity that call into question not only the bourgeois order but also the kind of revolutionary nihilism that we see in Lukacs.

Economics at Gunpoint

August 27, 2008

A decade too late, I have just come across a translation of Bourdieu’s essay on the essence of neoliberalism first published in Le Monde in which he emphasizes that the neoliberal project, which misleadingly presents itself as a hightened concern for personal freedom, is an attempt to make reality conform to the dictates of science. The free market, where precisely quanitifable factors interact in a predictable way, is a purely theoretical model far removed from any hitherto existing social reality. The hope is, though, that social reality can finally be made to conform to the theoretical construct, thereby validating the theory (although there was never any doubt about its validity) and giving social life the rationality it had always lacked.

Critics of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” insisted that the terrible upheavals she lists were merely accidents of history miss the point that the neoliberal attempt to make reality fit the theory is inevitably violent. Communities will have to be torn apart; the old certainties will have to be discarded; people will have to learn to live without an older sense of security; and people will inevitably be shot as they try to cross international borders illegally in an effort to escape crippling poverty.

1 Hindu marriage vows
Apparently the Hindu makes a series of vows during the marriage ceremony: one to work to financially support the family, another to have children and a third to treat each other with respect.

All very traditional. All so very quaint.     

To the Hindu, though, there must be a reasonably clear answer to the question: What is it to be a good husband?

Is there an answer for the post-modernist? If not, is there not something lacking? Something important.

2 Igbo initiation into manhood
Among the Igbo of Nigeria manhood must involve marriage and this must involve childrearing. Celestine A Obi tells us that the ambition of becoming a father is so essential it is built into some of the Igbo names. One name: Nwabu-uwa apparently means: a child is all the world to me.

Manhood though is something that boys must be initiated into in the right way. Celestine describes the process like this: “As soon as a boy comes to the age of reason, he undergoes a civic juvenile test by which ho is initiated into the juju cult by iba nammuo (the walk to the spirit land). By this ceremony ho is initiated into the secrets of “egwugwu” and told of “ana-be-mmuo”. These are secrets which he can never reveal to anyone of the female sex nor to the yet uninitiated of his own sex.”

There are secrets one must keep from one’s wife. Is there not a great deal of wisdom in this? And is the essence not: a certain distance – a certain sense of propriety – must be maintained. One must be a man for one’s wife. One must certainly not lose one’s sense of self – one’s sense of difference. Is there not something terribly flaccid and unwholesome in the desire to merge, to disappear and have no secrets?

Oh, the wisdom of the Igbo!

3 Igbo womanhood
Celestine has a lovely passage on young Igbo women:

“The girls of the village take particular pains to attract the attention of eligible young men and do not hesitate to advertise their personal charms. On gala days, every available ornament is brought into requisition. The girls revel in dancing and seize every opportunity of displaying their charms deliberately walking upright and chest-out. “Why all this show?” one would be inclined to ask. You would not blame them, if you understood the motive. This is the time for a silent but vigorous campaign for a good husband. This ambition glows fervently inside every girl and restlessly demands an urgent satisfaction before the teeming full and pointing breasts sag and bow to age.”

The Igbo (as they were, doubtless) fuse the sex drive, the desire to marry and the desire to raise children. The most primitive drives are still one with the central social roles.

How odd that seems from the perspective of one for whom marriage felt like an empty formality, like some feudal relic, and the thought of having children only arrived at an age at which most Igbo contemporaries would have become grandparents.

What a tremendous fragmentation of passion and social imperatives we now have. Not that there is a lack of social life, of socialising (and the Igbo with their separation of girls and boys were probably not the best at socialising) but the Igbo integration of individual desires and the dictates of the social whole (which, at the very least, needs children for its perpetuation) has been shattered.

It seems that this split is not accompanied by any psychic incision that might be painful and difficult to live with. At most there is, on the one hand, a certain confusion about gender roles (and what does it mean nowadays to be a man now that roles have become either stereotypes or lifestyle choices?) and, on the other hand, an appreciation of the demographic facts of the matter that birth rates in the West are declining and pension and health systems are heading for a crisis.

(Check out Celstine’s work at http://codewit.com/igbomarriage.php)