Thursday, December 4, 2014

Notes on Chris O'Kane's "Fetishism and Social Domination in Marx, Lukacs, Adorno and Lefebvre", Part 1

Chris O'Kane has made his very interesting PhD thesis, Fetishism and Social Domination in Marx, Lukacs, Adorno and Lefebvre available online.  I am working my way through it and would like to post notes as I go along.  Please keep in mind that a large portion of this work is very involved with the contemporary Value Form Theory in its many variations (Value Form Theory is a reading of Marx's critique of political economy which takes Value, among many other key concepts such as money, to be about the social form of wealth, which is distinctly different from the approach taken by both classical political economy and Marxist Political Economy.)

I would note that O'Kane's assessment of Marx's theory of value and fetishism is heavily dependent on the reading of a monetary interpretation of value associated with Michael Heinrich, Chris Arthur, and others.  I have huge reservations about their interpretation on a number of grounds, which I will try to flesh out, but which depend on a combination of my understanding of Moishe Postone's work and Nicole Pepperell's reading of the first six chapters of Capital as, I would say, a "Phenomenology of Capital", especially the way Marx moves through the various "contradictory" notions of wealth in Chapter 1.

p. 11-12
Postone’s work is fragmentary and incomplete, but arguably so is everyone’s.  Whether or not Postone has been able to complete his work is separate from whether or not it is productive.

I have tried in my own work to address the second issue.  This is made possible thanks to Werner Bonefeld’s analysis of primitive accumulation.  The two works overlap to provide a critique of labor and its historical constitution, and the dynamic of capital (treadmill on one side, primitive accumulation qua separation as predicate of all accumulation on the other side.)  Bringing this analysis together with Hans Dieter-Bahr’s analysis of class structure and machinery, it is possible to develop a more well-rounded analysis.

The criticisms from HM 5 in 2004 are generally weak.  Arthur has recourse to a dualism that sees labor as co-Subject of Capital, Bonefeld’s argument amounts to “Where’s the class struggle?”.  Goldner article is a complete regress to an ontology of labor, common to all the criticisms of Postone.

I fail to see how criticisms of traditional and critical Marxism prevent a dialogue between Marx and Marxian theories, if for the obvious reason that his critique of critical theory is that in failing to break with traditional Marxism on labor as domination it did not go far enough, not that critical theory was just as bad.  In fact, Postone clearly stands on the ground of critical theory and it is out of that dialogue that he develops his own work.

p. 13

“As I explain below in my literature review, although fetishism is often conflated
with reification, I focus on uncovering these thinkers’s distinct conception of fetishism
for several reasons: (1) as Honneth and others such as Elbe, Colletti and Reichelt have
pointed out, the theories of reification deployed by Lukacs and the Frankfurt School
are problematical because they overextend the pervasiveness of reifiation without
adequately grounding it. Whilst fetishism is often conflated with these theories of
reification, to disambiguate them may provide adequate grounding for a critical theory
that does not offer a simplistic or a reductive theory of society. At the very least, I will
substantiate their distinction by pointing to a different strand of fetishism and
domination that might be drawn on. This is also connected to (2) in which I contend
and I substantiate below in the literature review that receptions of theories of
reification construe domination differently than the accounts of fetishism I will present
in the thesis. This is because the aspects of fetishism that emphasise the autonomous
function of things and compel individual actions in the form of personification provide
an account of the dynamics of domination in a different manner than the receptions of
reification which attribute these dynamics to things as such and describe domination in
terms of humans being thingified or dehumanised. Both of which signal (3) that in
contrast to accounts of alienation and reification that tend to treat fetishism in terms
of its relation to a theory of dehumanisation, my study - in the context of a theory of
constitution and of the constitutent properties of social domination- examines
fetishism as a theory which endevours to explain how and why such a form of social
domination is constituted rather than what it is (alienated human essence dominated by things).”

Fetishism is not reification.  True enough.

P. 23
Fetishism as reification (false consciousness, Lukacs, Horkheimer, Adorno(?)) vs. Fetishism as alienation (Ollman, Fromm, Marcuse(?), humanist Marxism) vs. fetishism as value (value-form analysis)

p. 31-2 
Critique of Rose
It is good to see someone who appreciates the singularity of Rose's contribution here, whatever their criticisms.

The question is obviously not whether Lukacs, Benjamin and Adorno use the term fetishism as well as reification, but whether they use them more or less interchangeably.

Whether or not Marx had a “theory of reification” depends on what one means by reification.  However, I think there is a problem that Rose doesn't use fetishism in the same sense as value-form theory.  Which is to say, Rose would have benefited from the value-form reading.

I’m not sure that distinguishing between the labor process and his theory of value is quite right, but if it is, that is a problem.  His theory of value after all does incorporate the labor process as well as the forms of value.

I have to go back and read Rose again on this as I am typically underwhelmed, once I do re-read the cited material, by the "criticisms" of her work.  One thing Rose is not is sloppy, but much of the criticism of her is.  O'Kane may very well be right though.

p. 42
Distinction between “the ontology of productive activity and the socially specific form this activity takes in ‘labour.’”

p. 45-6
Not sure about this alignment of abstraction with “ideal average”  Strikes me as two different things, or rather as merely one way in which Marx uses the notion of abstraction.  Some times he might be talking about an "ideal average" and other times very much not.  I have addressed this a little in my posts on abstraction here.  I am very unimpressed with the non-Hegelian notions of abstract and abstraction.

The contention strikes me as too empiricist for Marx. Phrases like “natural laws of capitalism” typically indicate an ironic reference to political economy which naturalized capital, which for Marx is quintessentially social.  “iron necessity” also strikes one as so over the top deterministic as to be ironic.  Marx, 1992, 970 (MEGA?)  Intro to Vol. 1 of Capital.  In this I am dependent on Nicole Pepperell's very careful, literarily sophisticated treatment.

p. 46
Separation of critical-genetic (‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’)  and scientific "Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself."  Marx, letter to Dr Kugelmann, July 11, 1868, in Marx/Engels Selected Correspondence, p. 209

Is this separation essential to Marx or is it both a recognition of a dualism in classical political economy and something to be overcome by his own work?

p. 47
The dependence on Heinrich for Marx’s method is a mistake.

The misreading of the quote about Marx’s method of presentation as dialectical versus his method being dialectical is a hot ball of confusion.  Dialectic eschews methodology entirely.  It draws its approach out of the object itself and its own inner contradictions.  It has no method to apply.  This is why Marx can make the comment that the work should appear as a vast a priori construction, but in fact depends on the complete absorption of the mass of relevant material first.

The quote from Marx ought to be read as distinguishing dialectic (which to be reductive we could say is the consistent sense of non-identity, or further, that it is the awareness that positive ontological claims about the object of investigation should be taken with a negative grain of salt pace Adorno in his critique of primacy in Husserl) from positivistic science.


  1. Hi Chris,

    Someone just let me know you were doing this; very flattering. Thanks for the perceptive comments, they will be very valuable when i get the time to turn the thesis into a book.

    Chris O'Kane

  2. The term "monetary theory of value" to describe Marx's value theory originates with Hans-Georg Backhaus, though admittedly Heinrich has done a lot to make the term more well-known.

  3. @Chris
    Well, so far the thesis is extremely engaging and exciting. Since you are not familiar with my method of commentary, I spend less time on what I like about a work unless I think it is 1) a cornerstone of the work, or 2) something really novel that opens up new ways of thinking through things. As a result, I do come off a bit harsh sometimes, but I also find areas of disagreement the most intellectually stimulating.

    Yes, of course, though I think Heinrich has not only popularized it, he has taken it in a specific direction, or rather he has resolved in a specific way problems Backhaus seemed to have identified but not resolved. I don't know if Backhaus or Reichelt agree with that direction or resolution, as I suspect most of that discussion is in German. I am not warm towards Heinrich's reading, as is evident in my notes, but there is a lot where he really adds to the discussion and I have always found his comments on the 3rd volume perceptive and undervalued.