By Yanis Iqbal
Dehumanization and deformation are written into the very structures of capitalism. Under this social structure of accumulation, the exchange value of commodities is generalized as the universal structuring principle of society. We relate to each other as commodities – abstract comparability replaces the real content of our social being. The de-personalized emptiness of the value-form enervates us, pushing our desires, drives and passions into the arena of suppressed individuality.
A cleavage develops between the public and private spheres – the logic of undifferentiated homogeneity excludes concrete particularities from the rationality of the ruling order, artificially restricting spontaneity, feeling, and authenticity. Individuals are left isolated; their embeddedness in society resides in their status as passive – and disposable – onlookers of an alien process of capital accumulation. George Lukacs writes: “for the individual the commodity structure of all ‘things’ and their obedience to ‘natural laws’ is found to exist already in a finished form, as something immutably given”. The production and reproduction of life can only “take place in the form of rational and isolated acts of exchange between isolated commodity owners.”
Writing on the absence of any active subjective participation in social metabolism, Richard Westerman notes: “We have little or no control over socially-meaningful objects: their determination as Values and the rise or fall of this Value are entirely independent of anything we may actually do; it is governed instead by shifts in the Value of other commodities. Consequently, the individual’s perspective on society is that of an outsider…the subject’s particularity is excluded from society: their social being takes the form of abstraction, rather than any substantive relations between people, and we appear within formal social relations shorn of every content…the individual feels powerless to control a society that offers them only the most abstract social existence, entirely bereft of any particularity.”
Rejecting the normative, destructive impact of capitalism on the individual – fragmentation and passivisation – involves recognizing the centrality of human intervention in the creation of objective conditions. The inorganic totality of capitalist production – and the law-like chaos of market forces – is first encountered by the sublaterns as inert givens of their material environment. Since they simply exist and do not necessarily correspond to the needs of those who face them, they are generally experienced as alien. Yet, they are nothing but the alienated objectification of individual and collective practices. Opposing capitalist subjectivation consists in this mass experience of history as a meaningful human creation.
Under the counter-hegemonic socialization of individuals, actions are not reduced to fragmented behaviors, but are understood in terms of a totality of relations between a single individual and a multiplicity of social actors and forces. When people view themselves as dynamics elements of a social totality, they gain the knowledge necessary for confronting the atomistic social conditioning inherent in the mechanisms of capitalism. The conscious individual – no longer a mere cog in the bourgeois machine of profit-making – bridges the gap between form and content, initiating a process of social substantiation which offers a genuine and not merely a formal kind of social being in the movement of life.
The essence of revolutionary de-reification was forcefully expressed by Antonio Gramsci in his 1917 polemic against indifference: “I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent…I am a partisan, I am alive, I feel the pulse of the activity of the future city that those on my side are building is alive in their conscience. And in it, the social chain does not rest on a few; nothing of what happens in it is a matter of luck, or the product of fate, but the intelligent work of the citizens. Nobody in it is looking from the window of the sacrifice and the drain of a few. Alive, I am a partisan.”