‘Reification’: what does ‘planning’ mean?

Phil at ‘A Very Public Sociologist‘ has put up the last in a series of posts about a work of Marxist philosophy called ‘History and Class Consciousness‘, by Georg Lukacs. It’s good, read it.This post is a discussion of the central idea of ‘reification’, and its links with the idea of economic ‘planning’.

‘Reification’ means thing-ification: treating human actions and decisions as though they non-human natural events.

For example, if I ask the other people in my house if they want some oven chips, and then, if they do, cook some for them, I’m experiencing their desire for chips in a non-reified way: as a person wanting chips. A human decision that ‘um, yeah, chips would be nice’.

But now, imagine I’m the owner of a chip-factory, where potatoes are made into chips by machines. I want to know whether to increase or decrease output. I look at data about sales of potatoes. What I’m actually looking at is human beings liking potatoes and deciding the buy them just like before. But now it shows up as a set of numbers: it has been reified and turned into a non-human ‘thing’, a set of data.

This might seem like an irrelevant difference but it makes a big change. For example, if I see things as ‘people wanting chips’, then I already have some reason to make more chips – they will make people happy. But the reified desire doesn’t provide this motivation, unless it’s also connected with ‘people have enough money to buy chips’. If people want chips but can’t afford them, then in reified consciousness, that’s no different from them not wanting chips: they produce the same ‘data’ of no-one buying.

Alternatively, it might be that I know that people want some product but not because they need it or it will make them happy, but out of delusions and desperation – indeed, I may know that it will actually make them more unhappy in the long run. This is very different. But when reified it loses this distinctiveness: a sale is a sale. Reification means ignoring the human significance and reality of things and just seeing the ‘hard facts’.

Of course this is only one example of reification. For another, consider the attitude of a group having tried something (say, ‘let’s arrange my books alphabetically to make them easier to find’), and seeing that it doesn’t work. Contrast that with the attitude of waking up to find that a strong wind has blown down the treehouse you were building – i.e., a natural force that inconveniences you.

Now when someone finds themselves unemployed or generally unhappy with their economic life, which of these attitudes is more appropriate? Ultimately, any economy structure exists only by the free decision of human beings, so if you find that an ecomic system is screwing you, or others, over, you should be like the first person: this thing that we have set up isn’t working, we are responsible, we should change it. But typically what people actually feel is like the second: the blind natural forces of ‘the economy’ or ‘economic laws’ have given me bad luck. Oh well. I should try harder. Reification means treating something that humans have created and can change, as if it was a natural, inevitable, fact.

Now I think we shouldn’t take reification as wholly a product of capitalism or class society. Other people do have an inevitable sense of ‘thing-ness’ about them from my personal point of view – I don’t automatically see things from their perspective, I don’t automatically understand why they do things, I just see and hear the physical sounds and movements they make. Overcoming this ‘thing-ness’ and seeing them in ‘person’ terms is a struggle, sometimes more or less difficult, which is usually accomplished moderately well but never completely.

Nevertheless, it is certainly encouraged by capitalism, and brought to its greatest extent by the commodifying, isolating operation of capitalist society.

What especially interests me is that it gives a good way to understand what is meant by a ‘planned economy’. The most readily available definitions, such as on wikipedia, don’t seem all that great to me. They mainly focus on who makes the decisions, usually saying ‘the state’, or sometimes ‘the state or workers’ councils’. It seems to me that the emphasis should be on the how, not the who.

What ‘planning’ suggests to me is that different people’s wills confront each other, generally speaking, in un-reified form. For example, let’s suppose my colleagues and I go to the local assembly and I want to know how many cars we should build. Here, instead of dealing with numbers about ‘demand’, ‘costs’, ‘taxes’, etc., we get the people who want to drive explaining why and how much they want to drive, the people who make steel explaining how much steel they can make for us without getting over-worked, and the people whose homes will sink into the sea if global warming advances explaining how harmful that will be to them. We also talk about how much we enjoy or don’t enjoy working in the factory, how much time we want to keep for other pursuits, etc. From the interplay of these factors understood humanistically, a decision is eventually arrived at.

I would call this ‘planning’ because we can point to a ‘will’ behind it: X number of cars are being produced because that was what was decided – decided, specifically, by the local assembly, or by ‘the people’ acting through whatever  democratic mechanism is used. In a market economy, X numbers of cars get produced because that was what the market made profitable. No human agent, even an imperfectly-formed ‘collective agent’, has decided this, but rather the mindless ‘market’, a sort of zombie-creation of humans.

Of course, like I said above, reification is never going to completely vanish (without the use of very very advanced cybernetics to link our brains into a vast brain-monster). It will re-appear in proportion as people don’t really care about everyone else and see their objections simply as an impediment to be got round. It will re-appear in proportion as people disagree and can’t compromise, and have to take a majority vote. It will re-appear in proportion as decisions involving huge huge numbers of people force us to abstract from individual people’s realities into categories like ‘how many people voted yes’ and ‘the amount of steel needed for the whole country’.

But I think there can be (indeed, must be) a system where the economy is structured not so as to promote and increase reification, but to reduce and undermine it. Where people don’t understand themselves as operating in a mindless world of numbers and meaningless facts, but as living in a world of other people, navigating according to what other people are willing to do for them and would like them to do. Where people control things, and things do not control people.

2 Responses to “‘Reification’: what does ‘planning’ mean?”

  1. Mervyn King and the Rule of the Bourgeoisie « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] is a perfect example of reification – treating people and their actions as impersonal things and forces. It is a distinctive sort of […]

  2. The planned economy: a concept we can get behind? « Check Your Premises Says:

    […] planned economy: a concept we can get behind? Directionless Bones discusses the difference between treating people like statistics and treating people like human […]


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