Chapter 5 - Fetishism and Fetishisation

Submitted by Django on April 29, 2011


The focus on fetishism does not in itself resolve all theoretical and political problems. As we saw in the previous chaper, fetishism leaves us with the dilemma of the urgent impossibility of revolution.

Fetishism is a theory of the negation of our power-to-do. It draws attention both to the process of negation and to that which is negated. In most cases, however, discussions of fetishism have focussed on the negation rather than on the presence of that which is negated. In order to find a way beyond our theoretical impasse, we have to open up the concept of fetishism, to try and discover in the concepts themselves that which the concepts deny.

The emphasis on one or other moment of the antagonism between negation and negated is connected with differences in the understanding of fetishism. There are, in other words, two different ways of understanding fetishism, which we can refer to as 'hard fetishism' on the one hand, and 'fetishisation-as"”process', on the other. The former understands fetishism as an established fact, a stable or intensifying feature of capitalist society. The latter understands fetishisation as a continuous struggle, always at issue. The theoretical and political implications of the two approaches are very different.


The more common approach among those who have emphasised the concept of fetishism is the 'hard fetishism' approach. Fetishism is assumed to be an accomplished fact. In a capitalist society, social relations really do exist as relations between things. Relations between subjects really do exist as relations between objects. Although people are, in their species-characteristic, practical creative beings, they exist under capitalism as objects, as dehumanised, as deprived of their subjectivity.

The constitution or genesis of capitalist social relations is here understood as a historical constitution, something that took place in the past. Implicitly, a distinction is made between the origins of capitalism, when capitalist social relations were established through struggle (what Marx refers to as primitive or original accumulation), and the established capitalist mode of production, when capitalist social relations are in place. In the latter phase, fetishism is assumed to be stably established. In this view, the importance of Marx's insistence on form is simply to show the historicity of capitalist social relations. Within this historicity, within the capitalist mode of production, fetishised social relations can be regarded as basically stable. Thus, for example, the transition from feudalism to capitalism involved a struggle to impose value relations, but it is assumed that, once the transition has been accomplished, value is a stable form of social relations. Value is seen as struggle only in relation to the transitional period; after that it is regarded as simply domination, or as part of the laws which determine the reproduction of capitalist society.

Similarly with all other categories: if the reification of social relations is understood as stable, then all the forms of existence of those social relations (and their interrelation) will also be understood as stable, and their development will be understood as the unfolding as a closed logic. Thus, money, capital, the state and so on may be understood as reified forms of social relations, but they are not seen as forms of active reification. These categories are understood as 'closed' categories, in the sense of developing according to a self-contained logic.

What happens here is that identity creeps in again through the back door just when we thought we had finally got rid of it. The whole point of talking of fetishism is to undermine the apparently insuperable rigidity of social relations under capitalism by showing that these rigidities (money, state and so on) are merely historically specific forms of social relations, the products of social doing and changeable by social doing. However, if one assumes that these rigidities were established at the dawn of capitalism and shall remain until capitalism is overcome, rigidity is re-introduced. The 'capitalist mode of production' becomes an over-riding arch, a circle that defines. We know that the capitalist mode of production is historically transient, but within its confines relations are sufficiently reified for us to understand their development in terms of law-bound interactions between the fetishised phenomena. Instability is implicitly banished to the outer reaches of capitalism, to the temporal, spatial and social margins: to the period of primitive accumulation, the few areas of the world where capitalism is not yet fully established, and those who are marginalised from the social process of production. The core of capitalism is an increasingly reified world: away from the margins, capitalism is.

The hard fetishism approach involves a fetishisation of fetishism: fetishism itself becomes a rigidified and rigidifying concept. The idea that the fetishisation of social relations took place at the origins of capitalism, the idea that value, capital and so on are forms of social relations which were established on a stable basis a few hundred years ago, is inevitably based on the separation of constitution and existence: capital was constituted hundreds of years ago, now it exists, one day it will be destroyed. The time between constitution and destruction is a time of duration, a time of identity, a homogenised time. The understanding of fetishism as accomplished fact involves an identification of the fetishised forms. It is as though those who criticise the homogenisation of time have themselves fallen into that homogenisation, simply by assuming fetishism as accomplished fact.

There is a central problem for those who understand fetishism as accomplished fact. If social relations are fetishised, how do we criticise them? Who are we who criticise? Are we on the margins, privileged perhaps by our insights as marginalised intellectuals? The hard understanding of fetishism implies that there is something special about us, something that gives us a vantage point above the rest of society. They are alienated, fetishised, reified, suffering from false consciousness, we are able to see the world from the point of view of the totality, or true consciousness, or superior understanding. Our criticism derives from our special position or experience or intellectual abilities, which allow us to understand how they (the masses) are dominated. We are implicitly an intellectual elite, a vanguard of some sort. The only possible way of changing society is through our leadership of them, through our enlightening them. If fetishism is something stable and fixed within capitalism, then we are back with the Leninist problematic of how we lead the fetishised masses to revolution. The hard concept of fetishism leads to the obvious dilemma: if people exist as objects under capitalism, then how is revolution conceivable? How is criticism possible?


The author who has grappled most resolutely with the problem of the critical-revolutionary subject is undoubtedly Lukács , in his History and Class Consciousness.

Lukács ' attempt to solve the question is based, firstly, on a distinction of class, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Both bourgeoisie and proletariat exist in a reified world, but for the bourgeoisie, there is no way out. There is nothing in their class position which would drive them beyond the world of reification, for the perspective of totality, which is inevitably a historical perspective, would be suicidal, since it would reveal to them the transitory nature of their own class.

In relation to reification, the position of the working class is, in the first place, no different from that of the bourgeoisie. 'For the proletariat makes its appearance as the product of the capitalist social order. The forms in which it exists are ... the repositories of reification in its acutest and direst form and they issue in the most extreme dehumanisation. Thus the proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.' (1971, p.149)

The difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is that while the class interests of the bourgeoisie keep it entrapped in reification, the proletariat is driven beyond it. 'This same reality employs the motor of class interests to keep the bourgeoisie imprisoned within this immediacy while forcing the proletariat to go beyond it.... For the proletariat to become aware of the dialectical nature of its existence is a matter of life and death...' (p.167)

It is the experience of having to sell his labour power as a commodity that makes it possible for the proletarian to breach the fetishised appearances of social relations: 'it is true that the worker is objectively transformed into a mere object of the process of production by the methods of capitalist production ... i.e. by the fact that the worker is forced to objectify his labour power over against his total personality and to sell it as a commodity. But because of the split between subjectivity and objectivity induced in man by the compulsion to objectify himself as a commodity, the situation becomes one that can be made conscious.' (pp. 167-168) Or, in other words: 'while the process by which the worker is reified and becomes a commodity dehumanises him and cripples and atrophies his 'soul' - as long as he does not consciously rebel against it - it remains true that precisely his humanity and his soul are not changed into commodities.' (p. 172) The worker, then, becomes 'aware of himself as a commodity' and, with that, 'the fetishistic forms of the commodity system begin to dissolve: in the commodity the worker recognises himself and his relations with capital.' (p. 168)

Lukács's argument here points to the incomplete or, better, self-contradictory nature of fetishism. The process of objectification induces a split between the subjectivity and the objectivity of the worker, between the worker's humanity and his dehumanisation. The experience of the worker is at once fetishising and de-fetishising. At this point, Lukács seems to be laying the basis for a theory of revolution as the self-emancipation of the workers.

Lukács insists, however, that this incipient defetishisation is not sufficient. The consciousness of the worker of himself as a commodity does not resolve the problem: 'It could easily appear at this point that the whole process is nothing more than the 'inevitable' consequence of concentrating masses of workers in large factories, of mechanising and standardising the processes of work and levelling down the standard of living. It is therefore of vital importance to see the truth concealed behind this one-sided picture... the fact that this commodity is able to become aware of its existence as a commodity does not suffice to eliminate the problem. For the unmediated consciousness of the commodity is, in conformity with the simple form in which it manifests itself, precisely an awareness of abstract isolation and of the merely abstract relationship - external to consciousness - to those factors that create it socially.' (p. 173)

To solve the problem of the proletarians who need to go beyond fetishism but are unable to do so, Lukács introduces a distinction between the empirical or psychological consciousness of the proletariat and the 'imputed' consciousness of the proletariat. The empirical or psychological consciousness refers to the consciousness of individual proletarians or of the proletariat as a whole at any given moment. This consciousness, being reified, does not express a true consciousness of the class position of the proletariat. It is characteristic of opportunism that it 'mistakes the actual, psychological state of consciousness of proletarians for the class consciousness of the proletariat.' (p. 74) True class consciousness is 'neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class'. (p. 51) Class consciousness consists rather of the 'appropriate and rational reactions' which can be 'imputed' to the class. 'By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. That is to say, it would be possible to infer the thoughts and feelings appropriate to their objective situation.' (p. 51) This notion of de-reified class consciousness or the perspective of totality obviously returns us to our original question: who is the critical-revolutionary subject? Who can have this 'imputed' consciousness that is distinct from the psychological consciousness of the proletariat? Lukács resolves this problem by sleight of hand, by bringing in a deus ex machina: the bearer of the 'correct class consciousness of the proletariat' is its organised form, the Communist Party. (p. 75) And elsewhere: 'The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the Party....the Party is assigned the sublime role of bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat and the consciousness of its historical vocation.' (p. 41)

The Party is drawn out of a hat. Unlike the tight and rigorous argument that characterises the essays as a whole, there is never any explanation of how the Party is able to go beyond reification and adopt the perspective of totality. In contrast to the long and detailed argument on the consciousness of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat, the 'sublime role' of the Party as the 'bearer of class consciousness' is just asserted. It is as though Lukács's reasoning has hit precisely that 'dark and void' space which he saw as the limit to bourgeois rationality.

If the Party is simply drawn out of the hat, however, it is because it is in the hat from the beginning. The answer of the Party is already implicit in the way in which the theoretical problem is set up. From the beginning the whole question of dialectics, of overcoming reification, of class consciousness and of revolution is posed in terms of the category of totality: '... only the dialectical conception of totality can enable us to understand reality as a social process. For only this conception dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production...' (13) However, the emphasis on totality immediately poses the question of the Know-All: who is it that can know the totality? Clearly, in a reified world, it cannot be the proletariat itself, so it can only be some Knower who knows on behalf of the proletariat. The category of totality already implies the problematic (if not necessarily the answer) of the Party. The whole theoretical construction already sets up the problem in such a way that it can be resolved only by introducing some Hero-figure, some deus ex machina. The attempt to combat fetishism leads, because of the way in which fetishism is understood, to the creation (or consolidation) of a new fetish: the idea of a Hero (the Party) which somehow stands above the reified social relations of which, however, it is inevitably a part.

Despite the radical character of his essays, Lukács is operating in a theoretical and political context which is already pre-constituted. His approach is far from the crude 'scientific Marxism' of the Engelsian-Leninist tradition, yet his theoretical-political world is the same. In that tradition, the claim that scientific Marxism (or historical materialism) provides knowledge of reality grows together politically with the notion of the Party as Knower. To operate politically within the Party, as Lukács did for the whole of his life, poses, in its turn, the idea of Marxism as knowledge of reality. The political context and the conception of theory as the 'self-knowledge of reality' are mututally reinforcing (the legitimation of the Party depends on its proclaimed 'knowledge of reality', while the notion of theory as knowledge of reality suggest there has to be a Knower, the Party). It is within this context that Lukács pitches his argument. Curiously, despite its radical emphasis on 'totality', the whole argument takes place within certain parameters, within the framework of certain categories that are not questioned, such as Party, proletariat, economics, Marxism, seizure of power. Thus, although he insists that everything must be understood as process, and that 'the nature of history is precisely that every defintion degenerates into an illusion' (p. 186), he nevertheless starts with a definitional question, the first essay being entitled 'What is Orthodox Marxism?' Although he sets out in this essay by criticising the Engelsian conception of the dialectic (and, by implication, that of the Engelsian tradition), it remains true that he remains within the realist problematic of Engels, the idea that Marxist theory gives us knowledge of reality. With that, the idea that there is a distinction between correctness and falseness is given, and with it the idea of the Party as guardian of that correctness.

That solution, but also that problematic, is historically closed to us now. Whether or not it ever made sense to think of revolutionary change in terms of the 'Party', it is no longer even open to us to pose the questions in those terms. To say now that the Party is the bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat no longer makes any sense at all. What Party? There no longer exists even the social basis for creating such a 'Party'.

What makes Lukács' work so fascinating, however, are the tensions within it. The very focus on reification places us in an unavoidable field of tension from the beginning simply because talk of reification implicitly poses the question of the co-existence of reification with its antithesis (de- or anti-reification) and the nature of the antagonism and tension between them. This tension creeps into the category of totality itself on several occasions, in the form of the 'aspiration towards totality'. As though to modify the absolutist claims of the perspective of totality, he says 'The category of totality begins to have an effect long before the whole multiplicity of objects can be illuminated by it. It operates by ensuring that actions which seem to confine themselves to particular objects, in both content and consciousness, yet preserve an aspiration towards the totality, that is to say: action is directed objectively towards a transformation of totality'. (p. 175) And again: 'the relation to totality does not need to become explicit, the plenitude of the totality does not need to be consciously integrated into the motives and objects of action. What is crucial is that there should be an aspiration towards totality, that action should serve the purpose, described above, in the totality of the process.' (p. 198) The notion of the 'aspiration towards totality' potentially dissolves the problem of the Know-All Party: we presumably do not have to be the bearers of true consciousness in order to aspire towards totality. However, the argument is not developed.

The introduction of the 'aspiration towards totality' and the emphasis on the contradictory nature of the reification of the consciousness of the proletariat suggests a rather different politics, in which the proletariat is assigned a more active role in its own emancipation. It is clear that Lukács, although he remained within the Party framework, strained towards a more radical, self-emancipative conception of politics. Thus, he criticises Engels's notion of revolution as 'the leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom' as undialectical: 'If we separate the 'realm of freedom' sharply from the process which is destined to call it into being, if we thus preclude all dialectical transitions, do we not thereby lapse into a utopian outlook similar to that which has already been analysed in the case of the separation of final goal and the movement towards it?' (p. 313) He defends the Party as a form of organisation on the ground that it involves the active engagement of the total personality: 'every human relationship which breaks with this pattern, with this abstraction from the total personality of man and with his subsumption beneath an abstract point of view, is a step in the direction of putting an end to the reification of human consciousness. Such a step, however, presupposes the active engagement of the total personality.' (p. 319) Without this, party 'discipline must degenerate into a reified and abstract system of rights and duties and the party will relapse into a state typical of a party on the bourgeois pattern.' (p. 320) It is little wonder, then, that the book was condemned by the Soviet authorities in 1924 at the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern; and little wonder too that Lukács repudiated his own argument in the interests of party discipline.

Lukács's discussion of reification has the enormous merit of treating it not only as a theoretical but a political problem, not only as a question of understanding domination but as a matter of thinking about revolution. He failed in his attempt to provide a theoretical and political answer to the revolutionary dilemma, to the 'urgent impossibility of revolution', but at least he focussed on the problem. After Lukács, there is a historical falling apart. It becomes clear that there is no place within the Party for the development of critical Marxism, with the result that critical Marxism becomes, on the whole, more and more divorced from the issue of revolution, more and more concerned with criticising the all-pervasive character of capitalist domination.

In the writings of those theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, there is the same critical distance from the empirical consciousness or present psychological state of the proletariat, which the concept of fetishism implies. As Horkheimer puts it, 'the situation of the proletariat is, in this society, no guarantee of correct knowledge. The proletariat may indeed have experience of meaninglessness in the form of continuing and increasing wretchedness and injustice in its own life. Yet this awareness is prevented from becoming a social force by the differentiation of social structure which is still imposed on the proletariat from above and by the opposition between personal [and] class interests which is transcended only at very special moments. Even to the proletariat the world superficially seems quite different than it really is.' (1972, pp. 213-214). The Party, however, is no longer a significant figure and cannot fulfill the role that it did in Lukács's discussion. Consequently: 'under the conditions of later capitalism and the impotence of the workers before the authoritarian state's apparatus of oppression, truth has sought refuge among small groups of admirable men.' (1972, p. 237). Or, as Adorno puts it, in modern society 'criticising privilege becomes a privilege'. (1990, p. 41) A privilege and a responsibility: 'if a stroke of undeserved luck has kept the mental composition of some individuals not quite adjusted to the prevailing norms - a stroke of luck they have often enough to pay for in their relations with their environment - it is up to these individuals to make the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see, or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see.' (1990, p. 41).

In the work of Marcuse, the triumph of fetishism is captured by the title of his most famous work, One Dimensional Man. Positive thinking and instrumental rationality have permeated society so absolutely that society has become one-dimensional. Meaningful resistance can only come from the margins, 'the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours, the unemployed and unemployable.' (1968, p. 200) It is not that this 'substratum' has revolutionary consciousness, but 'their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system.' (p. 200). It is to be understood that the unconscious political practice of the marginalised corresponds in some way to the conscious theoretical practice of the academically marginalised critical theorists.

For all the differences between these authors, the important point for our argument is that the understanding of fetishism as established fact (the emphasis on the all-pervasive character of fetishism in modern capitalism) leads to the conclusion that the only possible source of anti-fetishism lies outside the ordinary - whether it be the Party (Lukács), the privileged intellectuals (Horkheimer and Adorno), or the 'substratum of the outcasts and the outsiders' (Marcuse). Fetishism implies anti-fetishism, but the two are separated: fetishism rules normal, everyday life, while anti-fetishism resides elsewhere, on the margins. If one discounts Lukács's faith in the Party as being now historically irrelevant at best, the result is that the emphasis on fetishism (or the depth of capitalist power) tends to lead to a deep pessimism, to intensify the sense of the urgent impossibility of revolution. To break with this pessimism, we need a concept in which fetishism and anti-fetishism are not separated. To develop the concept of fetishism today inevitably means trying to go beyond the classic authors on fetishism, in this respect at least.


The second approach, what we called the 'fetishisation-as-process' approach, maintains that there is nothing special about our criticism of capitalism, that our scream and our criticism are perfectly ordinary, that the most we can do as intellectuals is to give voice to that which is voiceless. If that is the starting point, however, then there is no way that fetishism can be understood as hard fetishism. If fetishism were an accomplished fact, if capitalism were characterised by the total objectification of the subject, then there is no way that we, as ordinary people, could criticise fetishism.

The fact that we criticise points to the contradictory nature of fetishism (and therefore also to the contradictory nature of our selves), and gives evidence of the present existence of anti-fetishism (in the sense that criticism is directed against fetishism). The point is made by Ernst Bloch: "alienation could not even be seen, and condemned of robbing people of their freedom and depriving the world of its soul, if there did not exist some measure of its opposite, of that possible coming-to-oneself, being-with-oneself, against which alienation can be measured" (Bloch 1964 (2), p. 113). The concept of alienation, or fetishism, in other words, implies its opposite: not as essential non-alienated 'home' deep in our hearts, but as resistance, refusal, rejection of alienation in our daily practice. It is only on the basis of a concept of non- (or better anti-) alienation or non- (that is, anti-) fetishism that we can conceive of alienation or fetishism. If fetishism and anti-fetishism coexist, then it can only be as antagonistic processes. Fetishism is a process of fetishisation, a process of separating subject and object, doing and done, always in antagonism to the opposing movement of anti-fetishisation, the struggle to reunite subject and object, to recompose doing and done.

If we start, then, from the idea that our scream is not the scream of a vanguard but the scream of an antagonism that is inseparable from living in capitalist society, a universal (or almost universal) scream, then the hardness of fetishism dissolves and fetishism is revealed as process of fetishisation. With that, the hardness of all categories dissolves and phenomena which appear as things or established facts (such as commodity, value, money, the state) are revealed too as processes. The forms come to life. The categories are opened to reveal that their content is struggle.

Once fetishism is understood as fetishisation, then the genesis of the capitalist forms of social relations is not of purely historical interest. The value-form, money-form, capital-form, state-form etc. are not established once and for all at the origins of capitalism. Rather, they are constantly at issue, constantly questioned as forms of social relations, constantly being established and re-established (or not) through struggle. The forms of social relations are processes of form-ing social relations. Every time a small child takes sweets from a shop without realising that money has to be given in exchange for them, every time workers refuse to accept that the market dictates that their place of work should be closed or jobs lost, every time that the shopkeepers of Sao Paolo promote the killing of street children to protect their property, every time that we lock our bicycles, cars or houses - value as a form of relating to one another is at issue, constantly the object of struggle, constantly in process of being disrupted, re-constituted and disrupted. We are not a sleeping beauty, a humanity frozen in our alienation until our prince-party-proletariat comes to kiss us, we live rather in constant struggle to free ourselves from the witch's curse.

Our existence, then, is not simply an existence within fetishised forms of social relations. We do not exist simply as the objectified victims of capitalism. Nor can we exist outside the capitalist forms: there is no area of capitalism-free existence, no privileged sphere of unfetishised life, for we are always constituting and constituted by our relations with others. Rather, as the starting point of this discussion, the scream, suggests, we exist against-and-in capital. Our existence against capitalism is not a question of conscious choice, it is the inevitable expression of our life in an oppressive, alienating society. Gunn puts the point nicely when he says that "unfreedom subsists solely as the (self-contradictory) revolt of the oppressed" (1992, p. 29). Our existence-against-capital is the inevitable constant negation of our existence-in-capital. Conversely, our existence-in-capital (or, more clearly, our containment within capital) is the constant negation of our revolt against capital. Our containment within capital is a constant process of fetishising, or form-ing, our social relations, a constant struggle.

All of those apparently fixed phenomena which we often take for granted (money, state, power: they are there, always have been, always will, that's human nature, isn't it?) are now revealed to be raging, bloody battlefields. It is rather like taking a harmless speck of dust and looking at it through a microscope to discover that the 'harmlessness' of the speck of dust conceals a whole micro-world in which millions of microscopic organisms live and die in the daily battle for existence. But in the case of money the invisibility of the battle it conceals has nothing to do with physical size, it is the result rather of the concepts through which we look at it. The banknote we hold in our hand seems a harmless thing, but look at it more closely and we see a whole world of people fighting for survival, some dedicating their lives to the pursuit of money, some (many) desperately trying to get hold of money as a means of surviving another day, some trying to evade money by taking what they want without paying for it or setting up forms of production that do not go through the market and the money form, some killing for money, many each day dying for lack of money. A bloody battlefield in which the fact that the power-to do exists in the form of money brings untold misery, disease and death and is always at issue, always contested, always imposed, often with violence. Money is a raging battle of monetisation and anti-monetisation.

Seen from this perspective, money becomes monetisation, value valorisation, commodity commodification, capital capitalisation, power power-isation, state statification, and so on (with ever uglier neologisms). Each process implies its opposite. The monetisation of social relations makes little sense unless it is seen as a constant movement against its opposite, the creation of social relations on a non-monetary basis. Neoliberalism, for example, can be seen as a drive to extend and intensify the monetisation of social relations, a reaction in part to the loosening of that monetisation in the post-war period and its crisis in the 1960s and 1970s. These forms of social relations (commodity, value, money, capital and so on) are interconnected, of course, all forms of the capitalist separation of subject and object, but they are interconnected not as static, accomplished, sleeping-beauty forms, but as forms of living struggle. The existence of forms of social relations, in other words, cannot be separated from their constitution. Their existence is their constitution, a constantly renewed struggle against the forces that subvert them.


Take the state for example. What does criticism of the state as a form of social relations mean when the forms are understood as form-processes, processes of forming?

The state is part of the fixed firmament of Is-ness. It is an institution, apparently necessary for the ordering of human affairs, a phenomenon the existence of which is taken completely for granted by political science, the discipline dedicated to its study. Criticism in the Marxist tradition has often focussed on showing the capitalist character of the state, on showing that, despite appearances, the state acts in the interests of the capitalist class. This leads easily to the conception that it is necessary to conquer the state in some way so that it can be made to function in the interests of the working class.

If we start from the centrality of fetishism and the understanding of the state as an aspect of the fetishisation of social relations, then the matter presents itself differently. To criticise the state means in the first place to attack the apparent autonomy of the state, to understand the state not as a thing in itself, but as a social form, a form of social relations. Just as in physics we have come to accept that, despite appearances, there are no absolute separations, that energy can be transformed into mass and mass into energy, so, in society too there are no absolute separations, no hard categories. To think scientifically is to dissolve the categories of thought, to understand all social phenomena as precisely that, as forms of social relations. Social relations, relations between people, are fluid, unpredictable, unstable, often passionate, but they rigidify into certain forms, forms which appear to acquire their own autonomy, their own dynamic, forms which are crucial for the stability of society. The different academic disciplines take these forms (the state, money, the family) as given and so contribute to their apparent solidity, and hence to the stability of capitalist society. To think scientifically is to criticise the disciplines, to dissolve these forms, to understand them as forms; to act freely is to destroy these forms.

The state, then, is a rigidified or fetishised form of social relations. It is a relation between people which does not appear to be a relation between people, a social relation which exists in the form of something external to social relations.

But why do social relations rigidify in this way and how does that help us to understand the development of the state? This was the question posed by the so-called 'state derivation debate', a slightly peculiar but very important discussion which spread from West Germany to other countries during the 1970s. The debate was peculiar in being conducted in extremely abstract language, and often without making explicit the political and theoretical implications of the argument. The obscurity of the language used and the fact that the participants often did not develop (or were not aware of) the implications of the debate left the discussion open to being misunderstood, and the approach has often been dismissed as an 'economic' theory of the state, or as a 'capital-logic' approach which seeks to understand political development as a functionalist expression of the logic of capital. While these criticisms can fairly be made of some of the contributions, the importance of the debate as a whole lay in the fact that it provided a basis for breaking away from the economic determinism and the functionalism which has marred so many of the discussions of the relation between the state and capitalist society, and for discussing the state as an element or, better, moment of the totality of the social relations of capitalist society.