Chapter 4 - Fetishism

Submitted by Django on April 29, 2011

The Tragic Dilemma: The Urgent Impossibility of Revolution


In the last chapter, we argued that the transformation of power-to into power-over is centred on the rupture of the social flow of doing. In capitalism, the done is severed from and turned against the doing. This severing of the done from the doing is the core of a multiple fracturing of all aspects of life.

Without naming names, we have already entered upon a discussion of fetishism. Fetishism is the term that Marx uses to describe the rupture of doing. Fetishism is the core of Marx's discussion of power and central to any discussion of changing the world. It is the centrepiece of the argument of this book.

Fetishism is a category that does not fit easily into normal academic discourse. Partially for that reason, it has been relatively neglected by those who would force Marxism into the moulds of the different academic disciplines. Although it is a central category in Marx's Capital, it is almost completely ignored by those who regard themselves as Marxist economists. It is similarly overlooked by Marxist sociologists and political scientists, who usually prefer to start from the category of class and adapt it to the frameworks of their disciplines. Fetishism, in so far as it is discussed at all, is often seen as falling in the realm of philosophy or cultural criticism. Relegated and classified in this way, the concept loses its explosive force.

The force of the concept lies in that it refers to an unsustainable horror: the self-negation of doing.


The young Marx discusses the self-negation of doing not in terms of fetishism but in terms of 'alienation' or 'estrangement'. Alienation, a term now often used to describe a general social malaise, refers in Marx's discussion to the rupturing of doing which is characteristic of the capitalist organisation of production.

In his discussion of 'estranged labour' in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx starts from the process of production, arguing that under capitalism production is not just production of an object, but production of an object that is alien to the producer: 'The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.' (1975, p. 272; emphasis in the original)

The sundering of doer from done is inevitably the sundering of the doer himself. The production of an alien object is inevitably an active process of self-estrangement. 'How could the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself?...If then the product of labour is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation.' (1975, p. 274) Alienation of man from his own activity is self-estrangement: it is the worker himself who actively produces his own estrangement.

The rupture of the doer from the done is the negation of the doer's power-to. The doer is turned into a victim. Activity is turned into passivity, doing into suffering. Doing is turned against the doer. 'This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to him; it is activity as suffering, strength as weakness, begetting as emasculating, the worker's own physical and mental energy, his personal life - for what is life but activity? - as an activity which is turned against him, independent of him and not belonging to him.' (1975, p. 275)

Alienation is the production of humans who are damaged, maimed, deprived of their humanity: 'In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken away from him'. (1975, p. 277) This 'tearing away from man the object of his production' alienates him from his collective humanity, his 'species-being': 'Estranged labour turns ... man's species-being ... into a being alien from him, into a means for his individual exstence.' (1975, p. 277) This implies the fragmentation of the collective human subject, the 'estrangement of man from man'. (1975, p. 277). Mutual recognition is broken, not just between ruler and ruled, but between the workers themselves. 'What applies to a man's relation to his work, to the product of his labour and to himself, also holds of a man's relation to the other man, and to the other man's labour and object of labour. In fact, the proposition that man's species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man's essential nature.' (MECW3, 277) The term 'species-life' or 'species-being' refers surely to nothing other than the social flow of human doing, the material braiding of a mutually recognitive 'we'.

This estrangement of man from man is not only an estrangement between workers but also the production of the non-worker, the master. 'If the product of labour does not belong to the worker, if it confronts him as an alien power, then this can only be because it belongs to some other man than the worker.' (MECW3, 278). Estranged labour is the active producing of domination, the active conversion of power-to into power-over: 'Just as he creates his own production as the loss of his reality, as his punishment; his own product as a loss, as a product not belonging to him; so he creates the domination of the person who does not produce over the product. Just as he estranges his activity from himself, so he confers upon the stranger an activity which is not his own.' (MECW3, 279)

The notion of alienation thus refers to the breaking of the social flow of doing, the turning of doing against itself. This is not the result of fate or divine intervention: human doing is the only subject, the sole constitutive power. We are the only gods, the sole creators. Our problem, as creators, is that we are creating our own destruction. We create the negation of our own creation. Doing negates itself. Activity becomes passivity, doing becomes non-doing, being. Alienation points both to our dehumanisation and to our complicity in the production of our own dehumanisation. But how can maimed, dehumanised, alienated people possibly create a liberated, human society? Alienation signals not only the urgency but also, apparently, the impossibility of revolutionary change.


The rupture of doing and done is introduced right at the beginning of Capital. Echoing the words of the 1844 Manuscripts ('The alienation of the worker in his product means ... that ... it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.'), Marx begins the second paragraph of Capital saying, 'A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us. ' (1965, p. 35) The commodity is an object produced by us, but standing outside us. The commodity takes on a life of its own in which its social origin in human labour is extinguished. It is a product which denies its own character as product, a done which denies its own relation to doing.

The commodity is the point of fracture of the social flow of doing. As a product produced for exchange, it stands at the unhinging or dis-articulation of social doing. It is of course the product of a social doing, but the fact that it is produced for exchange on the market breaks the flow of doing, makes the thing stand apart from the doing of which it is both product and precondition. It stands on its own to be sold on the market, the work that produced it forgotten. The labour which produces it is social (labour for others), but it is indirectly social, it is labour for others which exists in the form of labour for oneself. The sociality of doing is ruptured, and with it the process of mutual recognition and social validation. Mutual recognition is removed from the producers and transferred to their products: it is the product which is recognised socially, in the process of exchange. Recognition of doing is expressed as the value of the product. It is now the quantitative, monetary measure of value (price) which provides social validation for the doing of people. It is money which tells you whether what you do is socially useful.

The commodity, then, is not a thing to be taken at face value. Analysis allows us to discern the labour that has produced the commodity and to see labour as the substance of its value, but that just leads us on to a far bigger question: why is it that the doing which produced the commodity is negated? 'Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value.' (1965, p. 80)

Capital is a study of the self-negation of doing. From the commodity, Marx moves on to value, money, capital, profit, rent, interest - ever more opaque forms of the occultation of doing, ever more sophisticated forms of the suppression of power-to. Doing (human activity) disappears further and further from sight. Things rule. It is in this world where things rule, where the novum of human creativity disappears from sight, in this 'enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world' (Marx 1975, p. 830), that it becomes possible to speak of the 'laws of capitalist development'. It is on the basis of the critique of this insanity that it becomes possible to criticise the categories of the political economists, the rationality and laws of their analysis of an irrational, perverted world.

The core of all this is the separation of the done from the doing. This is inherent in the commodity, and receives its fully developed form in capital, the appropriation of the done by the owners of the past done (and therefore of the means of doing), the accumulation of done upon done, the accumulation of capital. 'Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!' Accumulation is simply the voracious, relentless process of separating done from doing, of turning the done (as means of doing) against the doers in order to subject their future doing to the sole end of further accumulation. It is this ever-renewed process that gives a specific form to doing (as abstract labour, labour abstracted from any particular content, value production, surplus value production) and to the done (as value, as commodity, as money, as capital): all aspects of the ever-repeated rupture of the collective flow of doing.

Marx now refers to this process of rupture not as alienation, but as 'fetishism'. In his discussion of fetishism at the end of chapter 1 of the first volume of Capital, he explains: 'In order ... to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent things endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race.'(1965, p. 72) The commodity is 'a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties' (1965, p. 71). The 'mystical character of commodities', Marx says, comes not from their use value, but from the commodity form itself, that is, from the fact that the product of labour assumes the form of a commodity. 'The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products. A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.'(1965, p. 72).

Just as Marx had insisted on understanding self-estrangement as the product of self-estranged labour, so he emphasises that the peculiar character of commodities has its origin in the 'peculiar social character of the labour that produces them'.(1965, p. 72) Commodity production is indirectly social labour: although the products are produced for social use, the form of production is private. 'Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer's labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.'(1965, p. 73; my emphasis). Social relations do not merely appear to be relations between things: rather, this appearance reflects the real fracturing of doing and done, the real rupture of the community of doing. Relations between doers really are refracted through relations between things (between dones that deny their origin in the sociality of doing). These things are the fetishised forms of the relations between producers, and, as such, they deny their character as social relations. Commodities, value, money conceal, 'instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers'.(1965, p. 76)

The fracturing of social relations is consolidated by bourgeois thought, which takes these fetishised forms as its basis rather than criticising them. 'The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.'(1965, p. 76) There is, then, no clear distinction here between thought and reality, theory and practice. Theory is an element of practice, actively contributing to the production and reproduction of the separation of doing from done.

The starting point for our thought is the fetishised world which confronts us. We are born into a world in which the community of doing is fractured. The separation of doing and done permeates our whole relation to the world and to those around us. Our vision of the world is already pre-shaped before we begin to reflect critically. Power-over, that separation of doing and done which is inherent in the production of commodities for the market, presents itself here impersonally. Marx introduces fetishism in the context of the production and exchange of commodities. This is not, however, a pre-capitalist phase, for the generalisation of commodity production presupposes the existence of labour power as a commodity, that is, the existence of a capitalist society. Commodity fetishism is, therefore, the penetration of capitalist power-over into the core of our being, into all our habits of thought, all our relations with other people.

Confronted with the fetishised world, all we can do is criticise. Value, for example, 'does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language.'(1965, p. 74) 'Man's reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.'(1965, p. 75)

Bourgeois thought has, in the best of cases, managed to decipher some of the social hieroglyphics. 'Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms.'(1965, p. 80) There is, however, a limit to bourgeois criticism. The separation of subject and object, doing and done, inevitably involves a hypostatisation of the present, a fixation of the present. As long as the separation of subject and object is not questioned, as long as the capitalist form of social organisation is not seen as transient, criticism is inevitably blind to the historicity of the phenomena criticised. The rupture of the sociality of doing is assumed to be natural, eternal. In other words, bourgeois (fetishised) thought is blind to the question of form. The question of form (value, money or capital as forms of social relations) arises only if one is alive to the historicity of bourgeois social relations, that is, to the fact that capitalism is a particular historical form of organising relations between people. 'If ... we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of society, we necessarily overlook that which is the differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity-form, and of its further developments, money-form, capital-form, &c.'(1965, p. 81) Consequently, bourgeois criticism does not look to the genesis of the phenomenon criticised, does not ask why social relations exist in these forms.

The category of form is central to Marx's discussion in Capital. He speaks of 'money-form', 'commodity-form', 'capital-form' and so on. These are not to be understood in the sense of a species-genus distinction (money as a 'form' or 'species' of something else), but simply as a mode of existence. Money, commodity, capital are modes of existence of social relations, the forms in which social relations currently exist. These are the frozen or rigidified modes of existence of relations between people. 'Form', then, is the echo of the scream, a message of hope. We scream against things as they are: yes, comes the echo, but things-as-they-are are not eternal, they are just the historically congealed forms of social relations. 'These formulae, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakeable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself.'(1965, pp. 80-81) But for us who scream, they are neither self-evident nor eternal.

It should already be clear what a central part the concept of fetishism plays in revolutionary theory. It is at once a critique of bourgeois society, a critique of bourgeois theory and an explanation of the stability of bourgeois society. It points at once to the dehumanisation of people, to our own complicity in the reproduction of power, and to the difficulty (or apparent impossibility) of revolution.

The concept of fetishism is central to Marx's critique of capitalist society. The theme of dehumanisation is constantly present in Marx's discussion in Capital and elsewhere. In capitalism there is an inversion of the relation between people and things, between subject and object. There is an objectification of the subject and a subjectification of the object: things (money, capital, machines) become the subjects of society, people (workers) become the objects. Social relations are not just apparently but really relations between things (between money and the state, between your money and mine), while humans are deprived of their sociality, transformed into 'individuals', the necessary complement of commodity exchange ('In order that this alienation be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners, and by implication as independent individuals'(1965, p. 87)). In the long and detailed discussion of conditions in the factory and the process of exploitation, the emphasis is constantly on the inversion of subject and object: 'Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman who employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality.'(1965, p. 423) It is not only for the physical misery that it brings, but above all for the inversion of things and people that Marx condemns capitalism: for the fetishisation of social relations in other words.

Inextricably linked with the condemnation of the inversion of subject and object in bourgeois society is the critique of bourgeois theory which takes this inversion for granted, which bases its categories on the fetishised forms of social relations: the state, money, capital, the individual, profit, wages, rent and so on. These categories are derived from the surface of society, the sphere of circulation, in which the subjectivity of the subject as producer is completely out of sight and all that can be seen is the interaction of things and of the individuals who are the bearers of these things. It is here, where social subjectivity is hidden from view, that liberal theory blooms. This sphere of circulation is 'a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.'(1965, p. 176) The whole three volumes of Capital are devoted to a critique of political economy, that is, to showing how the conceptions of political economy arise from the fetishised appearances of social relations. Political economy (and bourgeois theory in general) takes for granted the forms in which social relations exist (commodity-form, value-form, money-form, capital-form and so on). In other words, bourgeois theory is blind to the question of form: commodities and money (and so on) are not even thought of as being forms, or modes of existence, of social relations. Bourgeois theory is blind to the transitory nature of the current forms of social relations, takes for granted the basic unchangeability (the 'is-ness') of capitalist social relations.

Bourgeois thought, however, is not just the thought of the bourgeoisie, or of capitalism's active supporters. It refers rather to the forms of thought generated by the fractured relation beween doing and done (subject and object) in capitalist society. It is crucially important to see that the critique of bourgeois theory is not just a critique of 'them'. It is also, and perhaps above all, a critique of 'us', of the bourgeois nature of our own assumptions and categories, or, more concretely, a critique of our own complicity in the reproduction of capitalist power relations. The critique of bourgeois thought is the critique of the separation of subject and object in our own thought.

The fetishism which is so highly elaborated in the work of the political economists and other bourgeois theorists is equally the basis of everyday 'common-sense' conceptions in capitalist society. The assumption of the permanence of capitalism is built into the daily thought and practice of people in this society. The appearance and real existence of social relations as fragmented relations between things conceal both the basic antagonism of those relations and the possibility of changing the world. The concept of fetishism (rather than any theory of 'ideology' or 'hegemony') thus provides the basis for an answer to the age-old question, 'why do people accept the misery, violence and exploitation of capitalism?' By pointing to the way in which people not only accept the miseries of capitalism but also actively participate in its reproduction, the concept of fetishism also underlines the difficulty or apparent impossibility of revolution against capitalism. Fetishism is the central theoretical problem confronted by any theory of revolution. Revolutionary thought and practice is necessarily anti-fetishistic. Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanisation of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism.


The tragic dilemma of revolutionary change, the fact that its urgency and its apparent impossibility are two sides of the same process, intensifies to the degree that the fetishism of social relations becomes more penetrating and more pervasive.

The separation of doing and done, of subject and object, it is clear from Marx's discussion in Capital, goes beyond the immediate 'tearing away from man the object of his production' by the exploiting class. It is not just that the capitalist tears away from the worker the object which she has produced. The fact that the sociality of doing is mediated (broken and stuck together cracked) through the market (the sale and purchase of commodities) means that the rupture of doing and done is by no means limited to the immedate process of exploitation, but extends to the whole society. The whole of capitalism is cracked, 'an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world' (Capital III, 830). Although Marx's focus in Capital is on the critique of political economy, there is no reason at all to think that fetishism extends only to the sphere conceptualised by political economy. The implication of Marx's discussion is rather that fetishism permeates the whole of society, that the whole of capitalism is 'an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world', and that the subjectification of the object and the objectification of the subject is characteristic of every aspect of life. 'Separation', says Marx, is the 'real generation process of capital'. (1972, p. 422)

The question of the all-pervasive character of fetishism is taken up by a number of authors working in the Marxist tradition. The further the argument is developed, the more intense the tragic dilemma of revolution becomes. The more urgent revolutionary change is shown to be, the more impossible it seems. In terms of reification, instrumental rationality, one-dimensionality, identity, discipline, the different authors have emphasised the penetration of power into every sphere of our existence, the increasing closure of existence under capitalism. Their work raises to an excruciating pitch the intensity of the revolutionary dilemma.

Rather than try to give an account of the contributions of the different theorists, we shall try to build on their work to develop some of the points made in the previous chapter. This involves going back over the argument so far.

The starting point is the separation of doing and done. This implies an antagonistic separation between the doers and the appropriators of the done. The appropriators of the done (the owners of capital) use their control of the done, which is the means of doing, to get the doers to labour for them to increase the done which they appropriate. The capitalists, in other words, exploit the workers: they pay them what they need in order to survive (the value of their labour power) and appropriate the surplus that they produce (the surplus value). The separation of doing and done implies a dual class analysis, an antagonism between capital and the working class. This is fundamentally important and nothing in the argument should be taken as derogating from this position.

This class antagonism is often understood within the Marxist and socialist tradition to be an external relation. It is assumed that the antagonism between working class and capital is an external antagonism which leaves the two sides untouched in their fundamentals. The two sides of the antagonism are then a good side (working class) and a bad side (capitalist class). In such a perspective, one might expect that the question of revolution would be a relatively simple one, largely a practical question of organisation. Why, then, has there not been a successful communist revolution? The answers given are usually in terms of ideology, hegemony or false consciousness. The working class does not rise up because it is imbued with the ideology of the market; in a class society, the ideas of the ruling class are hegemonic; the working class suffers from false consciousness. In each case, the question of ideology, hegemony or false consciousness is separated from the question of the separation of doing from done: the sphere of ideology is seen as separate from the 'economic'. The emphasis on the lack of understanding of the working class is usually (inevitably?) accompanied by an assumption that the working class is a 'they'. 'They' have the wrong ideas, so our role (we who have the right ideas) is to enlighten them, to illuminate them, to bring them true consciousness. The problem of organisation is essentially 'how can we make them see?' 'We', of course, are generally assumed not to be subject to the same ideology, hegemony or false consciousness. The political problems inherent in such an approach should be obvious.

A second problem with such an approach is simply that it is unable to account for the complexity of the world. Lines are drawn too crudely, the complexity of social connections is short-circuited, so that Marxism loses its power of conviction. This has been particularly obvious in discussions of changing forms of social conflict in recent years - conflict around issues of gender or the environment, for example. There has been a tendency either to force such struggles into a pre-conceived mould of class struggle, or to speak of them as 'non-class struggles'. In the latter case, the concept of non-class struggle is accompanied either by the view that class struggle is diminishing in importance or that, in spite of everything, the fundamental conflict between capital and labour still remains the most important form of conflict. The understanding of the conflict between labour and capital as an external conflict which leaves both sides essentially untouched leads to the conception of the antagonism as an immediate one, in which both sides are immediately, empirically present. And then come the problems: where was the working class in the struggle against the Vietnam War, against nuclear weapons, where is the working class in support of the zapatista uprising, how can we speak of working class revolution when the working class is numerically on the decline, and so on. All of these questions can be answered, of course, but the cumulative evidence of a separation between 'the working class' as an empirically identifiable group and the most striking forms of rebellion has led to a progressive undermining of the idea that capitalism should be understood in terms of a basic class antagonism.

The argument here is that a class understanding of capitalism is fundamental, but that the class antagonism cannot be understood as an external relation, nor can class be understood in this immediate way. The separation of doing and done, as we have already begun to see in the previous chapter and in the first sections of this one, is not just a simple antagonism between doers and the appropriators of that which is done. Capitalist power-over, the separation of doing and done, is like one of those horrific modern bullets which do not simply pierce the flesh of the victim but explode inside her into a thousand different fragments. Or, less horrifically, capitalist power is like a rocket that shoots up into the sky and explodes into a multitude of coloured flares. To focus on the flares or the fragments of the bullet without seeing the trajectory of the rocket or the bullet is what much post-modern theory (or, indeed, bourgeois theory in general) does. On the other hand, to focus just on the primary movement of the bullet or the rocket and to treat the flares and the fragments as something external (non-class struggle) is a crudity that is politically unhelpful and theoretically unconvincing.

The concept of fetishism is concerned with the explosion of power inside us, not as something that is distinct from the separation of doing and done (as in the concepts of 'ideology' and 'hegemony'), but as something that is integral to that separation. That separation does not just divide capitalists from workers, but explodes inside us, shaping every aspect of what we do and what we think, transforming every breath of our lives into a moment of class struggle. The problem of why revolution has not happened is not a problem of 'them', but a problem of a fragmented 'us'.

We live, then, in an 'enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world' in which relations between people exist in the form of relations between things. Social relations are 'thingified' or 'reified'. The term 'reification' is the one used by Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. As the term 'reification' suggests, Lukács insists on its relevance for every aspect of social life. Reification is not just associated with the immediate labour process, nor just something that affects the 'workers'. 'The fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole'. (1971, 91) 'The transformation of the commodity relation into a thing of 'ghostly objectivity' ... stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man... And there is no natural form in which human relations can be cast, no way in which man can bring his physical and psychic 'qualities' into play without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process.' (1971, 100)


The separation of doing from done (and its subordination to the done) establishes the reign of is-ness, or identity. Identity is perhaps the most concentrated (and most challenging) expression of fetishism or reification. The breaking of the flow of doing deprives doing of its movement. Present doing is subordinate to past done. Living labour is subordinated to dead labour. Doing is frozen in mid-flight, transformed into being. The beauty, transfixed by the witch's curse, losing her movement loses her beauty: sleeping beauty is a contradiction in terms. The freezing is not absolute (any more than the rupture of doing is absolute). It is not that everything stands still, but everything is locked into a perpetual continuity, everything is repeated, everything moves forward on tracks.

If the world is looked at from the point of view of doing, it is clearly impossible to say 'the world is', or 'things are', or 'I am'. From the perspective of doing it is clear that everything is movement: the world is and is not, things are and are not, I am and am not. The contradiction that is inherent in these statements presents no problem if we think in terms of doing: in doing I go beyond myself, the world moves beyond itself, and so on. The change in me that is implied in my doing means that I am and am not. But once doing is broken, once doing is subordinated to the done, movement is halted and the statement that I am and am not seems incoherent. Once doing is ruptured, it is no longer doing and contradiction that prevail. Identity rules, contradiction is flattened. The world is, that's the way things are. But if we say 'the world is not; that's the way things are not', these now seem meaningless, illogical statements.

Identity implies the homogenisation of time. When the flow of doing is broken and doing subjected to the done and its quantitative accumulation, then doing is forced onto certain tracks, contained within certain parameters. Doing is reduced to labour, limited to doing-in-the-service-of-the-expansion-of-capital. This both limits the content of doing and imposes a certain (and ever-increasing) rhythm upon doing. Labour, as doing has become, is measured quantitatively: it is labour for a certain number of hours, labour that produces something that can be sold for a price, labour that produces value, labour which is rewarded quantitatively in money by a wage. People's doing becomes converted into a train that moves faster and faster, but along pre-established tracks. 'Time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' ...: in short, it becomes space' (Lukács1971, p. 90). Time becomes clock time, tick-tick time, in which one tick is just the same as another: a time that moves but stays still, treadmill time. The varying intensity of lived time, of the time of passion and happiness and pain, is subordinated to the tick-tick of the clock.

Homogenous time has the present as its axis. It is not that the past and the future are completely denied, but the past and especially the future are subservient to the present: the past is understood as the pre-history of the present, and the future is conceived as the pre-visible extension of the present. Time is seen as a linear movement between past and future. Radically alternative possibilities for the future are pushed aside as fiction. All that lies, lay or might lie outside the tracks of tick-tick time is suppressed. Past struggles that pointed towards something radically different from the present are forgotten. 'All reification is a forgetting', as Horkheimer and Adorno put it. (1972, p.230) The rule of identity is the rule of amnesia. Memory, and with it hope, are subordinated to the relentless movement of the clock which goes nowhere. 'Only with the dismissal of the closed and static concept of being does the true dimension of hope arise.' (Bloch 1993, p. 17)

The rule of identity implies certain linguistic hierarchies. It implies, for example, the dominance of one verb, 'is', over all the others. In a world that is defined, other verbs are de-activated: their force is limited by that which is. Doing is a doing which is not just limited by, but permeated by, that which is: our everyday activity is constrained and permeated by that which is. Put differently, Is-ness implies the dominance of nouns over verbs. That which is becomes crystallised, consolidated, rigidified into nouns: in nouns movement is suppressed or contained. Just as time becomes tick-tick time, movement becomes tick-tick movement, the movement of an object without subject, a movement that itself becomes a thing, a movement rather than a moving.

The separation of doing from done is the separation of constitution or genesis from existence. That which is done is separated off from the doing which did it. It acquires a separate existence distinct from the doing which constituted it. I make a chair. From the perspective of the social flow of doing, there is a fleeting objectification of the chair: it is immediately integrated through use (through doing) into the collective flow (if it is not used, it ceases to be a chair from the perspective of doing). But in capitalism, the objectification is more than fleeting. The chair which I made exists now as the property of my employer. It is a commodity which can be sold. Its existence is quite separate from its constitution. Indeed, its constitution or genesis (the doing which made it) is negated by its existence as a commodity: it is forgotten, a matter of total indifference to the existence of the chair. The purchaser uses the chair and in that sense reincorporates it into doing, but the flow is (really and apparently) broken: there is absolutely no direct relation between the doing of the user and the doing of the maker. Existence acquires a duration. The time of existence of the chair is a time of duration: the chair now is, its is-not-ness totally forgotten. Constitution and existence are sundered. The constituted denies the constituting, the done the doing, the object the subject. The object constituted acquires a durable identity. This sundering (both real and apparent) is crucial to the stability of capitalism. The statement that 'that's the way things are' presupposes that separation. The separation of constitution and existence is the closure of radical alternatives.


The separation of doing from done and the transformation of doing into being (identity) that it implies is the core not only of the rigidification of time but also of the falling apart of every aspect of social relations. If the social flow of doing is what braids people's lives together, if it is the material formation of a 'we', then the fracturing of the collective doing which capitalism involves pulls the braid apart, tears the individual strands of the braid one from another. If the flow of doing implies community, a community across time and space, then the breaking of that flow dismembers all possibility of community.

The breaking of the collective flow of doing brings with it the individualisation of the doers. For the exchange of commodities to take place, both the commodities and their producers must be abstracted from the collectivity of doing. 'In order that this alienation [of commodities] mat be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common...' (Marx 1965, p. 87) The starting point for thought becomes not the person-as-part-of-the-community but the individual as a person with his own distinct identity. Community can thenceforth be imagined only as the aggregation of discrete individuals, the putting together of beings rather than the flow of doings.

The individual stands apart from the collectivity. He is separated from his species-being or species-life, as the young Marx puts it. In the bourgeois notion of science, that is, in the notion of science which assumes capitalist society to be permanent, this distancing of the individual from the community is prized as a virtue. The further away the scientist of society stands from the society which he is studying the better. The ideal scientist would be an observer placed on the moon, from where he would be able to analyse society with true objectivity. The collectivity, society, becomes an object, separated from the subject by as great a distance as possible.

In this way of thinking, science and objectivity are regarded as synonymous. To study something scientifically is to study it objectively or, if it is acepted that this is not possible, then the scientist must do his best to aproximate objectivity, to maintain a distance from the object of study. Objectivity here means suppressing our own subjectivity as far as possible: a subjective statement is considered, by definition, to be unscientific. The notion of what is scientific is thus based upon an obvious falsehood, namely the idea that it is possible to express a thought that excludes the thinker. (This does not, of course, mean that a statement that is explicitly subjective is thereby necessarily correct or scientific).

Identity thus implies a third person discourse. To write scientifically, we write about things in the third person, as 'it' or 'they': political parties are such and such; Marxism is so and so; Britain is this or that. First person discourse (I am bored by political parties; we want a better life; above all, we scream) is regarded as unscientific. Study or theory is therefore study of something or about something, as in: social theory is the study of society, that is a book about Marxism, today we are going to learn about Mexico in the nineteenth century. In each case, the preposition 'of' or 'about' marks a separation or distance between the student or theorist and the object of study. 'Knowledge about' is quite simply the other side of 'power-over'. The best students or theorists of society are those who can view society as though they stood outside it (students who find this pretence difficult often have problems in getting their work recognised, although, again, this does not mean that first person discourse is thereby correct). Theory, then, is what the word 'theory' (from qew, I view) suggests: a viewing or contemplation of an external object. The subject is present, but as a viewer, as a passive rather than an active subject, as a de-subjectified subject, in short as an objectified subject. If we write about 'it', then the only way in which we may appear scientifically is as viewer (voyeur). Then, precisely because the theory is seen as existing separately from the theorist, it is seen as something that can be 'applied' to the world.

The third person of which we speak is a third person present indicative. What is important in thought that takes identity as its basis is things as they are, not things as they might be or as we wish they were. There is no room for the subjunctive in the scientific discourse of identitarian thought. If we are excluded, then our dreams and wishes and fears are excluded too. The subjunctive mood, the mood of uncertainties, anxieties, longings, possibilities, the mood of the not yet, has no place in the world of objectivity. The language of the world of 'that's-the-way-things-are' is firmly in the indicative mood.

The breaking of the social flow of doing implies, then, that I (no longer the vague 'we') as a social scientist abstract from my feelings and my position in society and try to understand society as it is. Society presents itself to me as a mass of particulars, a multitude of discrete phenomena. I proceed by trying to define the particular phenomena that I want to study and then seeking the connection between those defined phenomena.

Identity implies definition. Once the flow of doing is fractured, once social relations are fragmented into relations between discrete things, then a knowledge which takes that fragmentation for granted can only proceed through defining, delimiting each thing, each phenomenon, each person or group of people. Knowledge proceeds through definition: something is known if it can be defined. What is politics? What is sociology? What is economics? What is a political party? What is Marxism? The introductory questions to study in schools or universities are typically definitional questions. Postgraduate theses typically begin with a definition or delimitation of the object of study. Definition is the description of an identity which is distinct from other identities. Definition aims to delimit identities in a non-contradictory manner: if I define x, it does not make any sense, from a definitional perspective, to say that x is both x and non-x. Definition fixes social relations in their static, fragmented, reified is-ness. A definitional world is a clean world, a world of clear divisions, a world of exclusion, a world in which the other is clearly separated as other. Definition constitutes otherness. The definition of x constitutes non-x as other. If I define myself as Irish, then I am not English; if I define myself as white, then I am not black; if I define myself as Aryan, then I am not Jewish. The English, the blacks, the Jews are Others, not-Us. A whole world of horror is contained in the process of definition.

Definition excludes us as active subjects. The 'we' who started this book, the still unexplored 'we' who want to change the world, are excluded from a definitional view of the world. When we define something, we normally define it as separate from us. Definition constitutes that which is defined as an object, as an object which, by its definition, is separated from the subject. It is no different when 'we' are defined, as in 'we are women' or 'we are the working class': the definition delimits us, denies our active subjectivity (at least in relation to that which is defined), objectifies us. The we-who-want-to-change-the-world cannot be defined.

The world of identity is a world of particulars, individualised and atomised. The table is a table, the chair is a chair, Britain is Britain, Mexico is Mexico. Fragmentation is fundamental to identitarian thought. The world is a fragmented world. A world of absolute identity is thereby also a world of absolute difference. Knowledge of the world is equally fragmented, into the distinct disciplines. Study of society takes place through sociology, political science, economics, history, anthropology and so on, with all their distinct sub-disciplines and endless specialisations, which rest in turn on fragmented concepts of space (Britain, Mexico, Spain), time (the nineteenth century, the 1990s) and social activity (the economy, the political system).


But what is beyond this fragmentation? A world composed purely of particulars would be impossible to conceptualise and impossible to inhabit. The fracturing of doing is the fracturing of collectivity, but some sort of collectivity is necessary, both conceptually and practically. The collectivity is no longer a communal braiding of doing, more a lumping together of particulars into the same bag, much as potatoes in a sack might be said to form a collectivity, to adapt Marx's famous description of the peasants as a class. Collectivities are formed on the basis of identity, on the basis of being, rather than on the movement of doing. This is the process of classification. Doing may well be part of the process of classification, but it is a dead doing, doing that is contained within an identity, within a role or character-mask: classification of doctors as a group, say, is based not on the weaving together of their doing, but on their definition as a certain type of doer, on the imposition of a character-mask as doctor. Classes in this sense are always more or less arbitrary: any collection of identities can be thrown into a sack together, sub-divided into smaller bags, put together into larger containers and so on.

It is the fracturing of doing that, through definition and classification, constitutes collective identities. It is the fracturing of doing that creates the idea that people are something - whatever, doctors, professors, Jews, blacks, women - as though that identity excluded its simultaneous negation. From the perspective of doing, people simultaneously are and are not doctors, Jews, women and so on, simply because doing implies a constant movement against-and-beyond whatever we are. From the perspective of doing, definition can be no more than an evanescent positing of identity which is immediately transcended. The barrier between what one is and what one is not, between collective self and collective other can not therefore be seen as fixed or absolute. It is only if one takes identity as one's standpoint, only if one starts from the acceptance of the rupture of doing, that labels such as 'black', 'Jewish', 'Irish' and so on, take on the character of something fixed. The idea of an 'identity' politics which takes such labels as given inevitably contributes to the fixation of identities. In this, it makes little difference whether one thinks of that identity as woman or man, black or white, gay or heterosexual, Irish or English. The appeal to being, to identity, to what one is, always involves the consolidation of identity, the strengthening, therefore, of the fracturing of doing, in short, the reinforcement of capital.

Classification, the formation of collective identities on the basis of definition, is, of course, not just of immediately political relevance. It is fundamental to the scientific procedure as it is conceived in capitalist society. It is the core of formal abstraction - the attempt to conceptualise the world on the basis of static and non-contradictory categories, rather than on the basis of movement and contradiction (substantive or determinate abstraction). Formal abstraction, abstraction on the basis of identity in other words, is the basis of all the methods and procedures which are recognised as scientific in our institutions of teaching and learning.

Through classification, conceptual hierarchies are formed. Particulars are ordered under universals, universals under higher universals, and so on. This is a desk chair; the desk chair is an upright chair; the upright chair is a chair; the chair is a piece of furniture, and so on. A hierarchy of species and genera is established: a desk chair is a species, or type, or form, or class, of upright chair. The hierarchical ordering of concepts is at the same time a process of formalisation: the concept of chair (or furniture) becomes increasingly separated from any particular content. Lips touch in a kiss; a bullet flies towards the victim. Both the touching of the lips and the flying of the bullet are forms of motion. We can speak of the motion of both in a way that abstracts completely from the different contents of kissing and killing.

Formalisation, the abstraction from content, makes possible the quantification and mathematisation of the object of study. Once lip-touching and bullet-flying are classified as forms of motion, it becomes possible to compare them quantitatively by comparing the speed with the which the different objects move. In quantification all content is left behind: lips and bullet are brought together on the unassailable assumption that 1=1, 2=2, 3=3 and so on.

Quantification, however, is just one aspect of the way in which mathematics develops the formal abstraction which is inherent in identification. If x is x and y is y, then the only way in which we can bring them into relation with each other is formally, by abstracting from their particular content. If we classify John and Jane as people, we do so not by denying their particular identities (John remains John, Jane remains Jane), but by abstracting from them, by leaving aside their particular contents as John or Jane and focusing on their formal equivalence as people. Formal abstraction is at the same time homogenisation: in identitarian thought one person is equal to another in the same homogeneous way that one tick of time is equal to another, one square metre of space is equal to another. Once particularities are left behind, it is possible to develop a formal reasoning which aims at making the whole structure of identification and classification as rigorous, orderly and non-contradictory as possible. Formal logic and mathematics start from the simple identity x=x and develop its implications to the highest degree possible. If x were not x, if x were both x and not-x, then the basis of mathematics would be undermined. The mutual exclusion of x and non-x is expressed most clearly in binary logic (Boolean algebra), in which everything is expressed as 1 or 0, True or False, Yes or No. There is no room here for the yes-and-no or maybe of common experience. Over the last 50 years, binary logic has been elaborated with extraordinary practical impact in the development of computing.

The separation of doing from done which is the basis of fetishism or reification thus involves an increasing formalisation of social relations and a corresponding formalisation of thought. In the course of the Enlightenment, the philosophical accompaniment to the establishment of capitalist social relations, reason becomes increasingly formalised. Where previously the notion of reason had been related to the pursuit of the good or the true, it now becomes progressively limited to the establishment of the formally correct. Truth is reduced to 'formally correct': beyond that, truth is seen as a matter of subjective judgment. (Horkheimer 1997) What is formally correct can be seen as a mathematical problem which abstracts entirely from the content of the matter. The tendency of theory is 'towards a purely mathematical system of symbols'. (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 190). In this 'increasingly formalistic universality of reason ... value judgement has nothing to do with reason and science. It is regarded as a matter of subjective preference whether one decides for liberty or obedience, democracy or fascism, enlightenment or authority, mass culture or truth'. (Horkheimer, 1978b, p. 31). Reason is separated from understanding, thought from being. Reason becomes a matter of efficiency, 'the optimum adaptation of means to ends'. (Horkheimer, 1978b, p. 28). Reason, in other words, becomes instrumental reason, a means to achieve an end rather than a scrutiny or critique of the end itself. Reification involves the loss of meaning, or rather meaning becomes the purely formal process of measuring means to an end. Nuclear destruction is the outcome of rational thought. It is when judged by such rationality that our scream appears irrational.

The formalisation of reason is at the same time the separation of what is from what ought to be. Rational thought is now concerned with what is and its rational (efficient) ordering. This means not the elimination of 'ought' but its separation from 'is': what is is one thing and what ought to be another. Most people would agree that there ought to be no children forced to live on the streets, but (so the argument goes) the reality is different. The study of society, whether it be sociology, politics, economics or whatever 'discipline' of social science, is the study of what is. The question of what ought to be may be interesting too, but we must not blur the distinction between the two, we must not confuse reality with dreams. As long as they are kept separate, there is no problem. Moralistic reasoning about what ought to be, far from undermining what is, actually reinforces it: 'the "ought" presupposes an existing reality to which the category of "ought" remains inapplicable in principle. Whenever the refusal of the subject simply to accept his empirically given existence takes the form of an "ought", this means that the immediately given empirical reality receives affirmation and consecration at the hands of philosophy: it is philosophically immortalised.' (Lukács, 1971, p. 160)

To the extent that there really is a formal abstraction of social relations, those relations can be understood as being governed by laws, and it becomes possible to speak of the 'laws of capitalist development'. The owners of capital do not control capitalist society. Rather, they too are subject to the laws of capitalist development, laws which reflect the separation of the doer from the doing, the autonomy of the doing. The most that people can do is adapt themselves to these 'laws' which they do not control: 'man in capitalist society confronts a reality "made" by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its "laws", his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfilment of certain individual laws for his own (egoistic) interests. But even while "acting" he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events.'(Lukács, 1971, p. 135) Freedom, in this context, becomes simply knowledge of and subordination to the laws, the aceptance of necessity. The law-bound nature of capitalist society, then, and the possibility of the scientific study of these laws is nothing other than an expression of the fact that doers do not control their doing and that 'all human relations ... assume increasingly the objective forms of the abstract elements of the conceptual systems of natural science and of the abstract substrata of the laws of nature.' (1971, p.131)


The argument could go on and on. The point is that at the basis of an immensely complex social structure lies a simple principle - identity. The principle of identity is so basic to capitalist social organisation that to underline its importance seems absolutely meaningless, simply because it seems so obvious. And yet it is not so obvious. The idea that someone is x without the simultaneous realisation that she is not x is rooted in something that is very far from obvious: namely, the daily repeated separation of done from doing, the daily repeated seizure from the doers of the product of their doing and its definition as the property of someone else. This very real, very material identification (this thing is mine, not yours) spreads like a crack into every aspect of our social organisation and every aspect of our consciousness.

Identity is the antithesis of mutual recognition, of community, friendship and love. If I say that 'I am x', it implies that my being x does not depend on anyone else, that it does not depend on anyone else's recognition. I stand alone, my relations with other people are quite peripheral to my being. Social recognition is something that stands outside me, something that comes through the market when I can sell my product or sell my own capacity to do things at a higher price (promotion, for example). Other people are just that, other. Seen through the prism of identity, relations between people are external. As Bublitz (1998, pp. 34ff) points out in her discussion of Aristotle, friendship and love are impossible to conceptualise on the basis of a formal logic of identity. There can be no mutual recognition, no recognition of ourselves in others, of others in ourselves. From an identitarian perspective, the 'we' with which we started can be no more than an arbitrary sack of potatoes, or else a false (and threatening) chumminess with no real basis. There is no room there for the mutual inter-penetration of existence which we experience as friendship or love. Enmity, on the other hand, is easy to understand: the other is the other. The other is not part of us and we are not part of the other.

It is clear that the process of identification is not external to us. We are active in the process of identifying or reifying social relations, just as we are active in producing the done which is turned against our doing. There is no innocent subject. Power-over reaches into us and transforms us, forcing us to participate actively in its reproduction. The rigidification of social relations, the that's-the-way-things-are-ness that confronts our scream is not just outside us (in society), but reaches into us as well, into the way that we think, the way we act, the way we are, the fact that we are. In the process of being separated from our done and from our doing, we ourselves are damaged. Our activity is transformed into passivity, our will to do things is transformed into greed for money, our cooperation with fellow-doers is transformed into an instrumental relation mediated by money or competition. The innocence of our doing, of our power-to, becomes a guilty participation in the exercise of power-over. Our estrangement from doing is a self-estrangement. Here is no pure, eager revolutionary subject, but damaged humanity. We are all deeply involved in the construction of identitarian reality, and this process is the construction of ourselves.

The reality that confronts us reaches into us. What we scream against is not just out there, it is also inside us. It seems to invade all of us, to become us. That is what makes our scream so anguished, so desperate. That too is what makes our scream seem so hopeless. At times it seems that our scream itself is the only fissure of hope. Reality, the reality of capital, seems completely inescapable. As Marcuse (1998, p. 16) puts it, 'the unfree individual introjects his masters and their commands into his own mental apparatus. The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions.' This introjection of our masters is the introjection of an identitarian, alienated reality (theorised by Freud as an absolute, biologically determined reality rather than a historically specific form of reality), to which we subordinate our pursuit of pleasure.

Reification, therefore, refers not just to the rule of the object but to the creation of a peculiarly dislocated subject. The separation of doer from doing and done creates a doer who is cut adrift from doing, who is subordinate to the done, but appears to be completely independent of it. The separation of people from the social tapestry of doing constitutes them as free individuals, free not only in the double sense indicated by Marx, namely free from personal bondage and free of access to the means of survival, but free also from responsibility to the community and free from a sense of meaningful participation in the collective doing. While our discussion has shown that the fracture of doing means that the subject too is fractured (alienated, anguished, damaged), the subject of bourgeois theory is an innocent, healthy, freely self-determining individual: admittedly, certain individuals have psychological problems, but they are just personal problems, nothing to do with the social schizophrenia that cuts through every aspect of our existence. The more subordination to the done is taken for granted, the more free the individual subject appears. The more thoroughly identification is established as something that is simply beyond question, beyond thought, the freer the society appears. The more profoundly unfree we are, the more liberated we appear to be. The illusory freedom of the citizen is the counterpart of the illusory community of the state. We live in a free society, don't we? No wonder our scream is so violent.

We have, then, two concepts of the subject. The subject of bourgeois theory is the free individual, whereas the subjectivity that has been central to our account is a collective subjectivity rent asunder by the tearing of doing from done, an atomised subject damaged to our depths. The subject of bourgeois theory does not scream, while our subject screams to high heaven, not because of any particularity, just because of our sundered subjectivity. For bourgeois theory, subjectivity is identity, whereas in our argument, subjectivity is the negation of identity.

There is no doubt that the first concept, that of the innocent, wholesome, subject, has often been transferred by some currents in Marxist theory to the notion of the working class. Soviet images of the heroic working class come to mind, but the image of the heroic revolutionary goes far beyond the Soviet experience. It is in this context that it becomes possible to understand the concern of some theorists (structuralists, post-structuralists, post-modernists) to attack the notion of the subject. Much of what is seen as an attack on subjectivity is simply an attack on identity, on the bourgeois identification of subjectivity with identity. Thus, for example, when Foucault speaks of (and analyses in detail) the 'immense work to which the West has set generations to produce ... the subjection of men; I mean their constitution as 'subjects' in both senses of the word' (1976, p. 81), then this is surely correct in relation to the constitution of the 'free' subject of capitalist society, who is indeed subject in both senses of the word. To identify the bourgeois subject with subjectivity as a whole, however, is a most murderous throwing of the baby out with the bathwater. To confound subjectivity with identity and criticise subjectivity in an attempt to attack identity leads only to a total impasse, since subjectivity, as movement, as negation of is-ness, is the only possible basis for going beyond identity, and therefore beyond the bourgeois subject.


The fetish is a real illusion. Marx, as we saw, insists that in a commodity producing society, 'the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.' (1965, p. 73) The fetishised categories of thought express a really fetishised reality. If we see theory as a moment of practice, thinking as a moment of doing, then there is a continuity between the fetishisation of thought and the fetishisation of practice. Fetishisation (and hence alienation, reification, identification and so on) refer not just to processes of thinking but to the material separation of done from doing of which those conceptual processes are part. It follows that fetishisation cannot be overcome in thought alone: the overcoming of fetishisation means the overcoming of the separation of doing and done.

This is important because the concept of fetishism (alienation and so on) loses its force if it is separated from the material separation of doing and done in which it is founded. Fetishisation is central to the material process by which the done is torn from the doer. If a separation is made between the material process of exploitation and the fetishisation of thought, then alienation or fetishisation becomes reduced to a tool of cultural critique, a sophisticated moan. This is indeed, as Adorno points out (1990, p. 190) to make 'critical theory idealistically acceptable to the reigning consciousness and to the collective unconscious'. It is to reproduce in the concept of fetishisation itself precisely that separation of 'economic' and 'cultural' which the concept of fetishism criticises.

The violence of identification, then, is by no means merely conceptual. The scientific method of identitarian thought is the exercise of power-over. Power is exercised over people through their effective identification. Thus, capitalist production is based on identification: this is mine. Law too is based on identity: the person subjected to legal process is identified, separated off from all those others who might be considered as co-responsible in some way. The identification is expressed very physically: in the handcuffs that identify the person as accused of a crime, in the treatment of the person as an identified individual, in the physical enclosure in a prison or a cell, possibly in execution, that supreme act of identification which says 'you are and have been, and shall not become'. Is-ness, identity, the denial of becoming, is death.

Identification, definition, classification is a physical as well as a mental process. The Jews who were identified, classified and numbered in the concentration camps were the objects of more than a mental exercise. Identification, definition, classification is the basis of the physical, spatial and temporal organisation of armies, hospitals, schools and other institutions, the core of what Foucault refers to as discipline, the micro-physics of power, the political economy of detail. Bureaucratic power is based on the same process of identification and classification, as indeed is the whole operation of the state. The state identifies people, defines them, classifies them. A state is inconceivable without the definition of citizens and the simultaneous exclusion of non-citizens: 856,000 Mexicans were detained on the frontier with the United States in the last six months. That is identification, definition, classification on a grand scale.


The argument of this chapter has taken us forward in our understanding of power, but we are left with a depressing dilemma.

It should be clear now that power can not be taken, for the simple reason that power is not possessed by any particular person or institution. Power lies rather in the fragmentation of social relations. This is a material fragmentation which has its core in the constantly repeated separation of the done from the doing, which involves the real mediation of social relations through things, the real transformation of relations between people into relations between things. Our practical intercourse is fragmented and, with it and as part of it, our patterns of thought, the way we think and talk about social relations. In thought and in practice, the warm inter-weaving of doing, the loves and hates and longings which constitute us, become shattered into so many identities, so many cold atoms of existence, standing each one on its own. Power-over, that which makes our scream echo hollowly, that which makes radical change difficult even to conceive, lies in this shattering, in identification.

The state, then, is not the locus of power that it appears to be. It is just one element in the shattering of social relations. The state, or rather the states, define us as 'citizens', and 'non-citizens', giving us national identities in what is one of the most directly murderous aspects of the process of identification. How many millions of people were killed in the twentieth century for no other reason than that they were defined as being nationals of a particular state? How many millions of people did the killing for the same reason? How many times has the scream against oppression been diverted into the assertion of national identity in national liberation movements which have done little more than reproduce the oppression against which the scream was directed? The state is exactly what the word suggests, a bulwark against change, against the flow of doing, the embodiment of identity.

The understanding of power as the fragmentation of social relations takes us back again to Foucault's attack on the binary concept of power and his insistence that power must be understood in terms of a multiplicity of forces. It should now be clear that the dichotomy between a binary and a multiple view of power is a false one. The multiplicity of power relations derives precisely from the binary antagonism between doing and done. To reduce this complexity to a simple binary antagonism between capitalist class and proletariat, as has often been done, leads to both theoretical and political problems. Similarly, to focus on the multiplicity and forget the underlying unity of power relations leads to a loss of political perspective: emancipation becomes impossible to conceive, as Foucault is at pains to point out. Moreover to focus on a multiplicity of identities without asking as to the process of identification which gives rise to those identities is inevitably to reproduce those identities, that is, to participate actively in the process of identification. It is essential, then, to insist on the unity-in-separation, separation-in-unity of the binary and the multiple.

We are left with a dilemma. The power of capital is all-penetrating. It shapes the way in which we perceive the world, our sexuality, our very constitution as individual subjects, our ability to say 'I'. There seems to be no way out. 'Absolute reification ... is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely', as Adorno (1967, p. 34) puts it. And absolute reification is absolute death. Identity negates possibility, denies openness to other life. Identity kills, both metaphorically and very, very literally. Over all our reflections on identity stands the terrible warning of Adorno: 'Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death.' (1990, p. 362).

The more we think about power in capitalist society, the more anguished our scream becomes. But the more anguished it becomes, the more desperate, the more helpless. The penetration of power-over into the core of those who are subject to that power-over is the central problem that any revolutionary theory has to deal with. The reaching of the separation of doing and done into the doer herself is both the reason why revolution is desperately urgent and the reason why it is increasingly difficult to conceive. The maiming of the subject through the penetration of power-over into the depths of her existence stirs both indignation and resignation: how can we live in a society based on dehumanisation? But how can we possibly change a society in which people are so dehumanised? This is the dilemma of the urgent impossibility of revolution.

There are three possible ways out of the dilemma.

The first is to give up hope. Instead of thinking that it might be possible to create a society free of exploitation, free of war, free of violence, an emancipated society based on mutual recognition, this approach accepts that the world cannot be changed radically and focuses instead on living as well as can be and making whatever small changes may be possible. Alienation is recognised, perhaps, but regarded as being permanent. The concepts of revolution and emancipation are abandoned and replaced with the idea of 'micro-politics'. The multiplicity of power comes to be seen as the underpinning of a multiplicity of struggles focussed on particular issues or particular identities: struggles which aim at a rearrangement but not an overcoming of power relations.

Disillusionment is associated most commonly with post-modern theory and politics, but it spreads much farther than that. In other cases, the notion of revolution may be retained as a point of reference, but left-wing discourse becomes more melancholic, more and more focussed on denouncing the horrors of capitalism and more and more removed from considering the possibility of a solution. Left-wing intellectuals adopt the position of Cassandra, prophesying the doom that is to come, but with little hope of being heard.

The melancholic Cassandras and the post-modernists may, of course, be quite right. Perhaps there is no hope, perhaps there is no possibility of creating a society that is not based on exploitation and dehumanisation. It may well be that when humanity finally destroys itself in a nuclear blast or otherwise, the last post-modernist will be able to say with glee to the last hopeful Marxist, 'you see, I told you so, now you can see that my approach was scientifically correct'. It may well be so, but it does not help us very much. The scream with which we started announced an obstinate refusal to give up hope, a refusal to accept that the miseries and inhumanities of capitalism are inevitable. From the perspective of the scream, then, giving up hope is simply not an option.

The second possible option is to forget the subtleties and focus exclusively on the binary nature of the antagonism between proletariat and capitalist class. Power, then, is quite simply a matter of 'who-whom', as Lenin put it.

In the mainstream Marxist tradition, fetishism has always been a rather suspect category, a mark of heterodoxy. It has always arisen as a critique of the 'scientificity' which defined Marxist orthodoxy, and which was upheld by the Communist Parties during the first two thirds of the twentieth century and continues to dominate much of Marxist discussion today. Especially during the reign of the Communist Parties, emphasis on the question of fetishism always had something of the character of 'anti-Marxist Marxism', with all the dangers of political or physical exclusion that that implied. Lukács's book caused him serious political problems within the Communist Party. The tensions that exist already in his work between the consistency of his criticism and his loyalty to the Party led him in practice to give priority to the Party and to denounce his own work. Other authors who suffered even more seriously for their attempt to return to Marx's concern with fetishism and form were I.I. Rubin and Evgeny Pashukanis, both of them working in Russia just after the revolution. Rubin, in his Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, first published in 1924, insisted on the centrality of commodity fetishism and the concept of form for Marx's critique of political economy. One of the implications of this insistence on the question of form was to underline the specifically capitalist character of value relations, and as a result Rubin disappeared during the purges of the 1930s. A similar fate was shared by Pashukanis who, in his General Theory of Law and Marxism, argued that Marx's critique of political economy should be extended to the critique of law and the state, that law and the state should be understood as fetishised forms of social relations in the same way as value, capital and the other categories of political economy. This meant that law and the state, like value, were specifically capitalist forms of social relations. At a time when the Soviet state was consolidating itself, this argument did not find favour with the Party authorities.

Orthodox Marxism has generally preferred a simpler picture of power, in which the taking of state power has been central to the concept of revolutionary change. In a later chapter we shall examine in more detail this tradition and some of the problems associated with it.

The third possible approach to solving the dilemma of the urgent impossibility of revolution is to accept that there can be absolutely no certainty of a happy ending, but nevertheless to look for hope in the nature of capitalist power itself. Ubiquitous power implies ubiquitous resistance. Ubiquitous yes implies ubiquitous no. Power-over, we have seen, is the negation of power-to, the denial of the social flow of doing. Power-to exists in the form of its negation, power-over. The social flow of doing exists in the form of its negation, individual performance. Doing exists in the form of labour, community in the form of a mass of individuals, non-identity in the form of identity, human relations in the form of relations between things, lived time in the form of clock time, the subjunctive in the form of the indicative, humanity in the form of inhumanity. All of those different expressions of human emancipation, all those images of a society based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, all exist only in the form of their negation. But they exist. It is to the force of that which exists in the form of being denied that we must look for hope. That is the stuff of dialectical thought: dialectics is the 'consistent sense of non-identity', the sense of the explosive force of that which is denied.

What is the status, then, of all of these categories that exist only in the form of being denied? Certainly they are not recognised by mainstream social science: for mainstream social science, there is absolutely no room for that which exists in the form of being denied. Are they then a mere chimera, mere fancies of discontented intellectuals, a romantic harking back to a mythical golden age? No, they are none of those. They are hopes, aspirations, prefigurations of a human society. But for these hopes to have force, we must understand them also as substratum, as that without which their denial could not exist, as that upon which their negating forms depend.

The third approach is to try to understand and thereby to participate in the force of all that which exists in antagonism, in the form of being denied.