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What is reification? What does it mean to anarchists?

+3 votes
Examples would be helpful. Also, what is the reification of power?

I've always found it difficult to understand this concept for some reason.
related to an answer for: Martial Arts (Hierarchy and Authority...)
asked Apr 18, 2013 by formyinformation (2,410 points)
A quote by Jason McQuinn that I found valuable in understanding reification (through an example): "Morality is a system of reified values—abstract values which are taken out of any context, set in stone, and converted into unquestionable beliefs to be applied regardless of a person's actual desires, thoughts or goals, and regardless of the situation in which a person finds him- or herself. Moralism is the practice of not only reducing living values to reified morals, but of considering oneself better than others because one has subjected oneself to morality (self-righteousness), and of proselytizing for the adoption of morality as a tool of social change."

3 Answers

0 votes
Reification is the treatment of an abstraction as if it were a real entity or a physical object. It also implies the attribution of thing-like qualities to living aspects. The trouble is understanding the way this notion changes its implications in different contexts or in different scales or perspectives of any context.

The reification of power could mean something to the effect of “casting a large shadow”, but a more ubiquitous example would be The People. Here's a chilling comment from Che Guevara that provides insight into this:

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.” — Socialism and Man in Cuba

Among other things, take note of the Biblical aspects of this. In order for a human sacrifice to be a sacrifice, there has to be an "ordinary" love that is expended as propitiation in the process for redemption to be gained for a greater love of God. The implication of this being that the revolutionary who loves The People the most cannot help but sacrifice them in great number. The end logic of this being:

“Stalin returned to the Kremlin the next day, 1 July. Two days later he made his own broadcast to the Soviet peoples. His instincts served him well. He surprised his listeners by addressing them as ‘Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters.’ No master of the Kremlin had ever addressed his people in such familial terms. … Stalin understood that the Soviet peoples were far more likely to lay down their lives for their country than for any Communist ideology. … He also ordered a people's levy—narodnoe opolchenie—to be set up. These militia battalions of ill-armed cannon-fodder were expected to slow the German panzer divisions, with little more than their bodies. … The untrained and scarcely armed People's Levy, the narodnoe opolchenie, was thrown into futile and murderous attacks, literally acting in the Russian phrase as ‘meat for the cannon.’ Altogether over 135,000 Leningraders, factory workers as well as professors, had volunteered, or been forced to volunteer. They had no training, no medical assistance, no uniforms, no transport and no supply system. More than half lacked rifles, and yet they were still ordered into counter-attacks against panzer divisions. Most fled in terror of the tanks, against which they had no defence at all. This massive loss of life—perhaps some 70,000—was tragically futile, and it is far from certain that their sacrifice even delayed the Germans at all on the line of the River Luga.”
—ANTONY BEEVOR, The Second World War

And so, what happens to the people in the People's Militia is completely irrelevant. Humanity could very well exhaust itself of life in this fashion, so long as the State remains.

Reflection time: Horrifyingly, that was a kind of sentiment that would have found purchase among many anarchists in the previous two centuries. Not the pinnacle it reached in the World Wars or any time after, but certainly the kernel of it.

“I have difficulty in keeping myself from falling back into reverie. I must form a definite plan of action. My purpose is quite clear to me. A tremendous struggle is taking place at Homestead: the People are manifesting the right spirit in resisting tyranny and invasion. My heart exults. This is, at last, what I have always hoped for from the American workingman: once aroused, he will brook no interference; he will fight all obstacles, and conquer even more than his original demands. It is the spirit of the heroic past reincarnated in the steel-workers of Homestead, Pennsylvania. What supreme joy to aid in this work! That is my natural mission. I feel the strength of a great undertaking. No shadow of doubt crosses my mind. The People — the toilers of the world, the producers — comprise, to me, the universe. They alone count. The rest are parasites, who have no right to exist. But to the People belongs the earth — by right, if not in fact. To make it so in fact, all means are justifiable; nay, advisable, even to the point of taking life. The question of moral right in such matters often agitated the revolutionary circles I used to frequent. I had always taken the extreme view. The more radical the treatment, I held, the quicker the cure. Society is a patient; sick constitutionally and functionally. Surgical treatment is often imperative. The removal of a tyrant is not merely justifiable; it is the highest duty of every true revolutionist. Human life is, indeed, sacred and inviolate. But the killing of a tyrant, of an enemy of the People, is in no way to be considered as the taking of a life. A revolutionist would rather perish a thousand times than be guilty of what is ordinarily called murder. In truth, murder and Attentat are to me opposite terms. To remove a tyrant is an act of liberation, the giving of life and opportunity to an oppressed people. True, the Cause often calls upon the revolutionist to commit an unpleasant act; but it is the test of a true revolutionist — nay, more, his pride — to sacrifice all merely human feeling at the call of the People’s Cause. If the latter demand his life, so much the better.

Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete MAN. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards.”
—ALEXANDER BERKMAN, The Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912)

Russian "peopleism" was of great consequence for anarchists at the turn of the last century, but its one thing that anarchists have left behind. (Even if it persists as an object of study and retrospection.) I'll leave you with this final excerpt, which really sums up my feelings about the reification of power and hopefully will find the same degree of impression in living anarchists as The People did in the past:

“The leftists persist in their well known cycle of provocation-repression-subversion which is all supposed to bring about revolution at some precise time in the future. But this conception of revolution is totally inadmissible because it means sacrificing men and women in order to mobilize others. Communist revolution does not demand martyrs because it does not need to make any demands. The martyr becomes the bait which attracts the followers. What would then be the use of a revolution that uses death as a bait in this way? [19] But then there is always someone who dies at just the right time (or the victim's demise may even be "facilitated"), and someone else goes around shaking the cadaver in order to attract the revolutionary flies.

Since the communist revolution is the triumph of life, it cannot in any way glorify death, or seek to exploit it, since this would be putting itself once more on the terrain of class society. There are some who would compare or substitute "those who fell in the revolution" with those who died in the service of capital: but it's all just the same old carnival of carrion!”
—JACQUES CAMATTE, Against Domestication
answered Apr 18, 2013 by madlib (2,710 points)
edited May 28, 2013 by madlib
this is way too long for teh point you're making.

sorry, i was too brusque - got interrupted and just hit save instead of being more thoughtful.
i like the things you quoted, but because the connections aren't necessarily clear, they can actually make things more complicated, rather than clarifying.
not that more complicated is necessarily bad or anything. :)
They said "Examples would be helpful." I provided examples.

You can see my point, so take it and leave the rest behind. You don't have to read all of it.
Thanks madlib, maybe too long but I did enjoy those quotes. 

Unfortunately it's still pretty unclear to me. You're saying 'The People' is an abstract concept treated as a real thing? Isn't 'The People' a real thing?
no, "The People" isn't a real thing. it's an abstraction. how would you talk to The People? what is The People?
Isn't it just the plural of person? If you wanted to talk to a person, you'd pick one, but if you wanted to talk to the people (as a whole, as a group that includes every person) you'd gather every person. Are 'white people' as a group not real? Or are you just saying the grouping part is the abstraction...

OK maybe you mean that 'the people' is just a pointer, something that points at real things but is not real itself? Like a category isn't a real thing but points to real things?
"people" is plural. "the people" is an abstraction. "the people" assumes a unity that doesn't exist, and rests on a whole trajectory of abstractions. "white people" also assumes a unity that doesn't exist, although that doesn't make it unuseful in certain circumstances. if you were to point to a given person who you think of as white, it is entirely possible that they are not white in any of the specific ways that you think are relevant. ie they could have been raised as a person of color (for example lakota people are frequently blond, etc), or be working class in a way that refutes standard white person stereotypes... etc.
maybe that's what you mean by a category that isn't real but points to real things, or maybe it's not. hard to know.
.. but now aren't you just pointing out that people make assumptions? Can't I still refer to 'white people' simply as a group of people with a certain shade of skin color and not make assumptions about who they are? Or refer to every-person as The People but not assume anything about their feelings, intentions, beliefs, etc? Does making those assumptions have something to do with reification? Is acting as if those assumptions are true somehow 'treating an abstraction as if it were a real entity'?

Maybe a more simple example would help?
This page helped: http://karlamclaren.com/is-it-real-or-is-it-reified/

Particularly this passage, in trying to understand The People example:

Emotions are real things, but our simple-minded categorizations of them are reifications. In many cases, these categorizations can make us woefully ignorant about the actual purpose and value of specific emotions.
The People isn't simply a category. White people aren't simply an abstraction. They are institutions—not “groups.” There is no coherent group called “White People” or "We, The (American, French, Egyptian, Chinese, etc) People.” We can see this just now with the event of the bombings in Boston. One of the dead was a student from China, and probably a good number of the maimed and injured were from other nations, but people's empathy is used as a currency to the benefit of “American Unity.” (While the attackers' U.S. citizenship and legal residency is trivialized and attention drawn to a host of alien concepts like “Islam” and “Chechnya.”) What happens to the people in The People is irrelevant. I was at a family cookout yesterday, and a man made a comment about how the “Gooks” and “Niggers” wanted to subvert the English language—the one True Language of America. A pregnant woman complained about her heightened sense of smell and her irritation at people on the subway “smelling like Mexicans.”

Out of many, one.

White people have only ever been real to the extent that citizenship was initially an institution founded on the assumption that there would be a whole lot of slaves to do the work needed so that the White Men could live as equals in a participatory process of ruling over others. This is how this “group” is explained, otherwise it will persistently elude rational explanation; the terms of the discussion will always shift according to the individual prejudices of limited (real) groups. It will move at the speed of people's very real and expansive idiocy. It's a slippery fucker of a concept—but that's on purpose—and it has only become more elusive with the legislation of civil rights to nonwhites. Americanism ensures that blacks will always be blacks, and whites will always be whites, but then you have these insipidly titled “groups” like “Hispanic” or “Asian” that are basically just census categories that numerous and very diverse but competing groups reach out to for grounding and support against the delirious effects of American racism. (Allowing, of course, for both the identity-delirium induced by the magical thinking of blood quanta and skin-color rules, as well as the artful use of these institutional instruments by a great number of people on a daily basis to better negotiate varying situations of danger and opportunity.)

Out of many, one.
To be clear, the discussion dot and I are having with you right now, and my answer, are directed at the *reification of power*. That's what I'm discussing — not simply reification.
+3 votes
So, reification is when you treat an idea as if it is tangible and as if it has power whether or not you want it to.

example: our culture projects an idea of what beautiful is. when people compare themselves and "objectively" define their appeal relative to that standard they are making it a fact instead of an opinion

example: a sign that says private property in the middle of the woods with no one around to see or hear. when people change the course of their walk to avoid that line it goes from being nothing more than a sign to actually being a property line

there are more examples. there are also more complex ways of talking about this (see above).

the reason I think this concept is important to anarchists is because it gives us options. it says that the ideas you believe in have the most power. As a group up against some pretty intense institutional power, that is an encouraging concept.

it also allows for there to be times and places of anarchy in a world that is not anarchist. i can have moments when i choose to not accept a social definition of something, and to replace it with my own. i can extend those moments, or string them together, or build a conversation with myself and others around them.
answered May 28, 2013 by shark.heart (1,510 points)
Thanks shark.heart. So the gender binary is a reification, right? What about our entire reality? We reify our sensory input into objects, relationships, the world? Is money reified? It's not a choice we make to consider its power or value-- it's just an underlying assumption for most of us.
money and the gender binary are two major (to anarchist thinking) examples of reification. there is a somewhat interesting this american life about money that talks about the argentinian economists that essentially rebuilt the collapsed financial system by making people believe in money again.
as for all of reality...well i'm not sure what to say to that. yeah you and i maybe see colors differently and stuff but i think some things aren't entirely conceptual, like if a bat breaks my leg or if the sun does not shine for a very long time on a plant.
–1 vote
Hi everyone,

I am really not happy with the two other answers to this question so far. Yes, there is a broader definition of the term reification in certain branches of philosophy, where it refers to treating an abstraction as if it were a physical entity. In this definition it's possible to speak of a reification of persons, or a reification of philosophical concepts, or whatever.  This is I think probably less insteresting for our purposes.

In radical political theory people usually use it in a more specialized sense that comes from Marx and Lukacs. In the Marxian definition, reification is the "thingification" of commodity exchange. Here is an (I think) eloquent quote from Marx where he explains it:

"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 of the producers 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. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses ... It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

So in this way we lose sight of the use-value of the objects we produce (and of any other possible value!) and fixate only on the objects exchange value w/in the context of commodity exchange.

SOME EXAMPLES:
dollar bills; credit cards; grocery stores in japan where, apparently, they have plastic tokens representing particular food items, which you take to the register and exchange for the actual item; literally every object you encounter in your day to day existence.

Here is a pretty major essay by the eccentric Soviet party official/philosopher Lukacs: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc05.htm
It is helpful.

I am not much of a Marxist AT ALL, but I find this to be one of Marx's more useful/fascinating concepts, despite the obvious problems w/ the way he and lukacs imply that reification "distorts" the social world. Also check out ~~~COMMODITY FETISHISM~~~~...
answered Nov 23, 2013 by asker (8,110 points)
By narrowing the concept of reification into commodity value, you lose sight of the way non-economists create edifices of sanctity around not just property, but also relationships and ideas. Reducing most/all philosophical and social concepts to labor and value is the foundational problem that anarchists might/should have with Marxism (whether in its statist/bolshevik variety or the anti-state variety; this is also separate from Marxism in practice, which is a different but related can of maggots).

Reification is ideological thinking writ large (or the other way around); it is the conretization of ideas into realities. And when actual lived experiences bump up against those alleged realities, ideological thinkers try to manipulate/prune/force the lived experiences to fit into the boundaries of those reified concepts. So the problem with reification (and this applies to commodities and values as well) is that at its base it is an inherently authoritarian way of viewing and interacting with the world.

The best corrective to all forms of reification is a serious reading of Stirner. His critiques and rejection of ideas like morality, duty, social obligation, etc are critiques and rejections of ideology in general, and reification in particular. Having these sanctified ideas exploded is of course scandalous to anyone (like Marx) who finds certain reifcation/ideology useful for authoritarian agendas (for example, for Marx, the linear progression of history and the idea of a revolutionary subject).
I fully take your point about Marxism reducing all questions of social structure to the economic. However, that does not (to me) imply that particular Marxist concepts relating to the economy cannot be useful. In this case, I think that Marx was quite perceptive. We can discuss this, obviously...

It seems to me that you are saying that by taking this concept in the specialized sense in which Lukacs uses it, we risk not being able to understand other types of reification that operate outside of the economic sphere. I don't agree.  I think that it is possible to take on board Lukacs's notion of reification while at the same time trying to understand things that he ignored.

You may find this book interesting: REIFICATION: A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD IDEA by Axel Honneth. He's the director of the institute for social research. I did not like the book, but he has a similar take on reification to yours.

(Personally I do not much love Stirner. Just go straight to Nietzsche; all the ideas are there, and the writing is 10x more beautiful.)

xoxox
Actually I don't really care about Marx all that much. The incisiveness of his analysis of capitalism is supposed to rest on the Labor Theory of Value, and if that's the case, then it's bunk. He had a few interesting things to say about alienation, but sociologists (many of them Marxist, many of them not) have said the same better (Weber, Durkheim, and even Foucault for example, as well as the Frankfurt School folks).

Marxists ignore things that are important for anarchists all the time, most of them having to do with relations that are not economic. That's one of the reasons I find Marxism tedious. I'm much more interested in questions of power that have little or nothing to do with a person's economic standing or access to, or ownership of, resources/property/wealth. There's nothing I can say to dissuade you from finding useful tidbits among the dross.

I find Nietzsche too ambivalent and contradictory to be of much sustained use. Also, he's more of an anti-moralist than an amoralist, being against certain values rather than chucking out the whole concept of values. That's why Stirner is scandalous and more interesting. Nietzsche had a longer career and got better PR.
OK, yeah: I do not agree w/ the labor theory of value at all, either.  There are a huge amount of things about Marx that I can't stomach: humanist assumptions, teleological thinking, etc. etc. I suppose I am repeating myself now, but, I think that Marx's thought is quite varied and there are many ideas in it that may remain interesting even if you are not interested in *marxism* as a coherent/unified set of ideas.  I do not need to convince you to read more marx. but I do want to at least claim that if we are talking about a term w/ a rich history in marxist thought, we should probably at least know what the marxist definition is...

I am very much with you in being interested in relations of power other than the economic, though. foucault is actually my favorite philosopher basically for that reason. but why do you call foucault a sociologist? thats rude! :)

And I see what you mean about Nietzsche being ambivalent/contradictory. though for me that is much of the appeal.
can I ask you to  explain a little more? because it seems like you are giving me an article about a minor sub discipline w/ a slight foucauldian influence, that developed after his death. foucault influenced many disciplines outside of philosophy, but that doesn't mean he practiced them... admittedly it is hard to precisely categorize what his intellectual project was -- philosophy? history? -- but I've seriously never heard of anyone calling him a sociologist, and that really seems like a baffling claim given the eccentricity of his method, interests, etc.

cheers
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