Fetishistic Concrete Abstraction, Social Constitution and Social Domination in Henri Lefebvre's Writings on Everyday Life, Cities and Space

By O'Kane, Chris | Capital & Class, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Fetishistic Concrete Abstraction, Social Constitution and Social Domination in Henri Lefebvre's Writings on Everyday Life, Cities and Space


O'Kane, Chris, Capital & Class


Abstract

This article reconstructs the role that fetishistic concrete abstraction plays in Henri Lefebvre's writings on everyday life, cities and space. I begin by distinguishing between Lefebvre's theories of alienation and romantic domination and fetishistic social domination. I then reconstruct the latter showing how Lefebvre interprets Marx's critique of political economy as an account of the social constitution of the fetishistic concrete abstractions of economic social forms, which as supraindividual and autonomous entities invert to collectively dominate, but not entirely determine, the individuals within the social relations that collectively create them. Finally, I show how this conception of fetishistic concrete abstraction runs through Lefebvre's work, where it serves as a 'basis' for his attempts to 'elaborate, refine and complement' Marx's critique of political economy by conceiving how abstract social domination is constituted, embedded and resisted in everyday life, cities and space while also pointing out where it is amalgamated but not reduced to Lefebvre's expansive theory of alienation and romantic domination. Consequently, rather than simply seeing Lefebvre as the 'reigning prophet of alienation' with an expansive transhistorical notion of alienation and romantic domination founded on a problematic opposition between quantity and quality, I show that Lefebvre's work on everyday life, cities and space should also be seen as possessing a historically specific theory of abstract domination based on the critique of political economy.

Keywords

abstraction, alienation, critique of everyday life, critique of political economy, fetishism, Henri Lefebvre, Karl Marx, the production of space

Recent years have seen a burgeoning interest in and employment of the notions of abstraction and social domination in Karl Marx (Arthur 2004; Bonefeld 2014; Postone 1996; Sayer 1987) Alfred Sohn-Rethel (Bhandar and Toscano 2015; Jappe 2013; Toscano 2008a, 2008b), Guy Debord (Jappe 1999) and Theodor W. Adorno (Bellofiore and Riva 2015; Bonefeld 2016) in contemporary critical Marxian social theory. Yet while Henri Lefebvre has long been seen as 'the "reign [ing] prophet of alienation" in Western Marxism' (Merrifield 2006: xxxii; see also Jay 1984; Shields 1999), his formulation of these ideas has been largely neglected.

This is no doubt due to the prominent role of what I will term the expansive notion of alienation plays in Lefebvres work, which it should be first acknowledged is at the core of Lefebvres thought. As Elden (2004) demonstrates, this expansive conception of alienation draws on other thinkers in addition to Marx--including Hegel as well as Nietzsche and Heidegger--and encompasses other Marxian categories--such as fetishism and reification.

In passages when these tendencies come together, Lefebvres romanticism shines through; alienation is not only equated with the entirety of history but it is also presented as a condition that pervades the whole of modern life that is resisted by the 'human' elements of society--serving as the foundational category of a transhistorical romantic theory of domination. This sets up a transhistorical and dualistic opposition which can be found in his writings on everyday life, cities and space between alienated quantity and humane qualities. Yet, this opposition relies not only on equating the Marxian categories of alienation, fetishism and reification but also on conflating them with different types of alienation that are not self-evidently and inherently dominating while opposing them to an eclectic array of qualitative acts that are likewise treated as interchangeable. Thus, for instance, formal logic, mathematics, reading the newspaper, watching television and the logic of the commodity-form are treated as equivalent types of alienated domination. Conversely, on the qualitative side, phenomena as disparate as festivals, artistic creativity, holidays, LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), debauchery and grass-roots democracy are seen as equivalent and inherently oppositional to this broad notion of domination. …

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