Originally formulated by Georg Lukács in his 1923 essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” reification was once a definitive concept of Frankfurt School critical theory and so-called Western Marxism before losing mainstream currency for its apparent intractability. Reification broadly refers to the way that the world and the people in it come to take on a “thing-like” character under capitalism. In Lukács’s formulation, its most salient effect was to obstruct the realization of class consciousness and produce widespread spiritual alienation. In recent years, theorists have puzzled anew about what it means for the world to become “thing-like” and why it may be objectionable. These efforts often try to make sense of reification in moral terms; it is bad to treat persons as things.
This essay develops a different tack, arguing that reification describes a peculiar form of domination in which social structures pervert collective agency into becoming self-dominating. This occurs when these structures coordinate collective agency in ways that conceal its social dimension. This happens through processes that decontextualize individual tasks from their social purpose like objectification, simplification, specialization, and regimentation. Reification is thus a useful concept for describing a paradoxical form of unfreedom that results from the exercise of collective agency. Understanding reification in terms of domination can enable modern theorists to scrutinize this peculiar form of unfreedom again.