On Reified Cognition and Class Society

At absolute polar extremes of the radical left we have on the one hand, an anarchist primitivism which considers the erection of class society and the development of technical civilization as an unjustified contingency initially resulting in the death of freedom and the birth of domination, and on the other a communist prometheanism that considers the same to be an unfortunate but necessary phase of a historical process finally resulting in the birth of freedom and the death of domination.

The former advocates for a regressive return to an old state of existence prior to the erection of technical civilization by means of its immediate dismantling (since “history is the negation of nature“) while the latter advocates for a progressive realization of a new state of existence that supersedes technical civilization by means of its gradual unfolding (because “the only way out is through.”)

A different approach could be one that does not consider the erection of class society to be either a necessity or a contingency, but merely an inevitable consequence of the emergence of reified cognition, which is cognition that mistakenly apprehends the nature of its contents. More specifically, it is a form of cognition which mistakenly grasps something in its experience to be more absolute (more present, permanent, enduring, etc.) than it actually is.

I think that there is a meaningful correspondence between reified cognition and class society in that both have the structure of falsely assuming the justified existence of the hierarchical stratification of the fundamental elements of a given totality. Since cognition operates on the basis of exclusion (since the cognition of a specific object as identical to itself and hence distinguishable from others requires the cognitive exclusion of other objects that are different from it), reified cognition would mistakenly assume that such a difference is a metaphysical *feature* of reality itself rather than a feature of conceptual *models* of reality, mediated by linguistic and practical social conventions.

Combine reified cognition with a sense of “my own self” (which itself is a product of reified reflexive cognition) in an impermanent and changing world, and you have the recipe for an thanatophobic (death/annihilation fearing) agency which aims to ensure the continued self-reproduction of its identity. And since its identity is constructed by means of excluding others, the process of reproducing one’s identity reciprocally entails the process of excluding others—these are two sides of the same zero-sum game.

So class society appears to be the magnified means, a megalithic technics, by which agents with reified self-cognition aim to both establish the basis of their inherited identity and ensure its continued reproduction, which is a capacity that presupposes an unequal distribution of power. In a significant sense, the structure of class society and reified self-cognition significantly play off of each other, where once the latter produced the conditions for the former’s eventual historical arising, the former ensures the perpetuation of the latter by structuring society itself in terms of the way reified cognition apprehends the world, which has the consequence of naturalizing an originally fabricated construction. So reified cognition and class society relate to each other diachronically (class society emerges from and after the emergence of reified cognition) and also synchronically (once class society establishes itself, class society and reified cognition work to mutually establish each other).

So as you can see I think it is possible to consider class society in such a way as to understand the valid reason for its existence (partially coinciding with the communist prometheans) while also understanding that its existence is wholly contingent upon systems of forced exclusion (partially coinciding with the anarchist primitivists). The reason why
we partially coincide with the primitivists is also the reason why we only partially coincide with the prometheans, and the reason why we partially coincide with the prometheans is also the reason why we only partially coincide with the primitivists. This partial coincidence with both seemingly mutually exclusive orientations is a feature of our having acquired a more encompassing perspective that can fulfill the interests and needs of both while simultaneously exceeding them both. We have diagnosed a deeper problem than either, so the solutions offered by each will be insufficient to treat the problem satisfactorily.

So what is to be done, to overcome this problem? The Buddha taught that the means to overcome reified cognition is found within cognition itself, where a significant change in the way we apprehend others and ourselves in practice (and not just reflection) will significantly change the way we affect and are affected by others and ourselves. This change is undertaken by an integrated and inseparable dual process: by a labor of the negative, of a critical interrogation of ones cognitive faculties, and by a labor of the positive, of the cultivation of wholesome qualities. The negative labor ensures that the wholesome qualities accumulated are really wholesome and not merely apparently so; the positive labor ensures that the negative labor is not for naught and does not itself become a cause of problems.

Can this struggle to emancipate oneself from reified cognition and its effects translate to the class struggle? I think so, but it must be a means of struggle that goes beyond the onesidedness of the aforementioned extremes of anarchist primitivism and communist prometheanism, and all of the numerous positions that are meaningfully positioned relatively in between. I think the burgeoning Commons Transition movement is one sign that such a new means is gaining ground, for its ambition to confound the conventional boundary between political governance and economic subsistence in order to advance the struggle for emancipation is an expression, at a greater social level, of the same sort of interplay between positive and negative labors that constituted the Buddha’s praxis.

Distinguished from all other spiritual masters, the historical Buddha taught that there was no ultimate end to be reached, no final absolute Being that grounds all being—not even Buddhahood. For Buddhahood would merely designate the end of one process (the dialectical negation of absolutes) and the beginning of another (the dialogical unfolding of what remains in the absence of absolutes). If anything can be said to be the highest, it is not Buddhahood but what lies beyond it.

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