The Past & Present Reading Group at the University of Sydney has just completed reading Moishe Postone’s classic book Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1996). The book provided very fertile ground for lively and critical discussions on labour in capitalism, value, abstraction, the revolutionary Subject, the social constitution of time and much more. To reflect the richness of the discussions, we are publishing a collective review of the book, in the form of 5 talking points contributed by members of the reading group.
1. On structure, subjectivity and agency
Postone argues that the structure of capitalism is historically specific and determines social relations. The subjectivity (and by implication agency) to overcome it is possible on the basis of a critique and conception of what is historically specific to capitalism’s form of social relations.
Postone builds his critique of “labour in capitalism” on structural, logical and abstract categories, particularly labour, value and time. It is a logical unfolding of categories, not a historical account of their emergence. He identifies markets and distribution as historically relevant, but logically non-essential to the persistence of capitalism. At the core of capitalism is commodity determined labour, labour which is both concrete and produces use-values, and also “socially general” and abstract, producing value as the form of wealth in capitalism. The overcoming of capitalism requires the abolition of commodity determined, value-producing labour, i.e. the abolition of the working class.
Postone reframes familiar concepts from Marx, in order to rescue them from the transhistorical interpretations by what he calls “traditional Marxism”. I understand this to be embodied in the convenient marriage of social democratic and Stalinist-influenced statist views of socialism. Traditional Marxism critiques capital “from the standpoint of labour”. Alternatively, Postone offers a critique of labour in capitalism, in production, as the essence of social relations and what needs to be realised in socialism, and so cannot be self-abolishing.
Postone identifies “shearing pressure” arising from capital’s constant drive to reduce necessary labour time in material production, whilst needing to increase the production of value, which requires the expenditure of socially necessary labour time. This contradiction opens the possibility of production of sufficient to meet material needs with ever less labour time, as against capital’s need to consume labour time to produce value.
Postone claims that it will not be labour that arrives at an understanding of this possibility, despite his understanding of the two-sided nature of commodity producing labour. He does not recognise the consequent two sides of labour consciousness, one that accommodates to capitalist relations, and one that threatens to overturn them. The “quasi-automatic” (p. 372) reproduction of abstract domination that Postone implies is contained in “the standpoint of labour” is in fact dependent on material domination enforced by the state, of legal penalties against self-assertion by labour.
Postone is for emancipation, for freedom from the abstract compulsion of value production in capitalist society. He proposes that in place of capitalist relations “the associated producers can control their labour rather than be controlled by it” (p. 381). The “associated producers” means collective labour, and emancipation is not bestowed, but is the act of the self-emancipating subject.
Postone’s reframing of Marxian concepts in terms of a totalising deep structure of capitalism points us to a socialism that is far more radical and free than has been delivered by state domination of production. It also enables a richer explanation of the dynamic features of capitalist society, including the drive to environmental destruction, than critiques which rely on counterposing states and markets and focus on unequal distribution as definitive of capitalism. But Postone’s work allows labour the possibility only of the single “standpoint of labour” and denies that his second standpoint of “critique of labour in capitalism” is available to labour, despite the double-character of labour which he himself identifies. This deprives the post-capitalist future that he envisages, of any structural agency capable of its realisation. Janet Burstall
2. On Postone’s notion of class
Moishe Postone’s thesis of capital as an abstract, impersonal form of domination posits a fundamental critique of those Marxist approaches that understand domination at the level of overt social relations, i.e., the concrete domination of the working class by the capitalist class. It follows that a proper critique of capitalism should understand labour as historically specific rather than as transhistorical, an assertion that stresses its dualistic nature (as both concrete and abstract labour).
Since Postone does not extend the dualistic nature of Marx’s categories (labour, value and the commodity) to his notion of class, I believe his reinterpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy as a “negative” critique could be somewhat flawed. First, let us remember that, for Postone, Marx criticises “what is”—the existing “positive” social conditions and structures—on the basis of “what could be”—the possibility of another social formation that emerges from the contradictory character of capitalism (p. 64). Marx’s critique is negative, then, because it focuses on the crucial contradiction between the two dimensions of labour and not only on its concrete form. Second, according to Postone, class antagonism remains in the realm of positive social reality, being structured by and embedded within the abstract universality of capital. This means that, for Postone, unlike the rest of Marx’s categories, class does not stand for the negative in capitalism. Indeed, he insists on the fact that class antagonism “does not represent a disturbance in an otherwise harmonious system. On the contrary, it is inherent to a society constituted by the commodity as a totalising and totalised form” (p. 317). Here is my question: does rejecting the transhistorical notion of class necessarily entail subordinating class to the law of value, as Postone suggests?
Counter to Postone’s argument, I believe that class in capitalism also has a dualistic nature—although it is inscribed in social reality as a signifier, this is, as an abstract “class” (the antagonism of “right against right”), it also presents itself as a concrete negation of capitalism, i.e., as class struggle. Specifically, Postone misses the fact that, for Marx, the self-valorisation of value rests in the separation of the possessor of labour-power, the only commodity-producing commodity, from the means of production, that is, the conditions for the realisation of that labour-power. This concrete separation is negative since it questions the imposed universalism of capital (while, at the same time, it is structured by it). By acknowledging only the positive dimension of class, then, Postone obscures the relevance of class struggle. Others such as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek have already raised this point, namely, that “class difference itself can be the fetish which obfuscates class struggle”.
Class struggle qua negativity escapes Postone’s thesis of abstract domination. I agree with his argument as to why we should abandon the transhistorical reading of labour (and, by extension, of class), but I also believe that the above does not mean subordinating class to the imperatives of capital. Class struggle is essential to reflect on “what could be”. Christian Caiconte
3. On the distinction between “value” and “material wealth”
Eulogisers have suggested that Moishe Postone’s most significant contribution was his development of the idea of a “treadmill effect” in capitalism. This idea cannot be separated, though, from the distinction, which Postone finds in Marx’s writings, in capitalism between “value” and “material wealth.” This distinction, I would suggest, is the dimension of Postone’s theory with the most generative potential, including during our contemporary period of multiple, intersecting crises.
Postone (1993, pp. 59-63) suggests that traditional interpretations of Marx have routinely taken the Labour Theory of Value as a theory of the underpinnings of wealth and of price in society generally, and thus, in the tradition of Joan Robinson, have mistakenly conflated “value” and “material wealth.” Various attempts to further expand the scope of “value” were made by 20th century post-Marxists, who have argued, for example, that, in advanced capitalist societies, machine labour can generate value (Habermas 1973), and that unpaid, domestic labour, too, is bound up in the production of surplus value (Fortunati 1995).
Postone (1993, pp. 167-8), though, through a close reading of Marx, convincingly establishes that “value” is only seemingly constituted by the expenditure of labour per se, and is not a transhistorical or general category. Through Postone’s analysis of Marx’s categories, it becomes clear that “value” emerges not just through the relation of a given worker and a given capitalist, and the appropriation by the latter of “surplus value” produced by the former, but rather out of a social totality that determines the measure of “socially necessary labour time”—an average measure based upon the entire working population (Postone 1993, pp. 190-2). “Value”, then, is not only “essentially temporal” but also normative—it is “constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labour time” (Postone 2017, p. 46).
As a result, when productivity increases due to technological development, the innovative capitalist can gain a temporary increase in the magnitude of value produced, but as soon as the technologies they deployed become widely used in production, the magnitude of value produced per hour returns to the base level, despite increased productivity (Postone 1993, pp. 287-291). Thus, a “treadmill effect” is produced, wherein, due to the temporally determined nature of “value”, capitalism exhibits a drive towards ever greater levels of productivity, producing more use-values per unit time (and thus more “material wealth”), even as, concomitantly, “value” becomes attenuated ever more thinly across the ever expanding sum of commodities (Postone 2017, p. 46). Capitalism, then, has its own, peculiar historical logic—a unidirectional and accelerating pattern of “growth” that chases a receding horizon of “value” (Postone 2017, p. 49).
Indeed, according to Postone (2017, p. 50), “the long-term tendency of this historical development is to render production based on labor time—that is, on value and hence, on proletarian labor—increasingly anachronistic”. By contrast (and in dialectical relation), “material wealth”—that is, use-values, including that of money—becomes both more important and, for some late capitalists (like Jeff Bezos), easier than ever to accumulate, due to dramatically higher levels of productivity and the increasing redundancy of human workers.
The distinction between “value” and “wealth”—which is, at the same time, a dialectical relationship mediated by the “treadmill effect”—urges us, then, to consider in a new light pressing issues such as rising inequality, automation, universal basic income, precarious labour, post-work, the capitalocene, and financialisation (which, in its current neoliberal form, Postone 2017, p. 52 associated not with “value” but with the accumulation of “material wealth”, to compensate for an historically determinate “crisis of value-production”). This distinction also prompts us to consider that some forms of labour can contribute to the production of material wealth, and the reproduction of society, without necessarily producing “value,” even as such labour can remain bound by the abstract structure of domination generated by “value.” Seamus Barker
4. On Imperialism and Articulation
Moishe Postone’s project is a compelling intervention into the critical theory debate on the nature of real abstraction as specific to the historical unfolding of capital. He does so on the basis of a critique of a major strand in ‘traditional Marxism’: the ‘critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour’ and a focus on distribution as the key site of revolutionary intervention. As an anthropologist I come at this with an interest in the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of the legacy of its imperial and global expansion. This leaves me with a contradictory response to the categorical and dialectical ground that Postone lays out.
Strong theories of the relationship of capitalism to imperialism, another theme in ‘traditional Marxism’, have proposed that both technological increases in productivity and the opening of new labour frontiers have served capital as a solution to what Postone calls the ‘treadmill’ effect. Theorists of social formations and underdevelopment have seen the articulation of capital with other modes of production as a systemic aspect of capital’s development. These days the language tends to be more of commodity and supply chains and their capacity for the systematic exploitation of difference. Even weak theories embed an historically specific capital within the need to access a global distribution of resources across different forms of economic organisation. For me, directly confronting imperialism should have implications for Postone’s conception of capital as a totality, and the specific claims he makes for his dialectics. In opposition to Adorno’s dialectical pessimism, Postone argues that:
To establish that the totality is intrinsically contradictory is to show that it remains an essentially contradictory identity of identity and nonidentity, and has not become a unitary identity that has totally assimilated the nonidentical (p. 185).
As I understand Postone’s argument, the key “contradictory identity of identity and non-identity” is that between value and wealth. If this is to be the contradictory foundation of ‘the development of a new conception of humanity as general and, yet, variegated’ (p. 368), then the possibility that wealth, and indeed labour power, might be being produced outside the totalising logic of value as both a systemic and historical aspect of the dynamics of capitalist expansion must have an impact on the real nature and historical potential of that nonidentity.
On the other hand, I find Postone’s rigorously dialectical analysis of abstraction, the mediation of social totality, and fetishism as its form of appearance, provocative standpoints from which to think about the dynamics of such articulation. Postone is clear that the form through which social relations express this real abstract foundation may themselves be politically and socially variable. Postone may enable anthropologists to think about the gift as both the elementary relation in a distinct kind of economy in one context, and of the form of appearance of commodity relations in another. However, this will require thinking though abstraction in contexts in which the expansion of capital does not require the full formal subsumption of labour under capital, a key moment of Postone’s totality. Neil Maclean
5. On the inhuman power that rules over everything
The argument proffered in Moishe Postone’s Time, Labour, and Social Domination is a remarkable crystallisation of the value-theory first developed by Marx that is neither a ‘rethinking’ nor a ‘going beyond’ these ideas. Postone is attempting to give us the critique of capitalism the way that Marx saw it, which inevitably sees Postone challenging a somewhat nebulous collection of disparate Marxists that he unites under the banner of ‘traditional Marxism’. Side-stepping this issue for now, we can say more generally that the traditional Marxists are those who have variously mounted a critique of society from the standpoint of something beyond that society, and thus cannot account for the standpoint of the critique or the critique itself. This often takes the form of transhistorical essentialism, or otherwise violent abstraction, for example.
Postone, instead, argues that Marx attempts to find an immanent critique from the standpoint of that which he is critiquing – capitalist society – to account for the existence of the critique, as well as the possibility of capitalism’s ultimate negation. This is some mind-bending dialectics and means that the negation of capitalism through the methodology of historical materialism would also entail the negation of the critique! This is where Postone is perhaps at his most original, at least rhetorically, and this analysis alone should earn him a place on any dialectics reading list.
From this foundation, Postone proceeds as Marx does to unravel the various categories that confront us to reveal the logic of how capitalist society reproduces itself while making possible its immanent negation. Like Marx, Postone is concerned with how social categories, such as the commodity, conceal a relationship of essence and appearance. The appearance of a commodity – how it confronts us – is as a reified thing, a use value, that takes on a concrete form. The essence, being an essence is intrinsically related to its form of appearance, and so the essence of the commodity is not a transhistorical labour that gives the commodity value – otherwise the commodity would be transhistorical and the structuring principle of all societies, not just capitalism. Rather, the essence of the commodity is an abstract social relation that Marx simply calls value.
If the structuring principle of society, then, is that of value, then the primary form of social mediation is also one of value. In capitalism, this appears as what Marx calls commodity fetishism – the relating to discrete use values as things rather than social relations. But to gain access to the commodity, we must also regard our own labour as a commodity, and to do so therefore presupposes a commodity structure, where labour in-kind can be bought and sold as a necessary prerequisite to social intercourse. Unlike other pre-capitalist societies that are predicated on more direct forms of social mediation, capitalism is unique in that value as a quasi-autonomous form mediates relationships between people, how we access our subsistence, what we create, who lives and who dies, and so on, without this power having any necessary or contingent location in the individuals or even the classes that make up the structure.
This certainly raises questions of agency, but to take Postone on own his terms, the conclusion is that so long as value remains the structuring principle of social mediation, the transcendence of capitalist society is foreclosed. Only the negation of value, and thus of the proletariat itself, can wedge open this gap to reappropriate what has been constituted in alienated form. The alternative is to make real a typically prescient observation from Marx that in the realisation of value, our lives belong to another, that all things are other than themselves, that our activity is other than itself, and that “finally an inhuman power rules over everything.” Joel Griggs