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Postone on labor under capitalism

Here is an extremely interesting quote from Postone’s talk, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value:

“[Labor] itself constitutes a new form of interdependence, where people do not consume what they produce, but where, nevertheless, their own labor … function as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labor and it s products in effect preempt that function on the part of manifest social relations; they mediate a new form of social interrelatedness.”

As with the categories, value and commodity, according to Postone, labor itself should be seen as historically specific to the capitalist mode of production, not transhistorical. In the capitalist mode of production, what we mean by “commodity” refers solely to the commodity that is historically specific to the mode of production, labor power. What we refer to as “value” is the value of the historically specific commodity, labor power.

It would seem to follow from this that by “labor” we are not referring to material productive activity as it is understood in many different mode of production and societies, but only to a specific form of material productive activity that is found in the capitalist mode of production. Marx calls this historically specific form of material productive activity, social labor.

Social labor should not be confused with individual labor carried on separately. The labor is directly social and thus involves no exchange between individual producers. Social labor, unlike labor in simple commodity production, is not mediated through exchange. It is a self-mediating activity:

“At the heart of [Marx’s] analysis is the idea that labor in capitalism has a unique socially mediating function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity transhistorically.”

If social labor has a socially mediating function that is unique  to the capitalist mode of production, what is this unique socially mediating function? The answer seems to be that social labor is the means by which labor power produces and reproduces itself. Which is to say that labor within the capitalist mode of production is not concerned with production of use values in general, but is concerned solely with the production of the historically specific use value, labor power.

The sole function of social labor in the capitalist mode of production is the production of labor power. The sole use value of labor power is social labor, i.e., the production of labor power.

It should follow from this that the category, “socially necessary labor time”, in the capitalist mode of production does not refer to the socially necessary labor time required for, (for instance), production of shoes, houses, cars and other ordinary commodities, but is solely concerned with the socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power, the peculiar, historically specific, capitalist commodity.

In the capitalist mode of production, the term “socially necessary labor time” is that duration of labor, (measured in some unit of time), that is required to produced the total labor power of society. It would seem to be a mistake to think that the socially necessary labor times of individual ordinary commodities is expressed in their individual prices of production.

This is not to say that these individual socially necessary labor times do not exist; rather, it only means that the SNLTs of ordinary commodities are not expressed in the prices of production of the ordinary commodities. What is expressed in their prices of production is the socially necessary labor time of labor power.

This might explain Postone’s observation that,

“Labor in capitalism, then, is both labor as we transhistorically and commonsensically understand it, according to Marx, and a historically specific socially mediating activity.  Hence, what labor produces, its objectifications –  and here I am referring to the commodity and to capital –  are both concrete labor products and objectified forms of social mediation.”

As labor is understood transhistorically, it produces the value and use value of the ordinary commodity. As labor is understood within the specific historical conditions of capital, however, it produces not the value and use value of the ordinary commodity, but the value and use value of labor power itself.

Another way to say this is that:

  1. the values of ordinary commodities play no role whatsoever in the regulation of the mode of production, and
  2. the prices of individual ordinary commodities tell us nothing about their individual values.

This is important because if you are looking for the law of value to explain the prices of ordinary commodities, you naturally begin with the values of the ordinary commodities themselves. Postone says this is wrong. The values of ordinary commodities play no role whatsoever in the market prices.

To be blunt, the charge that value is redundant when it comes to explaining the prices of individual ordinary commodities is both correct and beside the point, if Postone is correct. Value doesn’t explain the prices of ordinary commodities, it explains the price (wages) of the labor power that goes into their production. With conversion of the value of labor power into money-prices (wages), the first step of the conversion of values into prices is concluded.

The second step now begins.

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Labor power as a social relation

If my reading of Postone on the transformation problem in my last post is correct, the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production becomes a lot clearer. Capital is not concerned with the production of value generally but only with the production of value in the form peculiar to the mode of production, i.e., the value of labor power (wages). In turn, the production of value in the form peculiar to the capitalist mode of production (wages) mediates the production of material wealth generally within the mode of production. What matters is not the production of material wealth as such, but the production of material wealth only insofar as it is required for production of labor power, the peculiar capitalist commodity.

Does capital produce labor power in the sense that it produces shoes or houses? I have previously assumed that labor power, understood transhistorically as the capacity to labor, is not itself the product of capital, but Postone has caused me to reconsider. According to Postone, no category of discussed in Capital should be understood transhistorically, but only in its specific historical context. This holds true for labor power within the capitalist mode of production as well.

Within the capitalist mode of production labor power is not a natural, transhistorical category similar to, for instance, the labor power of a peasant or slave. It is a peculiar social relation unique to and only produced within the capitalist mode of production.

As Postone puts it,

“Marx takes the term [commodity] and uses it to refer to the most basic social relation of capitalist society, its fundamental form of social mediation and structuring principle.”

Labor power is the most basic social relation of capitalist society, its fundamental form of social mediation and its structuring principle. It is not a thing, like houses or shoes, but a social relation that appears in the form of a thing. This is a very different conception of labor power than the one I am use to. I don’t know about you, but I have tended to think about labor power as a thing, owned by the worker, that can be sold by her and purchased by the capitalist.

But if labor power is a social relation, how does one sell one’s social relations? How can a capitalist purchase your social relations? The entire idea seems bizarre.

In Capital, labor power is not the individual labor capacity of a producer, it is directly social. It is this social relation, not the individual socially necessary labor times of ordinary commodities, that mediates the production of material wealth. This social relation, like all social relations is composed of many individuals, but, unlike other social relations, labor power mediates the production of material wealth and determines the structure of society generally.

For all intents and purposes, labor power is the world:

“In a society in which the commodity [labor power] is the basic structuring category of the whole, labor and its products are not socially distributed by traditional norms, or overt relations of power and domination, as is the case in other societies. Instead, labor itself constitutes a new form of interdependence, where people do not consume what they produce, but where, nevertheless, their own labor or labor-products function as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others.”

We saw previously that the value of labor power comes to be expressed as the prices of ordinary commodities and thus to mediate their production. Essentially, within the capitalist mode of production labor power over-writes the individual socially necessary labor times required for production of ordinary commodities with the socially necessary labor time required for its own production.

Postone also argues it likewise comes to preempt previous forms of social mediation — and constitutes, “a new form of social interrelatedness.”

How Postone’s argument reframes the so-called “transformation problem”

NOTE: What follows is the result of my teasing implications from Postone’s approach. I am not completely sure I am getting it all correct. Most of all, I am not sure Postone would agree with me. Add salt to taste.

It is hard to overstate the significance of what Postone has accomplished in his essay, “The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value”.

Not only has he stated that wage labor is anachronistic — an assertion that appears for all the world to be a priori — in the course of setting up his argument to demonstrate why wage labor becomes anachronistic, and with very little fanfare, Postone also adds a interesting twist on a question posed by Marx’s theory almost from the moment volume 3 of Capital was published:

How are labor values transformed into prices?

This, of course, is the infamous “transformation problem”, the bane of Marxist economic theory.

***** Read the rest of this entry »

Postone on the value of the commodity in capitalism

From my last post, I asserted, following Postone’s reading of Marx, that the categories of capital are specific to capital, but what does this mean? If I am correct in my restatement of Postone in this post, the answer will surprise you as much as it did me.

Let’s take this passage from Postone, for instance:

At the heart of this analysis is a distinction Marx explicitly draws between value – as the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Material wealth is mediated by social relations extrinsic to itself. Value, according to Marx, is a self-mediating form of wealth, and is essentially temporal. It is constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

I had to read this passage several time, almost word by word, before Postone’s argument made sense to me. To demonstrate his argument let me paraphrase it as I have done before by substituting “wages” for the term “value”:

At the heart of this analysis is a distinction Marx explicitly draws between [wages] – as the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Material wealth is mediated by social relations extrinsic to itself. [Wages], according to Marx, is a self-mediating form of wealth, and is essentially temporal. [Wages are] constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

Following Postone, I argue that the commodity is not the commodity as it is understood in various commodity producing societies, but is specific to capital, i.e., when we speak of the commodity in capitalist society, we refer solely to labor power, the specific form of the commodity native to that society. Likewise, this means that value is not value as it is understood in various value producing societies, but is specific to capital, i.e., when we speak of value in capitalist society, we refer solely to the value of labor power or wages, the specific form of value native to that society.

Marx, says Postone, explicitly draws a distinction between wages as “the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor.”

On the one hand, material wealth, as it is understood generically, is mediated by wages; on the other hand, wages are a self-mediating form of wealth, constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

To put this in the simplest possible terms, the value of generic commodities is measured in terms of the wages expended on their production; while the wage itself is solely measured by the socially necessary labor time required for its production.

This has such fucking deep implications that it would be impossible to address them all fully here.

Essentially, Postone is saying that in the capitalist mode of production, the idea that the value of a generic commodity is equal to its socially necessary labor time may be mistaken. In fact, in the capitalist mode of production labor power may be the only commodity whose value is equal to the socially necessary labor time required for its production.

I think that this would be in keeping with Postone’s argument that the abstract and general character of commodities are valid in their abstract generality only for capitalist society.

Postone on the specificity of the commodity in capital

Some thoughts on section III of Postone’s essay, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading.

Following on my last post, “What Postone thinks he can explain”, here Postone tackles the specificity of capitalist categories:

“Marx explicitly states in the Grundrisse that his fundamental categories are not transhistorical, but historically specific. Even categories such as money and labor that appear transhistorical because of their abstract and general character, are valid in their abstract generality only for capitalist society, according to Marx.”

Here Postone clarifies that the categories of Capital are not to be understood transhistorically, but only as they appear in the capitalist mode of production.

What does this mean?

In the case of the commodity, Postone explains, Marx “does not refer to commodities, as they might exist in many different kinds of societies.” In the capitalist mode of production the only real commodity immanent (native? peculiar?) to that form of society is labor power. While commodities might be produced in many different forms of society, labor power is the only commodity specific to capitalism.

Postone explains the significance of this specification of the commodity in its capitalist form, i.e., as labor power:

“Marx takes the term and uses it to refer to the most basic social relation of capitalist society, its fundamental form of social mediation and structuring principle. This form, according to Marx, is characterized by a historically specific dual character (use value and value). He then seeks to unfold the nature and underlying dynamic of capitalist modernity from the dual character of this basic structuring form, from the interactions of its constitutive dimensions. At the heart of his analysis is the idea that labor in capitalism has a unique socially mediating function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity transhistorically.”

The use value of labor power is that it is the sole source of value and surplus value; while the value of labor power is expressed in the wages paid for labor power. What labor in the capitalist mode of production produces, in first place, is the labor power of society, not yards of linen or coats. Under the capitalist mode of production labor is transformed from being simply a means to producing shoes, coats and linen to an activity that mediates [expands?] itself, i.e., to wage labor.

Wage labor is not labor as it is understood transhistorically; it is relentlessly self-expanding labor:

“In Marx’s mature works, then, the notion of the unique centrality of labor to social life is not a transhistorical proposition. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labor in capitalism of a form of social mediation that fundamentally characterizes that society. By unfolding this mediation, Marx tries to socially ground and elucidate basic features of capitalist modernity, such as its overarching historical dynamic.”

*****

As a side note, Postone gets bonus points here, I think. In my opinion he scores a direct hit on the Soviet mode of production. The one characteristic the Soviet mode of production definitely has in common with the West is that labor power was sold as a commodity. Postone has greatly simplified his problem here.

What Postone thinks he can explain

According to Postone, the term “capitalism” has been reintroduced as a conception allowing us to grasp our present times. Capitalism should first and foremost be understood as a historically specific form of social life that fundamentally transformed and constitutes the globe. A theory that could adequately grasp the dynamic character of this form of social life can most rigorously be developed on the basis of a renewed reading of Marx’s mature works.

Although I fundamentally agree with Postone on this point, his recent talk, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading, gives me the opportunity to try to poke holes in an approach I mostly agree with.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Postone’s assertion that value is anachronistic

Anachronism: A chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, or customs from different periods of time.

Here is a short passage from Postone:

“a critical theory should be able to problematize its own historical situatedness.”

Jesus Christ, Postone, is this even English? When I first read this statement, I had no idea what the fuck Postone was saying. So I decided to break it into smaller bits:

  • Problematize (Verb)
    1. To make something into a problem.
    2. To consider something as if it were a problem.
    3. (intransitive) To propose problems.
  • Situatedness (Noun)
    1. embeddedness in a culture

Based on this, I would paraphrase Potone’s argument this way:

A critical theory should be able to account for itself within a specific historical context?

Applying this to Postone’s central thesis, I came up with this question:

Why is value anachronistic today, when value was not anachronistic when Marx wrote Capital?

Or. more concretely,

Why are wages anachronistic today, when they were not anachronistic when Marx wrote Capital?

In the second question, I am substituting “value” with “wages”, i.e., with the exchange value of labor power. People might objection to this sort of reduction, but I think it can be defended on the basis that there is only one true capitalist commodity: labor power and hence its exchange value is its wage. Essentially, the only value that counts in the capitalist mode of production is the value (or socially necessary labor time) of labor power.

Stated baldly, (and perhaps entirely too early), Postone must show how it is that wages were once a spur to social production, but now function as a fetter on social production. Postone only makes this assertion by proposing value is anachronistic, he does not prove it. The assertion still remains to be proven.

Not only does Postone fail to prove his central thesis, few of any of his followers have bothered to investigate this rather amazing hypothesis. No one has even bothered to investigate the question of what would constitute proof for his thesis that value (wages) is now anachronistic.

Some writers have suggested that Marx’s theory cannot be proven or disproved; rather, it provides a framework for analysis of social relations within the capitalist mode of production. I vehemently disagree with this view. Marx clearly thought his ideas were scientific and would be subject to empirical evidence that would support or falsify it.

To accept Postone’s reading of Marx implies that this reading must also be verified or falsified on the basis of actual empirical evidence.

Deconstructing Jacques Bidet’s argument against Postone

I went through the same simple exercise with Jacques Bidet’s text, his critique (for lack of a better term) of Postone’s argument.

Again, I begin with a direct quote from Bidet:

In the capitalist class relation, the market form comes to be instrumentalized and oriented toward destructive effects. The market as such is a rational mode of social coordination; but , when it comes under the command of capitalist logic, it becomes an irrational one. In my opinion, Marx’s discussion is not entirely satisfying because from this instrumentalization it does not follow that the market or value must be abolished, but rather that this rational instrument (and its counterpart, the organization, as well ) must collectively be reclaimed – which is a matter for democratic class struggle.

In contrast to Postone, who argues wages themselves are the problem, Bidet see nothing wrong with wages.

In the capitalist class relation, [the buying and selling of labor power] comes to be instrumentalized and oriented toward destructive effects. The [buying and selling of labor power] as such is a rational mode of social coordination; but, when it comes under the command of capitalist logic, it becomes an irrational one. In my opinion, Marx’s discussion is not entirely satisfying because from this instrumentalization it does not follow that the [buying and selling of labor power or wages] must be abolished, but rather that this rational instrument (and its counterpart, the organization, as well ) must collectively be reclaimed – which is a matter for democratic class struggle.

In Bidet’s opinion, it is the buying and selling of labor power for the purpose of capitalist self-expansion — not the buying and selling of labor power itself — that is the problem. We must ‘democratically reclaim’ wage labor.

The problem with this argument is that the buying and selling of labor power is specific to the capitalist mode of production and no other mode of production. Postone’s argument is precisely that wages and labor power are in no sense transhistorical categories.

What’s in a word…

I slightly altered Postone’s text here to strip away the abstract-ness of the categories of analysis he employs in order to uncover the real sense of his discussion. In particular, I replaced the term, value, with the term, wages, to see what impact this has on his meaning.

Is this valid? I cannot say for sure, but it does have a remarkable resonance as a guide to strategy.

Postone:

To claim, as Marx does, that value is historically specific to capitalism is to claim not only that non-capitalist societies were not structured by value, but also that a post-capitalist society would also not be based on value. This, in turn, entails showing that the secular tendency of capital’s development is to render value increasingly anachronistic.

Restated:

To claim, as Marx does, that wages are historically specific to capitalism is to claim not only that non-capitalist societies were not structured by wages, but also that a post-capitalist society would also not be based on wages. This, in turn, entails showing that the secular tendency of capital’s development is to render wages increasingly anachronistic.

If I am reading Postone correctly, then, there is no way that a post-capitalist society can tolerate wages or wage labor in any form. Abolition of capitalism immediately requires abolition of wages and wage labor. Nothing short of this will work for us.

Substitute “wages” in place of “value” …

In this passage, Postone employs the term, value, but he essentially means wages.

As long a communists are unwilling to confront the wages system itself, they are making a choice — unconsciously — for barbarism, i.e., for fascism. This is unacceptable.

“Within the framework of the approach outlined here, the growing anachronistic character of value in the absence of a widespread imaginary of a future beyond value – that is, a post -proletarian future – is having enormously destructive economic, social, political, and environmental consequences. It is capital itself, in its development, which is confronting us with the increasingly stark choice of socialism or barbarism.” -Moishe Postone, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading