Postone on structure and agency

by Jehu

“One of the things I found very eye opening about the Grundrisse … was that Marx was not simply interested in the end of exploitation  of the proletarian labor but rather in the abolition of this labor. Most interpretations of surplus value missed this point.  The idea that Marx was interested in the self-abolition of the proletariat and not in its realization, led me to begin rethinking  Marx fundamentally.” –Postone, Interview with Moishe Postone: “Critique and Dogmatism”

In this quote from a 2011 interview, Postone describe what I agree is the most important aspect of historical materialism outlined by Marx. My ‘difficulty’ (if that is the right word) with Postone on this point is that, in the interview itself, he never relates Marx’s insight back to a real process. This might mislead the casual reader into believing Marx’s argument is merely political.

Postone does relate his point directly back to the real process in his book, Time, Labor and Social Domination, where he shows that Marx ‘interest’ in the abolition of labor is only a theoretical expression of the actual process of capitalistic development. Which is to say, Marx only demonstrates theoretically that abolition of labor is the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production itself. Postone makes this point in his book, but not in his interview.

Why is this important?

It is important because it allows us to crack the riddle of what Postone later discusses of the contradiction between the historical trajectory of the capitalist mode of production and the agency of the proletariat. Postone argues:

“From the standpoint of Marx’s analysis, Hegel’s notion of the unfolding of human history is a projection onto humanity  of what is actually valid for capitalism. Nietzsche and thinkers who follow him, focus on the contingency of history,.  They do so because they are aware of the fact that the idea of logic to history really signifies a form of heteronomy.  In order to save the possibility of agency, however,, they deny the kind of real constrains on agency that the logic of capital  actually represents. They declare it non-existent.”

I have never read Hegel or Nietzsche, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of Postone’s specific point, however Postone shows how Marx resolves the contradiction between capital’s historical trajectory and conscious proletarian agency: If agency means our conscious actions arrive at an intended result, we acquire real freedom of action only insofar as our activity is consistent with the historical trajectory of capital. If, as Marx argued, the historical trajectory of the capitalist mode of production is in the direction of the abolition of labor,  we are ‘free’ to accelerate this process. The scope of free conscious action is not unbounded; it is constrained by an objective process, a logic that is itself historically specific.

What make Postone one the greatest thinkers of post-war Marxism is that he demonstrates the proletariat is constrained from realizing any other action but its own self-abolition. This constraints is determined, but not ‘deterministic’; i.e., the proletariat is indeed ‘free’ to make its own political choices. There is nothing in Postone’s argument that states the proletariat can only act to abolish itself. The proletariat is thus even free to actually struggle against the historical trajectory of the mode of production, whose logic is to render it superfluous to the production of material wealth.

And this, not surprisingly, makes the proletariat a bizarre bedfellow with the capitalist class, for whom labor is essential. The charge that Marx’s theory is deterministic is made by those who assert Marx argued the proletariat can only act to abolish labor. Marx never made any such argument. It is entirely possible for the proletariat to act in such a way as to attempt to prevent the abolition of labor.

This is not just a possibility, the capitalist mode of production operates in such a way as to make it almost inevitable. The workers is rendered superfluous to the production of material wealth in such a way that she experiences this event as a loss. She cannot sell her labor power, cannot feed her children, is threatened by starvation. Through the division of labor she is thrown into competition with others in her class and forced to drive down her own wages. Since the mode of production operates for the advantage of the owners of capital and for the production of surplus value,  the abolition of labor always proceeds in a way that reduces her subsistence even as it reduces the need for her labor.

Communism thus makes its appearance first as a population of surplus laborers who have been utterly cut off from capital. Emancipation from labor appears first as the setting free of this or that group of workers from production — they are driven out of industry. The logic of capital thus is not just obscured, but is self-obscuring, because it unfold in such a way that it obfuscates its own logic.

If communism makes its first appearance as a population of surplus workers and a mass of excess capital, society (i.e., both capital and labor) responds to this emergence by calling on the state to put these excess ‘resources’ to work. The potential that capital generates for emancipation of society from labor is politically expressed in a form that seeks consciously only to prevent that potential being realized.

As a practical matter, society is only responding rationally to the sudden emergence of unemployed who cannot find jobs, a mass of commodities that cannot be sold and countless factories forced to stand idle because of the crisis. That this crisis is also, at the same time, the harbinger of the new society is not in the least bit obvious to anyone. (If this were not true, why would we need theory.) The fact that the crisis only demonstrates that under then existing technical condition hours of labor are too long has no meaning here. In the capitalistic mode of production, the employment of labor is determined by profit and profit is determined by the duration of the social labor day.

No matter that, technically, the crisis shows hours of labor are too long, the capitalist relation, composed of both laborers and capitalists, empirically grasps this technical reality in its negative form: it is not long enough to maintain existing social relations of production. The operation of the mode of production is determined only indirectly by its technical conditions, but directly by its social conditions. No capitalist ever introduces improved means of production unless this introduction increases profits; no worker ever conditions the sale of her labor power on this labor power being employed ‘productively’ by the buyer. Conditions of capitalist production are never determined by technical conditions, which enter the picture only as a reflex of social forces.

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