How Postone emptied Marxist economics with just two words

by Jehu

Okay, so Zero Books podcast recently did an interesting interview with Moishe Postone that contains much that is useful if you want to get a feel for the argument Postone is making in his writings.

Around 26 minutes into the interview, Postone explains how he specifically breaks with conventional Marxist reading of Marx. Important right? A writer who is by all accounts one of the most important theorists of our generation is willing to explain how his reading of Marx’s Capital contradicts the conventional, accepted Marxist reading of Marx. We probably want to know what this contradiction is, right?

According to Postone, an accurate reading of Marx is not that the working class comes into its own. “Instead, “ says Postone, “Marx is pointing to a trend that empties proletarian labor of its content, diminishes proletarian labor and yet holds on to this labor.”

Unfortunately, at this point the interviewer wandered off into a tangent regarding his previous discussion with Zizek and mostly ignored Postone’s comment.

Let me state that this statement by Postone is, by his own admission, what separates him from the long tradition of Marxism since Marx died. But what does it even mean? I mean, is Postone simply describing something he thinks amounts to a footnote in Marx’s later works? Or is he telling us: “Look there is something here. Our labor has been emptied of its content. We’re missing this.” And if Postone is saying the latter, what does it even mean? Labor is labor, right? How can labor be emptied of labor? What is this content Postone is referring to of which labor is being emptied?

Mind you, Postone does not make this statement in passing, but draws our attention to it by stating this is where he differs from the entire conventional reading of Marx. That is pretty much everybody: Harvey, Kliman, Heinrich, Shaikh, etc. Postone is saying that all the books you have read professing to be an introduction to Capital miss this crucial point.

How does Postone know this is a critical point we are missing? I mean, is he just talking out of his ass? Do words have meaning or not? Can anyone, even Postone, just throw some shit out there and we all accept or ignore it as if the statement was never made?

“Oh, yeah, Postone think labor is being emptied of its content, but who know what the fuck that means. Sounds like some metaphysical Hegelian philosophical situationist shit to me. You know, these professors are always going on about stuff like this that has no relationship to what is happening in the real world.”

What does it mean to say your labor is being emptied of its content? What would empty labor even look like? Can you identify empty labor? Can you measure empty labor? What is the yardstick by which empty labor is measured? Really, is this just an disconnected idea Postone found in Marx that Marxists should treat, as they do so much of Marx, as having “critical” value, but no analytical value.

To understand what I am getting at with these questions, consider the biggest piece of economic data: the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country. When we look at a statistic like US GDP, can we actually discern empty proletarian labor and distinguish it from socially necessary labor? I follow Postone’s writing and speeches — not religiously, but occasionally — enough to know that no one is asking him these questions.

This is important because, of late, it has become rather routine to say Marx’s work has “critical” value, but no analytical value. This is an idea that even seems to be dominant among Marxists today. Which is to say, Marx’s theory might explain to us why we feel alienated in society, but doesn’t offer any relevant theoretical context to understand, for instance, today’s unemployment report, the sluggish GDP growth in the first quarter or the rationale behind the latest Fed policy statement.

It is possible that no one seems to think Marx’s theory is a reliable guide to understand economic data precisely because, as Postone argues this data may contain a very large amount of “empty labor”. It is possible the data is like a file that contains a very large amount of 0s and very little real information. If you look at economic data and assume all of it is valid, you would be led to the wrong conclusions if, in fact, all or almost all of it is meaningless noise.

Let me make a non-economic analogy about what I mean by this statement employing a jar of jellybeans.

There is a contest where you try to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. The problem seems straightforward: you take the volume of the jar, divide it by the average volume of a jellybean and arrive at a figure. This is mostly what economists do, but Postone’s argument suggests this approach may be flawed.


Sometimes the organizers of the contest will introduce a curve-ball into the contest. For instance, they may put a golf ball into the mix to reduce the total volume available for jellybeans. If this happens, the number of jellybeans in the jar is no longer a direct function of the volume of the jar. You now need a new formula that takes the volume lost to the golf ball into account.

I am not sure, but I think this is the problem Postone poses with his empty labor thesis. Raw data like nominal GDP may be telling us economic activity has one value, but the presence of empty labor means much less economic activity is taking place. How much? If the amount of empty labor in the economy is very small, not much even in a very large economy. But if the amount of empty labor is very large even an very large economy may in fact consist of only a negligible amount of economic activity. Most of the economic activity in the economy may just be fictitious.

Now, if we substitute the term “labor” for economic activity, the implications of Postone’s argument is rather startling: Most of our actual labor may be empty of all economic value, i.e., superfluous. How much of our labor is unnecessary is probably important to nail down because, according to Postone’s argument, this mass of unnecessary labor is the material precondition for communism.

If it is just 5%, that is one thing. But suppose it is 50% or 90%. Suppose, in other words, almost all the labor we perform is unnecessary?

We can’t answer this question in large part because we have no tools to answer — in large part. The biggest problem, however, is not that we lack the tools required to measure empty labor, but that no one is even raising the question in the first place. A question that is never posed cannot be answered.

If Postone is correct, the first step in parsing economic data is to distinguish meaningless noise from actual data. However, Postone has not taken the next step and given us the tools for making such discrimination. To paraphrase Postone’s argument, what he has said is this: “Much of the economic data you think is real is just empty labor. The long tradition of conventional Marxism doesn’t understand this.”

But what is “empty” about empty labor? What is missing that we normally associate with labor? We obviously don’t know and Postone is never asked by anyone. Until Postone answers this question, there is no such thing as Marxist economics. It is all suspect, or composed entirely of assumptions smuggled in from bourgeois economic theory.