What Postone thinks he can explain

by Jehu

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.

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Here are the sorts of disparate events that Postone thinks his “renewed reading” of Marx’s theory can explain:

  • The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the wave of right wing populisms sweeping much of Europe
  • continued existence of severe economic crises,
  • structural transformations of industrial societies,
  • failure of state-directed road to national capital accumulation
  • growing financialization of social life,
  • prevalence of mass poverty,
  • structural exploitation on a global scale
  • dramatic growth of inequality,
  • environmental degradation
  • hollowing out of work

Postone really has to demonstrate that, at some level, “the election of Donald Trump” is connected to “the failure of state-directed economic growth model” and that both of these are to be explained by “a historically specific form of social life that constitutes the world.”

All we know right now is that Postone’s intuition is that all of these things can be explained by one and the same capitalistic process. But Postone’s intuition is not proof.

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As his first step in offering proof for his intuition, Postone offers what he says is a global pattern to many of the issues he raised in section I. His list can be divided into several categories:

  1. Economic changes, including the rise in inequality, GDP growth, wages and industrial employment;
  2. Political, including changes in the form of bourgeois state; and
  3. a global pattern of crisis

He gives one example of a pattern of economic changes:

“Significantly, this pattern of changes in inequality is supranational and parallels other overarching patterns. For example, the average rate of economic growth for advanced capitalist countries was relatively low during the first half of the century, then more than doubled in the mid-20th century period – which was the period of lowest inequality. This then was reversed after the early 1970s: economic growth declined as inequality grew.”

Postone asserts this same pattern can be found in a number of other economic indicators, including changes in rates of GDP per capita, wages and manufacturing jobs, which all show similar patterns.

Coincident with these changes is a still more important change in the form of state over the same period: The emergence, evolution and ultimate collapse of what he calls, “state-centric Fordist capitalism”.

“[The] supersession of 19th-century liberal capitalism by state-centric Fordist capitalism from its beginnings in World War I and the Russian Revolution, through its high point in the decades following World War II and its decline after the early 1970s, and its supersession, in turn by neoliberal global capitalism”.

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Postone sees in the above patterns a distinctly global pattern of development:

“What is significant about this trajectory is its global character. It encompassed western capitalist countries and Communist countries, as well as colonized lands and decolonized countries.”

There are differences, Postone admits, but the differences don’t seem significant:

“Although important differences in historical development occurred, of course, from the vantage point of the 21st century they appear more as different inflections of a common pattern than as fundamentally different developments. This does not mean that this pattern is homogeneous or modular. How unevenness is understood, however, depends on how the overarching historical developments of modernity are understood.”

The global character of these patterns suggests the unfolding of a necessity immanent to capitalism itself, which he calls “unfreedom”:

“This form of unfreedom … is the central object of Marx’s critique of political economy, which grounds the historically dynamic character and structural changes of the modern world in imperatives and constraints that are historically specific to capitalist society.”

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I am completely skeptical of Postone’s reliance on Piketty’s book on inequality and its alleged connection to changes in the patterns of growth in capitalist countries over the last several hundred years. I find it unfortunate that Postone bases his argument on Piketty’s work.

My reasons are several: First, Piketty’s approach is not consistent with Marx’s own approach. Piketty knows nothing about labor theory of value and does not use any of it in his discussion of inequality. This means we would need to confirm that Piketty’s findings on inequality have any validity within Marx’s theory. Second, the category itself is suspect. I know of no counterpart to this category in Marx’s theory. We would have to map Piketty’s category to a similar one in Marx. To introduce Piketty’s category into the discussion needlessly distracts from Postone’s discussion.

To give an example: in the Soviet Union, income distribution, measured in rubles, was fairly flat up to the moment it collapsed, according to most sources I have read. The global pattern Postone discusses is nowhere evident in the SU. Likewise, so far as I can tell, wages and industrial employment show little or none of the pattern evident in the West until the SU actually collapsed.

Whatever global patterns Postone intuits has to be occurring at a level of analysis that does not involve inequality, wages or employment. Yet, it seems that the descent into stagnation in the Soviet Union closely parallels a similar descent in the United States and the West generally. Postone is correct to call attention to this close parallel, but he does not explain it simply by invoking the global character of the pattern.

If Postone central thesis is to be defended, he will have to show why the Soviet Union fits into what Postone calls a global pattern puzzle despite several significant differences.