Postone on the specificity of the commodity in capital

by Jehu

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.