Labor power as a social relation

by Jehu

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.”