Postone on labor under capitalism

by Jehu

Here is an extremely interesting quote from Postone’s talk, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value:

“[Labor] itself constitutes a new form of interdependence, where people do not consume what they produce, but where, nevertheless, their own labor … function as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labor and it s products in effect preempt that function on the part of manifest social relations; they mediate a new form of social interrelatedness.”

As with the categories, value and commodity, according to Postone, labor itself should be seen as historically specific to the capitalist mode of production, not transhistorical. In the capitalist mode of production, what we mean by “commodity” refers solely to the commodity that is historically specific to the mode of production, labor power. What we refer to as “value” is the value of the historically specific commodity, labor power.

It would seem to follow from this that by “labor” we are not referring to material productive activity as it is understood in many different mode of production and societies, but only to a specific form of material productive activity that is found in the capitalist mode of production. Marx calls this historically specific form of material productive activity, social labor.

Social labor should not be confused with individual labor carried on separately. The labor is directly social and thus involves no exchange between individual producers. Social labor, unlike labor in simple commodity production, is not mediated through exchange. It is a self-mediating activity:

“At the heart of [Marx’s] analysis is the idea that labor in capitalism has a unique socially mediating function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity transhistorically.”

If social labor has a socially mediating function that is unique  to the capitalist mode of production, what is this unique socially mediating function? The answer seems to be that social labor is the means by which labor power produces and reproduces itself. Which is to say that labor within the capitalist mode of production is not concerned with production of use values in general, but is concerned solely with the production of the historically specific use value, labor power.

The sole function of social labor in the capitalist mode of production is the production of labor power. The sole use value of labor power is social labor, i.e., the production of labor power.

It should follow from this that the category, “socially necessary labor time”, in the capitalist mode of production does not refer to the socially necessary labor time required for, (for instance), production of shoes, houses, cars and other ordinary commodities, but is solely concerned with the socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power, the peculiar, historically specific, capitalist commodity.

In the capitalist mode of production, the term “socially necessary labor time” is that duration of labor, (measured in some unit of time), that is required to produced the total labor power of society. It would seem to be a mistake to think that the socially necessary labor times of individual ordinary commodities is expressed in their individual prices of production.

This is not to say that these individual socially necessary labor times do not exist; rather, it only means that the SNLTs of ordinary commodities are not expressed in the prices of production of the ordinary commodities. What is expressed in their prices of production is the socially necessary labor time of labor power.

This might explain Postone’s observation that,

“Labor in capitalism, then, is both labor as we transhistorically and commonsensically understand it, according to Marx, and a historically specific socially mediating activity.  Hence, what labor produces, its objectifications –  and here I am referring to the commodity and to capital –  are both concrete labor products and objectified forms of social mediation.”

As labor is understood transhistorically, it produces the value and use value of the ordinary commodity. As labor is understood within the specific historical conditions of capital, however, it produces not the value and use value of the ordinary commodity, but the value and use value of labor power itself.

Another way to say this is that:

  1. the values of ordinary commodities play no role whatsoever in the regulation of the mode of production, and
  2. the prices of individual ordinary commodities tell us nothing about their individual values.

This is important because if you are looking for the law of value to explain the prices of ordinary commodities, you naturally begin with the values of the ordinary commodities themselves. Postone says this is wrong. The values of ordinary commodities play no role whatsoever in the market prices.

To be blunt, the charge that value is redundant when it comes to explaining the prices of individual ordinary commodities is both correct and beside the point, if Postone is correct. Value doesn’t explain the prices of ordinary commodities, it explains the price (wages) of the labor power that goes into their production. With conversion of the value of labor power into money-prices (wages), the first step of the conversion of values into prices is concluded.

The second step now begins.