Postone on time and the production of labor power

by Jehu

I now want to apply Postone’s argument on time to the notion of the commodity in Marx’s Capital. According to Postone, in Marx’s critique of political economy every category he discusses is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production and “are valid in their abstract generality only for capitalist society”

Applying Postone’s argument to the category of the commodity, I have argued that Marx’s category of the commodity is only valid in its abstract generality for labor power. Postone’s discussion of time only applies to the socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power. Thus, the value or socially necessary labor-time required for production of labor power delineates a socially general compelling norm to which capitals must conform.

Postone states it this way:

“Production must conform to this temporal norm if it is to generate the full value of its products.”

But let me restate it this way:

“[Capitalist] production must conform to [the socially necessary labor time required for production of labor power] if it is to generate the full value of its products[, labor power.]”

As I have stated Postone’s argument, the socially necessary labor time required for production of labor power operates as the ultimate constraint on capital. The constraint on capitalist production is not the socially necessary labor time required for the production of ordinary commodities in general, but the socially necessary labor time specifically required for production of the peculiar capitalist commodity alone, labor power.

In this way, value in the capitalist mode of production operates as a self-mediating form of wealth. This mediation, says Postone,

“is essentially temporal. It is constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.”

The distinction between the value of labor power at the start of the process and the value of labor power at the end of the process is essentially two different magnitudes of socially necessary labor time. Since labor power is both the means and the product of capitalist production, the difference is not to be found in the use value of labor power, but in its value. Here, the values of ordinary commodities count for nothing.

Capital is the production of labor power and labor power alone. Labor power is the only commodity capable of making real capital (real self-expanding value) out of money capital. Although capital produces a bewildering variety of commodities, labor power is the sole essential commodity of the capitalist mode of production. Self-expanding value requires a commodity capable of augmenting its own value.

Only labor power does this.

Since capital is self-expanding value, and since living labor is the only source of new value, the production and reproduction of labor power is the sole commodity of concern to capital. However, the production and reproduction of labor power is not the production and reproduction of a thing. It is the production and reproduction of a social relation specific to the capitalist mode of production, wage labor. It is the production and reproduction of situation where,

“[The] labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self.”

The temporal norm to which production must conform is not that required for production of shoes or cars; rather, it is a norm that ensures the worker is compelled to offer herself (her capacity to labor) for sale as a commodity. Reproduction of labor power is immediately the reproduction of the worker’s dependence on the sale of her labor power for wages.

The self-mediating character of value within the capitalist mode of production means that wage labor reproduces the worker’s own absolute dependence on the sale of her labor power. Value as a self-mediating form of wealth does not refer to the values of widgets, but the reproduction of the worker’s absolute subordination to capital constituted through her own labor.

To paraphrase Postone:

Wage labor appears to be natural rather than social and conditions the conceptions of social as well as natural reality, because it reproduces the worker’s dependence on the sale of her labor power.

In the capitalist mode of production, what labor power produces first of all is itself: the absolute dependence of the worker on the sale of her capacity to labor.