Wage labor as the impersonal domination of the worker over herself

by Jehu

In a previous post I wrote this:

“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.”

In the capitalist mode of production, the worker is obliged to sell her labor power as a commodity. Labor power, however, is not a thing, like shoes or houses; but a social relation of absolute dependence of the worker on capital for the means of life.

In the course of her labor the worker replaces the value of her labor power and adds some additional increment of surplus value. The portion of the labor day devoted to replacing the value of her labor power is nothing more than the labor time necessary to reproduce her absolute dependence on the sale of her labor power.

According to Postone, it is the value of labor power, i.e., the labor time required to reproduce the absolute dependence of the worker on sale of her labor power, that mediates the production of material wealth.

Despite the great increase in the society’s technical capacity to produce material wealth — fueled by incredible increases in scientific knowledge and automation — the labor time devoted to the production of labor power can never exceed the labor time necessary to reproduce the worker’s absolute dependence on the sale of her labor power.

The reason this has to be true in theory is obvious: if the worker were not obligated to offer her labor power for sale, production for profit would not continue. The sale of her labor power for wages has to appear to be a natural condition for her existence.

The labor time devoted to the production of material wealth in the capitalist mode of production is fundamentally determined by labor time required to reproduce the worker’s absolute dependence on the sale of her labor power for wages.

With the great increase in the power of the forces of production bound up with capital, the labor time required to reproduce the worker’s absolute dependence on the sale of her labor power for wages diminishes.

According to Postone, labor power actually reconstitutes itself as necessary, although we normally think about this process from the point of view of the capitalist, as Postone explains:

“[Because] the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution not only drives productivity forward, but also reconstitutes value, it thereby also structurally reconstitutes the necessity of value-creating labor, that is, proletarian labor.”

The idea that evil capital reconstitutes wage labor as necessary may be psychologically satisfying, since it posit an alien power over us, but the fact is that value — wages — reconstitutes itself as necessary. It mediates both the production of material wealth and self-mediates its own production.

We know Postone has to be right about this, because we know capitalism doesn’t even require a capitalist. The only class necessary for capitalism is the working class. All the evils we ascribe to the capitalists must in fact be reproduced by the working class itself.

Like God, if the capitalists did not exist, the working class would have to invent them. According to Postone, Marxism of the 20th century consisted of,

“[A] general interpretive framework in which capitalism is analyzed essentially in terms of class relations that are rooted in private property and mediated by the market,and social domination is understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation.”

He argues this approach is fundamentally anachronistic. We should replace it with a new conception of capitalism that does not rely on archetypal personifications of 20th century Marxism:

“This historically new form of social domination is one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalized, structural imperatives and constraints that cannot fully be grasped in terms of class domination, or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus and, although constituted by determinate forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all.”

In other words, if you cannot explain how capitalism works without reference to the “evil capitalists” personification typical of the 20th century, your strategy will not work. Just try to explain how the worker ends up living in abject poverty without making use of the iconic capitalist.

The problem with the “evil capitalist” approach is that no worker sees anything like an evil capitalist driving them into poverty. What they see instead are “the blacks” or “racist whites”, immigrants, women, government taxes and regulations, foreign competition etc. They are beset on all sides by forces that drive them into poverty.

So when you show up trying to convince them that the “evil capitalists” are the problem, there is no way your explanation fits their practical experience.

The same 20th century Marxist approach that has proven inadequate at explaining racism, nativism and misogyny also is inadequate for addressing racism, nativism and misogyny because it relies on personifications (caricatures) that become increasingly irrelevant to the actual operation of the mode of production over time.

The more irrelevant and unnecessary the capitalist becomes to the actual operation of the mode of production, the more this personification loses the power to explains the pervasiveness of social ills.

The inadequacy of 20th century Marxism informs all aspect of political life, says Postone:

“And, indeed, I would suggest that a sense of the inadequacy of the traditional Marxist framework has –at least tacitly –informed critical progressive politics for decades. The notion of postcapitalism, of socialism, as a society based on industrial labor, public ownership of the means of production and central planning, began to lose its hold on the imaginaries of many progressive intellectuals, students and workers during the crisis of Fordist capitalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

If we ended the discussion at this point, I think Postone’s argument would not be sufficient to require a rereading of Marx’s theory, however. All Postone has told us is the 20th century Marxism no longer explains anything. In this sense, 20th century Marxism is no better or worse than a host of other approaches.

Take a number and stand in line.

Postone’s argument for a rereading of Marx’s theory has another, more powerful application that I have so far neglected. I will turn to that next.