#4 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

The argument Postone wants to make in this essay is pretty straightforward:

“Beginning with his treatment of the magnitude of value in terms of socially necessary labour time, Marx outlines a dialectical interaction of value and use value which becomes historically significant with the emergence of relative surplus value and gives rise to a very complex, non-linear, historical dynamic underlying modern society. With the unfolding of this dynamic it becomes increasingly clear that the historically specific form of social domination intrinsic to capitalism’s most basic forms of social mediation is the domination of people by time”

(NOTE: As can be seen in the passage above, it is a peculiarity of Postone’s approach that he speaks of the impersonal (abstract, subjectless) domination of the members of society by time, rather than by value or the law of value — i.e., by labor time or socially necessary labor time as might be expected of a Marxist theoretician. As long as this caveat is kept in mind, however, I think it poses no problem.)

Continue reading “#4 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’”

#3 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

In my last post, I argued that, in his 2008 essay, Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse, Moishe Postone was wrong to assert ‘abstract labor’ is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production. Clearly Marx believed the value of commodities were the product of ‘abstract labor’. And, just as clearly, he believed (and Postone himself admits) commodity production took place in many societies prior to capitalism. Unless I am missing something, (which is a distinct possibility, because I am an idiot), It follows from this that ‘abstract labor’ could not be historically specific to the capitalist mode of production.

I offered the possible explanation that Postone was trying to get at a slightly different proposition: namely, that for the capitalist mode of production alone “abstract labor is [taken for] concrete useful labor”. I mean by this that capital is not concerned with the production of use-values as such. Like our enlightened moderate Democrat, who does not see color, capital does not see iron, corn or yarn. Capital only sees values.

Postone explains his reasoning this way:

“… ‘abstract labour’ is not concrete labour in general, but is a different, historically specific, category. As argued in Time, Labour, and Social Domination, it signifies that labour in capitalism has a unique social function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity as such. Rather, commodity determined labour serves as a kind of quasi-objective means by which the products of others are acquired. It mediates a new form of interdependence, where people’s labour or labour products function as quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labour and its products pre-empt that function on the part of manifest social relations.”

To be honest, I don’t know what to make of this assertion by Postone. To be clear, capitalism is a commodity producing society and, as in any commodity producing society, labor in the capitalist mode of production does serve as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. Postone is thus correct to state, as he does, that abstract labor,

“… refers to the historically specific constitution by labour in capitalism of a form of mediation that fundamentally characterizes that society. This mediating activity is not, however, a characteristic that is intrinsic to laboring activity. Consequently, it does not and cannot appear as such. Instead, when the commodity is analyzed, its historically specific dimension, value, appears to be constituted by labour in general, without any further qualifications the ‘expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’. That is to say, the historically specific, socially mediating function of labour in capitalism appears as transhistorical concrete labour, as ‘labour’ that is, as an ontological essence rather than as a historically specific form. This ontological form of appearance of labor’s historically unique socially constituting function in capitalism is a fundamental determination of what Marx refers to as the fetish forms of capitalism”.

However, according to Marx, already in Aristotle’s time labor was serving as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. The problem for Aristotle with this quasi-objective mediation, says Marx, was that Aristotle lacked a notion of human equality and, therefore, of the equality between various sorts of concrete human labors. Aristotle thus could not explain what it was that he was seeing. The fetish form of the commodity is precisely what so confounded Aristotle, according to Marx:

“Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible, that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

If labor in capitalism has a unique social function as Postone argued, it certainly cannot be that it serves as a means by which the products of others is acquired since this function was already clearly established long prior to the rise of the capitalist mode of production.

Further, I am particularly disturbed by this quote from Postone:

Labour in capitalism, then, not only mediates the interaction of humans and nature, but also constitutes a historically specific social mediation, according to Marx. Hence, its objectifications (commodity, capital) are both concrete labour products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most fundamentally characterize the capitalist form of social life are very different in kind from the qualitatively specific and overtly social relations, such as kinship relations, which characterize other forms of social life.

While mostly true as stated, what is lost here is the fact that this could be said for any commodity producing society — even Aristotle’s. Postone’s argument fails to isolate any characteristic that is historically specific to capital in large part because he thought what was historically specific to this mode of production was also linked to commodities in general, rather than specifically to labor power.

But the quote also raises a much more important question that needs to be addressed:

Is capital really a concrete labor product as Postone asserted?

#2 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

In my last blog, I admitted that I was unclear why Postone failed to identify labor power as the unique historically specific commodity to which Marx was referring in Capital. In my opinion, this failure led him to assert that the “use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism.”

While I don’t disagree with this assertion, I think Postone forgot his more important point that Marx was not referring to commodities in general, which exist in many societies, but only to the historically specific commodity of the capitalist mode of production, labor power.

While labor power is obviously employed for material production in many societies, its use in the capitalist mode of production is unique in that it can be employed by capital to valorize its own value.

Postone then makes this dubious argument:

“[Marx] maintains that labour in capitalism has a ‘double character’: it is both ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’. ‘Concrete labour’ refers to laboring activities that mediate the interaction of humans with nature. Although it is only in capitalism that all such activities are considered types of an overarching activity (concrete) labour and all products are classed as similar, as use-values, this sort of mediating activity is transhistorical; it exists in all societies. The use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism. This implies, however, that its value dimension and the labour that constitute it are historically specific. Hence, ‘abstract labour’ is not concrete labour in general, but is a different, historically specific, category.”

If I understand Postone, he is arguing that ‘abstract labor’ is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production. If this is indeed what Postone was arguing in this essay, he was wrong. There is nothing in Capital to suggest that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to the capitalist mode of production.

It is true that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to commodity production, but Postone already explained that commodities are not historically unique to capitalism. If commodities are not unique to capitalism and if they all share the characteristic attributes of being both use-values and values, how can ‘abstract labor’ be historically specific to capitalism?

Did commodities prior to capitalism have values? Yes.

Was there some other source of value prior to capitalism? No.

While I can’t really attribute this thought to Postone, of course, I believe he was actually trying to get at a slightly different proposition altogether, namely, that, unlike generic commodities, the use value of labor power for capital is tied to ‘abstract labor’, not ‘concrete labor’. For capital (and for this mode of production alone), ‘abstract labor’ or ‘human labor in the abstract’ is ‘concrete useful labor’.

Labor power has a use-value dimension that is historically unique to capitalism, but this use-value dimension is located (situated, based, positioned), bizarrely and uniquely, within its value dimension. This statement means the usefulness of the commodity to capital consists entirely in the fact that it can valorize (augment, enlarge, expand) its own value.


Again, I am not sure if I have this right. I was not expecting to run into this problem with Postone. I am trying to work through it to see if we can get back on the same page.

Some thoughts on Postone’s “Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”

How should we read Capital?

A lot of folks — Harvey, Heinrich, Cleaver, and so many others — have their own particular take on this question.

In my opinion, Moishe Postone had a unique take that we might call a critique of the traditional reading of Capital. His critique of the traditional reading of Capital was grounded in Marx’s Grundrisse, which became widely read only beginning in the 1970s.

In his 2008 essay, Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse, Postone argues,

“…[The] Grundrisse allows us to see that Marx’s critique in Capital extends far beyond the traditional critique of bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property). It not only entails a critique of exploitation and the unequal distribution of wealth and power, although it, of course, includes such a critique. Rather, it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist, and critically analyses capitalism primarily in terms of abstract structures of domination, the increasing fragmentation of individual labour and individual existence, and a blind runaway developmental logic. It treats the working class as the basic element of capital, rather than the embodiment of its negation, and implicitly conceptualizes socialism not in terms of the realization of labour and industrial production, but in terms of the possible abolition of the proletariat and the organization of labour based on proletarian labour (as well as of the dynamic system of abstract compulsion constituted by labour as a socially mediating activity).”

I want to bring your attention to an important feature of Postone’s reading of Capital: according to Postone, in Capital, Marx treats the working class as the basic element of capital. Not, “A basic element of capital”, “THE basic element of capital.”

Based on this reading of Capital, Postone argues,

“…[The] category of the commodity here does not refer to commodities as they might exist in many societies, … Rather, the category of the commodity here is historically specific. It designates the most fundamental social form of capitalist society, the form from which Marx then proceeded to unfold the essential features and dynamic quality of that society. The characteristics of that form that it simultaneously is a value and a use value, for example should also be understood as historically specific.”

If the working class is the basic element of capital, it follows from this statement that a single commodity, labor power, is the most fundamental social form of capitalist society.

Why Postone never states this explicitly in his 2008 essay is quite unclear to me. Had he stated it explicitly, he could have then gone on to say that communism must be conceptualized in terms of the abolition of wage labor.

This is a more precise definition of communism than the one he offers.

Postone further confuses the discussion when he tackles what he calls the dualistic character of the commodity, as a use-value and as a value. In this essay, Postone argues that the “use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism.” While true, the problem with this assertion is that, as Postone informs us, the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism. However, as Postone explained, in Capital, Marx is not referring to commodities as they might exist in many societies. He is referring only to a historically specific commodity, i.e., to labor power.

Labor power is not only a commodity that is historically specific to capitalism, it has a use-value that is historically specific to the capitalism. Unlike every other commodity, labor power is a remarkable commodity with a capacity for creating value itself. The use-value of labor power that is historically specific to capitalism is that it creates value and can, therefore, valorize its own value.

Labor power meets our essential definition for capital: self-valorizing value. Corn cannot valorize itself, nor can iron or yarn; self-valorization is the unique quality of labor power alone.

The unexpected result I encountered here with Postone’s 2008 essay, forces me to look at it more closely.

What am I missing?

Some important caveats regarding Autonomy’s proposal to reduce the work week

In January of this year, Autonomy Scotland, an independent, progressive think tank, embarked on a new initiative to shorten hours of labor in Britain. This initiative began with the publication of a proposal, “The shorter working week: a radical and pragmatic proposal”.

The extraordinary proposal by Autonomy sets a medium-term goal of a transition to a four day, 32 hour full-time working week by 2025. For firms over 250 employees a non-compulsory option to reduce working hours to 28 hours per week would be provided to all employees. Under Autonomy’s proposal, the public sector would be the first to adopt the shorter working week without a reduction of pay. A board composed of trade unions, government and business leaders would aim to increase productivity in sectors of the economy that have seen low investment in technology.

While I support much of this proposal, I do think there are important caveats that must be mentioned.


Continue reading “Some important caveats regarding Autonomy’s proposal to reduce the work week”

Would eliminating all taxes on wages and salaries make it easier to reduce hours of labor?

One thing I have remarked on in my writings before is the tendency of Democraps to demonize the GOP for cutting taxes on the rich. It isn’t that I defend this practice by the GOP, but it seems to me that if the Democraps were so interested in protecting the worker from an undue one-sided tax code, they might push for eliminating taxes on income earned through work, instead of whining about the rich not paying their “fair share”.

How would my idea work?

A lot of people support the idea of a universal basic income, which I oppose. But one variant of this idea proposes a negative income tax on those below a certain income. If this idea were extended to include elimination of taxes on all income earned through labor, it would amount to a zero income tax on wages and salaries. (This would have to include elimination of all FICA tax and all taxes on consumption, like state and local sales taxes.)

Eliminating taxes on wages and salaries would end the debate over the rich paying their fair share, but it would do more than this.

According to the Motley Fool, American workers pay about 32 percent of their income in taxes to federal, state and local government — and this does not include property tax, vehicle tax, sales tax, etc. Which means just by excluding worker income from taxes could result in a 30-40 percent increase in their real (after-tax) income.

Interesting, eliminating all taxes on wages and salaries would be more than enough to pay for a reduction of work week from the present 40 hours to 28 hours — a work week of just four days, 7 hours for every worker.

(published on Reddit r/antiwork)

Trump will likely not declare a national emergency to get his wall

It is not likely that Trump will declare a national emergency to get his wall. This is not just for the obvious reason that such a declaration will be challenged and thus tied up in the courts for two years.

The real reason Trump won’t declare a national emergency to get his wall is China. To successfully negotiate with China Trump must call the Democrats bluff and shut down the government a second time.

Let’s remember how this unfolded:

  1. Trump says he will shut down government unless congress approves his wall
  2. The Dems, naturally, let him
  3. We end up with the longest shutdown in US government history
  4. The Dems, sensing an opening, say they are ready to negotiate, but Trump must first reopen the government
  5. Trump calls their bluff and lets government reopen for 21 days

In truth, the Dems had no intention of conceding a wall to Trump — not because they oppose a wall, but because they want to deny Trump a victory. But they reasoned that if they could get Trump to reopen government, he would not again engage in such politically self-destructive behavior by shutting it down a second time. They assume Trump will opt for a national emergency, which they will counter by going to the courts to kill.

Here’s what they didn’t count on:

Side by side with the government shutdown is Trump’s negotiations with China over its trade practices. Trump has already imposed tariffs on hundreds of billion of dollars of China imports and has threatened to impose tariffs on all China imports. The escalation of tensions began to get out of hand last year until both sides sought a cooling off period of ninety days. During this cooling off period, the US and China were supposed to come to a comprehensive agreement to avert the Trump administration imposing tariffs on all China imports.

What do the China talks have to do with the government shutdown over the wall?

I’m glad you asked.

In Beijing, no doubt, they are looking at whether Trump has the inclination to go through with Shutdown Part Deux. Having ended that debacle indecisively, would Trump lead his forces back into a politically damaging shutdown a second time?

It might answer a question of great importance to China: Does Trump really want to go all in on tariffs against the US’s largest trading partner and foreign creditor? Can he be satisfied with something less than victory — say, selling more soybeans?

If Trump shuts down Washington a second time, China will have its answer.

This is why, absent an agreement, in all likelihood, Trump will shut down Washington a second time.

Get ready.