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Month: February, 2019



#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.


Read the rest of this entry »

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.