#3 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

by Jehu

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?