#4 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

by Jehu

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.)

According to Postone, Marx outlines a process of continuous revolution in the conditions of social production characterized, on the one hand, by a staggeringly abrupt rise in the productivity of social labor; and, on the other hand, the continuous reestablishment of the law of value as its own premise and fundamental condition:

“…namely that social mediation ultimately is effected by labour and, hence, that living labour remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole) regardless of the level of productivity.”

I think few Marxists would dispute this argument by Postone. However, Postone very quickly runs into an unexpected problem, I think: he tries to demonstrate his argument solely based on Marx’s discussion of the generic commodity and its dual-sided characteristics, value and use-value.

Let’s begin with paragraph four of Postone’s, “Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”. In that paragraph, Postone explains that labor in capitalism mediates both the relation between human beings and nature, and relations among members of society; it creates objects that are both concrete products and objectified forms of social mediation; and it’s relations function in historically specific ways that fundamentally differ from earlier forms of social relations, in that they appear to be natural, rather than social.

Fair enough, I suppose.

Now, so far I have assumed Postone committed an unintentional theoretical faux pas by erasing from his critique of the traditional reading of Capital the single commodity that is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production: labor power. This is the point where that silly pretense starts to get untenable. What Postone is going to try to do at this point is to develop his magnificent argument on time, labor and social domination, but he will begin by attempting to directly extend his discussion on the dual character of the commodity, use-value and value.

According to Postone, the historically specific form of mediation constituted by capital is a new form of impersonal social domination that cannot be fully grasped in terms of the direct (or immediate) domination of social groupings such as class or agencies. This mediation is unregulated, (or, perhaps, self-regulating); appears not to be social (i.e., not to arise from our own activities); and, evolves over time. What drives this peculiarly capitalistic mediation, says Postone, is the two-fold character of the generic commodity, value and use-value. The creation of a use-value is a function of a number of factors: labor, knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions. While the creation of value is solely the function of the duration of socially necessary human labor time.

Postone then attempts to explain how the two-fold character of the commodity accounts for the historically specific form of mediation constituted by capital in this passage, already quoted above and more fully here:

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. The dynamic outlined by Marx in Capital is characterized, on the one hand, by ongoing transformations of production and, more generally of social life; on the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental condition as an unchanging feature of social life namely that social mediation ultimately is effected by labour and, hence, that living labour remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole) regardless of the level of productivity. Capitalism ceaselessly generates the new while constantly reconstituting the same.

In this paragraph, Postone implicitly admits the failure of his critique of the traditional reading of Capital, a failure made inevitable because his critique rests on the two-fold character of the generic commodity, rather than the historically specific (for capital) commodity, labor power. The failure arises from the fact that he has now introduced a new category, relative surplus value, for which his previous discussion has neither defined nor accounted.

Postone senses this error in his critique and notes in his essay that he has not addressed it, but he seems to think he can proceed without it by adding this crutch:

This understanding of capitalism’s complex dynamic allows for a critical, social (rather than technological) analysis of the trajectory of growth and the structure of production in modern society. Although I cannot elaborate here, Marx’s key concept of surplus-value not only indicates, as traditional interpretations emphasize, that the surplus is produced by the working class, but that capitalism is characterized by a determinate, runaway form of growth.

The problem with this argument is that, even according to Postone, commodity production and exchange has occurred in many different societies throughout history, but the sort of explosive runaway growth, of which Postone speaks here, only began very recently; it is highly historically specific to the capitalistic mode of production alone.