#5 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

by Jehu

There is, I think, a great deal of confusion regarding Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse and it is playing out in this discussion of Postone’s, “Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”, as well. It can best be summarized this way.

The current dominant view is presented by Luc:

Marx makes very clear that the categories of his critique are historically specific. Even categories that appear to be transhistorical and that actually do play a role much earlier historically – such as money and labour – are fully developed and come into their own only in capitalist society (Marx 1973: 103)

I have nothing against this view, except that, more often than not, it is taken to mean, essentially, that commodity production as we know it did not exist before the capitalist epoch. I think this latter (mis)reading of Luc’s view is wrong. Commodity production and exchange existed prior to capitalism and exhibited all of the features Marx described in first part of Capital.

My view, which is more along the traditional (Engels) reading of Capital holds that, as above, commodity production existed prior to capitalism and exhibited all of the features Marx described in first part of Capital. Capitalism, however, is historically unique in that “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”. Which is to say, in no previously existing society did wealth present itself exclusively in this fashion.

To put this another way: commodity production and exchange is not unique to capital, but capitalist society rests uniquely and exclusively on commodity production and exchange; this is its historically specific character.

To further clarify the difference, I think everyone will agree that there is a great deal of difference between saying,

“Commodity production and exchange only begins with capitalism.”

and saying,

“Capitalist society is the first society to rest exclusively on production and exchange of commodities.”

The first statement can neither be supported by current historical evidence nor by Marx’s writings. The second statement rather neatly sets up Marx’s prediction in the Grundrisse that capital inevitably leads to the collapse of production based on exchange value.