In opposition to Postone, Martin Thomas argued this:
MT: There is a passage in [Marx’s] Theories of Surplus Value on the expansion of the middle class. But part of the picture is that much of what used to be thought of as the white-collar middle class is now working-class. And it is a fact that the industrial working class, and the working class more broadly defined, has been growing.
If before Martin Thomas confused the hollowing out of working society with mass unemployment, in the above passage he confuses the process Postone describes with the disappearance of the industrial working class and their replacement by a white-collar middle class. What is strange about Thomas’s statement is that the hollowing out of working society is actually one of the very first examples we have of the stylized presentation of the impact of machines on the value creating capacity of labor in Capital, volume 1.
In a passage discussing the introduction of power looms in England, Marx says this:
The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.
Were we to present Marx’s argument graphically, it might look something like this:
As can be seen from the above chart, once machine-powered looms were introduced, the value created by one hour of hand-loom weaving fell by fifty percent — from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. (This is a stylized presentation of Marx’s argument, of course. I am relying solely on the text.) It goes without saying that the weavers did not see the fall in the value produced by their labor directly, of course. What they actually experienced was a fall in the price paid for their final product.
(Which is to say, it goes without saying, but I said it anyways.)
But how does this demonstrate a hollowing out of working society?
Our hand-loom weavers now produce 30 minutes of value, but do they work only 30 minutes? No, to produce 30 minutes of value they must still work one hour of sixty minutes. We can graphically represent that requirement this way:
In the above chart, the red columns, positioned to the rear, represent the one hour each hand-loom weaver works. The blue column, positioned to the front, represents the value each hand-loom weaver produces. As you can see, after the introduction of machine-powered looms in England the mass of value produced by hand-loom weavers dropped rather dramatically in this stylized presentation.
Following Postone, we could say that the labor of the hand-loom weavers were hollowed out by the introduction of machine-powered looms into England; which is to say, the labor became less value creating per hours of expenditure.
Again, since the hand-loom weavers have no way to see the value they create, they would only notice this fall in the value of their product during an exchange — the price of their good would fall as machine-produced goods entered the market. Nevertheless their working day remained unaltered. In effect, they continued to work long hours for less than they had before. Likewise, there is nothing about the concept of the hollowing out of working society that suggests the working class disappears or works less than it did previously.
And, again, following Postone, this process I have just described has to be true not just for hand-loom weavers but for all classes in bourgeois society, including the capitalist class.