On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XXV

by Jehu

So, here is my contention regarding Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society.

Assume working society, as Postone uses this term, means a society of capitalist commodity production, as opposed to simple commodity production. (And here the distinction is very important, despite the value-form school.) This capitalist commodity production, however, continues to rest on value-producing labor as the term is employed by Marx in Capital, Volume one, Chapter 1, but is put to use for purpose of extracting surplus value, not just exchange value. The phrase “hollowing out of working society” means that value-producing labor is progressively being robbed of its value-producing capacity by the development of the forces of social production created by capitalist accumulation itself.

As explained by Marx in the Grundrisse, the mechanism for this is that value-producing labor is progressively displaced by machines in the production of material use-values:

“[The] creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.)

According to Marx this development should eventually lead to a breakdown of production based on exchange value and the emergence of a communist society where:

“The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.”

Not so quick, says Postone. Communism doesn’t necessarily emerge. It is a contingent outcome. The other outcome is that labor is progressively hollowed out, rendered superfluous to the production of material wealth, but communism never emerges:

“With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time.”

Postone bases this assessment on the opinion that historical necessity Marx relies on cannot, in and of itself create the freedom he predicts. Interesting enough, he refers to Marx as the authority for this position:

“My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite — historical non-necessity — which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.”

This now leaves us with the worst possible outcome of all: If the fundamental underpinning of capitalist accumulation, production based exchange value, is now a historical non-necessity, but people (what people?) are either unwilling or unable to appropriate what has been constituted historically as capital, Postone argues this must result in an ever growing mass of superfluous labor time, labor that produces nothing, empty labor for the sake of fictitious accumulation.

This is the nightmare scenario that Rosa Luxemburg called Barbarism.