In my last blog, I admitted that I was unclear why Postone failed to identify labor power as the unique historically specific commodity to which Marx was referring in Capital. In my opinion, this failure led him to assert that the “use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism.”
While I don’t disagree with this assertion, I think Postone forgot his more important point that Marx was not referring to commodities in general, which exist in many societies, but only to the historically specific commodity of the capitalist mode of production, labor power.
While labor power is obviously employed for material production in many societies, its use in the capitalist mode of production is unique in that it can be employed by capital to valorize its own value.
Postone then makes this dubious argument:
“[Marx] maintains that labour in capitalism has a ‘double character’: it is both ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’. ‘Concrete labour’ refers to laboring activities that mediate the interaction of humans with nature. Although it is only in capitalism that all such activities are considered types of an overarching activity (concrete) labour and all products are classed as similar, as use-values, this sort of mediating activity is transhistorical; it exists in all societies. The use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism. This implies, however, that its value dimension and the labour that constitute it are historically specific. Hence, ‘abstract labour’ is not concrete labour in general, but is a different, historically specific, category.”
If I understand Postone, he is arguing that ‘abstract labor’ is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production. If this is indeed what Postone was arguing in this essay, he was wrong. There is nothing in Capital to suggest that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to the capitalist mode of production.
It is true that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to commodity production, but Postone already explained that commodities are not historically unique to capitalism. If commodities are not unique to capitalism and if they all share the characteristic attributes of being both use-values and values, how can ‘abstract labor’ be historically specific to capitalism?
Did commodities prior to capitalism have values? Yes.
Was there some other source of value prior to capitalism? No.
While I can’t really attribute this thought to Postone, of course, I believe he was actually trying to get at a slightly different proposition altogether, namely, that, unlike generic commodities, the use value of labor power for capital is tied to ‘abstract labor’, not ‘concrete labor’. For capital (and for this mode of production alone), ‘abstract labor’ or ‘human labor in the abstract’ is ‘concrete useful labor’.
Labor power has a use-value dimension that is historically unique to capitalism, but this use-value dimension is located (situated, based, positioned), bizarrely and uniquely, within its value dimension. This statement means the usefulness of the commodity to capital consists entirely in the fact that it can valorize (augment, enlarge, expand) its own value.
Again, I am not sure if I have this right. I was not expecting to run into this problem with Postone. I am trying to work through it to see if we can get back on the same page.