Moishe Postone’s work establishes a crucial distinction between the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour and the critique of labor in capitalism.The former implies a transhistorical account of work, while the latter situates labor as a consistent category – capable of “social synthesis” – within the capitalist mode of production. But, does this distinction require us to abandon any form of ontological account of labour? As Postone would say,
It depends what you mean by an ontological account of labour. It does force us to abandon the idea that transhistorically there is an on-going development of humanity which is effected by labour, that human interaction with nature as mediated by labour is a continuous process which is led to continuous change. And that labour is in that sense a central historical category. That position is closer actually to Adam Smith than it is to Marx. I think that the centrality of labour to something called historical development can be posited only for capitalism and not for any other form of human social life. On the other hand, I think one can retain the idea that humanity’s interaction with nature is a process of self-constitution.
One of the most important contributions of Time, Labour and Social Domination is a novel theory of impersonal domination in capitalist society. To him “traditional Marxism” is a criticism of capitalism from the standpoint of labor. Postone’s Marxism, by contrast, is a critique of labor in capitalism. Since Marx’s theory refers to capitalism, not society in general, labor cannot be a transhistorical category. Instead, it must be understood as an integrated part of capitalism. This means that labor cannot provide a standpoint from which to criticize capitalism, and neither can the proletariat: “the working class is integral to capitalism, rather than the embodiment of its negation”. The struggle, then, should not be a struggle of labor against capital, as traditional Marxists thought, but a struggle against labor seen as an integral part of the valorization of capital. This conclusion has implications for Postone’s understanding of domination in capitalism. Rather than being a matter of class relations, it takes the form of domination by impersonal and quasi-objective mechanisms such as fetishism, in the construction of which labor is deeply implicated. The benefit of this reinterpretation, according to Postone, is that it shows the usefulness of Marx’s theory not only in a criticism of liberal nineteenth-century capitalism but also in a criticism of contemporary welfare-state capitalism or Soviet-style state-capitalism. The latter forms of capitalism are just as capitalist as the former since they all build on the valorization of capital built on labor. Abolishing private ownership or rearranging the distribution of goods is not enough to escape capitalism. Postone both builds on and criticizes the approaches of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. There is much in his book that shows his affinities especially to the latter – such as the criticism of welfare state capitalism or the stress on fetishism – but he nevertheless criticizes these earlier thinkers for being bound to a transhistorical conception of labor. Lukács in particular is singled out for heavy criticism since he saw the proletariat as the Subject of history, as capable of grasping totality and hence offering the standpoint of critique. Engaging with the Hegelian legacy, or should I quip lunacy in Lukács, Postone arrives at one of his most important and provocative arguments. “Marx suggests that a historical Subject in the Hegelian sense does indeed exist in capitalism, yet he does not identify it with… the proletariat”. Instead it is capital that is portrayed as a Hegelian Geist – as a subject and self-moving substance, following its own immanent historical logic. Hegelian dialectics, then, is specific to capitalism and is not a tool for grasping history in general. Thus, to Marx, the “totality” was not the whole in general, and certainly not a standpoint which he affirmed. Instead, he identified totality with the capitalist system and made it the object of his critique: “the historical negation of capitalism would not involve the realization, but the abolition, of the totality”, Postone argues. The working class cannot lead history towards this negation. In fact, it is only by breaking with the logic consitutive of this totality, in which the working class forms part, that a different, post-capitalist society can be born.
The abolition of the totality would, then, allow for the possible constitution of very different, non-totalizing, forms of the political coordination and regulation of society.
In a question asked about if the capitalist form of domination not better defined as the appearance of truly abstract relations as if they were concrete, personal relations? Furthermore, does this inversion, or at least the recognition of the crucial role of abstraction in capitalism, render a definition of class struggle untenable, or are we rather in need of a concept of class that takes this distance from the concrete into consideration? Postone says,
I am not sure that I would fully agree with the attempted reformulation. First of all, with regard to the quote “relations between people appearing as relations between things” what is left out of this version of what Marx said is that he adds that relations among people appear as they are, as social relations between things and thingly relations between people. Marx only explicitly elaborated the notion of fetishism with the fetishism of commodity. All three volumes of Capital, are [our change] in many respects, however, a study on fetishism even when he doesn’t use that word. And fetishism means that because of the peculiar, double character of the structuring social forms of capitalism, social relations disappears from view. What we get are thingly relations: we also get abstractions. However, one dimension of the fetish is, as you put it, that abstract relations appear concrete.They appear in the form of the concrete. So, for example, the process of creating surplus value appears to be a material process, the labour process. It appears to be material-technical, rather than moulded by social forms. And yet there are also abstract dimensions and regularities that don’t appear in the form of the concrete. I am emphasising this is because certain reactionary forms of thought only view capitalism in terms of those abstract regularities and refuse to see that the concrete itself is moulded by, and is really drenched with, the abstract. I think a lot of forms of populism and anti-Semitism can be characterised that way. Now I am not sure that this appropriation of the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy renders a definition of class struggle untenable, but it does indicate that class struggle occurs within and is moulded by the structuring social forms.This position rejects the ontological centrality or the primacy of class struggle, as that which is truly social and real behind the veil of capitalist forms. Class struggle rather is moulded by the capitalist relations expressed by the categories of value, commodity, surplus value, and capital.
Postone’s approach only seems far-fetched if we continue to equate capitalism with the economy. Not if we think of it as a form of life. For example, after Darwin wrote, natural processes, such as adaptation or sexual selection, came to be seen as operating within history. This gave us the naturalist novel of Zola or Norris. “Nature” was seen to structure history (the Rougon-Marcquet saga, the strike in Germinal etc.) as well compel individuals from within. For Postone, it is not “natural” Darwinian processes that do this but an historic process, capitalism. Another example of the same idea is Max Weber’s “spirit of capitalism.” Weber can be read, and wanted to be read, as saying that there are forces outside capitalism on which capitalism depends, such as religious ethics. However, Postone is suggesting that such “spiritual” Weberian forces as asceticism, compulsivity and hypocrisy (Weber’s famous triad) are internal to capitalism, structuring its motion. But, there are ambivalences to his theory, and especially ones concerning science and technology. Postone rejects the view, associated with traditional Marxism, that sees industrial production as a neutral, purely technical process that could be salvaged from capitalism and carried on in similar form in socialism. To criticize capitalism, he argues that we also need to criticize industrial production, or at least the form it has assumed in capitalism. The problem is that he simultaneously argues – based primarily on a famous passage in Grundrisse – that science and technology creates the preconditions for an overcoming of capitalism, since they enable human beings to create unprecedented “material wealth” in a way that relies less and less on human labor. Since in capitalism “value” can only be created by labor, capitalism increasingly comes to be characterized by a contradiction between the processes generating “wealth” and “value”. Unlike “value”, Postone appears to think that “wealth” is a category that it is fine to apply transhistorically. “Wealth” existed in precapitalist societies and must also be imagined as something that can exist in post-capitalist, socialist societies. What happens with capitalism is that the creation of “wealth” can only take place through the production of “value”, i.e. through the exploitation of labor and valorization of capital. However, by showing that “wealth” can be produced in abundance without relying on labor, science and technology open up possibilities of overcoming capitalism. Here Postone portrays science and technology, not as irremediably implicated in capitalism, but as potentially liberating forces that point beyond capitalism. That is of course fine, but the question then becomes how to distinguish the good and bad moments of science and technology. Postone calls for a transformation of not only of “relations of production” but also of the “mode of production”, but without giving us much in the way of explaining how much or how radically the latter needs to be changed.
Then there is the problem of dialectics. As mentioned, Postone confines Geist and totality to capitalism. This claim has some antecedents in earlier critical theory. Adorno, for instance, claims that the role of Spirit in capitalism is taken by “value”: “The objective and ultimately absolute Hegelian spirit [is] the Marxist law of value that comes into force without men being conscious of it” (Adorno). The posture of taking up arms against “totality” itself is of course also familiar from older critical theory. Adorno, however, never confined dialectics in toto to capitalism. Although Postone does allow for some forms of dialectical interaction (e.g. people changing their own nature reflexively through acting on nature or the reciprocal constitution of social practice and social structure), he argues that such interaction only becomes “directionally dynamic” in capitalism. In other words, dialectics in the sense of a historical logic or necessity only exists in capitalism. This raises the question of how capitalism can be overcome. If there is no Geist but capital, then dialectics cannot point the way out of capitalism. Liberation can only mean liberating oneself from dialectics, by creating a world in which it is no longer dominant.
The indication of the historicity of the object, the essential social forms of capitalism, implies the historicity of the critical consciousness that grasps it; the historical overcoming of capitalism would also entail the negation of its dialectical critique.
However, sometimes Postone himself seems to grasp the relation between capitalism and its outside dialectically, as when he uses the term “determinate negation” for the movement whereby capitalism is transcended. But if the overcoming of capitalism is a determinate negation, doesn’t that require the premise of a totality transcending the capitalist system, as Lukács thought? Sometimes Postone writes as if the totality of capitalism were driven towards its own abolition by its inner contradictions. However, apart from the discussion of technology and wealth referred to above, it is hard to see that he specifies anywhere what kind of contraditions might bring about this self-abolition.