For Moishe Postone

by cominsitu

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Barbara Brick, Moishe Postone, Harold Marcuse, 1979, after Herbert Marcuse’s death

by Jacob Blumenfeld

I first encountered Moishe Postone‘s work on antisemitism in the early 2000s but it wasn’t until 2008-9, when the United States was in the grips of a financial crisis, that his thinking on Marx, capitalism, and value really began to hit home. I remember making zines out of his essay, “Critique and Historical Transformation“, and distributing them in New York City to students, activists, and friends, in the hopes of starting a more critical conversation on the crisis. The point was to go beyond superficial analyses of “crony capitalism” and to see the totality of capital as a self-mediating, crisis-prone dynamic of value which cannot simply be opposed to labor. Furthermore, Postone’s critical theory challenged those of us who became politicized in the ‘anti-globalization’ movement and the anti-war movements of the late 90s and early 00s.

To take seriously the critique of capital that Postone put forth required a new orientation to politics and class struggle that would overcome the limits of consumer identity, nationalist agendas, Keynesian dreams, and simplistic oppositions between wall street and main street, finance capital and industrial capital. For some of us, Postone didn’t go far enough in following through on his own theoretical insights. None of the ‘new social movements’ would save us, as he sometimes expressed, but only a radical break in the reproduction of the value relation, we claimed. Such a rupture will not come from party politics or movement agendas, but from the struggles themselves as they push against their own limits and class belonging. Postone doubted that such class struggles could ever escape their destiny as being one pole of the value relation. Whether he is right cannot be decided a priori, but only in the course of history.

In 2011, I invited Postone to speak at the New School for Social Research in New York, as the keynote to a graduate student philosophy conference called “The Spirit of Capital: Hegel and Marx.” Postone gave a sweeping lecture on the role of Hegel’s concept of Spirit in the works of Marx and Lukács. His critique of labor was disorienting for many, as was his view of capital as an “automatic subject”, similar to Hegel’s view of the self-mediating dynamic of Geist. After the conference, Postone mentioned that he was working on three books: one on Capital, one on the Holocaust, and one on Critical Theory. I hope they eventually see the light. On the occasion of his death, and as a tribute to his undying legacy, I offer the following brief summary of some of his key ideas on Marx, capital, and value. It is an excerpt from a review of the German book Nach Marx, to which he contributed.

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Moishe Postone grounds his critique of capitalism within the dynamic of value itself in his ‘Thinking Marx Anew’, the highlight of Nach Marx (Suhrkamp, 2013). Postone’s article is perhaps the best summary there is to date of his Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993), an impressive work of re-interpreting the critical theory of capital from Lukács to Habermas by means of a renewed focus on Marx’s Grundrisse and the fundamental categories of value in Capital. Postone begins his article on the offensive. Along with the decline of the dominance of Marxism, the fall of the USSR, China’s path to capitalism, global decolonisation, and the end of emancipatory workers’ movements, there has emerged a whole range of new theoretical approaches like postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstruction and postcolonialism to explain the world anew with an emphasis on difference, contingency, identity and discourse. The recent global crisis, however, puts all these schools of thought in doubt; the social sciences cannot explain the universality of capitalism within their schemas, and neither can traditional critical theory or postmarxism. The universal rise and breakdown of the welfare state after the war, the dissolution of state-centric Fordism, the end of the planned economy and rise of the neoliberal capitalist world-order also cannot be explained by local, political, contingent or cultural factors. Rather, capitalism needs to be understood as a historically dynamic form of social mediation that limits politics universally.

For many critical theorists, Marx’s theory is a critique of exploitation from the standpoint of labour, in which labour seeks to free itself from the shackles of modernity and become the dominant principle of a new society. This is not only categorically wrong, according to Postone, but harmful to any project for emancipation. Rather, capitalism is a unique form of social mediation which structures modernity. This form of social mediation is constituted through a unique form of social labour, both abstract and temporal, which manifests itself in particular, quasi-objective forms of domination. This domination cannot be understood as the domination of one class over another. These forms of domination are marked by the categories of the commodity and capital; they are not static, but generative of a historical dynamic which is determinant for capitalist modernity and forms its core. Marx’s critique, for Postone, is not an affirmation of labour in human societies but a critique of its central role as historically specific to this society. It is neither objectivist nor functionalist, for the categories relate to historically-specific social forms of praxis which are simultaneously forms of objectivity and subjectivity.

Traditional Marxism for Postone is based on the class theory of private property owners who exploit proletarians mediated by the market. Domination is class domination, and the structural contradiction is between the productive relations (private property) and the productive forces (labour). This critique from the standpoint of labour seeks to institute new forms of collective property over the means of production. To Postone, the twentieth century has killed this theory, and it is no longer, if it ever was, emancipatory. Marx, however, understood capital differently as a form of domination mediated by social forms of praxis whose historical logic shapes human activities. Marx does not deny personal freedom but wants to show the structural, historical dynamic which determines it. Labour in this reading is not the standpoint but object of critique. When poststructuralists respond to the faults of traditional Marxism with a jouissance for contingency against grand narratives and totalities, they forget that Marx was the first great critic of totality. The difference is that he acknowledges that the totality of capital exists! To ignore this form of domination is ahistorical. Marx’s theory is a self-reflexive, historically specific account of how history itself comes to dominate individual lives as an alien force.

For Postone, the transhistorical view of labour misunderstands the nature of value and surplus-value as class-dominated exploitation. This can naturally lead to a theory of revolution as the self-affirmation of the proletariat. Yet the Grundrisse provides a different interpretation, one in which these categories are forms of social being, both objective and subjective, specific to modern capitalism. The abstract quality of these categories (money, labour) makes them appear transhistorically valid, but that is part of their very form. Value is rather a specific form of wealth in capitalism, different from material wealth. Value is both the essential condition for the existence of capital and the condition of possibility for its overcoming. This is precisely where the critical standpoint emerges, in which the self-abolition of labour and not its self-affirmation becomes possible because of, and not in spite of, value as the form of wealth in capitalist society.

What makes capital unique is its form of abstract domination. Marx’s analysis here, according to Postone, is much better than Foucault’s idea of power, for Marx’s form of domination is not only spatial, but also processual, temporal and dynamic. It is this temporal dynamic of value which grounds the possibility for its overcoming. For in its ceaseless drive towards more productivity, value as the form of wealth both makes possible the reduction of labour-time necessary for one’s own reproduction, and denies its realisation. The realisation of this possibility remains alienated from the actors who create it due to the abstract, structural form of domination that ties wealth back to a specific form of social mediation constituted by labour. This state of moving forward while staying put is what Postone calls the treadmill effect.

The self-movement of value takes on the forms of money and the commodity, yet capital is the abstract subject which maintains its unity in the diversity of such appearances. If the language sounds Hegelian here, it is because Postone claims that Marx’s concept of capital has all the same qualities of Hegel’s concept of spirit. It is both the substance and subject of history, producing endless cycles of destruction and creation without any purpose beyond its own self-development. Contra Lukács, it is not the proletariat but capital that is the subject of history, the dynamic structure of abstract domination, made by people, but independent of their wills. Contra many Marxists, this is not the materialist anthropological inversion of the idealist dialectic, but its materialist justification. The idealist character of capital constitutes its rational kernel: it expresses the alienated relation of constituted forms of domination with quasi-independent existence that coercively structure social practice. The ‘historical subject’ which plagues so much postmodern thought is not ‘man’ but this alienated structure of social mediation, and Marx was the first to critique it.

According to Postone, the abolition of this form of social mediation comes from within the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution that constitutes the temporal dynamic of value. Against all notions of abstract ‘resistance’ which can take reactionary and conservative forms when presumed to be somehow outside of capital, Postone refocuses the critique of capital onto the transformative possibility of another form of social mediation that arises within this dynamic but is not characteristic of it. Such a form of social mediation would not be based on the historically specific kind of labour corresponding to value, but a different form of wealth altogether.

The celebration of contingency is not a critique of capital but the very expression of capital in its most modern, neoliberal form of appearance. To move beyond such appearances requires a critique that goes to the core of capitalist logic. Postone’s critical vision is breath-taking, and much to be lauded against almost every other strawman Marxism that exists. His attempt to develop the negated possibility of another form of life from within the dialectic of capital itself is also a nice rebuke to those who believe in some quasi-transcendental proletarian subject that is just waiting to reveal itself. However, the critique of traditional Marxism does not necessitate an abandonment of class struggle or the theory of class as such, for that too is one-sided. Only a unified understanding of the mutual constitution of class and capital can break through the deadlock of critical theory today.

Blumenfeld, Jacob “After Marx, the Deluge: A Review of Nach Marx: Philosophie, Kritik, Praxis, edited by Rahel Jaeggi and Daniel Loick”, Historical Materialism (2017), p17-20

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