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The Value Form, Reification, and the Consciousness of the Collective Worker (Milchman, 2010)

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Alan Milchman (Mac Intosh) 1940-2021


Internationalist Perspective
Issue 57: Fall/Winter 2010 [PDF]


Marx’s critical theory exposed a mode of production, a civilization, based on value, which he described as a “deranged” or “perverted form” [verrückte Form], in which social relations between persons are inverted and appear as relations between things. It is the abstract labor of the working class that produces and reproduces this deranged form. As Max Horkheimer, in 1937, put it in “Traditional and Critical Theory”: “[H]uman beings reproduce [erneuern], through their own labor, a reality which increasingly enslaves them.”1 It was Georg Lukács, in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in the collection History and Class Consciousness (1923), who had first elaborated a theory of reification through which the effects of the value form, that perverted form, and the commodity fetishism that was integral to it, seized hold of society. Lukács’ accomplishment, even before many of Marx’s own vast “economic” manuscripts had been published, was a theoretical breakthrough upon which Marxism as a negative critique of capitalism is still based.

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The Historicity of Abstractions (Gray, 2012)

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by Nick Gray (originally written for SIC Journal in 2012, but never published) PDF

The Historicity of Abstractions: Are the categories ‘use-value’, ‘concrete labour’ and ‘labour as such’ transhistorically operative? [1]

Only totalising theory can interrogate the status of abstractions sufficiently vigorously”[2]

– Richard Gunn

Introduction

At stake in this enquiry are: our conception of labour[3], of revolution, and social mediation in communism.

In this essay the Marxian categories of concrete labour, use-value, and indeed the category of “labour as such” are interrogated with respect to their historicity. I first briefly state what I take to be the traditional interpretation, and then consider the question from the angle of value-form theory, which establishes the historicity of abstract labour and the form-determination of the capitalist production process. Subsequently I consider the ramifications for the status of the categories of use-value and concrete labour of a critical analysis of the process of (real) hypostatisation within capitalist relations of commodity production and exchange. This is followed by an exegesis of Marx’s 1857 Introduction with regard to the historicity of the two types of abstraction in operation there: general and determinate abstractions. I then close by counterposing two radically opposed conceptions of the post-capitalist status of labour exemplified by Chris Arthur (circa 1978) and Moishe Postone, and argue that the dissolution of capitalist social relations implies that of the categories “concrete labour”, “use-value” and “labour as such”.

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How is capitalism racial? Fanon, critical theory and the fetish of antiblackness (White, 2020)

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by Hylton White (2020), Social Dynamics, 46:1, 22-35.

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ABSTRACT
I outline a proposal for an analysis of antiblackness grounded by the Marxist critique of the fetishistic forms of capitalist society. Traditionally, Marxist accounts of antiblackness turn, not to Marx’s theory of fetishism, but rather to dynamics of class formation under capitalist development, and hence to the ways that class formation motivates types of racism, including antiblackness. But accounts like these do not explain the distinctive features of modern antiblackness. Turning to the Marxist critique of fetishism, I argue for an account of the distinctive features of modern antiblackness, by bringing into conversation: (a) comments by Fanon on negrophobia and the relations between antiblackness and antisemitism; and (b) work by Postone on the fetishistic nature of modern antisemitism. I argue that antisemitism and antiblackness afford a pair of devices for falsely concretising the structure of alienation that produces the apparent opposition of labour and capital. These devices present the pathologies of modernity as stemming not from capitalist social relations but rather from the apparently essential powers of antisocial races: the Jew of antisemitism, caricatured as cunning will without productive bodily expenditure, and the Black of antiblack racism, caricatured as biological energy that lacks self-governing will. READ PDF

Class and Capital (Paul Mattick Jr., 2002)

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by Paul Mattick Jr. Download PDF 

[originally published in The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume III of Marx’s Capital ed. Martha Campbell and Geert Reuten, 2002; republished as Chapter 9 in Paul Mattick Jr.’s Theory as Critique, Brill 2018]


The concept of class has never remained a harmless concept for very long.

Ralf Dahrendorf

Dahrendorf gave a common view dramatic form when he wrote, ‘Marx post­poned the systematic presentation of his theory of class until death took the pen from his hand. The irony has often been noted that the last (52nd) chapter of the last (third) volume of Capital, which bears the title “The Classes”, has remained unfinished. After a little more than one page the text ends with the lapidary remark of its editor, Engels: “Here the manuscript breaks off”’. Unfortunately, the colourful picture this suggests, of the pen dropping from the hand of the dying Marx as he was on the point of completing his masterwork, isn’t ours to keep: the draft containing this chapter was completed, as is fairly well known, before Marx turned to the preparation of Volume I for publication. Nev­ertheless, some have taken Marx’s delay in returning to the chapter – until it was too late – as an admission in actu of failure, attesting to a basic flaw in his theory. Engels’s explanation is less dramatic: Marx liked to leave conclusions ‘for the final editing, shortly before printing, when the latest historical events would supply him, with unfailing regularity, with illustrations of his theoretical arguments, as topical as anyone could desire’. Reopening the question of the relation of Marx’s final page and a half to the rest of Capital, I wish to explore what Marx’s willingness to leave the matter in so sketchy a state might indicate about the nature, or even the existence, of a Marxian theory of class. [Read PDF]


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The Temporalities of Capitalism (Sewell, 2008)

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by William H. Sewell, Jr

Socio-Economic Review, Volume 6, Issue 3, July 2008, Pages 517- 537 (PDF)

See also: Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation 2005

The temporalities of capitalism are in certain respects unique. The temporalities of social life in general are ‘eventful’, i.e. irreversible, contingent, uneven, discontinuous and transformational. Although capitalist social processes are in certain respects super-eventful, the extreme abstraction that is a signature of capitalist development enables core processes of capitalism to escape from the irreversibility of time and to sustain a recurrent logic at their core. This means that the temporality of capitalism is composite and contradictory, simultaneously still and hyper-eventful. Recognizing this contradiction at the core of capitalism poses important conceptual and methodological challenges for those who study it.

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Marx Collegium 2017 (Videos)

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Marx Collegium 2017 – After the eruption of the international financial crisis in 2008, Marx’s Capital received renewed academic and popular attention. Leading newspapers throughout the world discussed again the contemporary relevance of its pages. Faced with a deep new crisis of capitalism, many are now looking to an author who in the past was often wrongly associated with the “actually existing socialism”, and who was hastily dismissed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

For many scholars, today Marx’s analyses are arguably resonating even more strongly than they did in Marx’s own time. This international conference brings together several world-renowned sociologists, political theorists, economists, and philosophers, from diverse fields and 13 countries. Its aim is to explore diverse scholarly perspectives and critical insights into the principal contradictions of contemporary capitalism and, in so doing, to draw attention to alternative economic and social models.

The presenters will critically reconsider Marx’s Capital as a work that continues to provide an effective framework to understand the nature of capitalism and the transformations of our times.

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Needless Necessity: Sameness and Dynamic in Capitalist Society

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Marcel Stoetzler, Bangor University, UK (via Fast Capitalism)

In capitalist modernity, all that is fluid is frozen fast, and vice versa. Everything is at the same time solid and not. We need to do something. One must always produce.[1] But then, one must always produce the same. Production is always reproduction, no more, no less, albeit on an extended scale. Capitalist society is a treadmill:[2] “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that,” as the Red Queen asserted.[3] Society (re-)produces itself, using humans as its principal agents, as ever new and ever the same. Humans (re-)produce society as ever the same by making a fresh start every morning when the alarm bell tolls: a new morning promises gold – the matter of eternity – every single day anew. My consciousness is split on this matter: it tells me, on the one hand, that I have places to go (hooray!), I have some inner growing to do, but at the same time, I am proudly identical to myself (disregarding some metabolism-related corporeal change that one tries to keep separate from one’s sense of selfhood). I who took out the student loan yesterday will have to pay up tomorrow, although the intervening time – not least ‘the student experience’, as they say – will have made me a whole new person (with places to go, hooray!). Growing up, experience – going-beyond-and-through: ex-per-ire – or not, contracts are to be fulfilled. This is a rule society will enforce.

This article explores the dialectic of a twofold compulsion characteristic of modern bourgeois society: on the one hand the dynamism grounded in the compulsion to expand production, to never stand still, relax and enjoy, always to increase the labors of self-preservation, on the other hand the static, sameness and identity that are produced by the ‘real-abstracting’ processes equally central to the capitalist mode of production, the locking down of humans in their identities, including those of sex and race. The article examines these matters through the prism of Adorno’s late essay on the concepts of ‘static and dynamic’ that is taken as a vantage point for a reading of ‘The concept of enlightenment’ in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The last part of the essay argues that capitalist society’s needless necessities impose themselves on society through abstracting practices in everyday life but also produce an equally contradictory set of social movements that have now opened up a fragile prospect for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalist society. The key point of the argument is that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unique emphasis on the critique of ‘the economic’ beyond that of ‘the economy’ is crucial to this radical perspective.

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Nothing Makes Me Human

Nice video but wrong. Labor doesn’t make us human. Nothing does.

From Critique and Historical Transformation, by Moishe Postone (2004):

At the heart of Marx’s analysis of the commodity is his argument that labour in capitalism has a ‘double character’: it is both ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’. ‘Concrete labour’ refers to the fact that some form of what we consider labouring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. ‘Abstract labour’ does not simply refer to concrete labour in the abstract, to ‘labour’ in general, but is a very different sort of category. It signifies that labour in capitalism also has a unique social dimension that is not intrinsic to labouring activity as such: it mediates a new, quasi-objective form of social interdependence. ‘Abstract labour’, as a historically specific mediating function of labour, is the content or, better, ‘substance’ of value.

Labour in capitalism, then, according to Marx, is not only labour, as we understand it transhistorically and commonsensically, but is also a historically specific socially-mediating activity. Hence its objectifications – commodity, capital – are both concrete labour products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most basically characterise capitalist society are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations – such as kinship relations or relations of personal or direct domination – which characterise non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new, underlying level of social relations that is constituted by labour. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective, formal character and are dualistic – they are characterised by the opposition of an abstract, general, homogeneous dimension and a concrete, particular, material dimension, both of which appear to be ‘natural’, rather than social, and condition social conceptions of natural reality.

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’ is not a labour theory of wealth, that is, a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labour, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx analysed value as a historically specific form of wealth, which is bound to the historically unique role of labour in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation.

Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth. This distinction is crucially important for his analysis. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organisation, and natural conditions, in addition to labour. Value is constituted by human labour-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth. As I shall elaborate, Marx’s analysis is of a system based on value that both generates and constrains the historical possibility of its own overcoming by one based on material wealth.

Within the framework of this interpretation, then, what fundamentally characterises capitalism is a historically specific abstract form of social mediation – a form of social relations that is unique inasmuch as it is mediated by labour. This historically specific form of mediation is constituted by determinate forms of social practice and, yet, becomes quasi-independent of the people engaged in those practices. The result is a historically new form of social domination – one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalised, structural imperatives and constraints that cannot adequately be grasped in terms of class domination, or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus and, although constituted by determinate forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all.

Whereas in traditional Marxism, labour is treated transhistorically, as constituting the quasi-ontological standpoint of the critique of capitalism, within this framework, labour constitutes the object of the critique. In the former, the categorical forms of capital veil the ‘real’ social relations of capitalism, in the latter they are those social relations. In other words, the quasi-objective structures of mediation grasped by the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy do not veil the ‘real’ social relations of capitalism, that is, class relations, just as they do not hide the ‘real’ historical Subject, that is, the proletariat. Rather, those historically dynamic mediating structures are the fundamental relations of capitalist society and constitute the Subject.

The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory I have outlined constitutes a basic break with, and critique of, more traditional interpretations. As we have seen, such interpretations understand capitalism in terms of class relations structured by the market and private property, grasp its form of domination primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation, and formulate a normative and historical critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour and production (understood transhistorically in terms of the interactions of humans with material nature). I have argued that Marx’s analysis of labour in capitalism as historically specific seeks to elucidate a peculiar quasi-objective form of social mediation and wealth (value) that constitutes a form of domination which structures the process of production in capitalism and generates a historically unique dynamic. Hence, labour and the process of production are not separable from, and opposed to, the social relations of capitalism, but constitute their very core. Marx’s theory, then, extends far beyond the traditional critique of the bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property); it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist. It treats the working class as the basic element of capitalism rather than as the embodiment of its negation, and does not conceptualise socialism in terms of the realisation of labour and of industrial production, but in terms of the possible abolition of the proletariat and of the organisation of production based on proletarian labour, as well as of the dynamic system of abstract compulsions constituted by labour as a socially mediating activity.