Postone, capitalism, and the working class

Submitted by martin on 29 December, 2018 - 9:04 Author: Martin Thomas
Time, Labour, and Social Domination

Moishe Postone, a Marxist academic at the University of Chicago who died in 2018, skewered antisemitism as an addled, "pseudo-emancipatory" form of anticapitalism, which blames the evils on capitalism not on its structures but on shadowy plots by "the Jews".

Socialists, he argued, must instead seek to spread understanding of capitalism's complex and impersonal structures of social domination. Capitalist exploitation and oppression is a matter of social structures. It is not a conspiracy by secret cabals of evil people. Capitalists are generally, to be sure, personally greedy and arrogant, but that is a function of those structures.

The critique of capitalism should be a critique of labour, as it operates in capitalism, not just a critique of capitalists battening on that labour.

He also "reject[ed] the idea that the proletariat represents a social counterprinciple to capitalism" (35). "The basic contradiction of capitalism is not one between one existent social... grouping and another" (303).

"The class struggle, viewed from the workers' perspective, involves constituting, maintaining, and improving their situation as members of a working class. Their struggles have been a powerful force in the democratisation and humanisation of capitalism... [But] the possible transition to socialism [will not be] effected by the victory of the proletariat in class struggle" (324).

In this article I will dispute that rejection while trying also to draw out useful insights from Postone.

Postone's influence is due almost entirely to one book Time, Labour, and Social Domination. (The page references above are to that book).

The book is largely a re-analysis of Capital volume 1. It is not really a "what Marx really meant" effort. It is about constructing a new account, using ideas from Marx, which Postone considered more adequate in the light of the failures of the workers' movement, the horrors of Stalinism, and the experience of "mixed-economy" or "welfare" capitalism.

Postone went to university in Chicago in the 1960s to study biochemistry, but ended up switching to history as he became interested in left politics. Talking with me in 2016, he recalled a big student occupation in 1969 (over the sacking of a left-wing sociology lecturer), and a reading group on Hegel and Marx which came out of it, as turning-points.

In 1972 he went to Frankfurt to do postgraduate study. The Goethe University in Frankfurt had a tradition of academic Marxism dating back much further than any other university in the world, to 1923.

The main ideas of Time, Labour, and Social Domination were sketched in an article in 1978. It took 15 more years' work to complete the book. In the meantime Postone had moved back to Chicago, in 1983, and taught at the university there for the rest of his life.

When he did a public lecture at the London School of Economics in May 2016, it was essentially a summary of the book.

Before discussing TLSD in detail, I will map out some of its reference points: Marx's Grundrisse, what Postone called "traditional Marxism", and the "Frankfurt School" of academic Marxists.

TLSD takes off from some passages from the Grundrisse:

"But to the degree that large industry develops, 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... Real wealth manifests itself, rather... in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends...

"The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself... The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.

"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". (Grundrisse, p.704-5).

Postone takes the ideas here as absent from "traditional Marxism". In fact, it seems to me, Marx was expanding on a statement from an early critique of Hegel: "The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung, which can also be translated: abolition] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realisation of philosophy" ( And on his early critique of "crude communism": "The community is only a community of labour, and equality of wages paid out by communal capital – by the community as the universal capitalist. Both sides of the relationship are raised to an imagined universality – labour as the category in which every person is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community" (

The ideas had been restated by Karl Kautsky, in his widely-read exposition of the German Social-Democratic Party's Erfurt Program of 1891: "It is not the freedom of labour, but the freedom from labour, which in a socialist society the use of machinery makes increasingly possible, that will bring to mankind freedom of life, freedom for artistic and intellectual activity, freedom for the noblest enjoyment". They had been marginalised by Stalinism and degenerated social democracy.

The Grundrisse was a "rough draft" for Capital which Marx scribbled down in 1857-8. Sometimes in those scribblings, as above, Marx let himself take a telescope for long-term trends of capitalism, rather than the microscope usually deployed in the carefully-worked-over text of Capital.

The manuscript was first dug out and published in 1939-41 - early in World War 2, so hardly any copies got out from Moscow to the West. A new edition was printed in 1953 in East Germany, but not until 1967-8, with a third German edition, and the veteran Trotskyist Roman Rosdolsky publishing the first serious study of the Grundrisse (The Making of Marx's Capital), was the book widely discussed.

A French translation (much criticised) also came out in 1967-8, an English translation in 1973, and an English translation of Rosdolsky's book in 1977.

The formative years for TLSD were also the formative years for the Grundrisse's influence on Marxist politics; and also the years when in many countries, including the USA and Germany, the new left which had emerged around 1968 (and had been Maoist-coloured) was beginning to scatter and wither under pressure of events.

TLSD contrasts its argument to what it calls "traditional Marxism", which it takes as calling for the irksome effect of capitalist "relations of production" on sound "forces of production" to be removed by replacing markets by planning and state ownership, thus asserting "the dignity of labour".

Postone's chief exemplars of "traditional Marxism" are Paul Sweezy, a loose Stalinist fellow-traveller in the USA, and Maurice Dobb, who was a Communist Party member and long the only would-be Marxist economist holding an academic position in a British university. Both Sweezy and Dobb wrote most between the 1940s and the 1960s.

TLSD also cites, as an exemplar of "traditional Marxism", the "orthodox Trotskyist" Ernest Mandel. Postone reckons that Mandel's work "implicitly remains bound to a traditional Marxist understanding of capitalism and of the Soviet Union as socialist". Mandel never called the Stalinist USSR socialist, but he did consider the economic planning in the USSR to be socialistic.

Trotsky had noted in 1936 that in the workplaces of the USSR: "In the struggle to achieve European and American standards, the classic methods of exploitation... are applied in such naked and crude forms as would not be permitted even by reformist trade unions in bourgeois countries". Evidently, if the Stalinists, and those going halfway with them in reckoning a stabilised USSR to have socialistic traits, could not see "freedom from labour" as central to socialism.

They had to resort to "workerist" glorification of the virtues of labour coupled with not-at-all-workerist praise for economic planning by an exploitative autocracy: thus the criteria which Postone sees as "traditional Marxist" gained ground (even though the standard textbook of pre-1914 socialism, Kautsky's commentary on the Erfurt Program, had as we've seen set "freedom from labour" as the goal; so had Lafargue's famous The Right to be Lazy).

Postone, like the Frankfurt School, considered the USSR to be "state capitalist", and probably worse than the West. Postone, however, considered the Frankfurt School to be essentially bound by the frame of "traditional Marxism". Since it was bound in that way, its greater lucidity about Stalinism and (as Postone saw it) about the limitations of the workers' movement had led it to a "pessimistic turn": one of Postone's aims in TLSD was to challenge that "pessimistic turn".

The history of the "Frankfurt School" dates back to 1923, when a maverick millionaire, Felix Weil, provided funds for a research institute in Frankfurt at first to be called just the "Institute for Marxism", then more cautiously labelled "Institute for Social Research". Weil's bequest gave the Institute security and autonomy.

It moved to Geneva after the Nazis took power, and then to New York, where it established links with Columbia University similar to its previous loose ties with the Goethe University in Frankfurt. The Institute moved back to Frankfurt in 1951, and the label "Frankfurt School" for its writers came into use. It continues.

"Academic Marxists" have become commonplace since 1968, but were extremely rare in 1923: the Institute was a world first.

At first the Institute had a number of Communist Party members on its staff, but no particular "trend" of its own. According to its historian Martin Jay, "after [a cautiously friendly] book [on the USSR] was published in 1929, the Institute maintained an almost complete official silence about events in the USSR...

"It was really not until a decade later, after the Moscow purge trials, that Horkheimer and the others... completely abandoned their hope for the Soviet Union".

They would abandon it drastically enough that a prominent Frankfurt School writer, Herbert Marcuse, would work for the OSS, the proto-CIA, as a researcher from 1943 to 1945, and then as chief researcher on Central Europe for the US State Department from 1945 to 1951.

The chief figures in the School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, had always seen themselves as philosophers in the academic sense, not as activists. Jay reports a colleague saying of Adorno that he "as far as I can see, never took a trip out of the simple desire to see. Europe sufficed for him entirely. No India or China, no Third World, not the People's Democracies [Eastern Europe], and not the workers' movement..."

In the late 1930s Adorno and Horkheimer adopted the view, common then, that the whole world was moving to state-managed economic forms of which the USSR was only an extreme example. They came to see the "mixed economy" of the 50s-to-70s not as a reversal of that trend, but as a successful and highly-managed example of it. They did little work on economic analysis - and in that sense Postone is right, that they took their basic schemes of Marxist economic theory ready-made from a "tradition" which had been reshaped by Stalinism.

They assumed the "stylised facts" about an "organised" capitalism into which the working class was integrated. They preferred bourgeois democracy to Nazism or Stalinism, but saw it sourly as a society of organised conformism and debased mass culture. They responded by seeing their own duty as philosophical "critical theory".

For that they drew on Hegel, but while pointedly rejecting his bent for system-building and reconciling opposites into a larger unity. "The whole is the untrue", wrote Adorno. And Horkheimer, in an introduction to a 1968 collection of his writings:

"The fearful events which accompany the trend to a rationalised, automated, totally managed world... are part of the power-bloc struggle in an age when all sides have reached the same technological level. The age tends to eliminate every vestige of even a relative autonomy for the individual...

"Totalitarian government was not an accident but a symptom of the way society was going. The perfecting of technology, the spread of commerce and communication, the growth of population all drive society towards stricter organisation. Opposition, however despairing, is itself co-opted into the very development it had hoped to counteract.

"Nonetheless, to give voice to what one knows and thereby perhaps to avert new terror remain the right of a man who is still really alive.

"An open declaration that even a dubious democracy, for all its defects, is always better than the dictatorship which would inevitably result from a revolution today, seems to me necessary for the sake of truth".

And Adorno, in a presidential address, no less, to the German Sociological Association in 1968:

"Everything that today exists in society is so thoroughly mediated that it is precisely this moment of mediation itself which is beginning to disappear from view. An Archimedean point from which the nightmare can be defined no longer exists. The only possible approach is to seek out its internal inconsistencies".

Postone accepted Adorno's and Horkheimer's scheme of a general transition to "organised capitalism", which in TLSD he usually calls "post-liberal capitalism". By the time TLSD was published, 15 years after he had formulated its core ideas, the USSR had collapsed and neoliberalism's reaffirmation of markets was long well-established in Europe and the USA. Yet Postone refers to that transition only cryptically and passingly in the book: for most of the book it is as if a shift to more state-managed economic forms is taken as a permanent and irreversible consequence of an inbuilt logic of capital.

Postone reconstructs Marx to argue that the contradictions within capitalism cannot be managed out of existence, but are driven on by a "directional dynamic" to open wider and wider doors to possibilities of a socialist alternative. They do not take the form of "traditional Marxist" class struggle; but the contradictions are there.

Postone shows that capital has two dynamics of appropriation. There is the usually-discussed one of grabbing the (surplus) value produced by workers in the extra time we work beyond the "necessary" labour time corresponding to the value of our labour-power.

And, once large-scale mechanisation and automation is underway, another: the productive powers embedded in technology appear as the property of capital, although these are not the result of this week's, or this year's, workers' labour, but (as noted in the Grundrisse, "depend rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology". The basic surplus-time-grabbing operation "appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself" (Grundrisse again).

As I understand this (the following paragraphs are my explication, rather than a summary of Postone's exposition), these two dynamics are not additive, but rather in different dimensions. The appropriation by capital of technological "species-capacities" increases the volume and variety of material wealth accruing to capital, whereas the division of the working day into squeezed-down "necessary" labour and squeezed-out "surplus" labour yields only a not-so-quickly-increasing quantum of value, measured in hours of labour-time. (Only with the fairly recent deliberate orientation of central banking, since the early 1990s, to getting a default inflation rate of about 2%, have bourgeoisies managed to manipulate the market expression of value to get its self-expansion is numerically more or less in line with expansion of material wealth. In the late 19th century the trend was rather to price deflation, and in much of the 20th century to erratic and often destructive inflation).

In chapter 1 of Capital, Marx notes the "two-fold nature of the labour contained in commodities" - as concrete labour, particular activity producing particular use-values, and as abstract labour, a matter of using up this or that amount of labour-power (called "universal social labour" in Marx's earlier .

He claims that this distinction is "the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns"; but at that point it is hard to see why. It seems to be just a matter of looking at labour in two different ways, no more revealing than the distinction between "concrete cake" (fruit-cake, sponge-cake, flourless cake...) and "abstract cake" (this or that many grams) is for baking.

Marx signals later in chapter 1 that abstract labour is the equivalent in the world of labour of money in the world of commodities. "The body of the commodity that serves as the equivalent, figures as the materialisation of human labour in the abstract". But after that he is not explicit about linking back arguments to the concept of abstract labour.

In the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, Marx has written: "Universal social labour [his term, then, for what he later calls 'abstract labour'] is not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging result". It emerges from the shaping and reshaping of production by the market exchange of the products.

In the Introduction drafted for that book, but then discarded, Marx wrote further: "This abstraction of labour is, on the other hand, by no means simply the conceptual resultant of a variety of concrete types of labour. The fact that the particular kind of labour employed is immaterial is appropriate to a form of society in which individuals easily pass from one type of labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant.

"Labour, not only as a category but in reality, has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual. This state of affairs is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society. The abstract category 'labour', 'labour as such', labour sans phrase, the point of departure of modern economics, thus becomes a practical fact only there".

So abstract labour is not just labour looked at from a particular angle. It is a real social relation. It is not just a matter of taking a clock to whatever labour is being done whenever in human history, but the "emerging result" of continuous market operations as capitalism develops.

And not only of market operations. In the later chapters of Capital, Marx traces how, in the workplace, capital constantly organises, homogenises, flexibilises, and shifts labour, and subordinates it to technology. It approximates the conditions described in the Grundrisse: "this 'productive' worker cares as much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldn't give a damn for the junk..." (so long, of course, as he can sell it).

It approximates the social relations of labour, from the workers' point of view, to "abstract labour". Each bit of "abstract labour" is still also concrete labour: even if we don't know where we'll be allocated when we arrive at work next week, we know we will not just be doing "abstract labour". But "abstract labour" is a real social relation that workers are, asymptotically, organised into.

Meanwhile concrete labour becomes more productive, more diverse, richer, "more concrete", primarily for the capitalist. The relation between the "abstract" and the "concrete" is not just one of two ways of looking at the same thing, but an opposition. The relation between concrete labour and labour power becomes antagonistic:

"The worker cannot become rich in [the] exchange [of labour-power with capital], since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself... because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him. He divests himself of labour as the force productive of wealth; capital appropriates it, as such... Thus the productivity of his labour, his labour in general, in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real labour, comes to confront the worker as an alien power..." (Grundrisse).

To return to Postone: he conceptualises this as a matter of a growing gap between two sorts of time within capitalism. There is abstract, uniform, "empty" time, the sort of time dominant in Europe since the rise of wage-labour and the production and diffusion of mechanical clocks marking hours of uniform length in the cities in the 14th and 15th centuries.

And then there is "historical time", in which an hour of next year's time is "bigger" than an hour of this year's because it holds a greater material wealth of products.

I do not think Postone's construction holds up here, because productivity in different lines moves at very different speeds, and so no general "historical time" can be defined.

In any case he also presents the contradiction, conflict, or tension, which he says is a growing one, in other terms:

"The general powers of humanity must, in a system structured by value, be used
to squeeze as much surplus labour time from the workers as possible-although,
increasingly, they could be used to increase social wealth directly and transform
the detail division of labour..." (359).

"The contradiction of capitalism...", writes Postone, "is... between proletarian labour... and the possibility of another mode of production" (37).

This he takes as a restatement of what Marx wrote in the Grundrisse:

"Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary...

"[These] are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. 'Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time' (real wealth), 'but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society'." (p.706).

Along the way Postone has added to our understanding of exploitation and of the twofold character of labour. Whether the "contradiction" he constructs is an adequate replacement for the idea that capitalism generates "contradictions" in the form of class struggle, and an adequate response to the "pessimistic turn" of the Frankfurt School, is another question.

All conflicts in a society which may lead to it changing are, pretty much by definition, based on a lot of people perceiving a contradiction between things as they are, and things as they could be made better. If that view is based on accurate assessments, that must help to get more people to see it, and help those people to execute their plans successfully if they get the upper hand.

Since the contradiction tagged by Postone must mostly afflict workers - forced to do the superfluous labour time, and in forms increasingly controlled by mechanised production processes and not by themselves - it is plausible that it will be workers who most readily see the contradiction and want to change society.

But societies can exist for ages with their people dissatisfied; or people can bury their dissatisfactions, for epochs, beneath consolations; or exasperated attempt to remedy dissatisfactions can produce regression rather than improvement.

To change society, people have to do more than be dissatisfied. We have to have organisation and courage for struggle. We have to see a path to the different society we want: a reshaping of technology will not be the work of an instant, even after a revolution, and is likely to happen only if it is impelled by more immediate struggles over economic equality and democracy which map steps along the way.

We have to develop the collective culture which will make social control over technology a reality, not just a formality masking de facto control by unaccountable officials; and make disposable time real wealth, rather than surly emptiness or sickly consumerism as it often is for the unemployed or for the wealthy in capitalist society.

Postone's "contradiction" can be effective in changing society only if it is a supplement to, not a replacement for, a larger theory about capitalism generating forces for its own subversion.

As noted above, Postone was sympathetic to workers' struggles, and made no argument about the working class "disappearing". "Their struggles have been a powerful force in the democratisation and humanisation of capitalism..."

But, he added: "the possible transition to socialism [will not be] effected by the victory of the proletariat in class struggle" (324). He "reject[ed] the idea that the proletariat represents a social counterprinciple to capitalism" (35).

His arguments for that rejection were largely that labour in capitalism "constituted" capitalism, so it could not be that "the proletariat represents a social counterprinciple to capitalism" (35).

There is a sense, discussed in Capital, in which labour in capitalism does actually constitute and reconstitute capitalism, but Postone does not mention that. In chapter 23, Marx shows that capitalist production not only produces commodities, but also sends the worker back to the market to sell her or his labour-power again, the capitalist back to the market equipped with more capital.

"Capitalist production, therefore, of itself reproduces the separation between labour-power and the means of labour. It... reproduces and perpetuates the condition for exploiting the labourer....

"The process itself... incessantly hurls back the labourer on to the market as a vendor of his labour-power, and... incessantly converts his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him....

"Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspect of a continuous connected process... produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer".

That fact may show that workers do not statically, automatically "represent" a social counter-principle. Whether it means that capitalism brings no dynamic pushing us to develop ourselves into a social counter-principle is another matter.

Postone's counter-argument is at a more abstract level. "As [the] processes of alienation develop, the workers are subsumed under, and incorporated into, capital. They become a particular mode of its existence" (328).

His argument here uses the term "mediation" a lot. It may be best to pause briefly to discuss the term.

Postone gets it from Hegel, either directly or via Frankfurt School writers like Adorno who also used it a lot.

Hegel made many intricate arguments using everyday words in unusual senses, but made a virtue of neither stating what was special in his use of those everyday words nor inventing his own new terms.

"German has many advantages over other modern languages; some of its words even possess the... peculiarity of having not only different but opposite meanings so that one cannot fail to recognise a speculative spirit of the language in them: it can delight a thinker to come across such words and to find the union of opposites naively shown in the dictionary as one word with opposite meanings, although this result of speculative thinking is nonsensical to the understanding. Philosophy therefore stands in no need of a special terminology" (preface to Science of Logic, second edition).

"Aufheben" is an everyday German word, which according to context can mean a big range of things: cancel, abolish, suspend, overturn; also save, keep, hold onto. Hegel, as we have seen, was "delighted" by the twists of meaning. English translations of Hegel often render it by a special invented word, "sublate".

"Vermittlung", "vermittelt", etc. - translated as "mediation", "mediated", etc. - have a similar philosophy-or-pun quality. They are much more everyday words in German than "mediate" and similar in English. "Vermittelt", for example, occurs as 20 per million words in German; "mediated" as only 0.6 per million in English.

"Vermitteln" can mean "mediate" in the usual English sense (arbitrate, conciliate); or convey, give, get, impart, connect, liaise, etc. Hegel is more or less explicit (in the Encyclopedia Logic, for example) that he is using it in several different senses, yet usually is pointedly silent about which. I don't think he ever uses it to mean "mediate" in the most common English sense (conciliate); the core meaning is somewhere around "connect".

It is a pivotal term, because Hegel's arguments proceed by dialectical transitions where "mediation is a beginning, and a having advanced to a second, in such a way that this second is only there because it has come to it from something... other..." (Encyclopedia Logic). And then, usually, the second term becomes a mediation from the first term to a third.

"The cognition of the essence of things..." writes Hegel, is "that things are not to be left in their immediate state, but are rather to be exhibited as mediated or grounded by something else".

Hegel had to escape from his general rule of everything being "mediated" when he argued about God. He was hostile to traditional arguments deducing the existence of God from the existence of, or some trait of, the world. Rather, as Marx put it, Hegel "turned all these theological demonstrations upside-down... Hegel interpreted [the question] as: 'since the accidental [or: contingency - das Zufällige] does not exist, God or Absolute exists'." (

For Hegel, remember, logic is "to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought. This realm is truth as it is without veil and in its own absolute nature. It can therefore be said that this content is the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind" (Introduction, Science of Logic). The reason or mediation for God is not in the finite world.

Thus Hegel has to talk of "self-mediation", despite "vermitteln" always, in ordinary talk, referring in some way or another to a "middle" or "means" ("Mitte" or "Mittel", in German) between two entities.

He writes that "Absolute necessity is... being that is because it is, being as absolute self-mediation".

"Mediation" appeared a fair bit in Marx's early writings and in the Grundrisse - it would come readily to the pen of anyone trained in Hegelian philosophy - but scarcely at all in Capital volume 1 in French (the translation was checked by Marx) or English, and only in everyday usages in German.

Through the Frankfurt School, the terms "mediation" and "self-mediation" came down to Postone as routine terms for social science. His use of them, however, I think, reconstructs capitalism as a system in which agency is swallowed up by structure.

Capitalism, for Postone, becomes an analogue to what world history is for Hegel, a system generated by the self-working-out of a single principle, with individuals mere flecks in the dialectical surge.

Postone tends to dissolve the "domination of people by people" into the "domination by abstract structure". But "the domination of people by abstract social structures" operates through "the domination of people by other people" in the workplaces, and in the state which serves those "abstract structures" and the people who rule the workplaces.

In his preface to the first edition of Capital volume 1, Marx wrote: "I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.

"My standpoint... can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them". But Marx did indict individual capitalists for their carrying-through of relations which they did not rise above at all!

He referred with scorn to the "slavery of the masses, in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus, might become 'eminent spinners', 'extensive sausage-makers', and 'influential shoe-black dealers'." He followed the very sentence about not making individuals responsible with scorn for "the English Established Church [which] will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income..."

Throughout TDSL, Postone refers frequently to labour as a "social mediating activity". The nearest he comes to an explanation is as late as pages 149-50:

"In commodity-determined society, the objectifications of one's labour are means by which goods produced by others are acquired; one labours in order to acquire other products... One's labour has a dual function: On the one hand, it is a specific sort of labour that produces particular goods for others, yet, on the other hand, labour, independent of its specific content, serves the producer as the means by which the products of others are acquired. Labour, in other words, becomes a peculiar means of acquiring goods in commodity-determined society...

"An individual does not acquire goods produced by others through the medium of overt social relations. Instead, labour itself - either directly or as expressed in its products - replaces those relations by serving as an 'objective' means by which the products of others are acquired. Labour itself constitutes a social mediation in lieu of overt social relations".

This is wrong. Perhaps in an idealised small-producer society, where everyone produces individually for the market with their own patch of land or their own workshop, the argument might get to first base. But no such idealised small-producer society has ever existed. And if it existed, then (as Postone has already explained), abstract labour, which is a product of capitalism, would not be there.

Postone writes that "people's relations among each other and with nature are mediated by labour", but in fact the "mediation" of the market comes between people before labour even starts.

In fact we sell our labour-power to get goods and services. We know that our employer will then "consume" that labour-power by putting us to work (in as intense and as mechanised a way as they can, and for as long hours as they can), yet it is not the labour which gets us access to other goods. It is the sale of our labour-power.

Moreover, in capitalist society quite a few people get goods without labouring: they are capitalists.

The process of getting the stuff we need or want in capitalist society is in fact highly "mediated" in the sense that there are number of distinct elements connected together in the process.

However, Postone sums up his account thus: "Labour constitutes a social mediation in lieu of overt social relations". "Labour in capitalism is directly social because it acts as a social mediating activity". Abstract labour is "a qualitatively homogeneous, general social mediation constituting a social totality".

"Capitalism... its fundamental social relations are constituted by labour".

Postone also portrays value and capital as constituting capitalism. "Capital.... is a self-moving social mediation" (263). The gist here seeming to be that labour constitutes value and capital, which then constitute capitalism and come to dominate labour. "Labour in capitalism gives rise to a social structure that dominates it". "The workers are subsumed under, and incorporated into, capital. They become a particular mode of its existence".

"The social form... is constituted by a general and homogeneous 'substance' that is its own ground" (156).

"Ground" ("Grund") is another of those German words that delighted Hegel: it can mean ground, land, bottom, foundations, reason; "zugrunde gehen", a phrase often used by Hegel and usually translated from him as "fall to the ground", often means "perish". The meaning here seems to be that "labour", abstracted from the multifarious social processes which shape it (in the market and in the workplaces), pulls itself up by its own bootstraps from the mire of an atomised society, as the fictional Baron Munchausen pulled himself out of a swamp by his own hair, to create a rounded, functioning, comprehensive social form.

"Labour is a nonmetaphysical, historically specific 'causa sui'." (Spinoza's term for "cause of itself": roughly, God: Postone notes that for Hegel "the Absolute" is the "causa sui"). "Such labour mediates itself..." (156).

Postone wants to fade out the markets (for goods and services, and for labour-power) from this picture so as to present a self-propelling process of labour-value-capital as shaping the whole society, even for USSR, which he depicts as having had no markets.

But value is formed only in the ongoing processes of exchange, and so is labour. If there were no markets in the USSR, then there would have been no "abstract labour" even as the most rough-and-ready "emerging result".

In fact, there were markets. Workers got wages and bought what they consumed. Employers routinely used differentiation of wages to press for greater effort or fill jobs in difficult areas. Managers lobbied for financial credits from the central government.

The official markets were heavily manipulated and administered, though within limits set by the large scale of black and grey markets surrounding them. That manipulation and administration created big differences between the USSR economy and economies where prices adjust fairly freely. But Marx, in Capital, shows that the prices in which values are socially manifested always diverge from proportionality to values. A different sort of divergence implies differences in development, but does not undo the basic process of equating commodities quantitatively which generates value relations.

In the USSR, too, markets "mediated" the emergence of abstract labour, value, and capital. Some would argue that the state's efforts to administer prices and allocations were so comprehensive as to make the existence of those markets only nominal; but then they have to conclude that the USSR was a non-capitalist form (not necessarily socialist, or better than capitalism: just non-capitalist).

Postone's fading-out of markets is connected, I think, with his fading-out of much that happens between capital and labour-power, including in the markets, which does in fact generate potential for the working class to subvert capitalism.

Postone refers to a passage in chapter 13 of Capital to show that workers are "incorporated into capital".

"The capitalist, instead of buying the labour-power of one [woman or] man, buys that of 100, and enters into separate contracts with 100 unconnected men...

"Being independent of each other, the labourers are isolated persons, who enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with one another. This co-operation begins only with the labour-process, but they have then ceased to belong to themselves. On entering that process, they become incorporated with capital".

At one level of abstraction they do! But the wage-workers sell their labour-power only for so many hours a day. They "cease to belong to themselves" only for so many hours a day. The working day ends. There are breaks within the working day.

And then the workers do "enter into relations with one another". They talk, they joke, they listen, they organise. Like it or not, the capitalist, by bringing 100 workers together in a workplace, has also created at least a potential organised and connected force of 100 workers.

Postone recognises that capitalism generates collective organisation among workers, if only to get a wage corresponding to the actual value of labour-power (rather than pushed below it) and limits on the working day. He argues that the collective struggles thus generated contain no pointers beyond capitalism.

On a small and scattered scale, he is right. They may not. But as the struggles generalise, and as the organisations created in those struggles acquire life and breadth, socialist potential is created: cultures of solidarity, of challenging capitalist control of the work process and evolving alternatives, of self-education and gaining collective self-confidence.

In Capital, Marx first mentions the working class, as distinct from individual workers, in chapter 10, on the Working Day. There, he first shows that the elementary conditions of capitalist economic life generate class battles - not just individual haggling between individual worker and individual boss - over the length of the working day.

In the first place, those battles are battles of "right against right", all within a capitalist framework. But they incubate a shift.

"Our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered...

"In the market he stood as owner of the commodity 'labour-power' face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer..." Then the capitalist, "the vampire will not lose its hold on him so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited". "The labourers must put their heads together" and force a limit on the working day.

But that is already an act of political self-assertion: "the Magna Carta of the working class", as Marx calls it. The workers are no longer just owners of the commodity labour-power, or just representatives of the social structure of "labour". They are a political force.

Marx takes the argument further in chapter 15. There he argues that large-scale mechanised industry, "by maturing the material conditions, and the combination on a social scale of the processes of production... matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one". It "generalises the direct opposition to this sway" of capital.

"Modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, [while] on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations...

[This combination] "dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer'; but still, "modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes...

"Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours..."

And indeed that is what capitalism pushes for, in a warped and inhuman way: a working class with a level of general education sufficient to switch jobs and adapt quickly to new technologies, multi-skilled, flexible...

Such is the precondition and the potential for the working class to develop solidarity as a class, to challenge the capitalist organisation of labour, and to acquire the skills and culture necessary to regulate production collectively and to be able to make "disposable time" rich and emancipating.

Plenty can thwart that potential: defeats which set us back for a long time, and hangovers from them such as Stalinism and bureaucracy. But the potential is constantly reconstituted.

It would be glib to leave it there. Postone, as we've seen, constructs his picture of capitalism somewhat like Hegel constructed his picture of world history, as the unfolding of a supposed "causa sui". We see a process in which the interactions of the wills of individuals and groups with the social relations which those people make, and which then structure them in turn, disappears into a straight unfolding of the logic of those social relations.

Partly for that reason, maybe, he sees no reason to query Marx's tentative depiction, in chapter 15 of Capital, of the working class tending to become shaped into a class of machine-minders.

Marx was clear that his day was far from that shape. He gave figures showing that Britain then had more domestic servants than factory workers. But he suggested a constant drive into making more and more workers into machine-minders.

That drive exists, but alongside many other drives, some noted by Marx and set aside by him on the grounds that they were numerically insignificant in his day. Those are, at least, the following:

As jobs are reduced towards machine-minding by the constant capitalist remodelling of production, they also approach the point where they can be entirely replaced by machines. From the workshop to the assembly line staffed by workers at every stage, but from there to the assembly line staffed by robots.

That trend generates an increase in the relative numbers of workers employed in design, maintenance, repair, logistics, and other fields one step removed from the production line. Those jobs in turn get "de-skilled" and mechanised. Then that generates other jobs further upstream.

Meanwhile, all the time, completely new lines of production are generated, with new sorts of jobs.

Marx considered the production of services (in the sense of commodities which have to be consumed "on the spot", whether transport or schooling or haircuts or cleaning or catering) to be relatively unimportant. It is no longer so.

Most of those jobs come under pressure towards mechanisation and routinisation, but most are more resistant to that than most lines of the production of goods. The number of "service" workers grows relatively. That is true, now, not only in the "old" industrial countries, but also in countries like Brazil or China. In 2017, 45% of workers in China were "service workers" (up from 32% in 2007), and 28% were "industrial" (down from 30% in 2012).

There are even sectors where capital has "de-automated" and shows no evidence of a drive to re-automate. For decades up to the 1960s the big cities of the USA had "automat" cafés, with minimal staff, where people bought meals by coins in slots. They're gone. The last one in New York closed in 1991. Today's fast-food industry is fairly mechanised and routinised, but has no drive to expel living labour entirely from the process.

Marx remarked in Capital that "the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry... allows of... the reproduction, on a constantly extending scale, of the ancient domestic slaves under the name of a servant class". Something like that is happening today: as some branches of industry expel labour through mechanisation and automation, it creates scope for profitable capitalist enterprise in relatively unmechanised "service industries" using workers on low wages.

That is a probable reason why, despite all the excited talk about rapid automation making labour almost obsolete, the growth of average labour productivity (so far as it can be measured) is low (in Britain, but not only in Britain), and workforce "participation rates" (percentages in the labour pool of people of the appropriate ages) are at record highs in some countries. (In the USA, the rate fell sharply in the 2001 and 2008 crashes, and has stayed depressed; but is now stabilised, and anyway is higher than it was at any time before the late 1970s). Fast-food bosses in the USA report a labour shortage, a search to find bits of technology to speed things up, and pressure (alas for them) to raise wages (New York Times, May 2018).

In short, the working class is shaped not just by the self-evolution of labour and capital in the abstract, but by many cross-cutting trends; and the working class now looks different from what a straight extrapolation from Marx's picture in the 1860s would indicate.

At some levels that creates difficulties for socialists. Inequalities within the working class have generally increased in the epoch of neoliberalism. Some key operations are run by numbers of workers so small that they can be replaced during strikes by even small numbers of managers and other strike-breakers. Large and important groups of workers are in lines where their strikes have no immediate economic impact.

The question is whether the broad trends sketched by Marx exist: towards the creation of a polyvalent, fluidly-shifting working class, constantly embattled with capital's drive to control and squeeze labour. They do, if in new and shifting forms.

More on Postone:


Interview on work, time, and the working class

Interview on Zionism, anti-semitism and the left

Interview on anti-semitism and reactionary anti-capitalism

Other readings


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Thu, 03/01/2019 - 00:00

Nice job, Martin. Loren Goldner (a left communist, but let's not hold that against him ;) ) pointed out some of Postone's shortcomings several years ago:…

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