Saturday, 25 January 2014

Postone's Marxism: Is there a dialectics outside capitalism?

Here are my reflexions on Moishe Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993). Just like Michael Heinrich, Postone is a critic of "traditional Marxism", and just like him, he offers a reinterpretation of Marxism that de-emphasizes the revolutionary role of the industrial proletariat. However, the manner in which they carry out their criticism is different. While Heinrich directs attention to the entire valorization process of capital, emphasizing the crucial role of both production and circulation, Postone is much more focused on the notion of labor.

Let me start with what I see as Postone's central claim. 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” (Postone 1993:17). 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 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” (ibid. 75). 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 (ibid. 79). 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” (ibid. 79f).

As for the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, Postone acknowledges that its shift to the critique of instrumental reason came about since it lost faith in the emancipatory role of labor which Lukács ascribed to it. However, because they failed to grasp labor as specific to capitalism and instead identified labor with human interaction with nature per se, as in Horkheimer & Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, they ended up in a transhistorical concept of labor that blinded them to the contradictory nature of labor as constituted in capitalism, a conception that in turn produced a pessimistic view of capitalism as non-contradictory and one-dimensional. While Habermas tried to remedy the pessimism, he did it only by balancing it against communicative reason, not by reinvestigating the notion of labor.

This is a striking and at first sight very attractive reinterpretation. It updates Marx while remedying some of the problems of subsequent critical theory. By directing attention to the notion of labor, he helps overcome the Frankfurt School's ‘economic deficit’. By delimitating totality to capitalism, he also shows how it is possible to assert with Adorno that "the whole is the false", while still maintaining that lots of opposing forces might exist outside the totality. Finally, the idea of a liberation from labor has a nice ring to it that makes it go down will with many activists today.

Let me now turn to the murkier points in Postone’s interpretation, the points where, in my view, his theory becomes fuzzy and ambiguous.

The first of these ambiguities concerns technology and science. 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 (ibid. 9). 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 (ibid. 24f, 193-200, 232f, 287-291, 309ff, 339, 360). 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.

Another difficulty concerns the difficulty of wholly confining categories, such as labor, to capitalism. Along with Heinrich and others associated with the "new reading of Marx", Postone points out that in the terms of Marx' theory as laid out in Capital, categories such as labor or value only have meaning within capitalism. However, as he himself recognizes, Marx had a transhistorical conception of labor in his early works on alienation and even in a section in Capital (ibid. 230). Sometimes Postone himself uses labor in a transhistorical sense, to talk about labor in precapitalist societies (e.g. ibid. 180). Sometimes he seems to soften his position, not arguing that labor cannot be applied transhistorically, only that it cannot be understood “simply in transhistorical terms” (ibid. 230), which blunts his criticism of traditional Marxism. Is the impression that Marx treats labor solely as an integral part of the valorization process of capital not simply the result of the fact that he in later writings such as Capital opts to concentrate on economics, i.e. on the logic of capital, rather than on the class struggle? Wouldn't a reasonable interpretation be that he still had hopes in the latter, despite not explicitly writing about it very much? Isn't Postone doing a certain violence to Marx when he bases his reinterpretations of Marx' theory almost exclusively on late texts such as Capital?

Thirdly, 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 1973:300). 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 (Postone 1993:304f). 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. (ibid. 143)
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 (ibid. 361). 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 (e.g. ibid. 2009:72). 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.

So how is resistance supposed to be waged? If the negation of capitalism is not a dialectical movement, then what is it? What action would not be part of the totality? Sometimes Postone talks about new social movements in what seems like a vaguely hopeful way (e.g. ibid. 2004, 2009). But empirical references to such movements are not very helpful as long as he fails to specify how they threaten capitalism. How are they to be distinguished from the postmodern pursuit of difference which he is so critical of? What is the criterion for saying that the labor movement is dialectically integrated in capitalism while the new social movements aren't? If the latter are brought into conflict with capital in a dialectical fashion - through a struggle that mutually constitutes them - would they not risk incorporation into totality just as much as the labor movement? Indeed, looking at the so-called new social movements (environmentalism, second-wave feminism, peace movements etc), many of them are rather institutionalized and at peace with capitalism. If, on the other hand, the experience of commodification and the promise of non-capitalist "wealth" is thought to trigger a non-dialectical struggle against capital then the question is how this leap out of totality should be conceptualized. Should it be thought of along the lines of the autonomia movement's self-valorization of labor and refusal of work? Would Postone not then, like Antonio Negri, end up close to Deleuze and the idea of lines of flight as a model for a new kind of struggle?

I imagine that Postone would reply along the following lines. The proletariat cannot be posited in advance as a subject that will overcome or abolish capitalism. At least as labor, it will always be implicated in capitalism, as an integral part of the valorization process. This, however, does not mean that working class people must be viewed, cynically, as co-opted or corrupted by capital. Capital needs to turn people into labor, to proletarianize them, in order to produce surplus value. People, for their part, are forced to sell their labor power to make a living. What Postone criticizes is that the labor movement has tended to embrace this proletarianization by saying that "labor" must be the standpoint of its struggle. His message is not that working class people are hopelessly corrupt, but that there is no need for them - for us - to identify as "labor" in order to resist. As long as we need to work for a wage, there will always be a part of us that is guilty of supporting capitalism, a part of us that is "labor". But at the same time, we are also more than labor. We have a freedom - sometimes small, sometimes greater - to resist, and when we try to resist in a radical way, trying to reject capitalism as such rather than just gaining concessions, then we also cease to function as "labor".

My disagreement with Postone is in how he portrays this freedom. He chooses to describe the leavetaking of the standpoint of "labor" as a break with dialectics since it is not part of the systemic logic of capitalism. To me, this indicates a rather constricted view of dialectics - a view in which it is almost a caricature, a logic of system-building and nothing more. But dialectics can also be a dialectics of difference, or non-identity as Adorno put it, and as such it is compatible with freedom, and with analyzing not only how capitalism works, but also how it might disintegrate. It could be used to analyze how resistance, in the course of its struggle, might push its opponent in new directions, escape it (at least temporarily), become ensnared with it, stumble, or make the opponent stumble, and perhaps one day even topple it over. 

So what do I take away from my reading? I agree with Postone that it is not enough to abolish private property to get rid of capitalism. However, I still want to hold the door open for using certain categories outside capitalism – something which I think Marx himself was doing in his early writings, before he turned to his work on Capital, which, as Postone correctly argues, is exclusively an analysis of capitalism. Above all, I see no reason to argue that dialectics is only applicable to capitalist societies.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1973) Negative Dialectics, New York: Continuum.

Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, Moishe (2004) “Critique and Historical Transformation”, Historical Materialism 12(3): 53-72.

Postone, Moishe (2009) History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays, Tokyo: UTCP (The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy).
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