Postone’s take on the current crisis
A new article (PDF) by Postone is likely one of the best things written by a Marxist on this crisis. In the critical segment posted on Principia Dialectia, Postone critiques, and demystifies, Hardt’s concept of value. This critique of Hardt shows why Postone remains the single most insightful Marxist scholar today. His reconstruction of Marx’s labor theory of value is one of the single most important theoretical accomplishments of our time.
To understand the far-reaching significance of the argument Postone makes in this piece, substitute the term “socially necessary labor time” for the term “value”.
At the center of Hardt’s essay is the question of the possibility of a qualitatively different future, which he relates to the increasingly anachronistic character of the forms of quantitative measurability at the heart of capitalism. This problematic can be framed as one of the increasingly anachronistic characters of value. Although Hardt, at points, seems to suggest that the question of measurability is a function of the nature of that which is measured—material or immaterial—the question of measurability is, basically, one of commensurability. That, however, is not an ontological attribute of the objects themselves. Rather, it is a function of the nature of the social context within which they exist.
In Postone’s restatement of Hardt’s problematic, we can substitute the term “value” with the phrase “socially necessary labor time”:
This problematic can be framed as one of the increasingly anachronistic characters of [socially necessary labor time].
The last sentence in the quote is actually a restatement of Postone’s argument in Time, Labor and Social Domination, in which Postone fully anticipates Hardt’s argument, but on the basis of Marx’s value theory:
The system of wages, considered from the standpoint of material wealth, becomes a form of socially general distribution and only appears to be remuneration for labor time expenditure. It no longer has a basis in the production of material wealth; its systemic retention is a function of the value dimension alone.”
What Postone is saying is that value producing labor, socially necessary labor time, is increasingly superfluous to economic activity. But, as Postone argues:
The trajectory of value is such that it becomes anachronistic and, yet, at the same time, is reconstituted as necessary to the system.
Which is to say, while capital tends toward the abolition of socially necessary labor in society, it cannot realize this except at the expense of profit. Since profit is the motive of its activity, no matter how intensively capital works to abolish necessary labor, it must, in the end, continually reconstitute labor as the necessary condition of the worker’s existence. Thus, while socially necessary labor is increasingly superfluous to economic activity, superfluous labor is being constituted within the mode of production as necessary for the continued existence of the laborers themselves. Work must be constantly created anew, no matter how superfluous this work. The over-riding imperative of the is fascist state is job creation— in no case can hours of labor be allowed to fall..
This, of course, is a recapitulation of Postone’s revolutionary argument in Time, Labor and Social Domination, where he lays bare the limits of the capitalist mode of production:
With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential
of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.
In his criticism of Hardt, Postone continues in this track:
The notion of value’s increasingly anachronistic character is central to Hardt’s argument (even if his use of the term “value” is not the same as that presented here) and to considerations of a possible alternative future.
Hardt’s mystification of the notion of value prevents him from grasping the revolutionary potential latent in the working class’s own struggles. The “possible alternative future” Postone mentions is, of course, “the potential of the new forces of production” mentioned above, the one in which socially necessary labor has been abolished altogether — i.e., the higher stage of communism. It really is a very good statement by Postone — the best one on the crisis by a Marxist I have read thus far. Like Hardt, the Marxist academy, so far as I can tell, has been unable to employ Postone’s argument and has failed miserably to recognize its theoretical significance.
Explicit recognition of the theoretical significance of Postone’s argument is necessary both because Postone nails the question of superfluous labor and its relation to this crisis and the social revolution, but it is also necessary because, for some unknown reason, Postone pulls back from his argument, and makes the social revolution dependent not on the process he just outlined, but on what he calls, “different sorts of responses to the current crisis”. Postone seems to be suggesting the situation depends not on the increasing anachronism of value, but on the political responses to this increasing anachronism:
Historicizing value also implies that movements against capitalism must also be considered historically. The question of the historical conditions of revolt and revolution is not only one of their genesis but also of the sort of social order that could subsequently emerge. This is a fundamental historical question that cannot simply be bracketed. A lack of critical distance from uprisings and the absence of an inquiry into the nature of the new order likely to emerge can also be understood as a symptom of a sort of temporal disorientation that, arguably, characterizes our historical situation.
Different sorts of responses to the current crisis vary according to the degree to which they accept the present order as necessary. A very common response in the public sphere has been to demand better regulation of financial futures and options markets in order to curb the worst excesses of casino capitalism. Other responses have been on a more structural level, especially with regard to the distribution of wealth and power. Socioeconomic development in the past three decades has once again demonstrated that, without countervailing governmental policies, capitalism generates increasing inequality and insecurity. This, in turn, has elicited many social-democratic responses to the current crisis that call for a return to the sort of Keynesian/Fordist synthesis that marked the postwar decades. Many of the essays here, however, have, at least implicitly, called into question such widespread social-democratic responses. They have indicated, in a variety of ways, that the consolidation of that social-democratic synthesis in the decades following World War II depended on historical conditions that are no longer present.
This is where Postone muddies his own argument. For some reason, Postone swerves from his own conclusion at the last minute by suggesting the various political responses to the crisis may not be determined by the increasing anachronism of socially necessary labor time. This is wrong and mars the clarity of his essential argument. If, as Postone argues, the increasingly anachronistic character of value producing labor “raises the question of a possible future qualitatively different from the present order”, we already know this future is materially foreshadowed by this fact alone and not the various political responses to it. These responses are themselves shrouded in just the sort of mystification that finds its theoretical expression in Hardt’s notion of value.
As Postone states, materially, the increasingly anachronistic character of socially necessary labor itself requires a fundamental transformation not only of the mode of distribution but of the mode of production:
The notion, mentioned earlier, that value becomes historically anachronistic implies that value-creating labor also becomes anachronistic, even while remaining necessary for capitalism. More and more labor is being rendered superfluous, even as the organization of capitalist society remained predicated on its existence. One result is a growing maldistribution of labor time between an overworked segment of society and one that is essentially without work. This is no longer a conjunctural question as it, perhaps, had been during the Great Depression, but it has become a structural one.
Postone’s argument suggests that the “critical distance’ necessary for Marxists to achieve from the current spate of working class uprisings is not a distance that concerns itself with a critiques of the superficial political expressions of these uprisings, but one that shows theoretically how these superficial expressions are related to the underlying material processes they prefigure or foreshadow. Rather than impotently declaring these superficial political actions insufficient in the usual sectarian Marxist style, Marxists should be showing how even these limited demands point beyond their own limitations to a practical critique of existing society.
All of these uprisings — from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street are a more or less concealed or mystified war between the working class and capital over what constitutes hours of necessary labor — up to and including the complete abolition of labor itself. Our job is not to reinvent the workers own movement, but to lay bare to the proletarians the revolutionary significance of their own practical activity.