Comments on Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination

Dear A,

Thanks for introducing me the book by Moishe Postone. I had read the third part of the book, Toward a reconstruction of the Marxian critique: capital. Since I am more interested in his own understandings and implications of his own analyses, I skip the first two parts. Overall it is a good book. But I can’t say that I love it. Most arguments of Postone are familiar to me in one way or the other, and I have been skeptical about them. I do like his argument for the possibility against actuality. But unfortunately he does not clarify the conditions or obstacles for it very much. Below I will outline his three major arguments, and then spell out my critiques or thoughts related to them.

1. The proletarian is not a revolutionary force, since it is intrinsically determined by and embedded in the capital.

I do agree with Postone on this in principal. But contrary to Postone’s understanding, I believe that it is not a problem for the traditional Marxism. Because the similar argument, and only stronger and fiercer, was proposed long ago by Lenin in his What is to be Done.

Lenin’s critique against "bowing to the worker’s spontaneity", and the economism, is based on exactly the same understanding of the worker’s role in capitalism as Postone’s. Lenin’s critique and the following strategy, the vanguard revolutionary party, had been the essential element or even the dogma in traditional Marxism. They were also deeply integrated into various institutions of the real-existed socialism. Whatever the version of traditional Marxism Postone has in mind, it’s weird that he should omit the trademark of Leninism and raises it as something new.

Lenin’s critique originated from the struggle against the revisionism which was popular among socialist parties in the western European countries in his time and continues so after WWII. Postone’s argument seems has the same origin, against what he called traditional Marxism.

Anyway, Postone definitely cannot be criticizing Leninism or the real-exited socialism, since he and Lenin’s critique employ the same argument here. But Postone may be implicitly criticizing Lenin’s vanguard revolutionary strategy, because in Postone, the critique of the major role of the proletarian leads to the sympathy to the new social movements (environmental, gender, and so on), and the alternative subject, the people. If we understand Postone under this context, the question then becomes: can his proposal do any better than Lenin in challenging economism and moving toward socialism? Unfortunately, we are not able to tell the answer since he does not analyze these concepts and related issues any further.

2. Capital has intrinsic tendency of an automatic/ever-growing productivity, which is an alienated force and runs away from people’s control.

Let's skip the cliché of alienation. The idea that capital intrinsically contain an automatic/ever-growing productivity is a phenomenon I would call “macro/aggregation illusion”. Philosophically it reminds me Hegel’s thought of the objective, absolute, self-moving spirit. In economics it is similar with theories hold by some Marxian authors like John Weeks, or some simplified macroeconomic models in which the growth of the aggregate productivity, or TFP, is exogenous.

This simplified assumption may be useful in few cases, but can be pretty harmful in many other cases. There is nothing really automatic/ever-growing/alienated in the thing called productivity growth. It’s a phenomenon at the aggregate level resulting from the competition between individual capitals, the struggles between managers and workers within firms, and the complex interactions between institutions and economic agents, etc. There will be no growth of productivity without these relations (SSA approach may call these relations as institutions). And if any of these relations changes significantly in some ways, capitalism will also experience significant changes and leads to different phenomena and patterns. This is the real ground for study and debate, and has crucial implications for political and economic strategies. Unfortunately Postone fails to locate himself on this real ground.

It’s true that Marx abstracts from many of these elements at the first part of Capital vol. 1, and sometimes he does play with Hegelian terms too much. But that doesn’t mean that everything he wrote after that can be reduced to nothing but the intrinsic nature of capital. When Marx claims that capital is the aggregate of whole sets of social relations, I believe he means that the aggregate is the result or the end of our analysis of the sets of social relations, rather than the starting point (This is an methodological argument against Hegel).

Without certain understandings of the institutional foundations, Postone can only repeat those very abstract descriptions, lumps everything into the intrinsic nature of capital, and falls into the "trap" of the discourse of alienation.

3. The main contradiction identified by Marx is the contradiction between the potentiality (possibility) and the actuality. In this way, Marx’s critique of capital is not a positive critique.

This is probably my favorite part of this book. This may lead to a normative critique, something similar to the Pareto improvement, or some kind of social welfare expansion in welfare economic analysis.

However, two key questions are: 1. What's your criteria of welfare improvement, or if you like, of the potentiality, such as, what kinds of improvement is desirable and why and by how much. 2. what are the concrete conditions to realize the potentiality, to make it a realistic potentiality rather than just a fantasy?

In both respects, Postone’s concepts of welfare and its improvement are pretty unclear. This kind of “openness” is equivalent to vagueness for me. This is especially unfortunate because we have had lots of experiences of the socialist struggles and the bitter history of real-existed socialism. And these experiences have had moved beyond Marx’s imagination in various ways. An analysis based on the experiences of these practices, and linked back to Marx’s ideas, may be more constructive.

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