Postone on Capital and History


This Moishe Postone lecture has been the soundtrack to this morning’s chores. It’s really great, and provides a straightforward unpacking of a lot the stuff going on in his dense-but-awesome 1993 work Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

One of the very intriguing points that Postone makes in his book is the way that, in chapter four Capital Volume 1 – the chapter that introduces the classic M – C – M’ ‘feedback loop’ schema – Marx resurrects Hegel’s depiction of the Geist, as an independent or self-moving substance, to describe capital itself. It’s an incredibly important point for understanding what is going on in Marx’s mature work, as undoes the common perception of the proletariat or humanity (ascending to the realization of its species-being) as the ‘subject’ of history, and attributes this position instead to capital itself.

Postone delves into this in the lecture above, and it’s worth reiterating here because it is stated so clearly. Speaking of the inner dynamics of the capitalist system (this starts somewhere in minute 37), he states:

On the one hand, it is characterized by ongoing, even accelerating, transformations of production and of social life. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental conditions as an unchanging feature of social life. Namely, that value is reconstituted, that social mediation ultimately remained affected by labor, and that living labor remains integral to the total social process of production, regardless of the level of productivity. So the historical dynamic of capitalism, and I think people only usually get one side, ceaselessly generates what is the same while always generating what is new. As I will elaborate, it both generates the possibility of another organization of labor and of social life, and at the same time hinders that possibility from being realized.

This dynamic, generated by the dialectic of abstract time and dialectical time, is at the heart of the category of capital, which for Marx is a category of movement. It’s value in motion. It has no fixed material embodiment. Now since this is an institute of philosophy, it’s significant that when Marx first introduces the category of capital in the book Das Kapital, he describes it with exactly the same language that Hegel used with reference to the Geist in the Phenomenology. The “self-moving substance” that is the subject of its own process. People like Althusser say to just forget all of this Hegelian language. In so doing, Marx suggests that Hegel’s notion of history, as having a logic, as the dialectical unfolding of a subject, is valid, but only for capitalist society. Moreover, Marx does not define Hegel’s subject with the proletariat, or even with humanity. Instead he identifies it with capital: a dynamic structure of abstract domination that, although constituted by humans, is independent of their will.

What I’m suggesting is that Marx’s mature critique of Hegel does not involve an anthropological inversion of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. Rather, I’m going to suggest that this is the idealist dialectic’s material justification. Marx implicitly argues that the rational core of Hegel’s dialectic is precisely its idealistic character. It is an expression of a mode of domination constituted by alienated relations – that is, relations that acquire a quasi-independent existence vis-a-vis individuals, exert a certain form of compulsion on them, and that because of their dualistic character are dialectical. Notice that categories like historical subject, totality, labor have now become the objects of Marx’s critique, not the standpoint of his critique.

The first part of the above quoted clearly speaks the central concern reiterated by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, that of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of constantly putting things into play, producing the new, even things that threaten to overwhelm itself, but also restraining these things, cutting them off, appropriating and recoding them, or even dredging up archaisms to repress them. In the language of Difference and Repetition, we might describe this situate as the subordination of difference to the Repetition of the Same – and it is probably by no mistake, then, that in the very second paragraph of the book’s introduction Deleuze writes of equivalence as a generality, that is, “a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another”. For Marx, money – an expression of the law of value, that which flows through the self-expanding, self-moving, cyberpositive process of M – C – M’, plays the role of the general equivalent, the special category of commodities that all other commodities can be translated into or otherwise mediated by.

Elsewhere in this lecture Postone posits a Marxist understanding history that is neither linear-determinist or strictly contingent, and in this he comes close to that which has haunted all debates in the accelerationist sphere, the Kantian antimony of causal determinism and spontaneity – or to put it in more contemporary, system theoretic terms, the troubled intermingling of lock-in effects and self-organization. Or again, as the esteemed Thomas Murphy once put it, the Deleuzian problematic of hierarchies and anarchies, ‘solved’ in the form of the morphogenetic crowned anarchy.


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