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.


Post-Autonomist Questions


Whilst thumbing through Hardt and Negri’s tome Empire this morning, I came across this interesting footnote (#26 for the chapter titled “Postmodernization”):

A number of Italian scholars read the decentralization of network production
in the small and medium-sized enterprises of northern Italy as an
opportunity to create new circuits of autonomous labor. See Sergio Bologna
and Andrea Fumagalli, eds., Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari
del postfordismo in Italia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).

Sergio Bologna, like Negri, is a veteran of the nebulous Autonomia movement of Italy in the 60s and 70s. His best known work – outside of Italy, at least – was his 1977 text “The Tribe of Moles“, an examination of class composition in late-Fordist Italy and of how the ‘autonomous class’ developed within it. While personally quite close with Negri (a biography at the end of an interesting interview notes that the two were among the primary founders of Potere Operaio in 1969, had both worked in the same history department of Padua University in the early 1970s, and together edited a series on Marxist theory in 1972), the two underwent a theoretical divergence in the dawn of the New Economy of the 1990s. Negri would develop his theory of the immaterial laborer as the key social subject of the post-Fordist epoch, while Bologna would look to the “autonomous worker”.

There are deep similarities between these two approaches. On the one hand, Negri’s immaterial labor encompasses the capture and commoditization of affective, cognitive, and creative activities, and emphasizes the role of the internet and industrial autonomation in engendering this transformation. On the other, Bologna’s autonomous labor is akin to what we today might refer to as ‘precarious labor’ or the ‘gig economy’ – the great mass of would-be proletarians, shut-out from yesteryear’s world of Fordist industrial production, forced into part-time, temporary, situation-based work. For Bologna, however, such things compose what he calls the second generation of autonomous labor, in contrast to the first generation of independent artisans, merchants, and assorted professionals (doctors, lawyers, so on and so forth).

Sadly, I’ve yet find a translation of Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari del postfordismo in Italia, much less a pdf in Italian (plz drop a link in the comments if you have one!), but the description given by Hardt and Negri here – that the work offers the decentralized production in Northern Italy as a means of transforming the conditions of the autonomous laborer – is intriguing, especially in light of this recent post of just the other day. The area they are describing is Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region known for its robust industrial economy based on small-to-medium sized enterprises, flexible specialization, craft production, pull-based commercial dynamics, and worker co-operatives. Manuel Delanda has juxtaposed this region the top-heavy Fordism of American-style automobile production, while distributists have found in it as evidence for the durability of their socio-economic proposals. An interesting report cited by Kevin Carson (who elsewhere has referred to Emilia-Romagna, alongside Shenzhen’s Shanzai manufacturing, as a “model for the economic future”) has this to say about the organizational tendencies governing the region:

There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, surely one of the highest densities per capita in the world! Small, medium, enterprises (SME’s) predominate. One person in twelve is self-employed or owns a small business. In recent years the region has produced the highest GDP per capita in the country, and it now ranks with the ten best in Europe…2/3 of the citizens of Bologna belong to a co-op…45% of the GDP is produced by co-ops…(and) 85% of the social services in Bologna are delivered by co-ops… Some of Emilia Romagna’s manufacturing companies that are world class high performance companies are cooperatives. Other private companies and cooperatives work together in flexible networks that combine a number of smaller firms into joint projects. And government has played a powerfully positive role in creating sector-based service centers that assist smaller companies in being competitive in the global economy… “Social Cooperatives” provide various services to the mentally and physically disabled—“privatizing” what historically were state services but to cooperatives that are frequently preferred by professionals because they permit creativity and the delivery of high quality services and work experience for the disabled….

Not everybody is as jazzed on Emilia-Romagna as the above, but nonetheless the convergence of so many different radical perspectives on a particular organization of production and exchange – that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises based on the miniaturization and localization of production technologies and rapid-response to demand – is noteworthy in itself.



In his recent post on modernity and myth, Vince Garton notes Sorel’s interest – in sharp distinction to the majority of Marxist currents of his day (or today, for that matter) – in small-scale, workshop-based production. Vince writes:

Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

An exceedingly brief thought (and a sideways preview of a work in progress): industrial disintermediation  will be the process through which hyper-capitalist atomization is converted into subsidiarity. 

Edit: If communism is to be based, as Xenogoth suggests, on otherness and differentiation, then a neo-Sorelian perspective on industrial disintermediation – and the question of ethics that are tangled up in this complex – is of immediate interest. After all, such processes constitute the fragmentation of the current industrial order, which on the one hand opens up escape routes from the present through the increased ability to produce independently, while on the other hand it poses hard questions fully-automated, luxurious Walmart Socialism advocated by so many on the radical left.