Necessity, Labor, and Time

by Moishe Postone, 1978

Postone and Class Theory

Moishe Postone’s most famous work in the Anglophone world, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, is hampered by the fact that it is written against a straw man — “traditional Marxism.” The effort to prove that traditional Marxism has a superficial understanding of capitalism, and thus that the USSR only made superficial changes and remained essentially capitalist, leads him to the curious argumentative strategy of attempting to sift out only what is ‘essential’ in Marx’s theory. Yet as Postone himself continually asserts, Marx’s categories are historically specific and refer to the actually-existing capitalist social totality. This perverted totality is constituted by a real metaphysics, an essential movement and its forms of appearance, but that doesn’t make the forms of appearance ‘inessential’ in the sense of being dispensable — as every student of Hegel knows, essence must appear. What sense does it make then to claim that the commodity (a thing produced by and for exchange) is essential, but exchange is not? That proletarian labor is essential, but class is not? It makes sense only to the extent that Postone has redefined property, class, and exchange in a superficial manner in order to declare them inessential.

Postone is correct that capitalism is historically unique in that social relations are not constituted by direct personal domination, but are mediated by labor, which dominates the laborers as an abstract compulsion. But labor can only become the general social mediation when the producers have been separated from their means of subsistence and must obtain them via equivalent exchange. In every actually existing capitalist economy, this exchange is made against the universal equivalent money — although it would make little difference even if the exchange of living for dead labor were to hypothetically occur only in the form of the infamous labor-time receipt dear to Proudhonists, which even Marx unwisely imagined persisting into the early stages of a post-capitalist society, meaning that such a society would be post-capitalist in name only, as some communists like Kropotkin clearly recognized.

This generalized separation marks the historical specificity of the class relation, and it arose via that violent dispossession Marx calls primitive accumulation, which is continually reproduced in and through the sale of labor-power as a commodity. Capitalist private property does not hinge on the ownership of the means of (re)production by private persons (Marx makes it quite clear that joint stock companies or the state will do just fine as a “total abstract capitalist”), but on their non-possession by the producers. The specificity of capitalist private property lies not in that a non-laboring few appropriates a surplus — this has been true of every previous caste society — but that the laboring class possesses nothing on which to subsist but their own labor-power. This labor-power must be measured in time, and assume a form that can be exchanged for means of subsistence, and in turn for means of production on an expanded scale. This means that the surplus is not directly a surplus of useful goods, but is of an abstract temporal character — surplus value. Class is defined not by a direct relation of domination between people in which the rulers extort useful goods from the ruled by force, but by a fetishistic relation of people to economic quantities — commodities and coins, the material forms temporarily assumed by value — the abstract domination of workers and owners by an objective logic which exerts itself over yet through their own activity, from which the former suffer and the latter profit, but before which both are powerless. The class relation is not a static, positive typology of “sociological groupings” (as Postone at one point claims), but this negative dynamic of dispossession and accumulation, which, as it works itself out, expropriates more and more capitalists through the concentration of capital, and deprives more and more proletarians even of the opportunity to sell their labor-power, reducing them from the ‘working class’ to the dispossessed class pure and simple — the very development that lies at the heart of Postone’s argument, yet that he refuses to call by the name class.

This — generalized social separation which can only be momentarily mended by the social synthesis of exchanging living for dead labor — must all be contained in the concept of capital, or else it becomes impossible to explain — rather than merely dogmatically assert — its historical specificity, which indeed Postone cannot. Dispossession is both the presupposition and the result of capitalist production — but Postone argues that because dispossession and class are presented later in Capital, they’re somehow less necessary (as if the Absolute Idea were less than necessary to Hegel’s Logic!), forgetting that dialectic seeks truth not in pure origins, but in concrete results — “the true is a result” — and that in a totality, every moment presupposes all the others and the end posits the beginning — class struggle and primitive accumulation are at once the presupposition and the continually-reproduced product of the commodity form.

Postone seems to effect this unwarranted narrowing of what is ‘essential’ to capitalism for polemical reasons, in order to assert the capitalist character of the USSR, as well as what he terms “post-liberal” social formations. But in so doing he in fact concedes far too much to the USSR’s ideological self-image: class, property, and exchange as we have defined them remained very much in existence in all the red-flag-draped capitalist countries — as demonstrated half a century before TLSD by Bordiga, Dunayevskaya, and other Marxists too traditional for Postone to mention. Postone has no theory of the state, and its necessary role in all phases and forms of capitalism, therefore he seems to buy liberal ideologues’ claims about the ‘free market’ in the heyday of ‘liberal capitalism,’ as well as ‘socialist’ ideologues’ claims about its suppression, and has to mutilate his theory in order to argue around the supposedly epochal shift from market to state ‘regulation,’ which turns on a false dichotomy unable to recognize the state as always the political form of capital. The reality of “the mode of production based on exchange” is no more reducible to the fantasy of the free market than private property is to the bag of money in the hand of an individual capitalist wearing a top hat, or the class relation is to the crude caste-like shape it assumes when it first emerges bloodstained from the destruction of the feudal order — a process, we’d do well to remember, that was still taking place in many parts of the world as late as the mid-20th century.

Postone’s stupidest acolytes have taken all of this as an excuse to argue that we ought to cease all talk of class. However, his best readers, like G.M. Tamás, have instead extracted from Postone a theory of the historical specificity of the class relation — which is characterized by the very labor-mediated abstract domination Postone tries to separate out from others’ crude misconceptions of ‘class,’ and in the process throws the baby out with the bath water — versus the caste relations, defined by appropriation of a surplus of material wealth from self-sufficient producers by a ruling caste via direct personal domination that constitutes rulers and ruled as fixed fast to their hereditarily-assigned stations and privileges in a ‘great chain of being,’ which have obtained in all previous antagonistic modes of production.

Such a reading is greatly aided by Postone’s excellent 1978 article “Necessity, Labor, and Time” (available above), written before he had decided to argue the class relation out of the critique of political economy. This article is an important contribution to class theory, which affords a way to distinguish both conceptually and historically between different forms of class consciousness (and by extension, class struggle) as conditioned by the contradictory trajectory of capital accumulation and the increasing superfluity of direct proletarian labor to the creation of material wealth, that is quite opposed to the one-dimensional ‘all class struggle is system-immanent’ lucubrations of vulgar Postonians. These he terms “class-constituting consciousness” (labor-power’s consciousness of itself as a commodity, and the corresponding struggle to sell this commodity at a decent price, or even the revolutionary Ricardian demand for the ‘full value of workers’ labor’) and “class-transcending consciousness” (the proletarian’s consciousness that her labor is increasingly socially superfluous and fit only for a machine and not a human — the kind of class consciousness exemplified directly by James Boggs’s pioneering text which grasped that “America is headed toward full unemployment,” by the workers of the ‘70s in Italy and elsewhere who took up the strategy of refusing work, and by today’s widespread demands, whatever their misconceptions, that automation be refitted in form and function to afford free time and communal luxury rather than mass redundancy and ecological destruction, as well as indirectly, as Postone astutely notes, by various phenomena from counterculture to ubiquitous depression). These categories — somewhat reminiscent of Théorie Communiste, but more tightly reasoned and less obnoxious — are very helpful in understanding the turbulent developments of the past half-century, the changing content of proletarian struggles and demands, and the historical obsolescence of the Left (which necessarily can only recognize and represent class-constituting consciousness). In formulating them, Postone demonstrates, against what is usually taken to be his own argument, that the standpoint of the proletariat, beyond a given historical point, becomes no longer necessarily identical with the “standpoint of labor,” and indeed must become increasingly nonidentical to it.

As important as this work of Postone’s is as a revision of Lukács’s theory of socially-constituted consciousness, it too requires deepening and extension from categories of thought to categories of practice. The increasing inadequacy of direct labor-time as a measure of social wealth in the form of value has consequences beyond people’s increasing conscious recognition that labor sucks and can and should be done away with. It also means the massive expulsion of proletarians from value-productive wage labor — proletarians unnecessary to valorization, yet who remain dependent on the wage, or at least on getting their hands on money somehow, in order to purchase their necessaries as commodities (again we see the dictatorship of exchange assert itself). This situation will increasingly force proletarians (whatever their consciousness) into forms of struggle that point toward social reproduction beyond wage labor — that is, class-transcending struggle. An embryonic form of such struggle can be seen in the riots and looting — the direct negation of the commodity form of the means of subsistence — which have become ever more common over the past sixty years. Yet it remains to be seen how today’s struggles can progress to the negation of the commodity form of the means of production and of productive activity, and the “reflexive utilization of the immanent potential of the forces of production on the process of production itself,” because Postone is quite right to insist, contra the sanguine fantasies of the world’s Toni Negris and of capital’s latest crop of ideologues who claim that corporate logistics networks are already almost socialist, that the “accumulation of human power and knowledge” which Marx calls the “general intellect” is presently materialized in an objective form that brutally dominates the worker — see, to take only one example, the nightmarish human programming of Amazon’s warehouses. (This example hits close to home for yours truly — I’m a packing worker in a warehouse not yet so thoroughly subsumed to capital, but the only future workers like myself have to look forward to is being replaced by a machine or, what's worse, being essentially turned into one.) We cannot simply lay hold of the “technology developed under capitalism,” but must struggle to seize the immanent potential of the productive force now principally responsible for the great mass of material wealth — accumulated knowledge, our general species capacities in alien form — and apply it so that the process and purpose of production will be transformed, “one-sided concerte labor” will be abolished, and “the machines themselves will be different.”

Postone is certainly correct in his assertion, based on his reading of the Grundrisse, that the heart of the development of the capitalist social totality is the “moving contradiction” between the drive to increase material productivity and the social form of wealth based on direct labor time, rather than ‘class conflict’ conceived of as a clash between utterly extrinsic social forces instead of as a moment of the self-movement of capital. But the moving contradiction can’t move except through our perverted practice, thus the working out of this contradiction appears as a crisis of the class relation which opens up the possibility of the proletariat negating itself as commodified labor, and positing humanity as historical subject. Postone had abandoned this latter concept by the time he wrote Time, Labor, and Social Domination, but he rightly retains it in his earlier work. For humanity is the practical self-consciousness of time’s restless negative movement, a not-yet-realized species potentiality which emerges historically with the capitalist mode of production as it reduces individuals to mere bearers of labor-time, yet by universally establishing the link between activity, temporality, and self-development (albeit in the alien from of abstract labor constituting the self-development of capital) also gives rise to the possibility that individuals might live their time and enjoy their species capacities, rather than being dominated by them in the objective form of capital — what Postone here calls “historical freedom.”

A New Institute for Social Research