Saturday, October 20, 2012

Moishe Postone (1993) Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge University Press)

I have become more convinced recently that capitalism is implicitly pervasive in our conceptions and affects our actions including teaching. Without understanding capitalism critically, no innovation or radical change is possible for our stagnating practice, my field, English Language Teaching, included. A Japanese translation of Moishe's Postone (1993)Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge University Press) has recently been published and well-received in Japan, and I also find this book fascinating. (I read the translation first and only important parts in the original English book).

The book is based on the author's dissertation for Fachbereich Gesellschaftswissenschaften at the J. W. Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, and the writing style is dialectic. This style may discourage some Anglo-American readers who prefer what they regard as the 'straight line of argument', but there are some things in this world that may better be elucidated by dialectics. Following is my note of the book.

This book is, as its subtitle says, a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory, and departs from the traditional Marxism. The traditional Marxism is defined as follows: 

all theoretical approaches that analyze capitalism from the standpoint of labor and characterize that society essentially in terms of class relations, structured by private ownership of the means of production and a market-regulated economy. Relations of domination are understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. (p. 7)

While the traditional Marxism is a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor, this reinterpretation is a critique of labor in capitalism (p. 5). Capitalism, in turn, is conceptualized "in terms of a historically specific form of social interdependence with an impersonal and seemingly objective character" (p. 3). Analysis of this seemingly objective social interdependence constitutes a critical assessment of "the form of modern society itself" (p. 66). 

One of the important features of modern society that is critically assessed is social domination that capitalism imposes upon us. 
In Marx's analysis, social domination in capitalism does not, on its most fundamental level, consist in the domination of people by other people, but in the domination of people by abstract social structures that people themselves constitute. Marx sought to grasp this form of abstract, structural domination --which encompasses, and extends beyond, class domination-- with his categories of the commodity and capital. (p. 30)

People are dominated by capitalism they made and maintain, which is driven by capital that promotes production of commodities. In other words, people are alienated (p. 30) because the Subject of their history in their society is not them, but capital. I'll explain how specifically capital becomes the Subject of modern society below.

Our analysis of capitalism should start from the fundamental level, value, as it affects the more specific levels. 

this approach implicitly treats as socially constituted the level of structured preknowledge that Kant interprets as a transcendental a priori condition of knowledge. ... It grasps this preknowledge as a preconscious structure of consciousness which is socially formed, and neither posits it as a universal, transcendental a priori nor bases it on an assumed absolute knowledge. ... This interpretation suggests that epistemology becomes, in Marx's theory, radical as social epistemology. (pp. 218-219)

According to Marx, value in capitalistic society, commodity value (Warenwerte), a more exact term I prefer (See p. 52 ofDas Kapitel I) , has two factors: use value and exchange value (Please refer to articles: Marx's dialectics according to David Harvey, and (if you can read Japanese) On the commodity according to Marx . For reasons I don't understand, Postone doesn't use the term of exchange value very often, and often contrasts use value and value. But his point is clear: the contrast between the value that is qualitatively different for each individual (use value) and (commodity) value that is standardized socially and quantitative for measurement. 

Capitalistic society is unique in that it prioritizes (commodity) value over use value, for in order to produce something as a commodity for living (either as goods or service), people need to produce it for exchange in a far more amount than they need for themselves. Value of a commodity in capitalistic society is seen mostly as exchange value for people in general in society rather than as use value for its producer. Value as commodity value is more social and abstract than individual and specific.

As Marx says, "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities'; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. (Penguin translation of Das Kapitel, p.125), and we begin to disregard the material side of use value and prize the social side of (commodity) value. Wealth in capitalistic societies is less about material wealth than socially constituted value.

This different conception of wealth makes different types of society. Where wealth is regarded as material wealth, people are engaged in concrete labor produce mostly for use value with the help of Nature. 
The difference between material wealth and value is central to the Marxian critique of capitalism. It is rooted, according to Marx, in the double character of labor in that social formation. Material wealth is created by concrete labor, but labor is not the sole source of material wealth; rather, this form of wealth results from the transformation of matter by people with the aid of natural forces. Material wealth, then, arises from the interactions of humans and nature, as mediated by useful labor. (p. 194)

On the other hand, in capitalistic societies where wealth results from socially constituted relations, people produce commodities for exchange value and are engaged more in abstract labor.

Here, we should clarify the double characters of use value/(commodity) value and of concrete labor/abstract (human) labor. This is how Postone summarizes. 
Marx begins Capital with an analysis of the commodity as a good, a use value, that at the same time, is a [commodity] value. He then relates these two dimensions of the commodity to the double character of the labor it incorporates. As a particular use value, the commodity is the product of a particular concrete labor; as a [commodity] value, it is the objectification of abstract human labor. (p. 127 square brackets and emphasis added).

Abstract human labor, or abstract labor, is measured by "socially necessary labor time." 
Socially necessary labour-time is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society. (Penguin translation of p. 53 of Das Kapitel I)

So in capitalistic societies where people produce commodities for exchange whose value as wealth is measured by the unit of the socially necessary labor time, people's work is estimated more as abstract labor than as concrete labor. In capitalism, concrete labor that is directly for material wealth matters less , and people must be engaged in abstract labor even when they may already have plenty of material wealth for themselves, for they have no means of living other than earning money for purchasing commodities they need by producing commodities they can produce whether it is goods or service. They earn money in proportion to the 'value' of capitalism that is determined by the socially necessary time as abstract labor.

The determinations of value, the dominant form of wealth in capitalism, are very different from those of material wealth. Value is peculiar in that, though a form of wealth, it does not express directly the relation of humans to nature but the relations among people as mediated by labor. Hence, according to Marx, nature does not enter directly into value's constitution at all. As a social mediation, value is constituted by (abstract) labor alone: it is an objectification of the historically specific social dimension of labor in capitalism as a socially mediating activity, as the "substance" of alienated relations. Its magnitude is, then, not a direct expression of the quantity of products created or of the power of natural forces harnessed; it is, rather, a function only of abstract labor time. In other words, although increased productivity does result in more material wealth, it does not result in more value per unit of time. As a form of wealth that is also a form of social relations, value does not express directly the acquired productive abilities of humanity. (p. 195)

But it is not true that capitalistic societies estimate only abstract labor, abstract time and (commodity) value. Abstract labor/concrete labor, abstract time/concrete time and use value as wealth/(commodity) value are in dialectical dynamic. 

I have focused thus far on the centrality to Marx's critical theory of his conception of the dual character of the fundamental social forms of capitalist society, and have tried to clarify the nature of, and distinction between, the value dimension of the forms (abstract labor, value, abstract time) and the use value dimension (concrete labor, material wealth, concrete time). At this point, I can examine their interrelations. The nonidentity of these two dimensions is not simply a static opposition; rather, the two moments of labor in capitalism, as productive activity and as a socially mediating activity, are mutually determining in a way that gives rise to an immanent dialectical dynamic. (p. 287)

Commodities are the medium of this dialectical dynamic. This is why Marx put the chapter on the commodity at the beginning of Capital as the most important part. 

From a transhistorical starting point, Marx moves to a historically determinate one. The category "commodity," in Marx's analysis, does not simply refer to an object, but to a historically specific, "objective" form of social relations -- a structuring and structured form of social practice that constitutes a radically new form of social interdependence. This form is characterized by a historically specific duality purportedly at the core of the social system: use value and value, concrete labor and abstract labor. (p. 139)

It is absolutely critical that unlike other forms of societies, capitalistic societies makes social relations "objective" or "object-like" by commodities, money, and capital. Being objective or object-like, our relations become abstract, formal, homogeneous, standardized, and only quantitative. 

Each commodity has not only its specific concrete qualities, measured in concrete material quantities, but all commodities share in common value, a nonmanifest abstract quality with (as we shall see) a temporally determined magnitude. The magnitude of their value is a function of abstract measure rather than of concrete material quantity. As a social form, the commodity is completely independent of its material content. This form is not, in other words, the form of qualitatively specific objects but is abstract and can be grasped mathematically. It possesses "formal" characteristics. Commodities are both particular, sensual objects (and are valued as such by the buyer) and values, moments of an abstractly homogeneous substance that is mathematically divisible and measurable (for example, in terms of time and money). (p. 175)

Measured mathematically, labor and time of people are turned into commodities, and ultimately into money as the medium for universal exchange. Postone summarizes Marx. 

He [= Marx] argues that in a society where the commodity is then universal form of the product, money does not render commodities commensurable; rather, it is an expression, a necessary form of appearance, of their commensurability, of the fact that labor function as a socially mediating activity. (p. 264)

A capitalistic society is mediated human labor and time that takes the form of commodities that are universally exchanged with money, a quantitative unit of measurement.

Furthermore, money changes into capital in capitalism. A producer may only use money to purchase what he needs: Exchange of Commodity 1 (C1) --say, his labor power-- with money (M) and then another exchange of M with Commodity 2 (C2) --what he purchases. He may be happy in this exchange of C1-M-C2 as long as he is ready to give C1 for C2, which are qualitatively different and not exactly comparable in quantity. However, for a capitalist, exchange is M1-C-M2 (he first invests money (M1) to produce a commodity (C) and receives money (M2) in return. Here, the comparison between the start (M1) and the end (M2) are purely quantitative, for they are not qualitatively different at all. If M2 he receives for M1 is equal in amount, there is no point of investing. M2 must be more than M1, and added quantity is called surplus value. Using the formula of M-C-M' to mean what I wrote as M1-C-M2, Postone says. 

The formula M-C-M' does not refer to a process whereby wealth in general is increased but to a process whereby value is increased. Marx calls the quantitative difference between M and M' surplus value. Value becomes capital, according to Marx, as a result of a process of valorization of value, whereby is magnitude is increased. ... The formula M-C-M' is intended to represent an ongoing process: M' is not simply withdrawn at the end of the process as money, but remains part of the circuit of capital. This circuit, in other worlds, is actually M-C-M'-C-M"-C... (p. 268)

Here, capital becomes an agent, even the Subject of history of our society. 

Capital, then, is a category of movement, of expansion; it is a dynamic category, "value in motion." This social form is alienated, quasi-independent, exerts a mode of abstract compulsion and constraint on people, and is in motion. Consequently, Marx accords it the attribute of agency. His initial determination of capital, then, is as self-valorizing value, as the self-moving substance that is subject. He describes this self-moving subjective-objective social form in terms of a continuous, ceaseless process of value's self-expansion. ... Capital has no fixed, final form, but appears at different stages of its spiraling path in the form of money and commodities. Value, then, is unfolded by Marx as the core of a form of social mediation that constitutes social objectivity and subjectivity, and is intrinsically dynamic: it is a form of social mediation that necessarily exists in objectified, materialized form, but is neither identical with, nor an inherent property of, its materialized form, whether in the shape of money or goods. ...
The movement of capital is without limit, without end. As self-valorizing value, it appears as pure process. In dealing with the category of capital, then, one is dealing with a central category of a society that becomes characterized by a constant directional movement with no determinate external telos, a society driven by production for the sake of production, by a process that exists for the sake of process. This expansion, this ceaseless motion is, within the framework of Marx's analysis, intrinsically related to the temporal dimension of value. (p. 269)

Surplus value, assessed only quantitatively not qualitatively, is now both the end and the means of capitalistic societies. Surplus value drives capitalistic societies as the agent and subject.

Labor, understood as a useful interaction with nature to get what people need in non-capitalistic societies, is now abstract labor standardized according to the objective abstract time in capitalism. As we rely more on commodities for survival than on our own concrete, useful labor, we become standardized according to abstract labor and time to earn money, and involved in capitalism as a means of ever-increasing drive of capital. We are driven to produce commodities endlessly. 

The goal of production in capitalism is neither the material goods produced nor the reflexive effects of laboring activity on the producer, but value, or more precisely, surplus value. Value, however, is a purely quantitative goal; there is no qualitative difference between the value of wheat and that of weapons. Value is the objectification of abstract labor -- of labor as an objective means of acquiring goods it has not produced. Thus production for (surplus) value is production where the goal itself is a means. Hence, production in capitalism necessarily is quantitatively oriented, toward ever-increasing amounts of surplus value. This is the basis of Marx's analysis of production in capitalism as production for the sake of production. (p. 181)

We no longer own or control our labor and production. We don't labor or produce for ourselves but for capitalism. Our labor and production are now separated from our life. We're alienated by and from our own labor and production. 

Marx's determinations of value and the process of its creation imply that labor, which in the labor process is defined as purposeful action that regulates and directs human interaction with nature, is separated from its purpose in the process of creating value. The goal of the expenditure of labor power no longer is bound intrinsically to the specific nature of that labor; rather, this goal, despite appearances, is independent of the qualitative character of the labor expended -- it is the objectification of labor time itself. That is to say, the expenditure of labor power is not a means to another end, but, as a means, has itself become an "end." This goal is given by the alienated structures constituted by (abstract) labor itself. As a goal, it is very singular; it is not only extrinsic to the specificity of (concrete) labor but also is posited independently of the social actors' will. (p. 281)

As laborers, we may labor long or short, but not valued by our specific work; We are only valued by the framework of capitalism: abstract labor and abstract labor. We are subsumed in capitalism. 

When labor mediates and constitutes social relations, it becomes the central element of a totality that dominates individuals -- who, nevertheless, are free from relations of personal domination: " Labour, which is thus measured by time, does not seem, indeed, to be the labour of different subjects, but on the contrary the different working individuals seem to be mere organs of the labour."
... Marx analyzes the subsumption of individuals under abstract objective structures as a feature of the social form grasped by the category of capital. (p. 192)

This is how Postone criticizes labor; "Labor itself constitutes a social mediation in leau of overt social relations" (p. 150); "In other words, labor grounds its own social character in capitalism by virtue of its historically specific function as a socially mediating activity. In that sense, Labor in capitalism becomes its own social ground (p. 151)

Commodities and money started as means for the life of people. But as they develop into the media that constitutes capitalistic societies and move for their own life, not necessarily for the life of people. We may no longer be using commodities and money; commodities and money may be using us. We may be objectively dominated by a capitalistic society we live and work in.

The social relations that fundamentally define capitalism are "objective" in character and constitute a "system," because they are constituted by labor as a historically specific socially mediating activity, that is, by an abstract, homogeneous, and objectifying form of practice. (p. 158)

Domination of people in capitalism is abstract and impersonal, unlike the domination by capitalists which the traditional Marxism assumed. 

The initial determination of such abstract social compulsion is that individuals are compelled to produce and exchange commodities in order to survive. This compulsion exerted is not a function of direct social domination, as is the case, for example, with slave or serf labor; it is, rather a function of "abstract" and "objective" social structures, and represents a form of abstract, impersonal domination. Ultimately, this form of domination is not grounded in any person, class or institution; its ultimate locus is the pervasive structuring social forms of capitalist society that are constituted by determinate forms of social practice. (p. 159)

We are not only dominated but also propelled to work harder through the dialectic of capitalism. Because value is primarily determined by abstract labor time, not by concrete labor that produce material wealth, our value is diminished every time our productivity is increased through the introduction and spread of machines, for example.  Because of the innovation, we may produce twice as much as we used to in terms of material wealth, but as we produce it half the amount of abstract time now, the material wealth produced after the innovation has only half the value, and we have to expend twice as much abstract labor time to earn the same value in the form of money. The innovation produces twice as much material wealth, but it also forces us to labor twice as much. We labor more, but we may not be all the happier. This is the treadmill effect of capitalism. 

The peculiarity of the dynamic -- and this is crucial -- is its treadmill effect. Increased productivity increases the amount of value produced per unit of time -- until this productivity becomes generalized; at that point the magnitude of value yielded in that time period, because of its abstract and general temporal determination, falls back to its previous level. This results in a new determination of the social labor hour and a new base level of productivity. What emerges, then, is a dialectic of transformation and reconstitution;: the socially general levels of productivity and the quantitative determinations of socially necessary labor time change, yet these changes reconstitute the point of departure, that is, the social labor hour and the base level of productivity. (pp. 289-290)

Because of the treadmill effect of capitalism, our history may now be unidirectional: people are to work harder to sustain capitalism. 

The dialectic of the two dimensions of labor in capitalism, then, can also be understood temporally, as a dialectic of two forms of time. As we have seen, the dialectic of concrete and abstract labor results in an intrinsic dynamic characterized by a peculiar treadmill pattern. Because each new level of productivity is redetermined as a new base level, this dynamic tends to become ongoing and is marked by ever-increasing levels of productivity. Considered temporally, this intrinsic dynamic of capital, with its treadmill pattern, entails an ongoing directional movement of time, a "flow of history." In other words, the mode of concrete time we are examining can be considered historical time, as constituted in capitalist society. (p. 293)

How we live may have been determined by the dynamic of capitalism. 

the dialectical process at the heart of capitalism's immanent dynamic entails the constitution, spread, and ongoing transformation of historical determinate forms of subjectivity, interactions, and social values. (This is implied by Marx's understanding of his categories as determinations of forms of social existence, grasping both social objectivity and subjectivity in their intrinsic relatedness.) (p. 294)

As surplus value, measured in quantity, is both the end and the means of capitalist society, the tighter administrative control to formalize and rationalize our life may be induced by capitalism. 

The socially general mode of scientific, technical, and organizational knowledge and practice that emerge in the course of capitalist development are constituted historically in a social context that is determined by an abstract, homogeneous, quantitative social dimension and, hence, is geared toward ongoing increases in productivity and efficiency. Not only are the various aspects of labor's use value dimension developed and utilized in order to serve the ends given by the value-determined framework, but they also function structurally to reinforce and reconstitute this framework -- that is, they function as attributes of capital. ...
What I have called the "appropriation" of the use value dimension by that of value thus can be seen as a process in which the use value dimension is structured by means of the sort of formal rationality whose source is the value dimension. The result is the tendency in modern life which Weber described in terms of the growing (formal) rationalization of all spheres of life, and which Horkheimer sought to articulate in terms of the growing instrumentalization of the world. Because this process increasingly involves the substantive dimension of labor and social life -- that is, the administrative rationalization of both production and the institutions of social and political life in postliberal capitalism -- Horkheimer located its source in labor per se. However, the ultimate ground of this substantive development is not the concrete dimension of labor but, rather, its value dimension. (p. 354)

We are forced to labor harder and controlled more, but we are not alone that are dominated and affected by capitalistic drive. The earth is, too. 

As self-valoring value, capital consumes material nature to produce material wealth -- not as an end, however, but as a means of expanding surplus-value, of extracting and absorbing as much surplus labor time from the working population as possible. This transformation of matter into units of objectified time is a one-way, rather than a cyclical. process of productive consumption. In this respect, capital-determined production is like slash-and-burn agriculture on a "higher" level; it consumes the source of material wealth and then moves on. Capitalist production, in Marx's words, "only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the basic source of all wealth -- the earth and the worker." (pp. 382-383)

We should control capitalism, not be controlled by it. We certainly can control it, for it is we that constitute capitalism. Postone concludes Chapter 9 as follows. 

In terms of what I have developed in this work, Marx's conception of the overcoming of capitalism can be understood in terms of people gaining control over such quasi-objective developments, over processes of ongoing and accelerating social transformation, which they themselves have constituted. Within such a framework, then, the issue is not so much whether people should try to shape their world -- they already are doing so. Rather, the issue is the way in which they shape their world and, hence, the nature of this world and its trajectory. (p. 384)

No comments: