Critical Theory of Capitalism Today

Türk versiyonΕλληνική εκδοχή

Interview with Moishe Postone by Salih Selcuk

Pubished in YARIM, Istanbul, Feb. 2005

1. You reformulate the basic categories of Marx’s critique of political economy. According to you: where does Marxism reveal to be nowadays unsufficient, when it comes to explain capitalist society?

2. “Labor” seems to be the basic category that constitutes capitalist life, as you by the way claim it. Can one formulate today an intelligent critique of capitalism without criticizing labor?

My reformulation of the central categories of Marx’s critique of political economy was influenced in part by the massive global historical transformations since 1973. Retrospectively, from the vantage point of the early 21st century, we can see more clearly that capitalism has existed in a number of different historical configurations – for example, 19th century liberal capitalism, 20th century state-centric “Fordist” capitalism and, now, neo-liberal global capitalism. This indicates that capitalism’s history cannot be adequately grasped as a linear development. It also, more importantly, indicates very strongly that capitalism’s most basic features cannot be identified completely with any of its more specific historical configurations.

I attempted, through a close reading of the most fundamental categories of Marx’s critique of political economy, to grasp the most basic features of capitalism – those that characterize the core of the social formation through its various historical configurations. On that basis I argued that traditional Marxism took basic features of liberal capitalism – the market and private ownership of the means of production – to be the most fundamental features of capitalism in general. Relatedly, it regarded the category of labor as the standpoint from which capitalism was criticized. Capitalism became identified with the bourgeoisie; socialism with the proletariat.

According to my interpretation, however, far from being the standpoint of the critique of capitalism, labor in capitalism constitutes the central object of Marx’s critique and is at the heart of Marx’s core categories of commodity and capital. I argued that, at the heart of the social formation is a historically specific form of social mediation constituted by labor – namely, value. This form of mediation (which is also a form of wealth) is at the same time a historically specific form of domination that can be expressed through, but is not identical with, class domination. It is abstract, without any specific locus, and is also temporally dynamic. This form of domination, which appears as external necessity, rather than as social, generates both the mode of producing in capitalism as well as its intrinsically dynamic character. It is, of course, impossible to even begin to go into the complexity of the issues involved, but several important implications are that industrial production, which historically comes into being under capitalism, does not represent the foundation of socialism, but is intrinsically capitalist; that the problem with growth in capitalism is not only that it is crisis-ridden, but that its very form of growth itself is problematic; that the existence of the bourgeois class is not the ultimate defining feature of capitalism and that state capitalism (briefly described by Marx as early as 1844) can and has existed; finally, that the proletariat is the class whose existence defines capitalism , and that the overcoming of capitalism involves the abolition, not the glorification, of proletarian labor.

Traditional Marxism had already become anachronistic in a variety of ways in the 20th century. It was unable to provide a fundamental critique of the forms of state capitalism referred to as “actually existing socialism.” Moreover, its understanding of emancipation appeared increasingly anachronistic, viewed from the constituted aspirations, needs, and motivating impulses that became expressed in the last third of 20th century by the so-called “new social movements.” Whereas traditional Marxism tended to affirm proletarian labor and, hence, the structure of labor that developed historically, as a dimension of capital’s development, the new social movements expressed a critique of that structure of labor, if at times in an underdeveloped and inchoate form. I argue that Marx’s analysis is one that points beyond the existing structure of labor.

3. According to you, the collapse of socialism is not the end of an alternative project, but the end of fordism. How and when has fordism gone over its limits?

4. Capitalism is more and more loosing it’s focus on the State and can’t therefore only be thought of in terms of national state. How is it possible – under these circumstances – to formulate an emancipatory prospective?

Viewed retrospectively, it seems increasingly clear that Soviet communism did not, in any meaningful sense, represent an overcoming of capitalism (i.e. socialism). This is the case not only because, as many have noted before, of the non-democratic and oppressive character of the regime, but also because the rise, apogee, and decline of the Soviet Union follows the historical trajectory of the rise, apogee, and decline of state-centric Fordist capitalism. This suggests that the Soviet Union should be understood as one variation of state-centric capitalism during the Fordist epoch, a variation whose specific form was intrinsically related to its attempt to create national (in this case, state-owned) capital on the basis of a rapid and brutal form of what Marx called “primitive accumulation.” A project of the constitution of capital on a national level cannot, on any level, be equated with a project for the overcoming of capital. One result of the history of the ideology of socialism in one country is that the Marxian critique of capitalism which is at its very core historical and, therefore, temporal, was replaced by a worldview which was at its core spatial (the idea of the socialist and capitalist “camps”) — an ideology that ironically represented an extension of the 19th century “Great Game.”

The limits of the state-centric Fordist configuration of capitalism were revealed by the crisis of the early 1970s, which led to a dismantling of that configuration (although there are differing interpretations of the underlying bases of that crisis). Eventually a new, neo-liberal global configuration of capitalism emerged. It is noteworthy in this regard that the rapid decline of the Soviet Union began in the 1970s and not in the 1980s, that is, not as a result of Afghanistan or of the intensified arms race with the US. The Soviet form of state-centrism proved too rigid to adjust to the crisis of the 1970s. On the other hand, Deng’s policies in China could be interpreted as expressing an insight that the age of state-centrism was over (at least for now).

The collapse of the Soviet Union in no way signals the end of the socialist project – in the sense of a fundamental critique of capitalism that points to the realization of the emancipatory potential that capitalism has both historically generated and, yet, also constrained and undermined. And, yet, it has made manifest a great deal of disorientation. This disorientation expresses, in part, the negative historical effects of Marxism-Leninism on the socialist imaginary. It also expresses, in part, the difficulties of formulating a socialist critique in a post-statist epoch that, on the one hand, while critical of the market and private ownership of the means of production, is not focused most fundamentally on such bourgeois relations. And yet working toward such a critique – which would also entail recovering a notion of internationalism that is not simply an ideological formulation of an essentially nationalist worldview (defending the “socialist camp”) – is absolutely crucial. It is crucial because capitalism is truly global and cannot be adequately understood as colonialism, that is, as the imposition of western values and institutions on other parts of the world. Capitalism may have contingently arisen in the West, but it fundamentally transformed the West, Justas it is transforming the rest of the world. The only theory that provides an adequate foundation for a rigorous critical theory of global capitalism is that first articulated by Marx. The critical theories that were so apparently powerful in the 1970s and 1980s, such as post-structuralism, are helpless in the face of global capitalism. Failure to build on the intellectual legacy of Marx by formulating a post-traditional critical theory of capitalism leaves the field of critique over to extremely reactionary and dangerous forms of “anti-capitalism” and “anti-imperialism” that are no more emancipatory than fascist “anti-capitalism” and “anti-imperialism” had been in the first half of the 20th century.