The Master of Time. A semblance of Moishe Postone (1942-2018)

versión española

by Juan Diego González Rúa and Facundo Nahuel Martín


Moishe Postone died last year. We have writen this article to remember this defiant and radical intellectual, perhaps the most important in engaging with Marxism in decades. Postone was an intransigent reader of Marx against the grain of our time’s dominant and common sense. His main book, Time, Labor and Social Domination, was published in 1993, when the triumphalist winds of the “end of history” wanted to sweep away the radical critique of capitalism from the horizon of the thinkable. His abstract and sometimes difficult writing, scarcely concessive with the reader, is in itself a political gesture. Postone teaches us to transcend the dull immediacy of everyday experience in order to critically focus on the objectified social categories that organize our life, starting with value, labor and the commodity. After Postone, we cannot rethink our social world without assuming the indispensable starting point of the radical critique of capital and its mediating social categories, structured by and structuring the life of people in modern society. Many forthcomers, surely smaller in intellectual size, now face the task of developing to the manifold implications of the categorial reading of Marx and the historically determinate critique of capital. The intellectual and political debt that moves us to do is infinite.

Postone was born in 1942 in a Jewish family in Canada. In 1983 he obtained his PhD. at Goethe University in Frankfurt, and later became Professor in Chicago. His academic work revolved around problems of European intellectual history, particularly focusing on critical theory of society. He also made important contributions to the understanding and criticism of modern anti-Semitism, among other things. Next, we try to reconstruct some important points of his thought and highlight its significance in light of the context in which we live.

His theoretical project is not the “defense” of Marxism in its traditional interpretation. On the contrary, he bequeaths us a radical and innovative categorial reinterpretation of Marx’s thought. We believe that the current “crisis of Marxism” has several dimensions: the emergence (or renewed attention given to) “new social movements” and the decentering of the working class as a privileged subject of social conflict and change, the critique of totalitarianism in political experiences self-described as Communist (which extends to a suspicion that perhaps totalitarianism would be inherent to Marxism as such), the questioning of Marxism as a teleological and progressive form of Eurocentrism, the criticism of Marxism as a productivist and technocratic philosophy unable to overcome the type of predatory relationship with nature that characterizes capitalist modernity. Facing these theoretical challenges, Postone’s thought offers important insights and reformulations, which allow to place Marx inspired thinking as a vital and relevant paradigm in the critical interpretation of our time. In Postone’s reading, Marx’s thought constitutes an immanent and historically determinate critique of capitalist social domination. This critique does not focus unilaterally on the economy or narrowly conceived class struggle, but analyzes the forms of social mediation that characterize the constituted modernity as such. It is not a critique of exploitation from the standpoint of the working class, based on an ontological concept of labor, but, on the contrary, a critique of capitalist labor as such. Postone’s thinking is, in short, a serious and systematic intellectual effort to formulate a global theory of modern society and its temporal form, capable of accounting for both its oppressive forms and its liberating possibilities.

Crisis of labor, forms of social mediation and the problem of the subject

A great paradox seems to cut through the debates about the role of labor in contemporary capitalism. On the one hand, labor continues to be the main social mediator of our world. To perform wage labor means to fully participate in society, to be integrated into collective life. The exchange of labor (and its products) organizes and motorizes the gigantic capitalist social apparatus. In this sense, capitalism inevitably remains as a society based on labor. However, labor as a social articulator and as the axis of social conflicts appears to be doubly in crisis. At least since the 1960s, theoretical and political progressive agendas cannot be considered as labor-centered, nor do they have their unique or privileged subject in the traditional working class. New social movements such as feminism, the LGBTIQ movement, environmentalism, anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles, the movements of the unemployed, among others, have become as important or more important than those of wage workers. The subjective concerns of people are not exclusively nor primarily defined around labor and its conditions. In this sense, there is a crisis of labor as an articulator of social demands and conflicts. At another level of analysis, the crisis of labor is related to the increasing inability of capitalism to reproduce all its social presuppositions. The labor society is out of joint with itself when technological change, driven by the very dynamic of capital, turns direct human labor less necessary for producing material wealth. In several senses, therefore, we are experiencing a crisis of the labor society, because other struggles and subjective demands appear, because more and more people are expelled from labor and because capitalist valorization faces difficulties to maintain itself.

Faced with the problems described above, Postone proposes a complex theoretical detour. He does not depart from the multiple and diverse subjects (whether to affirm the priority of the working class among them or to attempt some synthesis between their manifest agendas and demands). Instead, he begins by reconstructing the subject of the modern social totality: capital. His thinking is, above all, a critical theory of capital. But not as an “economistic” theory that affirms that the relations of production determine politics. Nor as a technological determinism focused on the allegedly independent development of productive forces. Postone formulates a theory of capital as social subject while unraveling modern forms of social mediation. His central concern is the historical specificity of capitalist modernity.

Social relations in capitalism take the form of anonymous, abstract and objectified compulsions. Non capitalist societies have been structured by “overt” social relations, that is, manifest relations of dependence between individuals or groups. The social bond is then built upon social relations that appear as such, where tradition or other factors often openly legitimize bonds of personal dependency between groups and people. Capitalism is instead characterized by a general withdrawal of personal bonds, which are replaced by anonymous, abstract and objective social forms. People in capitalism are related through the impersonal mediation of labor. Marx’s mature critical theory, according to Postone, is not an economic theory in a restricted sense. On the contrary, it is a general theory of modern society as such, centered on the type of social mediation that characterizes capitalism.

Labor in capitalism has a dual character, correlative to the duality expressed by the commodity form. Labor generates a double form of objectification, creating at once concretely determined and abstract social forms. Capitalist labor is simultaneously individual and social. This duality is expressed as the need that each producer has, not only to produce, but to relate to the productive activities of other individuals. The labor of each one is constituted as an inescapable and reciprocal mediation with an undifferentiated social other (it is produced socially but not for a specific other person). Each individual’s production necessarily depends on the mediation of production for others. Through the mediation of labor, individuals produce privately or autonomously, and do not obtain confirmation of the social utility of their respective products but through their exchange in the market. Value-creating labor thus appears as a historically specific form of social mediation, historically circumscribed to capitalism. “The social critique of the specific character of labor in capitalism is a theory of the determinate structuring and structured forms of social practice that constitute modern society itself” (Postone, 1993: 67).

This approach allows us to overcome the limitations of traditional Marxism. Postone places these limitations in its inability to pursue social critique in the face of more politically-regulated forms, such as welfare state capitalism. From our point of view, his theory has an even deeper meaning. Rereading Marx’s mature thought as a general analysis of the forms of social mediation makes it possible to elucidate the multiple conflicts of modern society from the standpoint of the critical theory of capital. According to this theory, capitalist modernity is traversed by a constitutive duality. On the one hand, capital undermines bonds of personal domination, which leads to pluralizing the forms of social and individual activity. However, and contradictorily, capitalist society tends to an unprecedented homogeneity. Capital stands as a global subject of social life, imposing its own blind, autonomous and self-mediating dynamics (the valorization of value) on the decisions and contingent conflicts of individuals. What constitutes capital in a form of domination is its blind self-mediating logic, autonomized from individuals.

Capitalism, for Postone, cannot be defined as a narrow “economic” reality in a restricted sense, which we would then have to relate to culture or ideology. Postone’s concept of capitalism refers to the mutation of social forms of mediation, which tend to simultaneously pluralize (recession of personal domination) and homogenize (rise of capital as a social subject) the relations among people, multiplying the possibilities of the individual and their autonomy and at the same time submitting them all to the self-mediating movement of a blind and fetishized subject. Postone’s approach allows us to trace a theory of new social antagonisms of Marxian inspiration.

Marxism, totalitarianism and democracy

Now let us address another important aspect of Postone’s thought: his reconstruction of capital as a subject of social totality in modernity. For some decades now, the suspicion has risen that perhaps Marxism is in itself be a totalitarian form of thinking. Theoretical and political developments come together at this point. The association of Marxism with totalitarianism has an obvious origin in the historical disasters of the nominally Communist experiences built during the twentieth century. These experiences, like the old Soviet Union, were not only unable to succeed in the dispute for global power with the openly capitalist countries. It also became clear that they did not offer superior alternatives in social and political terms. Again, Postone’s thought offers some important insights to deal with this historical wound of twentieth-century Marxism.

Traditional Marxism lost its critical and explanatory capacity in the face of phenomena such as the state-administered capitalism of the Keynesian social pact or Soviet statist totalitarianism. In both cases, according to Postone, we find a tendency to regulate politically the needs of capitalist social production. The traditional Marxist critique has a unilaterally affirmative relationship with modern industrial production and proletarian labor, limited to questioning the unequal distribution of their products under the anarchy of the market. According to this critique, the overcoming of capitalism is the realization of the modern proletariat, which would then take control of social distribution, supplanting the market and defeating class exploitation by the bourgeoisie. This way of understanding capitalism (questioning it from the standpoint of the constituted proletariat) leads, according to Postone, to the quagmires of traditional post-war Marxism, incapable of formulating a historically adequate critique of state-regulated capitalism. Trying to transcend these difficulties, Postone offers a reading of Marx based on the critique of labor in capitalism, which means that labor is the object and not the subject of radical social criticism. This implies questioning the capitalist form of social production and not only the distribution of products or exploitation. This criticism is adequate to capitalism as such, encompassing both its free-trade and state regulation phases. Totalitarian experiences that suppress or regulate the market within a national framework, but maintain continuity with proletarian labor and the modern form of production, such as the Soviet Union, are therefore subject to the social critique of capitalist modernity as much as the states where the market and private property remain standing.

Regarding the problem of totalitarianism, however, we think that Postone’s thought is (again) even more important in its implications than in its explicit content. Postone not only produces a formidable critique of nominally “communist” totalitarian states. He develops a philosophical reformulation of the concept of totality that is important for the deeper presuppositions of the debate, concerning the democratic question in Marxism. Especially amidst post-structuralissts and post-Marxists, a general diatribe has been launched against the totalizing vocation of Marxism. This current of thought (Claude Lefort can be considered as a paradigmatic example of this type of criticism) argues that Marxism would be totalitarian in the nerve of its social ontology, constituting a continuity with the metaphysics centered on the subject that characterized the philosophies of modernity. By pretending to overcome the ruptured character of social being and bring about an absolute democracy, where a society liberated from political mediations would fully realize itself in collective life, Marxism would contain the seed of totalitarian disaster. The entire project of radical social criticism, with its aspirations to realize a transparent society, surpassing all alienation and centered on a global subject that mediates itself (the proletariat or emancipated humanity), would lead to suppress the pluralistic groundings of a democratic society. Against the hybris of Marxism and its claim to realize a social totality, it would be necessary to maintain a more moderate social critique, since the project of overcoming capitalism would enclose as such totalitarian pretensions, implicit in the philosophical presuppositions of its theory of the subject and its social ontology.

Faced with this type of questioning of political philosophy to Marxism, Postone performs an indispensable intellectual operation, which can be considered as indebted to the most lucid moments in the thought of Th. W. Adorno. He reverses in the theoretical meaning of the concept of totality, passing from an affirmative concept to a critical one. Capital, according to his reading of Marx, effectively composes a social totality. Social mediation based on labor has the logical and dynamic characteristics of a self-moving “substance”. But the organization of capitalist relations as a totality is one and the same their alienated and oppressive character. That capital is the subject of social totality means that it has become independent from individuals, endowing itself with a life of its own (given by the logic of valorization) that is imposed on people and their decisions.

Capital is the only global subject that mediates itself, governed by its own laws and alien to individuals. Hence, the category of totality is critical and not affirmative: the extension of human freedom would imply the abolition, not the realization, of the social totality as mediated by capital. This places the discussion with poststructuralism on very different bases. Marx, according to Postone, does not urge us to “realize a totality” centered on labor, the proletariat or a redeemed humanity. Instead, he provides us with a formidable critique of the totality effectively constituted by capital. Overcoming capitalism means abolishing the systematic constraints imposed on the realm of contingency and politics under the aegis of capital as the subject of totality. Contingency and the opening of the democratic horizon, the questioning of given social forms and the critical self-interrogation of society, then, must be placed as a social goal for a post-capitalist world. The “Marxism” developed by Postone does not want to suppress the marks of difference and heterogeneity in society or to erect a subject of totality. On the contrary, it intends to abolish the existing capitalist totality in order to widen the horizon of democracy, contingency and pluralism.

Marxism, progressivism, eurocentrism

We will now broach another greater concern of the current “crisis of Marxism”. In particular from decolonial and postcolonial perspectives, the Marxist tradition has been questioned as supposedly constituting an Eurocentric philosophy of history functional to justify the colonial and neocolonial aggressions caused by the States of the global North. Again, this dimension of crisis has both theoretical and political origins. Nowadays, in theoretical terms, philosophy of history and the very idea of progress are harshly criticized, especially by post-structuralism. The awareness over cultural otherness has undermined the self-representation of Europe as the supposed forerunner of a global destiny for all societies, questioning the narrative according to which the whole world would traverse the same path of pre-established progress. Periphery states would finally repeat the same process of modernization as it occurs in central ones, only slower or later. In political terms, the 20th century was a slap in the face of the pedantic self-representations of the European and Western mentality. Once the “savage” world wars were carried out by the “most advanced” modern states, the idea that history is moved by an inner logic directed towards a progressive telos has been denied in practice. At the same time, the processes of national liberation and the construction of forms of modern political self-determination in the peripheries have questioned the central states pretension of constituting the vanguard of historical modernization. After the processes of decolonization, the very idea that the global center is “more advanced” in terms of a pre-established historical progress has fallen into a deep disrepute.

In this scenario, Marxism should not be conceived as a progressive philosophy of history, particularly as the sort of productivist technological determinism that named itself “historical materialism”. Here, again, Postone could be understood as a key “Marxist” who, far from defending the historicism of traditional Marxism, elaborates an innovative reinterpretation that radically breaks up with any philosophy of universal history. He does not depart from a concept of progress that would be valid for every society, but from a historically determinate critique of the logic of capital. Accordingly, the transformations in the forms of social mediation that gave rise to capitalism as such are contingent in their historical origin: capitalism was created from spontaneous processes and random conjunctures not determined by the development of productive forces or other pre-established logic. Marx’s thinking is not a transhistorical theory of history. However, once the social forms of capital have been instituted, they effectively possess an intrinsic and characteristic dynamism that operates as an immanent social logic. In this reading, the social categories developed by Marx are thus historically specific to capitalist society.Marx’s theory of value does not refer to labor as it is generally and transhistorically considered, but to the historical specificity of value as a form of wealth in capitalism. Abstract value and the peculiar labor that creates it are at the core of the fetishized structures constituting social domination in capitalism. In this society, the relations between persons are structured in a peculiar way: they have become something quasi-objective and autonomous with respect to individuals. “We are dealing with a new sort of interdependence, one that emerged historically in a slow, spontaneous, and contingent way” (Postone, 1993: 148). The concepts of subject and totality, but also of value, labor and commodity are historically determined by Postone. This means that “history” as a global process is in turn historically determined. Dynamic and unitary temporal structures, which make historical development a seemingly global and directional process, only exist in capitalist society. The unity of the historical process arises under the social presuppositions of capitalism, the forms of social mediation based on labor and the movement of capital as value that valorizes itself. “Such a historically specific social explanation of the existence of a historical logic rejects any notion of an immanent logic of human history as yet another projection onto history in general of capitalist society’s conditions” (Postone, 1993: 258). The Marxian notion of an intrinsic logic of historical development is neither meta-historical, nor affirmative, but eminently critical, and is circumscribed to the immanence of capitalist society. It is the historically specific deployment of capital and its mediating forms that properly constitute history as a global process that has an “objective” logic independent of individuals.

Modernity, time, technology

At this point, we are interested in highlighting Postone as a theoretician of modernity. We believe that contemporary social theory faces a debate between two kinds of one-sided perspectives on modern society: modernity is usually either regarded as a form of domination or as the result of a historical progress. The first perspective emphasizes that the modernity of capital involved the dispossession of pre-capitalist communities, the proletarization of peasant masses, the construction of new forms of violence against women, the naturalization of a new racism and a new colonialism, etc. This sort of critique seeks to undermine the claims of legitimacy of modernity, self-assumed as the precursor of historical progress, showing that it encloses forms of masked domination. In the other case, conversely, we find the insistence that modernity is effectively the result of progress inasmuch as it provides the normative frameworks (equality and freedom rooted in modern universalism) that allow criticism of all forms of domination. This debate, in turn, also concern the problem of modern technology. On the one hand, some strands of third world and evironmental activism express important suspicions towards modern technology as such, assuming that pre-capitalist forms of concrete connection with nature would be more authentic, healthier, less oppressive, etc. On the other, and this is the case of a large part of traditional Marxism, the development of productive forces is in itself regarded as a factor of historical progress and as tendentially anti-capitalist. We believe that Postone avoids all these one-sided positions. Instead, he focuses on the contradictory character of capitalist modernity in both its normative and technological dynamics. He considers capitalism at the same time as oppressive and potentially liberating. His critical theory is then reflexive in virtue of the contradiction between the emancipatory possibilities that capital creates and the structures of domination that it continuously regenerates.

The immanent temporal dynamic of capitalism, which is historically determinate, allows us to apprehend this duality of domination and emancipatory potentials. The systemic compulsions imposed by capital push rapid increases in technological development and a permanent growth of productivity. However, this does not directly translate into the production of larger amounts of value. The tendency towards productivity increases involves a continuous transformation of the temporal frame of value (a continuous transformation of socially necessary labor time). Increases in labor productivity, yet, does not translate into a modification of the temporal measure of value, which always remains identical to itself. The logic of capital generates a kind of “compression” of time by virtue of which each unit of abstract time is transformed qualitatively, becoming “denser”, concentrating higher levels of product output while remaining fixed and unalterable as measure of value (Postone, 1993: 288, 292). Capitalist temporality is dynamic in concrete historical terms (variations in the production of material wealth), given the continued pressure to reduce the average times of material production.

The dynamic of capital implies that the expenditure of direct human labor becomes less and less relevant in the production of material wealth (but not of value), which begins to depend more and more on technology, knowledge and cooperation. The generation of wealth and of value enter in contradiction. Capitalist production, which remains based on labor, thus generates the conditions for its abolition. The society of labor, today in crisis, creates in its own process of development the conditions of possibility (not the necessity) for a society not regulated by labor expenditure, where people wouldn’t be condemned to proletarian labor. Within this contradiction Postone outlines the possibility of a historical disruption that would make possible the fulfillment of the emancipatory powers constituted and denied in capitalist immanence. Despite its apparent closure and coactive character, there is a potentially progressive moment beneath the social totalization operated by the modernity of capital, a latent moment of opening towards emancipatory possibilities. The historically contingent rise of capitalism, then, means not only the emergence of a type of alienated and systemic form of domination, but also a historically unprecedented opportunity for an emancipated form of social existence.

Coda: the social individual

According to Postone, a break with capital would imply that social time, freed from the one-sided mediation of labor, would no longer be situated in an antithetical position with respect to people, but rather, on the contrary, it would become a quality of one and the same process of social and individual self-realization. Once labor ceases to be the universal social mediation, the relations between time and wealth could be transformed. Concomitant to the abolition of value-creating labor, the dominant compulsions of capitalist self-valorization would be overcome. Surplus time, converted into surplus labor by capital, could become available for social activities not conditioned by a blind logic. The time surplus would not be unilaterally framed by the productive social process (as productive “for” capital), but could be singularly appropriated by each person. The idea of a post-capitalist society would suppose therefore a radical change in the form assumed by wealth, inseparable of a transformation of time. In that context, the source of wealth would no longer be the immediate labor of human beings, but “the appropriation by people of the powers and knowledge that had been historically constituted in alienated form” (Postone, 1993: 31). Wealth would no longer defined by its abstract measure as value, but rather by the category of “disposable time”, understood as the reappropriation of superfluous time that capitalism necessarily redirected to production. At this point, the temporal reference would cease to be the society as a heteronomous moment, to be from now on the very development of what Marx calls the “social individual”, understood as the overcoming of the capitalist opposition between individual and society, expression of the possibility of every person existing as a full and richly developed being.

The overcoming of capital would imply denying its alienated logic, allowing a conscious and autonomous development of humanity. Social time would no longer be a form of alienated necessity imposed on human beings. They would then be able to reappropiate it. This would open an historical possibility of self-constitution, both for society and individuals. In that social world, the development of each person would not be limited by the narrow frameworks of production as an end in itseld. On the contrary, it would involve an open horizon where society and individuals could actualize creative potentials, just conditioned by the accumulated historical development. The difference between the form of capitalist social constitution and the emancipated social existence represents, thus, the passage from a social being structured by blind compulsions, towards an effectively dynamic and constantly transformed one.

With the abolition of the abstract form of wealth, society could integrate technology into the production process in a way not restricted by the one-sided purpose imposed by value, instead directly serving the producers. Disposable time, opened for the realization of the individual, would transform him into a different subject who, as such, would be related to the immediate process of production as its supervisor and regulator. According to Postone, progress would then not be conceived just as the one-sided development of productive forces, but as the effective realization of individuality, made possible by such development, but freed from the abstract compulsions and constraints imposed by capital. In this context, the deployment of productive forces would cease to be an end in itself to become a means, a source enhanced by capitalist development, but susceptible of being reappropriated to actualize the socio-individual potentials. In concrete terms, labor-saving technology (which in its current form reinforces capitalist control in workplaces and generates unemployment) could make it possible to minimize tortuous labor, reduce the social time devoted to gray, stultifying and meaningless activities, and achieve free time. In this way, material production and individual development could become symbiotic moments of a form of social existence not subject to capital, in which the productive process could cease to subsume human beings.

The temporal dynamics of capital, split between an abstract-homogeneous temporality (the hour of abstract labor as an always reconstituted measure) and a historical-concrete temporality (the increased density of material wealth produced per unit of time) is what enables immanent critique. This critique points towards the abolition of labor as a form of social mediation, that is, towards the end of a society governed by the blind compulsions of value production.