In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity remained unchanged and
it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new
distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is
directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology
Overcoming alienation … involves the abolition of the self-grounding, self-moving Subject (capital) and of the form of labor that constitutes and is constituted by structures of alienation; this would allow humanity to appropriate what had been constituted in alienated form. Overcoming the historical Subject would allow people, for the first time, to become the subjects of their own social practices.
Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and social domination
Moishe Postone died last March 19th. He leaves behind a rich theoretical and historical body of work that is of importance not only for marxists, but for all of those who in any way borrow from the work of Marx to critically understand the modern world (and there are few who do not).
In an analysis of capitalist social relations (that would inspire and parallel the theoretical work of the Krisis and Exit groups in Germany) that gives primacy to the commodity form and capital (expressions of abstract labour) as constitutive of those relations, and not exploitation and class war, Postone’s work helps to understand the extraordinary resilience of capitalism and the fragility of so much anti-capitalist thought and practice (including what Postone generally refers to as “traditional” marxism).
If capital mediates and structures social relations, its specific historical forms may vary (e.g., fordism, soviet state capitalism, social democracy, global neoliberalism, and so on) while persisting and expanding as a social form. It is the commodity form, expressed in abstract labour (labour dictated not by utility, and thus productive of material wealth, but by the need to generate ever greater abstract value) and flows of money that determines subjectivities and social relations, histories and times. To then demand the rights of labour against capitalists, to seek more “just” ways to redistribute the means of production and property, to merely call for “workers’ management” of capital, is to remain within the bounds of capitalist society. It is abstract labour itself, capital, money, the proletariat, that must be overcome if capitalism is to be surpassed.
Critics of Postone (as well as of the work of the Krisis and Exit groups) have often asserted that his understanding of capitalism leads to the paralysis of any effective anti-capitalist politics, that it reifies capitalism to the point of reducing social agency to the status of an epiphenomenon. Postone is indeed critical of marxist theories that postulate (and feel the need to do so) a revolutionary agent within capitalism (and one could extend this to radical theories more generally, in search of redeeming subjects), of theories that endeavour to read capitalism exclusively through the lens of class struggle and politics of domination, for such theories inevitably fall back upon some unwarranted metaphysical or anthropological claim about rebellious subjects and subjectivities. Subjects however are made, constructed, through social relations, such that the subjectivities that fall within or are gestated within capitalism are capitalist. An anti-capitalist politics that appeals to such supposedly intrinsic dissident subjects will therefore inevitably fail. Lucidity demands that such illusions be cast off.
And yet there is perhaps an Achilles heel here as well (though a great deal more than I will say, would need to be said, to see if it is so). The reign of the commodity, in Postone’s work, as that of the spectacle in Guy Debord‘s work, verges on the totalitarian. And what lies hidden in this vision, like the dark underside of commodity production, is the multiplicity of overlapping and always changing, everyday activities – of concrete labour – that render abstract labour and commodity value possible. That concrete labour and use-value are increasingly colonised by exchange-value (do we still know what is of use?) does not eliminate the necessary concrete labour that goes into the re-production of capitalist social relations.
And the labourer of capitalism, as producer of material goods and the source of exchange value, is made and remade in the spaces of surplus-value extraction (spaces that are simultaneously spaces of production and reproduction).
Once the veil is lifted on social reproduction, then so too is the world of politics, of domination and resistance. Perhaps it is here, then, in the affirmation/re-appropriation of concrete labour, that new histories, new social possibilities reveal themselves, make themselves manifest, beyond the limits of capital.
In the words of one critic, though “capital posits itself as its own product, … in so doing
[it] covertly presupposes both labour and nature as its conditions of existence. These repressed others will take their revenge in the short (revolution) or long (ecological collapse) run.” (Christopher Arthur, “Subject and Counter-Subject” in Historical Materialism, volume 12:3 (93–102), Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004).
Below, we share an obituary, an essay by Postone, excerpts from a second essay, along with two interviews (text and video) and a video recorded lecture. (For a list of Moishe Postone’s works available online, click here).
Moishe Postone, 1942–2018
When we, a small group of theorists with a commitment to the renewal of radical social critique, first encountered Moishe Postone’s then still little-known essay on the logic of antisemitism in the late 1980s, it struck us like a thunderbolt. The critique of value was still incipient and had struggled to establish itself against the guardians of traditional Marxism with whom we would engage in polemical skirmishes—and suddenly there was somebody else who thought in such a compatible way. His analysis of antisemitism as a form of fetishistic ‘anti-capitalism’ was of course a groundbreaking, completely new insight for us. But it didn’t stop there. The underlying way of reading Marxian theory, the centring of the critique of labour and of value as social relation, struck almost exactly to the core of the theoretical developments that we had made to find our way out of the cul-de-sac of critical stagnation. This moment of joy at the fact that someone else had pursued such a similar way to the reinterpretation of Marxian theory shaped my relationship to Moishe, even if it would be a few years before I would meet him in person and come to cherish him.
No less decisive was my later participation in the translating into German of his seminal book Time, Labor, and Social Domination, which could never have succeeded without the most intensive grappling with the conceptualities and lines of thought that are developed within it. I still feed on this task today. It helped me like very little else to clarify my own thinking, including where I didn’t agree with Moishe. It was a disappointment for us that the publication of Moishe’s book only made a small contribution to arousing comprehensive and more profound understanding of his theoretical approach among the German left. Moishe’s German-language reception saw him primarily as the initiator of a new perspective on antisemitism, that was critical of fetishism—and this was unquestionably correct. But in this reception this perspective remained almost completely separate from his critical theory of capitalism. That this form of socialization rests on mediation through labour and is subject to a historically specific, goal-driven dynamic—and that the vanishing point of this dynamic is the suspension of precisely that mediation through labour—remained a closed book to the German left, and above all for its academic offshoot. This was visible from the sparse criticism of Moishe’s book, which consistently revealed incomprehension and resistance.
This was not the case in other countries, such as Brazil and France, perhaps because there there was already a context of value-critical discourse which had been established through the reception of Krisis texts. The curiously abbreviated reception of Moishe’s work within the German-speaking discourse is nonetheless vexing. To break through this and to establish for Moishe’s theoretical approach the prestige that it merits remains to be accomplished. That in some respects we had our theoretical differences (above all Moishe was never in agreement with our crisis-theoretical interpretation of the goal-oriented dynamic of capitalism) is of no consequence here. Our paths—those of Krisis, and of Moishe Postone—were never the same, but in many respects they ran alongside one another, and crossed frequently. Personally too. With Moishe Postone we thus lose a companion. His death fills me and us with grief.
Norbert Trenkle (Gruppe Krisis)
Anti-Semitism and National Socialism (1986)
Moishe Postone (The Anarchist Library)
What is the relation of anti-Semitism to National Socialism? The public discussion of this problem in the Federal Republic has been characterized by a dichotomy between liberals and conservatives, on the one side, and the Left, on the other. Liberals and conservatives have tended to emphasize the discontinuity between the Nazi past and the present. In referring to that past they have focused attention on the persecution and extermination of the Jews and have tended to deemphasize other central aspects of Nazism. By underlining the supposed total character of the break between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic, this sort of emphasis on anti-Semitism has paradoxically helped avoid a fundamental confrontation with the social and structural reality of National Socialism. That reality certainly did not completely vanish in 1945. The condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism, in other words, has also served as an ideology of legitimation for the present system. This instrumentalization was only possible because anti-Semitism has been treated primarily as a form of prejudice, as a scapegoat ideology, thereby obscuring the intrinsic relationship between anti-Semitism and other aspects of National Socialism. On the other hand, the Left has tended to concentrate on the function of National Socialism for capitalism, emphasizing the destruction of working-class organizations, Nazi social and economic policies, rearmament, expansionism, and the bureaucratic mechanisms of party and state domination. Elements of continuity between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic have been stressed. The extermination of the Jews has not, of course, been ignored. Yet, it has quickly been subsumed under the general categories of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution.
In comprehending anti-Semitism as a peripheral, rather than as a central, moment of National Socialism, the Left has also obscured the intrinsic relationship between the two. Both of these positions understand modern anti-Semitism as anti-Jewish prejudice, as a particular example of racism in general. Their stress on the mass psychological nature of anti-Semitism isolates considerations of the Holocaust from socioeconomic and sociohistorical investigations of National Socialism. The Holocaust, however, cannot be understood so long as anti-Semitism is viewed as an example of racism in general and so long as Nazism is conceived of only in terms of big capital and a terroristic bureaucratic police state. Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Maidanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka should not be treated outside the framework of an analysis of National Socialism. They represent one of its logical end points, not simply its most terrible epiphenomenon. No analysis of National Socialism that cannot account for the extermination of European Jewry is fully adequate. In this essay I will attempt to approach an understanding of the extermination of European Jewry by outlining an interpretation of modern anti-Semitism. My intention is not to explain why Nazism and modern anti-Semitism achieved a breakthrough and became hegemonic in Germany. Such an attempt would entail an analysis of the specificity of German historical development, a subject about which a great deal has been written. This essay attempts, rather, to determine more closely what it was that achieved a breakthrough, by suggesting an analysis of modern anti-Semitism that indicates its intrinsic connection to National Socialism. Such an examination is a necessary precondition to any substantive analysis of why National Socialism succeeded in Germany. The first step must be a specification of the Holocaust and of modern anti-Semitism. The problem should not be posed quantitatively, whether in terms of numbers of people murdered or of degree of suffering. There are too many historical examples of mass murder and of genocide. (Many more Russians than Jews, for example, were killed by the Nazis.) The question is, rather, one of qualitative specificity.
Particular aspects of the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis remain inexplicable so long as anti-Semitism is treated as a specific example of a scapegoat strategy whose victims could very well have been members of any other group. The Holocaust was characterized by a sense of ideological mission, by a relative lack of emotion and immediate hate (as opposed to pogroms, for example), and, most importantly, by its apparent lack of functionality. The extermination of the Jews seems not to have been a means to another end. They were not exterminated for military reasons or in the course of a violent process of land acquisition (as was the case with the American Indians and the Tasmanians). Nor did Nazi policy toward the Jews resemble their policy toward the Poles and the Russians which aimed to eradicate those segments of the population around whom resistance might crystallize in order to exploit the rest more easily as helots. Indeed, the Jews were not exterminated for any manifest “extrinsic” goal. The extermination of the Jews was not only to have been total, but was its own goal—extermination for the sake of extermination—a goal that acquired absolute priority.
No functionalist explanation of the Holocaust and no scapegoat theory of anti-Semitism can even begin to explain why, in the last years of the war, when the German forces were being crushed by the Red Army, a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers. Once the qualitative specificity of the extermination of European Jewry is recognized, it becomes clear that attempts at an explanation dealing with capitalism, racism, bureaucracy, sexual repression, or the authoritarian personality, remain far too general. The specificity of the Holocaust requires a much more determinate mediation in order even to approach its understanding.
The extermination of European Jewry is, of course, related to anti-Semitism. The specificity of the former must be related to that of the latter. Moreover, modern anti-Semitism must be understood with reference to Nazism as a movement—a movement which, in terms of its own self-understanding, represented a revolt. Modern anti-Semitism, which should not be confused with everyday anti-Jewish prejudice, is an ideology, a form of thought, that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Its emergence presupposed earlier forms of anti-Semitism, which had for centuries been an integral part of Christian Western civilization. What is common to all forms of anti-Semitism is the degree of power attributed to the Jews: the power to kill God, to unleash the Bubonic Plague, and, more recently, to introduce capitalism and socialism. Anti-Semitic thought is strongly Manichaean, with the Jews playing the role of the children of darkness. It is not only the degree, but also the quality of power attributed to the Jews that distinguishes anti-Semitism from other forms of racism. Probably all forms of racism attribute potential power to the Other. This power, however, is usually concrete, material, or sexual. It is the potential power of the oppressed (as repressed), of the “Untermenschen.” The power attributed to the Jews is much greater and is perceived as actual rather than as potential. Moreover, It is a different sort of power, one not necessarily concrete.
What characterizes the power imputed to, the Jews in modern anti-Semitism is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly, but must find another mode of expression. It seeks a concrete carrier, whether political, social, or cultural, through which it can work. Because the power of the Jews, as conceived by the modern anti-Semitic imagination, is not bound concretely, is not “rooted,” it is presumed to be of staggering immensity and extremely difficult to check. It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy. A graphic example of this vision is provided by a Nazi poster depicting Germany—represented as a strong, honest worker—threatened in the West by a fat, plutocratic John Bull and in the East by a brutal, barbaric Bolshevic Commissar. Yet, these two hostile forces are mere puppets. Peering over the edge of the globe, with the puppet strings firmly in his hands, is the Jew. Such a vision was by no means a monopoly of the Nazis. It is characteristic of modern anti-Semitism that the Jews are considered to be the force behind those “apparent” opposites: plutocratic capitalism and socialism. “International Jewry” is, moreover, perceived to be centered in the “asphalt jungles” of the newly emergent urban megalopoli, to be behind “vulgar, materialist, modern culture” and, in general, all forces contributing to the decline of traditional social groupings, values, and institutions. The Jews represent a foreign, dangerous, destructive force undermining the social “health” of the nation.
Modern anti-Semitism, then, is characterized not only by its secular content, but also by its systematic character. Its claim is to explain the world—a world that had rapidly become too complex and threatening for many people. This descriptive determination of modern anti-Semitism, while necessary in order to differentiate that form from prejudice or racism in general, is in itself not sufficient to indicate the intrinsic connection to National Socialism. That is, the aim of overcoming the customary separation between a sociohistorical analysis of Nazism and an examination of anti-Semitism is, on this level, not yet fulfilled. What is required is an explanation that can mediate the two. Such an explanation must be capable of grounding historically the form of anti-Semitism described above by means of the same categories that could be used to explain National Socialism. My intention is not to negate sociopsychological or psychoanalytical explanations, but rather to elucidate a historical-epistemological frame of reference within which further psychological specifications can take place.
Such a frame of reference must be able to elucidate the specific content of modern anti-Semitism and must be historical, that is, it must contribute to an understanding of why that ideology became so prevalent when it did, beginning in the late nineteenth century. In the absence of such a frame, all other explanatory attempts that focus on the subjective dimension remain historically indeterminate.
What is required, then, is an explanation in terms of a social-historical epistemology. A full development of the problematic of anti-Semitism would go beyond the bounds of this essay. The point to be made here, however, is that a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism, with all its social ramifications, is/ /personified and identified as the Jew. It is not merely that the Jews were considered to be the owners of money, as in traditional anti-Semitism, but that they were held responsible for economic crises and identified with the range of social restructuring and dislocation resulting from rapid industrialization: explosive urbanization, the decline of traditional social classes and strata, the emergence of a large, increasingly organized industrial proletariat, and so on. In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which—particularly with rapid industrialization—caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry. This, however, is no more than a first approach. The personification has been described, not yet explained. There have been many attempts at an explanation yet none, in my opinion, have been complete. The problem with those theories, such as that of Max Horkheimer, which concentrate on the identification of the Jews with money and the sphere of circulation, is that they cannot account for the notion that the Jews also constitute the power behind social democracy and communism. At first glance, those theories, such as that of George L. Mosse, which interpret modern anti-Semitism as a revolt against modernity, appear more satisfying. Both plutocracy and working-class movements were concomitants of modernity, of the massive social restructuring resulting from capitalist industrialization. The problem with such approaches, however, is that “the modern” would certainly include industrial capital. Yet, as is well known, industrial capital was precisely not an object of anti-Semitic attacks, even in a period of rapid industrialization. Moreover, the attitude of National Socialism to many other dimensions of modernity, especially toward modern technology, was affirmative rather than critical.
The aspects of modern life that were rejected and those that were affirmed by the National Socialists form a pattern. That pattern should be intrinsic to an adequate conceptualization of the problem. Since that pattern was not unique to National Socialism, the problematic has far-reaching significance. The affirmation by modern anti-Semitism of industrial capital indicates that an approach is required that can distinguish between what modern capitalism is and the way it manifests itself, between its essence and its appearance.
The term “modern” does not itself possess an intrinsic differentiation allowing for such a distinction. I would like to suggest that the social categories developed by Marx in his mature critique, such as “commodity” and “capital,” are more adequate, inasmuch as a series of distinctions between what is and what appears to be are intrinsic to the categories themselves. These categories can serve as the point of departure for an analysis capable of differentiating various perceptions of “the modern.” Such an approach would attempt to relate the pattern of social critique and affirmation we are considering to characteristics of capitalist social relations themselves.
These considerations lead us to Marx’s concept of the fetish, the strategic intent of which was to provide a social and historical theory of knowledge grounded in the difference between the essence of capitalist social relations and their manifest forms. What underlies the concept of the fetish is Marx’s analysis of the commodity, money and capital not merely as economic categories, but rather as the forms of the peculiar social relations that essentially characterize capitalism.
In his analysis, capitalist forms of social relations do not appear as such, but are only expressed in objectified form. Labor in capitalism is not only social productive activity (”concrete labor”), but also serves in the place of overt social relations as a social mediation (”abstract labor”). Hence its product, the commodity, is not merely a product in which concrete labor is objectified; it is also a form of objectified social relations.
In capitalism the product is not an object socially mediated by overt forms of social relations and domination. The commodity, as the objectification of both dimensions of labor in capitalism, is its own social mediation. It thus possesses a “double character”: use-value and value. As object, the commodity both expresses and veils social relations which have no other, “independent” mode of expression. This mode of objectification of social relations is their alienation.
The fundamental social relations of capitalism acquire a quasi-objective life of their own. They constitute a “second nature,” a system of abstract domination and compulsion which, although social, is impersonal and “objective.” Such relations appear not to be social at all, but natural.
At the same time, the categorial forms express a particular, socially constituted conception of nature in terms of the objective, lawful, quantifiable behavior of a qualitatively homogeneous essence. The Marxian categories simultaneously express particular social relations and forms of thought. The notion of the fetish refers to forms of thought based upon perceptions that remain bound to the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations.
When one examines the specific characteristics of the power attributed to the Jews by modern anti-Semitism—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility—it is striking that they are all characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx. Moreover, this dimension, like the supposed power of the Jews, does not appear as such, but always in the form of a material carrier, the commodity.
At this point I will commence with a brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves. I will thereby attempt to explain the personification described above and clarify the problem of why modern anti-Semitism, which railed against so many aspects of the “modern,” was so conspicuously silent, or was positive, with regard to industrial capital and modern technology. I will begin with the example of the commodity form.
The dialectical tension between value and use-value in the commodity form requires that this “double character” be materially externalized. It appears “doubled” as money (the manifest form of value) and as the commodity (the manifest form of use-value). Although the commodity is a social form expressing both value and use-value, the effect of this externalization is that the commodity appears only as its use-value dimension, as purely material and “thingly.” Money, on the other hand, then appears as the sole repository of value, as the manifestation of the purely abstract, rather than as the externalized manifest form of the value dimension of the commodity itself.
The form of materialized social relations specific to capitalism appears on this level of the analysis as the opposition between money, as abstract, and “thingly” nature. One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural. The abstract dimension appears in the form of abstract, universal, “objective,” natural laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature.
The structure of alienated social relations that characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. This antinomy is recapitulated as the opposition between positivist and romantic forms of thought. Most critical analyses of fetishized thought have concentrated on that strand of the antinomy that hypostatizes the abstract as transhistorical—so-called positive bourgeois thought—and thereby disguises the social and historical character of existing relations. In this essay, the other strand will be emphasized—that of forms of romanticism and revolt which, in terms of their own self-understandings, are antibourgeois, but which in fact hypostatize the concrete and thereby remain bound within the antinomy of capitalist social relations.
Forms of anticapitalist thought that remain bound within the immediacy of this antinomy tend to perceive capitalism, and that which is specific to that social formation, only in terms of the manifestations of the abstract dimension of the antinomy; so, for instance, money is considered the “root of all evil.” The existent concrete dimension is then positively opposed to it as the “natural” or ontologically human, which presumably stands outside the specificity of capitalist society. Thus, as with Proudhon, for example, concrete labor is understood as the noncapitalist moment opposed to the abstractness of money. That concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations is not understood.
With the further development of capitalism, of the capital form and its associated fetish, the naturalization immanent to the commodity fetish acquires new dimensions. The capital form, like the commodity form, is characterized by the antinomic relation of concrete and abstract, both of which appear to be natural. The quality of the “natural,” however, is different. Associated with the commodity fetish is the notion of the ultimately law-like character of relations among individual self-contained units as is expressed, for example, in classical political economy or natural law theory.
Capital, according to Marx, is self-valorizing value. It is characterized by a continuous, ceaseless process of the self-expansion of value. This process underlies rapid, large-scale cycles of production and consumption, creation and destruction. Capital has no fixed, final form, but appears at different stages of its spiraling path in the form of money and in the form of commodities. As self-valorizing value, capital appears as pure process. Its concrete dimension changes accordingly. Individual labors no longer constitute self-contained units. They increasingly become cellular components of a large, complex, dynamic system that encompasses people and machines and which is directed by one goal, namely, production for the sake of production. The alienated social whole becomes greater than the sum of its constituting individuals and has a goal external to itself. That goal is a nonfinite process. The capital form of social relations has a blind, processual, quasi-organic character.
With the growing consolidation of the capital form, the mechanical worldview of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries begins to give way; organic process begins to supplant mechanical stasis as the form of the fetish. Organic theory of the state and the proliferation of racial theories and the rise of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century are cases in point. Society and historical process become increasingly understood in biological terms. I shall not develop this aspect of the capital fetish any further here. For our purposes what must be noted is the implications for how capital can be perceived.
As indicated above, on the logical level of the analysis of the commodity, the “double character” allows the commodity to appear as a purely material entity rather than as the objectification of mediated social relations. Relatedly, it allows concrete labor to appear as a purely material, creative process, separable from capitalist social relations. On the logical level of capital, the “double character” (labor process and valorization process) allows industrial production to appear as a purely material, creative process, separable from capital. The manifest form of the concrete is now more organic. Industrial capital then can appear as the linear descendent of “natural” artisanal labor, as “organically rooted,” in opposition to “rootless,” “parasitic” finance capital.
The organization of the former appears related to that of the guild; its social context is grasped as a superordinate organic unity: Community (Gemeinschaft), Volk, Race. Capital itself—or what is understood as the negative aspect of capitalism—is understood only in terms of the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital. In this sense, the biological interpretation, which opposes the concrete dimension (of capitalism) as “natural” and “healthy” to the negativity of what is taken to be “capitalism,” does not stand in contradiction to a glorification of industrial capital and technology. Both are the “thingly” side of the antinomy. This relationship is commonly misunderstood.
For example, Norman Mailer, defending neo-romanticism (and sexism) in The Prisoner of Sex, wrote that Hitler spoke of blood, to be sure, but built the machine. The point is that, in this form of fetishized “anticapitalism,” both blood and the machine are seen as concrete counter-principles to the abstract. The positive emphasis on “nature,” on blood, the soil, concrete labor, and Gemeinschaft, can easily go hand in hand with a glorification of technology and industrial capital. This form of thought, then, is not to be understood as anachronistic, as the expression of historical nonsynchronism (Ungleichzeitigkeit), any more than the rise of racial theories in the late nineteenth century should be thought of as atavistic. They are historically new forms of thought and in no way represent the reemergence of an older form. It is because of the emphasis on biological nature that they appear to be atavistic or anachronistic. However, this emphasis itself is rooted in the capital fetish.
The turn to biology and the desire for a return to “natural origins,” combined with an affirmation of technology, which appear in many forms in the early twentieth century, should be understood as expressions of the antinomic fetish that gives rise to the notion that the concrete is “natural,” and which increasingly presents the socially “natural” in such a way that it is perceived in biological terms. The hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract underlie a form of “anticapitalism” that seeks to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains immanent to that order. Inasmuch as that standpoint is the concrete dimension, this ideology tends to point toward a more concrete and organized form of overt capitalist social synthesis. This form of “anticapitalism,” then, only appears to be looking backward with yearning. As an expression of the capital fetish its real thrust is forward. It emerges in the transition from liberal to bureaucratic capitalism and becomes virulent in a situation of structural crisis.
This form of “anticapitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract—of the value dimension—involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract reason, abstract law, or, at another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antinomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made.
The “anticapitalist” attack, however, did not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized. The manifest abstract dimension was also biologized—as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews. Modern anti-Semitism involves a biologization of capitalism—which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension—as International Jewry.
According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism.
The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case anti-Semitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form.
Certain forms of anticapitalist discontent became directed against the manifest abstract dimension of capital personified in the form of the Jews, not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared that way. The “anticapitalist” revolt was, consequently, also the revolt against the Jews. The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.
Although the immanent connection between the sort of “anticapitalism” that informed National Socialism and modern anti-Semitism has been indicated, the question remains why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews. This “choice” was, within the European context, by no means fortuitous. The Jews could not have been replaced by any other group. The reasons for this are manifold.
The long history of anti-Semitism in Europe and the related association of Jews with money are well known. The period of the rapid expansion of industrial capital in the last third of the nineteenth century coincided with the political and civil emancipation of the Jews in central Europe. There was a veritable explosion of Jews in the universities, the liberal professions, journalism, the arts, retail. The Jews rapidly became visible in civil society, particularly in spheres and professions that were expanding and which were associated with the newer form society was taking. One could mention many other factors, but there is one that I wish to emphasize.
Just as the commodity, understood as a social form, expresses its “double character” in the externalized opposition between the abstract (money) and the concrete (the commodity), so is bourgeois society characterized by the split between the state and civil society. For the individual, the split is expressed as that between the individual as citizen and as person. As a citizen, the individual is abstract as is expressed, for example, in the notion of equality before the (abstract) law, or in the principle of one person, one vote. As a person, the individual is concrete, embedded in real class relations that are considered to be “private,” that is, pertaining to civil society, and which do not find political expression.
In Europe, however, the notion of the nation as a purely political entity, abstracted from the substantiality of civil society, was never fully realized. The nation was not only a political entity, it was also concrete, determined by a common language, history, traditions, and religion. In this sense, the only group in Europe that fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction was the Jews following their political emancipation. They were German or French citizens, but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely. They were, in addition, citizens of most European countries.
The quality of abstractness, characteristic not only of the value dimension in its immediacy, but also, mediately, of the bourgeois state and law, became closely identified with the Jews. In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against “capitalism” and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association. The Jews were rootless, international, and abstract. Modern anti-Semitism, then, is a particularly pernicious fetish form. Its power and danger result from its comprehensive worldview which explains and gives form to certain modes of anticapitalist discontent in a manner that leaves capitalism intact, by attacking the personifications of that social form.
Anti-Semitism so understood allows one to grasp an essential moment of Nazism as a foreshortened anticapitalist movement, one characterized by a hatred of the abstract, a hypostatization of the existing concrete and by a single-minded, ruthless—but not necessarily hate-filled—mission: to rid the world of the source of all evil.
The extermination of European Jewry is the indication that it is far too simple to deal with Nazism as a mass movement with anticapitalist overtones which shed that husk in 1934 (”Roehm Putsch”) at the latest, once it had served its purpose and state power had been seized. In the first place, ideological forms of thought are not simply conscious manipulations. In the second place, this view misunderstands the nature of Nazi “anticapitalism”—the extent to which it was intrinsically bound to the anti-Semitic worldview. Auschwitz indicates that connection.
It is true that the somewhat too concrete and plebeian “anticapitalism” of the SA was dispensed with by 1934; not, however, the anti-Semitism thrust—the “knowledge” that the source of evil is the abstract, the Jew.
A capitalist factory is a place where value is produced, which “unfortunately” has to take the form of the production of goods, of use-values. The concrete is produced as the necessary carrier of the abstract. The extermination camps were not a terrible version of such a factory but, rather, should be seen as its grotesque, Aryan, “anticapitalist” negation. Auschwitz was a factory to “destroy value,” that is, to destroy the personifications of the abstract. Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip away the “mask” of humanity, of qualitative specificity, and reveal the Jews for what “they really are”—shadows, ciphers, numbered abstractions. The second step was to then eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.
Auschwitz, not the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, was the real “German Revolution,” the attempted “overthrow,” not merely of a political order, but of the existing social formation. By this one deed the world was to be made safe from the tyranny of the abstract. In the process, the Nazis “liberated” themselves from humanity. The Nazis lost the war against the Soviet Union, America, and Britain. They won their war, their “revolution,” against the European Jews.
They not only succeeded in murdering six million Jewish children, women, and men. They succeeded in destroying a culture—a very old culture—that of European Jewry. It was a culture characterized by a tradition incorporating a complicated tension of particularity and universality. This internal tension was duplicated as an external one, characterizing the relation of the Jews with their Christian surroundings. The Jews were never fully a part of the larger societies in which they lived nor were they ever fully apart from those societies. The results were frequently disastrous for the Jews. Sometimes they were very fruitful. That field of tension became sedimented in most individual Jews following the emancipation. The ultimate resolution of this tension between the particular and the universal is, in the Jewish tradition, a function of time, of history—the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps, however, in the face of secularization and assimilation, European Jewry would have given up that tension. Perhaps that culture would have gradually disappeared as a living tradition, before the resolution of the particular and the universal had been realized. This question will never be answered.
Moishe Postone, Critique and Historical Transformation (excerpts)
Historical Materialism, volume 12:3 (53–72) Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004
At the heart of Marx’s analysis of the commodity is his argument that labour in capitalism has a ‘double character’: it is both ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’. ‘Concrete labour’ refers to the fact that some form of what we consider labouring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. ‘Abstract labour’ does not simply refer to concrete labour in the abstract, to ‘labour’ in general, but is a very different sort of category. It signifies that labour in capitalism also has a unique social dimension that is not intrinsic to labouring activity as such: it mediates a new, quasi-objective form of social interdependence. ‘Abstract labour’, as a historically specific mediating function of labour, is the content or, better, ‘substance’ of value.
Labour in capitalism, then, according to Marx, is not only labour, as we understand it transhistorically and commonsensically, but is also a historically specific socially-mediating activity. Hence its objectifications – commodity, capital – are both concrete labour products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most basically characterise capitalist society are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations – such as kinship relations or relations of personal or direct domination – which characterise non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new, underlying level of social relations that is constituted by labour. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective, formal character and are dualistic – they are characterised by the opposition of an abstract, general, homogeneous dimension and a concrete, particular, material dimension, both of which appear to be ‘natural’, rather than social, and condition social conceptions of natural reality.
The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’ is not a labour theory of wealth, that is, a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labour, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx analysed value as a historically specific form of wealth, which is bound to the historically unique role of labour in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation.
Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth. This distinction is crucially important for his analysis. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organisation, and natural conditions, in addition to labour. Value is constituted by human labour-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth. As I shall elaborate, Marx’s analysis is of a system based on value that both generates and constrains the historical possibility of its own overcoming by one based on material wealth.
Within the framework of this interpretation, then, what fundamentally characterises capitalism is a historically specific abstract form of social mediation – a form of social relations that is unique inasmuch as it is mediated by labour. This historically specific form of mediation is constituted by determinate forms of social practice and, yet, becomes quasi-independent of the people engaged in those practices. The result is a historically new form of social domination – one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalised, structural imperatives and constraints that cannot adequately be grasped in terms of class domination, or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus and, although constituted by determinate forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all.
Whereas in traditional Marxism, labour is treated transhistorically, as constituting the quasi-ontological standpoint of the critique of capitalism, within this framework, labour constitutes the object of the critique. In the former, the categorical forms of capital veil the ‘real’ social relations of capitalism, in the latter they are those social relations. In other words, the quasi-objective structures of mediation grasped by the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy do not veil the ‘real’ social relations of capitalism, that is, class relations, just as they do not hide the ‘real’ historical Subject, that is, the proletariat. Rather, those historically dynamic mediating structures are the fundamental relations of capitalist society and constitute the Subject.
The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory I have outlined constitutes a basic break with, and critique of, more traditional interpretations. As we have seen, such interpretations understand capitalism in terms of class relations structured by the market and private property, grasp its form of domination primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation, and formulate a normative and historical critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour and production (understood transhistorically in terms of the interactions of humans with material nature). I have argued that Marx’s analysis of labour in capitalism as historically specific seeks to elucidate a peculiar quasi-objective form of social mediation and wealth (value) that constitutes a form of domination which structures the process of production in capitalism and generates a historically unique dynamic. Hence, labour and the process of production are not separable from, and opposed to, the social relations of capitalism, but constitute their very core. Marx’s theory, then, extends far beyond the traditional critique of the bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property); it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist. It treats the working class as the basic element of capitalism rather than as the embodiment of its negation, and does not conceptualise socialism in terms of the realisation of labour and of industrial production, but in terms of the possible abolition of the proletariat and of the organisation of production based on proletarian labour, as well as of the dynamic system of abstract compulsions constituted by labour as a socially mediating activity.
Marx after Marxism: An interview with Moishe Postone
Moishe Postone is Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and his seminal book Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory investigates Marx’s categories of commodity, labor, and capital, and the saliency of Marx’s critique of capital in the neoliberal context of the present. Rescuing Marx’s categories from intellectual and political obsolescence, Postone brings them to bear on the global transformations of the past three decades. In the following interview, Postone stresses the importance of an analysis of the history of capital for a progressive anti-capitalist Left today.
BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?
MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus— Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another—I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was ‘radical,’ but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.
Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very wide spread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.
Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL—but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eyeopener— the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism—the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science—and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.
BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?
MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.
BB: In your work you emphasize Marx’s differentiation between labor as a socially mediating activity, i.e., in its abstract dimension, on the one hand, and on the other, as a way of producing specific and concrete use-values, i.e., participating in the production of particular goods. In your opinion, why is this, for Marx, an important distinction from pre-modern forms of social organization and how does it figure in his theory of Modern capitalist society?
MP: Well, this is one place where I differ from most people that write about Marx. I don’t think that abstract labor is simply an abstraction from labor, i.e., it’s not labor in general, it’s labor acting as a socially mediating activity. I think that is at the heart of Marx’s analysis: Labor is doing something in capitalism that it doesn’t do in other societies. So, it’s both, in Marx’s terms, concrete labor, which is to say, a specific activity that transforms material in a determinate way for a very particular object, as well as abstract labor, that is, a means of acquiring the goods of others. In this regard, it is doing something that labor doesn’t do in any other societies. Out of this very abstract insight, Marx develops the whole dynamic of capitalism. It seems to me that the central issue for Marx is not only that labor is being exploited—labor is exploited in all societies, other than maybe those of hunter-gatherers— but, rather, that the exploitation of labor is effected by structures that labor itself constitutes.
So, for example, if you get rid of aristocrats in a peasant-based society, it’s conceivable that the peasants could own their own plots of land and live off of them. However, if you get rid of the capitalists, you are not getting rid of capital. Social domination will continue to exist in that society until the structures that constitute capital are gotten rid of.
PN: How can we account for Marx’s statement that the proletariat is a revolutionary force without falling into a vulgar apprehension of its revolutionary character?
MP: It seems to me that the proletariat is a revolutionary force in several respects. First of all, the interaction of capital and proletariat is essential for the dynamic of the system. The proletariat is not outside of the system, the proletariat is integral to the system. The class opposition between capitalist and proletariat is not intended by Marx as a sociological picture of society, rather, it isolates that which is central to the dynamism of capitalism, which I think is at the heart of Marx’s concerns.
Second, through its actions, the proletariat—and not because it wants to—contributes to the temporal and spatial spread of capital. That is to say, the proletariat is one of the driving forces behind globalization. Nevertheless, one of the differences, for Marx, between the proletariat and other oppressed groups, is that if the proletariat becomes radically dissatisfied with its condition of life, it opens up the possibility of general human emancipation. So it seems to me that one can’t take the theory of the proletariat and just abstract it from the theory of capital, they are very much tied to one another.
BB: I would like to turn to the seminal thinker Georg Lukács, in particular his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” first let me ask a general question, what do you take to be the most important insight of this essay?
MP: Well, Lukács takes the commodity form and he shows that it is not simply an economic category but that it is the category that can best explain phenomena like those that Weber tried to grapple with through his notion of rationalization, i.e., the increasing bureaucratization and rationalization of all spheres of life. Lukács takes that notion and provides a historical explanation of the nature of that process by grounding it in the commodity. That opened up a whole universe for me.
Lukács also brilliantly shows that the forms that Marx works out in Capital are simultaneously forms of consciousness as well as forms of social being. In this way Lukács does away with the whole Marxist base-super structure way of thinking about reality and thought. To use slightly different language, a category like commodity is both a social and a cultural category, so that the categories are subjective and objective categories at the same time.
BB: Could you explain your critique of Lukács’s identification of the proletariat as the socio-historical subject?
MP: Lukács posits the proletariat as the Subject of history, and I think this is a mistake. A lot of people confuse subject and agency. When using the term “Subject,” Lukács is thinking of Hegel’s notion of the identical subject-object that, in a sense, generates the dynamic of history. Lukács takes the idea of the Geist and essentially says that Hegel was right, except that he presented his insight in an idealist fashion. The Subject does exist; however, it’s the proletariat. The proletariat becomes, in this sense, the representative of humanity as a whole. I found it very telling, however, that in Capitalwhen Marx does use Hegel’s language referring to the Geist he doesn’t refer to the proletariat, he refers to the category of capital. This made a lot of sense to me, because the existence of an ongoing historical dynamic signifies that people aren’t real agents. If people were real agents, there wouldn’t be a dynamic. That you can plot an ongoing temporal pattern means that there are constraints on agency. It seems to me that by calling capital the Subject, Marx argues for the conditions of possibility that humans can become the subjects of their own history, but that’s with a small “s.” Then there wouldn’t be this ongoing dynamic, necessarily. Rather, change and development would be more the result, presumably, of political decision making. So right now humans make history, but, as it were, behind their own back, i.e., they make history by creating structures that compel them to act in certain ways.
For Lukács, the proletariat is the Subject, which implies that it should realize itself (he is very much a Hegelian) whereas if Marx says capital is the Subject, the goal would be to do away with the Subject, to free humanity from an ongoing dynamic that it constitutes, rather than to realize the Subject.
PN: It has been our experience that “reification” is commonly understood as the mechanization of human life, expressing the loss of the qualitative dimension of human experience. In other words, reification is understood solely as an expression of unfreedom in capitalist society. However, the passage below, from “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” suggests to us that, for Lukács, the reification of the driving societal principle is also the site for class consciousness, in other words, that transformations in the objective dimension of the working class can only be grasped in reified form.
The class meaning of these changes [i.e., the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society as a whole] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation. Whereas for the proletariat, the ‘same’ development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome. . . . For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action. 
The passage above seems to imply that for Lukács class consciousness is not imminent to the experiential dimension of labor, i.e., that a Leftist politics is not an immediate product of concrete labor, rather, class consciousness emerges out of the dissolution of this immediacy. From this, we take Lukács to mean that reification is double-sided, in that it is both the ground for a potential overcoming of the societal principle under capital, and an expression of unfreedom. It’s both.
BB: In other words, reification is not really a structure that has to be done away with so that outlets of freedom and action can emerge, but it’s actually the site, the location, from which action is possible in capitalist modernity.
PN: That said, in what way does a one-sided appropriation of Lukács’s category lose hold of its critical purchase?
MP: Well, this is a nice reading…I’m not sure it’s Lukács. But that may be beside the point. If you read that longer quote, “the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation,” for Lukács that’s reification. What you’ve done here is taken the notion of reification and you’ve come to something I actually would be very sympathetic to, which is the idea that capitalism is constitutive as well constraining. It opens possibilities as well as closes them. Capitalism itself is double-sided. I’m not sure whether Lukács really has that, but that’s neither here nor there.
Lukács emphasizes the abolition of the isolated individual, and this is important for me. There is a sense in Lukács that the proletariat doing proletarian labor could exist in a free society, and I don’t think this is the case for Marx. Marx’s idea of the social individual is a very different one than simply the opposition of the isolated individual and the collectivity. For Marx the social individual is a person who may be working individually, but their individual work depends on, and is an expression of, the wealth of society as a whole. This is opposed to, let’s say, proletarian labor, which increasingly, as it becomes deskilled, becomes a condition of the enormous wealth of society, but is in a sense, its opposite on the level of the work itself. “The richer the society, the poorer the worker.” Marx is trying to imagine a situation in which the wealth of the whole and the wealth of each—wealth in the sense of capacities and the ability to act on those capacities—are congruent with one another. I am not sure Lukács has that conception… I’m not sure.
BB: In some ways I think that the second quote does bring into the field certain issues with the projection of proletariat labor continuing… It depends on interpretation I suppose, because he says, “for the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate, ” which is enabled through a process of reification, “in search of the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action,” now, if “object” is solely taken to mean the material product of concrete labor, it would be against Lukács’s sense of the commodity, by which, as we’ve already established, he means both a category of subjectivity and objectivity, so the object of action is also the proletariat itself.
MP: Yes, but you’ll notice in the last third of Lukács’s essay, which is about revolutionary consciousness, there is no discussion at all of the development of capital. Everything is the subjective development of the proletariat as it comes to self-consciousness. That process is not presented as historical. What is changing in terms of capital—other than crises—is bracketed. There is a dialectic of identity whereby awareness that one is an object generates the possibility of becoming a subject. For me, in a funny way, in the third part of the reification essay history comes to a standstill, and history becomes the subjective history of the Spirit, i.e., the proletariat becoming aware of itself as a Subject, not just object. But there is very little—there’s nothing—on the conditions of possibility for the abolition of proletariat labor. None. There is no discussion of that at all. So, history freezes in the last third of the essay.
PN: Is it possible to struggle to overcome capitalism other than through necessary forms of misrecognition that this organization of social life generates? In other words: If consciousness in capitalist modernity is rooted in phenomenal forms that are the necessary expressions of a deep structure which they simultaneously mask, then how can mass-based Left-wing anti-capitalist politics be founded on anything other than progressive forms of misrecognition, i.e., as opposed to reactionary forms of misrecognition, ranging from populist critiques of finance capital, to chauvinist critiques of globalization, to localist or isolationist critiques of centralized political and economic power?
MP: That’s a good question. I don’t have an easy answer, so maybe I’ll start by being very modest. It seems to me that the first question isn’t, “what is correct consciousness?”, but, rather, “what is not adequate?” That in itself would help any anti-capitalist movement immeasurably. To the degree to which movements are blind to the larger context of which they are a part, they necessarily are going to generate consequences that are undesirable for them as well.
Let me give you an example from liberal politics. I was thinking of this recently. After 1968 when Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, was basically given the throne, the progressive base of the Democratic Party—who where very much opposed to this kind of machine politics—attempted to institute a more democratic process of the selection of the candidate for the party. It was then that the primaries really came into their own—you had primaries before, but they weren’t nearly as important. The problem is that in a situation like the American one, where you do not have government financing of elections, primaries simply meant that only people who have a lot of money have any chance. The consequences of this push by the progressive base of the Democratic party were profoundly anti-democratic, in many respects machine politics were more democratic. So what you have now is a bunch of millionaires running in all the primaries, or people who spend all of their time getting money from millionaires. Now, there was nothing the matter with the idea of wanting, within the liberal framework, to have a more democratic process to choose candidates. The context was such however, that the reforms that they suggested rendered the process more susceptible to non-democratic influence. The gap between intention and consequence that results from a blindness to context could be extended to many parts of the Left, of course.
PN: You give specific attention to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in your work with reference to the “temporal structuring and restructuring of capitalism in the 20th century.” Now, I understood “temporal structuring and restructuring” as an indication of how the political dimension mediates the temporal dynamic of capital, affecting the way that capitalism appears subsequently. In this sense, both forms of state-centrism, the Western Fordist-Keynesian synthesis and the Soviet Union, may in fact look the same because they were both, in one way or another, responding to a crisis in capital. Could you speak about the character of this political mediation?
MP: Yes, they were responses to a crisis. I think one of the reasons why the Soviet model appealed to many people outside of the West, was that the Soviet Union really developed a mode of creating national capital in a context of global capital very different from today. Developing national capital meant creating a proletariat. In a sense, Stalin did in fifteen years what the British did in several centuries. There was immense suffering, and that shouldn’t be ignored. That became the model for China, Vietnam, etc. (Eastern Europe is a slightly different case.) Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky—because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918—entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”
This model of national development ended in the 1970s, and, of course, not just in the Soviet Union. The present moment can be defined as a post-Cold War moment, and this allows the Left to remove an albatross that had been hanging around its neck for a long time. This does not mean that the road to the future is very clear, I think it’s extremely murky right now. I don’t think we are anywhere near a pre-revolutionary, even a pre-pre-revolutionary situation. I think it becomes incumbent on people to think about new forms of internationalism, and to try to tie together, intrinsically, things that were collections of particular interests.
BB: If one accepts the notion that left-wing anti-capitalist politics necessarily has as its aim the abolition of the proletariat—that is, the negation of the structure of alienated social labor bound up with the value form of wealth—what action should one take within the contemporary neoliberal phase of capitalism?
How could the Left reconcile opposition to the present offensive on the working class with the overarching goal of transcending proletarian labor?
MP: The present moment is very bleak, because as you note in this question, and it’s the $64,000 question, it is difficult to talk about the abolition of proletarian labor at a point where the meager achievements of the working class in the 20th century have been rolled back everywhere. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Because it does seem to me that part of what is on the agenda is actually something quite traditional, which is an international movement that is also an international workers’ movement, and I think we are very far away from that. Certainly, to the degree to which working classes are going to compete with one another, it will be their common ruin. We are facing a decline in the standard of living of working classes in the metropoles, there is no question about it, which is pretty bleak, on the one hand.
On the other hand, a great deal of the unemployment has been caused by technological innovations, and not simply by outsourcing. It’s not as if the same number of jobs were simply moved overseas. The problems that we face with the capitalist diminution of proletariat labor on a worldwide scale go hand in hand with the increase of gigantic slum cities, e.g., São Paolo, Mexico City, Lagos. Cities of twenty million people in which eighteen million are slum dwellers, that is, people who have no chance of being sucked up into a burgeoning industrial apparatus.
BB: Are we in danger then of missing a moment in which Marx’s critique of modernity would have a real significance for political action?
In other words, if the global condition sinks further into barbarism, the kind expressed by slum cities, might we—if we don’t seize this moment—end up in a worse situation twenty, thirty years down the line?
MP: I’m sure, but I don’t know what ‘seizing the moment’ at this moment means. I’m very modest at this point. I think that it would help if there was talk about issues that are real. Certain ways of interpreting the world such as, “the world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for George Bush, or the United States,” are going to lead us nowhere, absolutely nowhere. We have to find our way to new forms of true international solidarity, which is different than anti-Americanism. We live in a moment in which the American state and the American government have become a fetish form. It’s similar to the reactionary anti-capitalists who were anti-British in the late 19th century—you don’t have to be pro-British to know that this was a reification of world capital. |P
“Marx in the Age of Trump”, Moishe Postone in a conversation with Raimund Löw, former correspondent for Austrian television in Washington.
“The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value”, Moishe Postone (University of Chicago, USA) at the Marx Collegium, 2017 Marx’s Capital after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism (York University, Canada)