[OPE-L:433] Re: abstract labor and social mediation

jones/bhandar (djones@uclink.berkeley.edu)
Mon, 6 Nov 1995 00:23:24 -0800

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As the most theoretically unsophisticated contributor to this list, I feel
uncomfortable advancing Postone's conceptualization of abstract labor and
value. To my relief, Riccardo has also suggested that labor plays a
historically specific function in capitalism. For Postone, this is the
function of social mediation.

Andrew raises several objections to this conceptualization of abstract labor:

1. Marx himself referred to abstract labor as the expenditure of labor
power in the physiological sense, not to the function which labor plays
under capitalism; moreover, Postone's conceptualization of abstract labor
as a kind of social glue is consonant with the displacement of abstract
labor from the factory floor. (Suggesting this very criticism of
Sohn-Rethel, Postone locates the synthetic function not in exchange but in
the very nature and transformation of the labor which performs this
function of social mediation, p. 178).

2. Though referring to abstract labor as a physiological expenditure, Marx
has not failed (Andrew argues) to specify its historical determinateness
because only under capitalism is the worker concerned with pay to the
exclusion of process or result while the capitalist remains unconcerned
with concrete surplus products, as opposed to surplus products in

First, a very rough reply: Postone attempts to show that a society glued
by labor induces a trajectory of production and a directional dynamic
through which the labor process is *then* transformed. The result is indeed
despotism within an industrialized abode of production which Postone, far
from displacing, is attempting to return to the center of Marx's critical
theory. This is obvious for example in the whole third part of Postone's

OK, several issues have been raised: what does Postone mean by abstract
labor in terms of its function of social mediation; how does this contrast
with Sohn-Rethel's treatment of exchange as socially synthetic; in what
ways is a society in which social mediation is effected by the commodity
historically unique, despite the long historical presence of commodity
production; is Postone's interpretation of Marx accurate; how does labor
itself in its function of social mediation give rise to a directional
dynamic (in particular the quantitatively unlimited expansion of value);
how is the production process transformed by (adequated to?)that dynamic;
and in what sort of shit does this dynamic result?

Ultimately I believe that Andrew is abandoning Postone's reinterpretation
in its statical state: "...examining Marx's category of surplus value,
hence of capital as well, we shall see that the alienated social bond in
capitalism does not remain formal and static....It has, rather, a
directionally dynamic character. That capitalism is characterized by an
immanent historical dynamic is due, in the Marxian analysis, to the form of
abstract domination intrinsic to the value form of wealth and of social
mediation. As noted, an essential characterstic of that dynamic is an
every-accelerating process of production for the sake of production. What
characterizes capitalism is that, on a deep systemic level, production is
not for the sake of consumption. Rather, its driven, ultimately by a
system of abstract compulsions constituted by the double character of labor
in capitalism, which posit production as its own goal." (184)

Postone is very careful to analyze the properties, peculiarites and
perversions production takes on when it is driven by such abstract
compulsions, including the phenomena which Andrew has emphasized. Postone
is also attempting to explain how labor itself produces such abstract
compulsions; for him this is the key meaning (I believe) of how man is
dominated by his own product

My second point here is about Marx's conceptualization of abstract labor in
terms of physiological aspects. I will have to look at Patrick Murray's
argument in Fred Moseley's edited volume. If I remember correctly, Murray
argues that this derivation is only a step in Marx's argument, not his
final conceptualization of abstract labor. Murray, I believe, then attempts
to show that the initial derivation is based on Cartesian logic, the
inadequacies of which are subsenquently critiqued by Marx. Riccardo
Bellofiore has also written on this topic.

But this is enough for me now.


ps. does anyone have a favorite commentary on Schumpeter's Capitalism,
Socialism and Democracy? Please post me privately.

>In ope-l:404, Rakesh notes that I (Andrew) am "critical of Moishe Postone's
> analysis of the concept of abstract labor." Yes, but why?
>Postone attempts an *interpretation* of _Capital_. But when it comes to
> abstract labor, specifically the passage we've been talking about, in which
> Marx writes that abstract labor is the expenditure of human labor-power in
> the physiological sense, Postone says that's wrong. Like Paul C. and many
> others, Postone thinks that this implies abstract labor is a transhistorical
> phenomenon. (I've recently argued that the passage doesn't necessarily
> imply this. Labor is only abstract if and when separated from its concrete
> aspects, and this is an historically specific phenomenon. Paul B. was right
> to look at this from the worker's view--s/he is just working, not concerned
> with the process or result, just as long as s/he gets paid. It is also true
> from the capitalist's point of view--the capitalists' put workers to work
> for the sole purpose of making profit. SOME use-value must be produced, by
> SOME particular process, but they don't care which one. Rather than questing
> for concrete surplus-products as did exploiters in earlier modes of
> production, capital has a boundless thirst for surplus-labor itself.)
>Sorry for the long digression. Back to Postone. His interpretation of Marx
> is built to a large extent on his (Postone's) own view of abstract labor,
> which, as he forthrightly acknowledges, diverges from Marx regarding whether
> abstract labor is physiological. Abstract albor becomes a kind of social
> glue instead of something extracted from workers. Postone even substitutes
> the term "dual function of labor" for Marx's "dual character of labor,"
> consonant with this displacement of abstract labor from the factory floor
> -- now, whatever the relative merits or demerits of Marx's and Postone's
> views may be, my question is: how can this be called an *interpretation*
> of Marx?
>Andrew Kliman