CapitalismO.O.P.S.

Rethinking Capitalism: Class 4

I think what Moishe Postone gave us Wednesday was a rather dazzling reading of Volume 1 of Capital, which can be best approached by contrasting it to other readings. Postone rejects the idea that in Capital Marx saw himself as unveiling the “real” secret of capitalism in the hidden abode of production relations that lie “behind” the market. Similarly, he rejects the later Hegelian readings that critique capitalism “alienation,” eg critiques of consumerism. Rather Postone reads Capital as an attempt to discern the inner logic of modern society itself, insofar as that society reveals itself — in Marx’s term — as a collection of commodities.

The distinctive character of this approach is that we — students, teachers, citizens — etc are forced to see capitalism from within, not as critics from without who can grasp its hidden logic (alienated labor, exploitation, etc.). Rather “modern society” — lets say for several hundred years now — is capitalist society, not that it has been transformed by capitalism. Thus Marx’s categories such as value, surplus value, money, etc. are simultaneously social, cultural and economic; they can’t be understood through one or another of these disciplinary outlooks. In addition, Postone argues, capitalism structures the individual’s life history as much as it structures the historical process. This is because the logic of capitalism is internal to us.

What is that logic? It’s the process of abstract mediation that links all use values to one another creating an abstract web of connections. Abstract mediation is not to be contrasted to use values, or nature, or subjectivity. Rather abstract mediation is the other side of use-value, nature or subjectivity. The point is clearest with use-value. As Marx says in a reading Duncan gave us, 1000 pounds of steel is not a use-value until it enters the circuit of exchange, i.e., gains its abstract character.

Postone’s approach only seems far-fetched if we continue to equate capitalism with the economy. Not if we think of it as a form of life. For example, after Darwin wrote, natural processes, such as adaptation or sexual selection, came to be seen as operating within history. This gave us the naturalist novel of Zola or Norris. “Nature” was seen to structure history (the Rougon-Marcquet saga, the strike in Germinal etc.) as well compel individuals from within. For Postone, it is not “natural” Darwinian processes that do this but an historic process, capitalism. Another example of the same idea is Max Weber’s “spirit of capitalism.” Weber can be read, and wanted to be read, as saying that there are forces outside capitalism on which capitalism depends, such as religious ethics. However, Postone is suggesting that such “spiritual” Weberian forces as asceticism, compulsivity and hypocrisy (Weber’s famous triad) are internal to capitalism, structuring its motion.

One can also understand Postone’s approach to Marx as post-Newtonian. Newton gave us abstract, homogenous, infinitely extended space and time as a background for modern physics. Many scientific thinkers have questioned this, such as Riemann, who introduced the idea of a manifold, laying a basis for Einstein. In social theory we can look at David Harvey and Moishe Postone as a pair of thinkers who are doing something similar with space (Harvey) and time (Postone). Harvey makes space concrete, geographical. Postone is working with concrete and abstract notions of time, although he rejects the idea that they are to be contrasted, I am not sure why.

Postone’s approach led last week to at least two interesting questions. One is the approach to time taken by Max Tomba, which is based on the model of geology. Geology lies behind archaeology, psychoanalysis and much history: the idea of multiple strata (Paleozoic, Cambrian, etc), all active, but from different cosmological moments. In Marx’s day, this approach came up in regard to the Mir (the Russian commune) and in regard to combined and uneven development. Freud discusses this in Civilization and its Discontents, when he compares the mind to the archaeology of Rome, where many Romes — ancient, medieval, etc — can be seen, not just modern Rome. How can one understand Islamic fundamentalism, for example, without the idea that in capitalism multiple temporalities are in play?

A second point is the source of social protest. At the New School, and in contemporary critical theory, this tends to be the perception of injustice, but this seems to me problematic. I think one of the strongest resources ruling classes have is their sense of entitlement; by contrast, a feeling of being victimized is a weakness of social movements. Camus is good on this: victims become executioners. Postone points toward a way through this in urging that we see capitalism from within, as in some deep way ours, not as weighing down on us from the outside.

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Eli Zaretsky

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