I’ve always been irked about Postone’s interpretation of abstract labour because I didn’t understand how or why he gave it such an important place or such pervasive properties in his interpretation of Marx. Tonight while re-reading Arthur’s comments on Postone in HM 12 no 3 I was happy to see the King hit the nail right on the head:
However, if one tracks Postone’s original introduction of the topic, it seems that he prioritises abstract labour over capital and that is why it is its own social ground. He introduces the notion of abstract labour in a different way from Marx, who brings it in as the substance of value. Rather, Postone argues that, in generalised commodity exchange, labour is abstract in the sense that, while its own activity is concrete and produces a specific product, it appears socially as a means of acquisition of any and every product through the exchange mechanism; hence its concrete specificity is displaced, and it takes on a form of abstract generality. It is only because all labours taken thus are integrated in a social totality that their products take the form of value.
This argument strikes me as similar to putting the cart before the horse. In an exchange economy as such, labour certainly does not have the form of a means of acquisition in general, but only partially so, if one can find that interlocutor who happens to have a particular need for what one offers. It is only in a money economy that labour becomes a means of acquisition in general. The conditioning sequence does not run: abstract labour → value → money, but the reverse. Money posits all commodities as values, and their positing as value brings about the abstract identity of the labours embodied in all products.
Now someone just needs to cash this out and show how one one hand it hampers Postone’s ability to provide an analysis of how capital functions and reproduces itself while on the other hand pushes him to base his interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy on self-reflexivity and the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour.