Notes on re-reading Postone V: on Postone and Lukacs.

I’ve made the statement several times that I think Postone has a very Lukasian interpretation of Marx. I’ll now outline this and try to relate it to the problems I have with Postone’s idea of abstract labour.


In the first place it should be noted that Postone’s description of capital as a dialectical social totality mirrors his description of Lukacs:

This reinterpretation both has been influenced by, and is intended as a critique of, the approaches developed by Georg Lukacs (especially in History and Class Consciousness) and members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Those approaches, based on sophisticated understandings of Marx’s critique, respond- ed theoretically to the historical transformation of capitalism from a liberal, market-centered form to an organized, bureaucratic, state-centered form, by reconceptualizing capitalism. Within this interpretive tradition, Marx’s theory is not considered to be one of material production and class structure alone, much less one of economics. Instead, it is understood as a theory of the historical constitution of determinate, reified forms of social objectivity and subjectivity; his critique of political economy is taken to be an attempt to analyze critically the cultural forms and social structures of capitalist civilization.15

The difference is the pivot of the standpoint of labour:


Nevertheless, as I shall elaborate, some of their basic theoretical assumptions prevented Lukacs as well as members of the Frankfurt School, in different ways, from fully realizing their theoretical aims…… heir programmatic aim of developing a conception of capitalism adequate to the twentieth century could not be realized on the basis of such an understanding of labor. I intend to appropriate the critical thrust of this interpretive tradition by reinterpreting Marx’s analysis of the nature and significance of labor in capitalism. 16


In the second place Postone’s interpretation of Capital,  particularly his emphasis on the commodity and its role in social mediation mirror Lukacs:


‘It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure.’ (From Lukacs preface to the reification essay)
Which is Postone seems to draw on in TLSD:
‘Marx begins his critical analysis of modern, capitalist society with the category of the commodity. Within the frame- work of his analysis, this category refers not only to a product but also to the most fundamental structuring social form of capitalist society, a form constituted by a historically determinate mode of social practice. Marx then goes on to unfold a series of categories, such as money and capital, with which he attempts to explain the nature and developmental dynamic of capitalism.’ postone 44
These two points of similarity can probably be said to be hallmarks of many Hegelian readings of Marxism, the third point of similarity is where it gets weird. As I have written elsewhere, and others including  Lukacs and Colletti have noted, Lukacs makes what he describes as a ‘crude and fundamental error’ in History and Class Consciousness where he conflates the Hegelian idea of objectification with Marx’s theory of alienation. What I completely missed the first time I read TLSD is that Postone asserts that this is not an error but is actually indicative of historically specific capitalist labour:

In Marx’s later writings, however, alienation is rooted in the double character of commodity-determined labor, and as such, is intrinsic to the character of that labor itself. Its function as a socially mediating activity is externalized as an independent, abstract social sphere that exerts a form of impersonal compulsion on the people who constitute it. Labor in capitalism gives rise to a social structure that dominates it. This form of self-generated reflexive domination is alienation.


Such an analysis of alienation implies another understanding of the difference between objectification and alienation. This difference, in Marx’s mature works,is not a function of what occurs to concrete labor and its products; rather, his analysis shows that objectification is indeed alienation—if what labor objectifies are social relations. This identity, however, is historically determinate: it is a function of the specific nature of labor in capitalism. Hence, the possibility exists that it could be overcome. 159-160


The problem I have with this stems from Postone’s exegesis of the dual character of labour. Much like Lukacs it seems to me that Postone does not explain the social genesis of abstract labour nor how it is realized in capitalist valorization. Instead he provides an explanation like the following:


In capitalism, labor itself constitutes a social mediation in lieu of such a matrix of relations. This means that labor is not accorded a social character by overt social relations; rather, because labor mediates itself, it both constitutes a social structure that replaces systems of overt social relations and accords its social character to itself. This reflexive moment determines the specific nature of la- bor’s self-mediated social character as well as of the social relations structured by this social mediation. As I shall show, this self-grounding moment of labor in capitalism imparts an “objective” character to labor, its products, and the social relations it constitutes. The character of social relations and the social character of labor in capitalism come to be determined by a social function of labor which replaces that of overt social relations. In other words, labor grounds its own social character in capitalism by virtue of its historically specific function as a socially mediating activity. In that sense, labor in capitalism becomes its own social ground. 151


This lacks a discussion of the socially specific conditions Marx lays out in part one that constitute abstract labour and ultimately make money necessary, such as the fragmented production for exchange and of course avoids a discussion of the hidden abode of production itself or of the process of circulation/value realization. The result is that capital, much like in Lukacs conception, is treated like a bad external force that somehow dominates and compels behaviour by virtue of its externality. This makes his discussion of abstract labour, well abstract, as the only way it can be tied to production and circulation is through ‘mediation.’ It also leads to what I think is his odd argument about alienation and objectification, since it seems to me like Postone makes an odd distinction in the above quote between ‘social relations’ and ‘labour’ which may be why I find his idea about the standpoint of labour hard to pin down. For it seems to me not that ‘labour objectifies social relations’ but that social relations–as indicated in Marx’s discussion of the social division of labour for exchange etc–make it so that labour–which is surely always objectified–constitutes abstract labour which is realized in exchange.  Yet Postone’s conception of abstract labour by equating it with objectification, seems to be one of the reasons it differs with Marx, pushing it into this Lukasian conception of capital as a dominating form of external sociality.



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