Final Notes on Postone.

I just finished TLSD. As you’ve probably noticed I had my problems with it. I don’t want to go over them in detail again as they are available elsewhere on this blog. Instead I want to focus on two points: how the context of TLSD publication and Postone’s argumentative strategy make it seem more singular than it deserves and how money may have addressed what I saw as the gap in Postone’s analysis between structure, action, valorization and reproduction.

Regarding the first point as I signaled in my first post on re-reading TLSD, Postone’s work is not as singular as it presents itself. This is certainly true of the main points that he makes in his reinterpretation of the central categories in part one of Capital. What I rate as better analyses of these categories were already available in English in the works of Rubin and essays by Arthur, Backhaus, Reichelt, Open Marxism, Banaji etc. In addition there was 20 odd year of German scholarship to say nothing of Japanese value theory. All of this is obscured by Postone’s strategy of separating himself from all heretofore existing ‘traditional Marixsts.’

The second has to do with following up the main issue I flagged before which has to do with Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s presentation in Capital and how this informs his conception of capital and the way in which this conception as a historically dynamic form of mediation consists in a type of abstract social domination. To his credit Postone acknowledges that he does not substantiate this on anything more than a very abstract level. The closest he gets is what he terms the ‘dialectic of transformation and reconstitution’ but in my understanding this dialectic simply says that the collective action of social production and the forms of value they collectively constitute condition each other. The question of how this occurs is still up the in air. One crucial answer is money, which as Heinrich points out fills several essential functions in Marx’s theory enabling the valorization process and social reproduction, and which Arthur points out is missing in Postone’s analysis:

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.19

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.

Whilst I would argue another is the account of how money–and these other economic categories– compel individual actions not just on the abstract level in terms of mediation but in terms of the personifications and dull compulsions that Marx accounts for.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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13 Responses to Final Notes on Postone.

  1. Ross Wolfe says:

    Postone’s greatest strengths come with his analysis of different modes of temporality under capitalism and in some of his much-needed corrections to vulgar Marxism today. That said I share entirely your skepticism regarding his deployment of the category of “traditional Marxism” instead of “vulgar Marxism.”

  2. negative potential says:

    Wait, so guys like Reichelt, Rubin, Lukacs, Sohn-Rethel, et al are “vulgar Marxists”? The problem is not the particular phrase Postone uses. The problem is that Postone shits on every hitherto existing Marx scholar by claiming nobody ever hit upon his allegedly innovative, never-before-uttered insights (which are mostly re-warmed Rubin and Backhaus/Reichelt).

    Even his analysis of “temporality” doesn’t strike me as that groundbreaking. IIRC correctly he just sort of extensively quotes Jacques LeGoff, E.P. Thompson, and David Landes, and then sort of superimposes some Marxoid jargon on them.

    (That’s kind of the method the Exit group in Nuremberg employs, too. Actual academic historians do the empirical heavy-lifting to explore some previously obscure aspect of human social being, and the Exit people get ahold of the literature, read it, and then slap the term “Wertabspaltung” on it. Voila! bold new theoretical innovation!)

    • HR says:

      As you point out its odd that Postone works in a history department cuz his lack of historical contextualization and scholarly citation wouldn’t hack it in most history theses.

    • HR says:

      I also fail to grasp the importance of Postone’s conception of time. In the first place I don’t think he effectively links to an account of the historically specific dynamic of capitalism. It seems more like a bad abstraction that is out there rather than something inextricably linked with valorization. In the second place, I don’t understand why it is only time in capitalism that is abstract. On one hand his example of the monastery and the Chinese waterwheel also seems like abstract types of measurement. This leads me to think he means that time in capitalism is abstract in a specific sense but as I point out in one I don’t really get how or why this is the case. On the other hand surely the problem is how this type of time is made concrete whether thru the organization of productuion, subsumption etc. Thirdly, from what a friend says his examples of the monastery and the clock resemble the work of Mumford, which seems to be another scholar who does similar work that he doesn’t deal with.

      • Ross Wolfe says:

        HR: He mentions Mumford in passing in TLSD, though the author he cites more about these issues is EP Thompson with his essay on “Time Discipline.” This could probably be have been expanded a bit, and anything that he gets from Mumford’s Technics and Civilization is doubtless also filtered through Marcuse. As for the historical specificity of the two modes of temporality that he discusses (abstract, “cyclical” time and concrete, “linear” or historical time), I find that he successfully grounds this dynamic adequately in his gloss on relative surplus-value. The “treadmill effect” he describes seems an apt formulation.

        Also, and correct me if I’m wrong here concerning his originality, but Postone is the only one who has reversed Lukacs’ formula of the identical subject-object of history by identifying it as capital (instead of the proletariat). Personally, I think it’s a brilliant insight, even if he uses it to supplant class prematurely. The comparisons of Marx’s chapter on the transformation of money into capital with passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology on Spirit are excellent. As a whole, Postone in my opinion manages to synthesize quite a bit, drawing on other authors (who he cites, even if insufficiently) to mount a sweeping reinterpretation of Marx’s theory and both Soviet and Western Marxism. However, I’ve quite appreciated your critical notes on Postone, and agree wholeheartedly with your observations on “Postone’s strategy of separating himself from all heretofore existing ‘traditional Marixsts.’” I don’t think he ever really adequately overcomes Lukacs, Adorno, and Sohn-Rethel the way he thinks he does, nor does he acknowledge the nuance of the Second International radicals like Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky.

        Negative Potential: Either way, though Postone’s dismissal of “the history of all hitherto existing Marx scholarship” grates on me at times, it’s no more tedious and annoying than your constant trolling of the blogosphere — insisting time and again that if people only knew how to read German or understood the context they’d supposedly realize that Postone is a hack or the anti-Germans are so passé. Plenty of people read German, know Backhaus/Reichelt/Kurz etc., and are not impressed with this almost quasi-Heideggerian linguistic/discursive purism on your part. It’s fairly hilarious when a German native speaker like Susann Witt-Stahl, a journalist from Hamburg, contradicts you on the alleged irrelevance of antigermanism within the German Left today, you respond with this blithering diatribe attacking her, the CPGB, and of course Platypus:

        the ‘anti-German’ tendency belongs to an era when the iPod was considered a bold new technological innovation, Lord of the rings films still topped the box office charts, and George W Bush still occupied the White House. Usually it’s only the Platypus cult which tries to rehabilitate the ‘anti-Germans’ and assert their supposed relevance. How weird to see their critics doing the same.

        Maybe you haven’t noticed, NegPot, but Apple is still releasing slick mobile products, movies about hobbits are still topping the box office charts, and Obama continues to advance George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy. Even if the antigerman tendency were as much a thing of the past as you say it is, it’s not like the material conditions they were responding to are all that different today. The only major difference today is the 2008-present global crisis, though this seems to have done little to check US aggression. So who’s to say that an ideological autopsy wouldn’t yield any relevant insights?

      • HR says:

        Ah, didn’t have the book near me so I couldn’t check if he cited Mumford or not.

        I guess we’ll just have to disagree on what we think sufficient grounding constitutes. Even though I think yr description of it as a gloss is accurate.

        But i’d have to say that I think my real underlying problem with the book can be seen in what you point out and what I think I also pointed out i.e. that it seems to me that Postone’s reinterpretation of Marx is very Lukasian. So whilst i think its true to say that he is original in the sense that his interpretation of capital as subject is based on a very Lukasian reading of Capital, I think that other authors like Chris Arthur who base their readings of capital as subject on a non-Lukasian formulation of systematic dialectic,
        provide a more rigorous grounding. I’d also say that in my view Arthur and others do a more in depth and rigorous exegesis of the Marx-Hegel Homology. So in my view I think it is unfair that Postone is treated as the leading figure in the field. This is why I take Neg
        Pot side that philology etc are important for this type of Marx scholarship.

  3. negative potential says:

    “insisting time and again that if people only knew how to read German”

    The Platypus School of Falsification. Show me a single instance where I’ve said anything like this.

    Also, I’ve already written another reply to Witt-Stahl, let’s see if the Weekly Worker publishes. She’s apparently unfamiliar with the debates in the Revolutionäre Zellen, papers of the autonome L.U.P.U.S. Gruppe, and other debates around Israel that long predate the Anti-Germans. BTW, since you seemed to have not picked up on it, Witt-Stahl is even more aggressively Anti-German than I am. She would probably regard Platypus’ efforts as suspect, at best. She doesn’t think they’re an “interesting” phenomenon of leftist decline that should be the topic of discussion; she thinks they’re an insidious force to be rooted out.

    As for “trolling”, well that’s another word that’s succumbed to inflationary use, basically meaning: anytime somebody on the internet says something I disagree with in a tone I find disagreeable. Yeah, I’m not interested in civil debate with Platypus. You’re disingenuous liars who think pro-war and racist arguments are a legitimate topic of debate within the left. I don’t buy the pose of disinterested inquiry, and I’m calling you out on it.

    • Ross Wolfe says:

      Platypus school of falsification? You must have sustained serious head trauma if you can’t remember something you’ve said so often. I’ll not only show you one instance of it; I’ll show you several from a single thread.


      Seriously, if you don’t read German, than you don’t have the necessary discursive background to understand why publishing the likes of the ISF is inexcusable.


      99.99% of leftists outside of Germany have no idea what the content is of the myriad (yes, myriad) political tendencies subsumed under the label “Anti-German”.


      Haha, I love the fact that a North American sect comprised of people who can’t read German really think this piece of shit text deserves thoughtful engagement.

      This is made even funnier, not only because most of the respondents in the thread knew German, but even more so now that Witt-Stahl (a native speaker) has publicly contradicted you on these assertions.

      Again in the same thread:

      nobody in the U.S. really knows anything about the Anti-Germans, except as a bizarre curiosity, you are simply reinforcing the element of freakshow novelty by publishing a de-contextualized programmatic statement. And you certainly aren’t contributing to any engagement within the German left itself, because as I said, the debate is really finished, with both sides concluding not even in mutual antagonism, but basically inhabiting completely separate political worlds. ISF and Bahamas aren’t even interested in scandalizing and provoking “the left” any more, they inhabit their own political microcosmos. The left, in turn, has long finished engaging the anti-Germans.

  4. negative potential says:

    D’oh, typo: “Witt-Stahl is even more aggressively Anti-German than I am”

    Obviously I meant to say she is more aggressively Anti-Anti-German than I am.

  5. negative potential says:

    And what does any of that have to do with Postone being a “hack”? Go back and read the actual phrase you used.

    Regarding Witt-Stahl, you do realize that she’s an Anti-Imp, right? Like, a publish-in-Junge-Welt anti-Imp, right? You do realize that this milieu applies the label “Anti-German” to anybody who isn’t an outright cheerleader for whatever Third World thug-of-the-week is currently opposing the United States, don’t you? In my last letter to the Weekly Worker (which hopefully will be published next week), I call her out for basically applying the label in such an inflated way that it has no meaning anymore.

    You’re too stupid to grasp the irony that in seeking to assert the relevance of the “Anti-Germans”, you’re referring to the authority of somebody who employs the term polemically as a term of abuse. Do you get this? To Susann Witt-Stahl, *YOU* would be an Anti-German (though maybe you’d also cop to that). To Susann Witt-Stahl, the main evidence of insidious Anti-German infiltration of the left is that a bunch of Autonomists and Social Democrats are organizing their own Luxemburg-Liebknecht Demo this year, because they don’t want to march in the same demo with Stalinists and Maoists.

    Here we see an amusing, ironic strange-bedfellows situation, where an Anti-Imp like Witt-Stahl, and Anti-German symps like you both use the term in an inflationary sense. In her case, it’s merely defamatory. In your case, you just want it to be relevant in a positive sense.

  6. negative potential says:

    LOL! Hey Ross, here’s your new authority on all things Germany. Strange bedfellows indeed. I’d suggest you run something by her in the Platypus Review, but you guys are already probably far too Anti-German for her:

    Markus Bernhart: “Im Januar wollen Teile der Linksjugend, der Jusos und der DGB-Jugend in Berlin erstmalig eine eigene Demonstration im Gedenken an Karl Liebknecht und Rosa Luxemburg durchführen. Besagte Gruppen stellen sich selbst als »emanzipatorisch« dar. Wofür steht das politische Spektrum, das sich selbst als Alternative zur traditionellen Liebknecht-Luxemburg-Demonstration darzustellen versucht?”

    Susann Witt-Stahl: “In den vergangenen Wochen sind, u.a. in der jW wie auch von der Linksjugend Hamburg, richtige Analysen über das Wesen und die wahren Beweggründe dieser »Alternative« veröffentlicht worden: Ja, sie ist ein Bündnis von Sozialdemokraten – nicht wenige Neokonservative sind auch dabei –, für die es wieder einmal historisch notwendig ist, sich eindeutig von der antiimperialistischen Bewegung zu distanzieren und sie von außen, in diesem Fall im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes »demonstrativ«, anzugreifen. Man muß einfach nur lesen, worum es treibenden Kräften dieser »Alternative«, wie den Berliner Jusos, geht. Sie haben ihre Positionen ausformuliert: Sanktionen und ein militärischer Erstschlag gegen den Iran gehören ebenso dazu wie die Verhinderung von Friedensverhandlungen Israels mit der Hamas. Und wie könnte sich so eine bellizistische »Alternative« besser camouflieren als mit dem Label »emanzipatorisch«? Das ist heute einer der strapaziertesten Begriffe des neo (links)liberalen Neusprech für die ideologische Legitimierung von Kriegseinsätzen und der Anwendung des Feindstrafrechts gegen Menschengruppen, die den vom Marktradikalismus angetriebenen Expansionsbestrebungen des Westens im Wege sind. Die ­NATO bombt für die »Frauenemanzipation«, und ihre Propagandisten verbreiten ganz »emanzipatorisch« ihre kulturrassistische Hetze gegen die »unzivilisierten« Muslime. Der Emanzipationsbegriff ist mittlerweile völlig ausgehöhlt und entleert.”

  7. negative potential says:

    And here’s the call for the alliance behind the alternative Luxemburg-Liebknecht demo. Nothing in their about bombing Iran, or refusing peace negotiations in Israel. In fact, nothing about Israel at all.

    But plenty of good stuff attacking the austerity policies of the European Union, and Germany’s role.

    What Witt-Stahl says in the Junge Welt interview is pure slander.

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