Postone on power, structure and agency

A recurring question that students raise is, in one way or another, a question about the relationship between social structures and human agency (e.g. the regulatory power of state education and the agency of teachers). I encountered this again at a recent conference, where the discussion about the progressive potential of co-operatives became a discussion about the power of individuals (or collectives of individuals) to act in, against and beyond the seemingly totalising structures of capitalism. A casual response is that the relationship between social structures and individuals’ capacity to effect change is dynamic and occurs over time: individuals are shaped by society and society is shaped by individual action; this accounts for social ‘progress’. The history of sociology is a history of trying to describe and explain this relationship. A textbook account of Marxist theory might talk about the relationship between “base” and “superstructure”, perhaps quoting Marx from 1859, when he wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Fortunately, as Marx’s work testifies, it is not this simple.

My own understanding of a Marxist explanation of structure and agency has been formed by the writing of Moishe Postone, whose entire work and in particular his book, Time, Labour and Social Domination (1993), is an attempt to explain the power relationship between the structural and individuals. Postone stays very close to Marx and recognises that Marx’s original (and unsurpassed?) contribution lies in his explication of the categories of labour and value.

Indeed, in a letter from Marx to Engels on the 24th August 1867, the year that the first volume of Capital was published, he wrote:

The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc. This will be made clear in the second volume especially. The treatment of the particular forms in classical political economy, where they are for ever being jumbled up together with the general form, is an olla potrida.

Postone’s work is, in one sense, a theory of power (i.e. ‘social domination’). It is deeply concerned with the issue of structure and agency, but does not set out to systematically explain the relationship using those familiar terms. I think, in essence, he is arguing that both institutional structures (i.e. the ‘law’, ‘education’, the ‘economy’) and all individuals (rich, poor, capitalist, worker) are disciplined by an impersonal, historically specific (i.e. non-metaphysical) configuration of temporal domination that has replaced earlier direct relationships of domination (e.g. Feudal). In capitalism, our conception and use of time compels individuals to live according to the necessity of value production and in particular the need to produce ‘surplus value’ through the production of commodities, which are as Marx notes above, an expression of the dual character of labour. Within this relationship (i.e. the ‘capital relation’), wage labour is both structure and agency – it mediates the relationship between the individual and society. It is a structural necessity for all, even those who live entirely off the labour of others need labour to produce value for them, and so its abolition points to the overcoming of the structural necessity. Capitalist labour as conceived by Marx, is socially determined and yet so necessary to the formation of capital (which appears to be ‘self-valourising value’) that it holds the power to its self-overcoming. Hence, the title of Postone’s magnum opus, Time, Labour and Social Domination, refers precisely to the relationship between social structure and individual agency.

In what follows, I have extracted from two of Postone’s publications to illustrate how his work speaks to a theory of structure and agency. The first extracts are a fine example of Postone discussing value theory, which is in fact, a theory of structure and agency, or rather a theory that goes beyond such dualism. There is a lot to read below, but hopefully it illustrates the range of issues that Postone’s work (and therefore Marx’s) speaks to.

Source for extracts below: Postone (1995) Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World).

What, then, is the historical specificity of labor in capitalism? Marx maintains that labor in capitalism has a “double character:” it is both “concrete labor” and “abstract labor” (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.131-139). “Concrete labor” refers to the fact that some form of what we consider laboring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. “Abstract labor,” I argue, signifies that, in capitalism, labor also has a unique social function: it mediates a new form of social interdependence.

Let me elaborate: In a society in which the commodity is the basic structuring category of the whole, labor and its products are not socially distributed by traditional ties, norms, or overt relations of power and domination — that is, by manifest social relations — as is the case in other societies. Instead, labor itself replaces those relations by serving as a kind of quasi-objective means by which the products of others are acquired. That is to say, a new form of interdependence comes into being where no-one consumes what they produce, but where, nevertheless, one’s own labor or labor products function as the necessary means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labor and its products in effect preempt that function on the part of manifest social relations. Instead of being defined, distributed and accorded significance by manifest social relations, as is the case in other societies, labor in capitalism is defined, distributed and accorded significance by structures (commodity, capital) that are constituted by labor itself. That is, labor in capitalism constitutes a form of social relations which has an impersonal, apparently non-social, quasi-objective character and which embeds, transforms and, to some degree, undermines and supersedes traditional social ties and relations of power.

In Marx’s mature works, then, the notion of the centrality of labor to social life is not a transhistorical proposition. It does not refer to the fact that material production is always a precondition of social life. Nor should it be taken as meaning that material production is the most essential dimension of social life in general, of even of capitalism in particular. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labor in capitalism of the social relations that fundamentally characterize that society. In other words, Marx analyzes labor in capitalism as constituting a historically determinate form of social mediation which is the ultimate social ground of the basic features of modernity — in particular, its overarching historical dynamic. Rather than positing the social primacy of material production, Marx’s mature theory seeks to show the primacy in capitalism of a form of social mediation (constituted by “abstract labor”) that molds both the process of material production (“concrete labor”) and consumption.

Labor in capitalism, then, is not only labor as we transhistorically and commonsensically understand it, according to Marx, but is a historically specific socially-mediating activity. Hence its products — commodity, capital — are both concrete labor products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most basically characterize capitalist society are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations — such as kinship relations or relations of personal or direct domination — which characterize non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new, underlying level of social relations that is constituted by labor. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective, formal character and are dualistic — they are characterized by the opposition of an abstract, general, homogeneous dimension and a concrete, particular, material dimension, both of which appear to be “natural,” rather than social, and condition social conceptions of natural reality.

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. As we have seen, Marx’s “labor theory of value” frequently has been misunderstood as a labor theory of wealth, that is, as a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labor, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx’s analysis, however, is not one of wealth in general, any more than it is one of labor in general. He analyzed value as a historically specific form of wealth which is bound to the historically unique role of labor in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation. Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth and related these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labor in capitalism. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.136-137; [1857-58]1973, pp. 704-705). Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.

Far from arguing that value is a transhistorical form of wealth, Marx sought to explain central features of capitalism by arguing that it is uniquely based on value. His categories are intended to grasp a historically specific form of social domination and a unique immanent dynamic — not simply to ground equilibrium prices and demonstrate the structural centrality of exploitation. (19) According to Marx’s analysis, the ultimate goal of production in capitalism is not the goods produced but value, or, more precisely, surplus value. As a form of wealth, however, value — the objectification of labor functioning as a quasi-objective means of acquiring goods it has not produced — is independent of the physical characteristics of the commodities in which it is embodied. Hence, it is a purely quantitative form of wealth. Within this framework, production in capitalism necessarily is quantitatively oriented — toward ever-increasing amounts of (surplus) value. As production for (surplus) value, production in capitalism is no longer a means to a substantive end, but a moment in a never-ending chain. It is production for the sake of production (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 742).

Marx’s theory of value provides the basis for an analysis of capital as a socially constituted form of mediation and wealth whose primary characteristic is a tendency toward its limitless expansion. A crucially important aspect of this attempt to specify and ground the dynamic of modern society is its emphasis on temporality. Just as value, within this framework, is not related to the physical characteristics of the products, its measure is not immediately identical with the mass of goods produced (“material wealth”). Rather, as an abstract form of wealth, value is based on an abstract measure -socially average, or necessary, labor-time expenditure.

The category of socially necessary labor time is not merely descriptive, but expresses a general temporal norm resulting from the actions of the producers to which they must conform. Such temporal norms exert an abstract form of compulsion which is intrinsic to capitalism’s form of mediation and wealth. In other words, the goal of production in capitalism confronts the producers as an external necessity. It is not given by social tradition or by overt social coercion, nor is it decided upon consciously. Rather, the goal presents itself as beyond human control. The sort of abstract domination constituted by labor in capitalism is the domination of time.

The form of mediation constitutive of capitalism, then, gives rise to a new form of social domination — one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalized structural imperatives and constraints (Marx, [1857-58]1973, p. 164). This form of self-generated structural domination is the social and historical elaboration in Marx’s mature works of the concept of alienation developed in his early works. It applies to capitalists as well as workers, in spite of their great differences in power and wealth.

The abstract form of domination analyzed by Marx in Capital cannot, then, be grasped adequately in terms of class domination or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus (20) and, although constituted by specific forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all. The structure is such that one’s own needs, rather than the threat of force or of other social sanctions, appear to be the source of such “necessity”.

In Marx’s terms, out of a pre-capitalist context characterized by relations of personal dependence, a new one emerged characterized by individual personal freedom within a social framework of “objective dependence” (Marx, [1857-58] 1973, p. 158). Both terms of the classical modern antinomic opposition — the freely self-determining individual and society as an extrinsic sphere of objective necessity — are, according to Marx’s analysis, historically constituted with the rise and spread of the commodity determined form of social relations.

Within the framework of this interpretation, then, the most basic social relations of capitalism are not relations of class exploitation and domination alone. The Marxian analysis includes this dimension, of course, but goes beyond it. It is not only concerned with how the distribution of goods and, ultimately, of power is effected, but also seeks to grasp the very nature of the social mediation that structures modernity. Marx sought to show in Capital that the forms of social mediation expressed by categories such as the commodity and capital develop into a sort of objective system, which increasingly determines the goals and means of much human activity. That is to say, Marx attempted to analyze capitalism as a quasi-objective social system and, at the same time, to ground that system in structured forms of social practice. (21)

The form of domination I have begun describing is not static; as we have seen, it generates an intrinsic dynamic underlying modern society. Further determinations of that dynamic can be outlined by considering some implications of the temporal determination of value.

Value’s temporal dimension implies a determinate relationship between productivity and value, which can only be briefly mentioned here. Because value is a function of socially necessary labor time alone, increased productivity results only in short-term increases in value. Once increases in productivity become socially general, however, they redetermine socially average (or necessary) labor time; the amount of value produced per unit time then falls back to its original “base level” (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 129). This means that higher levels of productivity, once they become socially general, are structurally reconstituted as the new “base level” of productivity. They generate greater amounts of material wealth, but not higher levels of value per unit time. By the same token — and this is crucial — higher socially general levels of productivity do not diminish the socially general necessity for labor time expenditure (which would be the case if material wealth were the dominant form of wealth); instead that necessity is constantly reconstituted. In a system based on value, there is a drive for ever-increasing levels of productivity, yet direct human labor time expenditure remains necessary to the system as a whole. This pattern promotes still further increases in productivity.

This results in a very complex, non-linear historical dynamic. On the one hand, this dynamic is characterized by ongoing transformations of the technical processes of labor, of the social and detail division of labor and, more generally, of social life — of the nature, structure and interrelations of social classes and other groupings, the nature of production, transportation, circulation, patterns of living, the form of the family, and so on. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental condition as an unchanging feature of social life — namely that social mediation ultimately is effected by labor and, hence, that living labor remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole), regardless of the level of productivity.

This analysis provides a point of departure for understanding why the course of capitalist development has not been linear, why the enormous increases in productivity generated by capitalism have led neither to ever-higher general levels of affluence, nor to a fundamental restructuring of social labor entailing significant general reductions in working time. History in capitalism, within this framework, is neither a simple story of progress (technical or otherwise) nor one of regression and decline. Rather, capitalism is a society that is in constant flux and, yet, constantly reconstitutes its underlying identity (whereby that identity, it should be noted, is grasped in terms of the quasi-objective and dynamic social form constituted by labor as a historically specific mediating activity, rather than in terms of private property or the market). This dynamic both generates the possibility of another organization of social life and, yet, hinders that possibility from being realized.

Such an understanding of capitalism’s complex dynamic allows for a critical, social (rather than technological) analysis of the trajectory of growth and the structure of production in modern society. We have seen that a system based on value gives rise to an ongoing drive towards increased productivity. Marx’s analysis of the category of surplus-value specifies this further. What is important about Marx’s key concept of surplus-value is not only, as traditional interpretations would have it, that it purportedly shows that the surplus is produced by the working class — but that it shows that the relevant surplus in capitalist society is one of value, rather than of material wealth. Marx’s analysis of this form of the surplus indicates that, the higher the socially general level of productivity already is, the more productivity must be still further increased in order to generate a determinate increase in surplus value (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp. 657-658). In other words, the expansion of surplus value required by capital tends to generate accelerating rates of increase in productivity and, hence, in the masses of goods produced and raw materials consumed. Yet, the ever-increasing amounts of material wealth produced do not represent correspondingly high levels of social wealth in the form of value. This analysis suggests that a perplexing feature of modern capitalism — the absence of general prosperity in the midst of material plenty — is not only a matter of unequal distribution, but is a function of the value form of wealth at the heart of capitalism.

Source for extracts above: Postone (1995) Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World).

Source for extracts below: Postone (2006) History and Helplessness. Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anti-capitalism.

The structural transformations of recent decades have entailed the reversal of what had appeared to be a logic of increasing state-centrism. They thereby call into question linear notions of historical development — whether Marxist or Weberian. Nevertheless, large-scale historical patterns of the “long twentieth century,” such as the rise of Fordism out of the crisis of nineteenth-century liberal capitalism and the more recent demise of the Fordist synthesis, suggest that an overarching pattern of historical development does exist in capitalism. This implies, in turn, that the scope of historical contingency is constrained by that form of social life. Politics alone, such as the differences between conservative and social democratic governments, cannot explain why, for example, regimes everywhere in the West, regardless of the party in power, deepened and expanded welfare state institutions in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, only to cut back such programs and structures in subsequent decades. There have been differences between various governments’ policies, of course, but they have been differences in degree rather than in kind. Such large-scale historical patterns, I would argue, are ultimately rooted in the dynamics of capital and have been largely overlooked in discussions of democracy as well as in debates on the merits of social coordination by planning versus that effected by markets. These historical patterns imply a degree of constraint, of historical necessity. Yet attempting to come to grips with this sort of necessity need not reify it. One of Marx’s important contributions was to provide a historically specific grounding for such necessity, that is, for large-scale patterns of capitalist development, in determinate forms of social practice expressed by categories such as commodity and capital. In so doing, Marx grasped such patterns as expressions of historically specific forms of heteronomy that constrain the scope of political decisions and, hence, of democracy. His analysis implies that overcoming capital entails more than overcoming the limits to democratic politics that result from systemically grounded exploitation and inequality; it also entails overcoming determinate structural constraints on action, thereby expanding the realm of historical contingency and, relatedly, the horizon of politics.

To the degree we choose to use “indeterminacy” as a critical social category, then, it should be as a goal of social and political action rather than as an ontological characteristic of social life. (The latter is how it tends to be presented in poststructuralist thought, which can be regarded as a reified response to a reified understanding of historical necessity.) Positions that ontologize historical indeterminacy emphasize that freedom and contingency are related. However, they overlook the constraints on contingency exerted by capital as a structuring form of social life and are, for this reason, ultimately inadequate as critical theories of the present. Within the framework I am presenting, the notion of historical indeterminacy can be reappropriated as that which becomes possible when the constraints exerted by capital are overcome. Social democracy would then refer to attempts to ameliorate inequality within the framework of the necessity imposed structurally by capital. Although indeterminate, a postcapitalist social form of life could arise only as a historically determinate possibility generated by the internal tensions of capital, not as a “tiger’s leap” out of history.

 

Those positions, I would argue, must also be understood with reference to the massive historical transformations since the early 1970s, to the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism. An important aspect of this transition has been the increasing importance of supranational (as opposed to international) economic networks and flows, which has been accompanied by a decline in effective national sovereignty — by the growing inability of national state structures (including those of national metropoles) to successfully control economic processes. This has been manifested by the decline of the Keynesian welfare state in the West and the collapse of bureaucratic party states in the East. It has been associated with increasing vertical differentiation between the rich and the poor within all countries, and among countries and regions. The collapse of Fordism has meant the end of the phase of state-directed, nationally based development — whether on the basis of the communist model, the social-democratic model, or the statist-developmentalist Third World model. This has posed enormous difficulties for many countries and huge conceptual difficulties for all those who viewed the state as an agent of positive change and development. The effects of the collapse of the midcentury Fordist synthesis have been differential; they have varied in different parts of the world.

Such abstract historical processes can appear mysterious “on the ground,” beyond the ability of local actors to influence, and can generate feelings of powerlessness.

I am suggesting, in other words, that the spread of anti-Semitism and, relatedly, anti-Semitic forms of Islamicism (such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas) should be understood as the spread of a fetishized anticapitalist ideology which claims to make sense of a world perceived as threatening. This ideology may be sparked and exacerbated by Israel and Israeli policies, but its resonance is rooted in the relative decline of the Arab world against the background of the massive structural transformations associated with the transition from Fordism to neoliberal global capitalism. The result is a populist antihegemonic movement that is profoundly reactionary and dangerous, not least of all for any hope for progressive politics in the Arab/Muslim world. Rather than analyzing this reactionary form of resistance in ways that would help support more progressive forms of resistance, however, many on the Western Left have either ignored it or rationalized it as an unfortunate, if understandable, reaction to Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. This basically uncritical political stance, I would argue, is related to a fetishized identification of the United States with global capital. There are many implications of this conflation. One is that other powers, such as the European Union, are not treated critically as rising cohegemons/competitors in a global capitalist dynamic order, whose rising positions help shape the contours of global power today. Rather, the role of the EU, for example, is bracketed or Europe is implicitly treated as a haven of peace, understanding, and social justice. This form of misrecognition is related to the tendency to grasp the abstract (the domination of capital) as concrete (American hegemony). This tendency, I would argue, is an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.

After World War II this complex of attitudes became adopted by some on the Left, transmitted in some cases via the medium of existentialism. This was particularly the case in the late 1950s and 1960s, as social critique focused increasingly on technocratic bureaucratic forms of domination and as the Soviet Union increasingly became perceived as sharing in a dominant culture of instrumental rationality. Within this context violence became seen as a nonreified, cleansing force erupting from the outside, identified now as the colonized, attacking the very foundations of the existing order. An irony involved in this “radical” stance, in the idea of violence as creative, cleansing, and revolutionary, is that it expresses and affirms a central characteristic of capitalism: its ceaseless revolutionizing of the world through waves of destruction that allow for creation, for further expansion. (Like the liberal notion of the rational actor, the existentialist and anarchist notions of the self-constitution of personhood through violence entail a projection onto the individual of that which characterizes corporate entities in capitalism.)

Hannah Arendt provided a telling critique of the sort of thinking about violence found in the works of Georges Sorel, Vilfredo Pareto, and Frantz Fanon. Those thinkers, according to Arendt, glorified violence for the sake of violence. Motivated by a much deeper hatred of bourgeois society than the conventional Left for whom violence could be a means in the struggle for a just society, Sorel, Pareto, and Fanon regarded violence per se as inherently emancipatory, as a radical break with society’s moral standards. Retrospectively, we can see that the sort of existentialist violence promulgated may have effected a break with bourgeois society — but not, however, with capitalism. Indeed, it seems to acquire most importance during transitions from one historical configuration of capitalism to another.

Thinking with Arendt, I will briefly consider the resurgence in the late 1960s of Sorelian-type glorifications of violence. The late 1960s were a crucial historical moment, one when the necessity of the present, of the current social order, was fundamentally called into question. Viewed retrospectively, it was a moment when state-centered Fordist capitalism and its statist “actually existing socialist” equivalent ran up against historical limits. Attempts to get beyond those limits were, however, singularly unsuccessful, even on a conceptual level. As the Fordist synthesis began to unravel, utopian hopes were nourished. At the same time, the target of social, political, and cultural discontent became maddeningly elusive and all-pervasive. The felt pressures for change were present, but the road to change was very unclear.

In this period, students and youth were not so much reacting against exploitation as they were reacting against bureaucratization and alienation. Not only did classical workers’ movements seem unable to address the burning issues for many young radicals, but those movements — as well as the “actually existing socialist” regimes — seemed to be deeply implicated in precisely what the students and youth were rebelling against.

Faced with this new historical situation, this political terra incognita, many oppositional movements took a turn to the conceptually familiar, to a focus on concrete expressions of domination, such as military violence or bureaucratic police-state political domination. Such a focus allowed for a conception of oppositional politics that was itself concrete and, frequently, particularistic (e.g., nationalism). Examples were concretistic forms of anti-imperialism as well as the growing focus by some on concrete domination in the communist East. As different, and even opposed, as these political responses may have appeared at the time, both occluded the nature of the abstract domination of capital just when capital’s regime was becoming less state-centric and, in that sense, even more abstract.

The turn to Sorelian violence was a moment of this turn to the concrete. Violence, or the idea of violence, was seen as an expression of political will, of historical agency, countering structures of bureaucratization and alienation. In the face of alienation and bureaucratic stasis, violence was deemed creative, and violent action per se became viewed as revolutionary. In spite of the association of violence with political will, however, I would argue, as did Arendt, that the new glorification of violence of the late 1960s was caused by a severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it expressed an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, violence both expressed the rage of helplessness and helped suppress such feelings of helplessness. It became an act of self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. Yet, focused as it was on the bureaucratic stasis of the Fordist world, it echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital. The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of resistance. The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted or of the politics of the resistance involved — that is, the character of determinate forms of critique, opposition, rebellion, and “revolution.”

The notion of resistance frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency. It is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by a dynamic heteronomous order. In that sense it lacks reflexivity. It is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; that is, it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of which it is a part. Relatedly, it blurs important distinctions between politically very different forms of violence.

What I have characterized as a turn to the concrete in the face of abstract domination is, of course, a form of reification. It can take various shapes. Two that have emerged with considerable force in the past 150 years have been the conflation of British and, then, American hegemony with that of global capital, as well as the personification of the latter as the Jews. This turn to the concrete, together with a worldview strongly influenced by Cold War dualisms (even among leftists critical of the Soviet Union), helped constitute a framework of understanding within which recent mass antiwar mobilizations operated, where opposition to a global power did not even implicitly point to a desired emancipatory transformation, certainly not in the Middle East. Such a reified understanding ends up tacitly supporting movements and regimes that have much more in common with earlier reactionary — even fascist — forms of rebellion than they do with anything we can call progressive.

I have described an impasse of the Left today and sought to relate it to a form of reified thought and sensibility that expressed the disintegration of the Fordist synthesis beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In my view this impasse expresses a complex crisis of the Left related to a perception that the industrial working class was not and would not become a revolutionary subject. At the same time, this crisis was related to the end of the state-centric order. The power of the state as an agent of social and democratic change was undermined, and the global order was transformed from an international to a supranational one. I would like to briefly outline an additional aspect of the reification associated with the impasse of the Left in the face of the collapse of Fordism. Neoliberal global capitalism has, of course, been promoted by successive American regimes. To completely conflate the global neoliberal order and the United States would, nevertheless, be a colossal mistake, politically as well as theoretically. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hegemonic role of Great Britain and the liberal world order was challenged by the growing power of a number of nation-states, most notably Germany. These rivalries, which culminated in two world wars, were referred to as imperialist rivalries. Today we may be seeing the beginnings of a return to an era of imperialist rivalry on a new and expanded level. One of the emerging ongoing areas of tension is between the Atlantic powers and a Europe organized around a French-German condominium.

The war in Iraq can, in part, be seen as an opening salvo in this rivalry. Whereas a century ago, the Germans sought to challenge the British Empire by means of the Berlin – Baghdad Railroad, more recently the Iraqi Baath regime was on its way to becoming a Franco-German client state. It is very significant that in 2000, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became the first country to replace the dollar with the euro as the currency mediating the sale of oil. This substitution, of course, challenged the dollar’s position as a world currency. At issue is not whether the Euro Bloc represents a progressive or regressive alternative to the United States. Rather, it is that this action (and the American reaction) may plausibly be seen as expressing the beginnings of an intercapitalist rivalry on a global scale. “Europe” is changing its meaning. It is now being constructed as a possible counterhegemon to the United States.

The reemergence of imperialist rivalries calls for the recovery of nondualistic forms of internationalism.

However objectionable the current American administration is — and it is deeply objectionable on a very wide range of issues — the Left should be very careful about becoming, unwittingly, the stalking horse for a would-be rival hegemon. On the eve of World War I, the German General Staff thought it important for Germany that the war be fought against Russia as well as France and Great Britain. Because Russia was the most reactionary and autocratic European Power, the war could then be presented as a war for central European culture against the dark barbarism of Russia, which would guarantee Social Democratic support for the war. This political strategy succeeded — and resulted in a catastrophe for Europe in general and for Germany in particular. We are very far from a prewar situation like that of 1914. Nevertheless, the Left should not make a similar mistake by supporting, however implicitly, rising counterhegemons in order to defend civilization against the threat posed by a reactionary power.

However difficult the task of grasping and confronting global capital might be, it is crucially important that a global internationalism be recovered and reformulated. Retaining the reified dualistic political imaginary of the Cold War runs the risk of constituting a form of politics that, from the standpoint of human emancipation, would be questionable, at the very best, however many people it may rouse.

Source for the above: Postone (2006) History and Helplessness. Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anti-capitalism.

The treadmill of capitalism

“In a society in which material wealth is the form of social wealth, increased productivity results either in a greater amount of wealth or in the possibility of a corresponding reduction in labor time. This is not the case when value is the form of wealth. Because the magnitude of value is solely a function of the socially-average labor time expended, the introduction of a new method of increasing productivity only results in a short-term increase in value yielded per unit time – that is, only as long as socially-average labor time remains determined by the older method of production. As soon as the newer level of productivity becomes socially general, the value yielded per unit time falls back to its original level. Thus, because the form of wealth is temporally determined, increased productivity only effects a new norm of socially-necessary labor time. The amount of value yielded per unit time remains the same. The necessity for the expenditure of labor time is consequently not diminished, but is retained. That time, moreover, becomes intensified. The productivity of concrete labor thus interacts with the abstract temporal form in a manner that drives the latter forward while reinforcing the compulsion it exerts on the producers. The value-form of wealth is constituted by and, hence, necessitates, the expenditure of human labor time regardless of the degree to which productivity is developed. The treadmill effect just outlined is immanent to the temporal determination of value. It implies a historical dynamic of production that cannot be grasped when Marx’s “law of value” is understood as an equilibrium theory of the market and when the differences between value and material wealth, abstract and concrete labor, are overlooked. That treadmill dynamic is the initial determination of what Marx developed as central to capitalism: capitalism necessarily must constantly accumulate to stand still. The dynamic becomes somewhat more complicated when one considers capital – “self-valorizing value.” The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Source: Postone and Brick (1982) Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism, Theory and Society, 11 (5) 636.

Peter Hudis – Alternatives to Capitalism

I have recently finished Peter Hudis’ book, ‘Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism‘. It is one of the most interesting and useful books that I’ve read in some time. Below, he discusses the topic of the book with reference to Occupy, worker co-ops and other contemporary responses to capital.

The audio significantly improves from one minute into the talk and his talk ends at 55 minutes when he takes questions.

Of particular interest to me is the outline his gives (around 36 mins in) of  what Marx deemed necessary to eliminate the conditions of alienating value production i.e. freely associated, non-alienated labour.

  1. Extend democracy into the economic sphere, into the workplace.
  2. Workers’ co-operatives. Direct ownership stake and control of the workplace.
  3. Eliminate the social division of labour between ownership and non-ownership. Workers have a direct stake in the outcome of labour.
  4. In control of the workplace, workers would make work less alienating, less harmful.
  5. Co-ordination between co-operatives is needed, nationally and internationally. Democratically elected planning authority, subject to recall.

Update 29th April 2014: Here’s another talk by Hudis:

Update 16th June 2014: Another good talk to the Workers and Punks University (discusses coops and councils from around 40min onwards)

 

Political Economy

Political economy abstracts from the social fact of landownership, to present rent as a quality of the land. It abstracts from the social form of wage-labour, to present wages as the recompense for labour. It abstracts from the social form of capital, to present profit as a quality of the means of production. It abstracts from the social form of exchange, to present exchange as an expression of a rational, natural propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’.

However this is an illegitimate form of abstraction, for it is only in a particular form of society that land generates a rent, means of production a profit, and labour a wage. It is only in a particular form of society that the private labour of individuals is related through exchange. To treat these categories in abstraction from their social form is to deprive them of any content, to make them into purely formal categories that exist wherever there are land, labour, means of production or co-operation. Thus the categories of political economy are given an eternal status, and are even applied to societies within which neither wages, nor profits, nor rent, nor exchange, actually exist.

Simon Clarke (1982) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology

Writing, craft and method: Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’

Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (PDF)

I have read Moishe Postone’s article a number of times. Today, I sent it to a friend with the following message:

A bit off the wall, but I’ve attached one of my favourite articles. There’s probably a time and a place to read it and it may not be now. When it was first pointed out to me, I just didn’t get the significance of the argument, and very importantly, the *method* of argument. Having read it a few times now, I think it’s the work of genius.

In a profound and sophisticated way, it takes a general response to the film, ‘Holocaust’, and uses that moment in German popular culture to elaborate a critique of capitalism which offers an explanation for anti-semitism. The way Postone, the author, unravels his argument not only provides a superb discussion about the essence of capitalism vs its manifest form in anti-semitism, but also provides a structure for the critique of other manifest forms of capitalism. e.g. higher education, or whatever.

The article I am currently writing has been through four different drafts, each no less unsatisfactory as the last. As it currently stands, the article is much too long and in my historical discussion, I have so far been unable to move away from simply offering information (events, people, places), rather than an adequate explanation. This is a point that Postone makes about the media’s response to the film, Holocaust (1978).

The weaknesses of the understanding of anti-Semitism outlined above emerged with particular clarity in the discussions on the “Holocaust” film held after each showing on West German television. The panel members were at their best when presenting information: conditions in the concentration camps; the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and their composition (police as well as SS units); the mass murder of Gypsies; and the material difficulties and extent of Jewish resistance. They were at a loss, however, when they attempted to explain the extermination of European Jewry. (p. 98)

Working on the fifth draft of my paper, I have returned to Postone’s article once again to remind myself of his method here, which is one of the rare times (the only time?) that he has systematically applied his reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism to a historical event. Here, I want to examine the structure of his article in sufficient detail so as to borrow this methodological approach in my own article on the history of hacker culture and higher education.

The article is formally structured in five parts, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. A general introduction, providing context to the film and the popular reaction in West Germany, pointing out the weaknesses of that response. (97)
  2. A critical summary of the German New Left’s response to Nazism, National Socialism and the Holocaust. Argues that the past has been repressed. (100)
  3. The main body of his argument. Argues against a functionalist explanation of the Holocaust e.g. anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, xenophobia and racism. Argues the need for “qualitative specificity” rather than generalised explanations (105). Distinguishes between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism. Begins to introduce the concept of abstraction. Argues that modern anti-Semitism attributes an “intangible, abstract and universal” power to the Jews (106). Aims to unite a socio-historical analysis of Nazism with an examination of anti-Semitism i.e. the concrete and abstract; a “historical-epistemological frame of reference.” Sets up objective in his own method: an explanation of anti-Semitism “in terms of socio-historical epistemology.” (107) Offers summary of where he is taking the argument: “a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism with all of its social ramifications is personified and identified as the Jew… In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which – particularly with rapid industrialisation – caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” (107) Returns his argument to the distinction between substance and form, essence and abstraction: “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” (108) Compares abstract attributes of anti-Semitism to characteristics of the value form as analysed by Marx: value and use-value. Moves into a “brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves” (109). Proceeds with a discussion of the commodity form, the dialectic of its double character: money/value and commodity/use-value. Elaborates theory of commodity fetishism and extends it to epistemology (cf. Sohn-Rethel?). Substantiates this theoretical discussion with brief indication of historical examples. Leads to argument that the Jews became the personifications of capital rather than merely representations of it; the “biologisation of capitalism”. The ‘anti-capitalism’ of National Socialism was expressed as anti-Semitism. “The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.” (112)
  4. A very brief section discussing “why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews.” (112) Offers historical explanation but focuses on the dialectic between the state and civil society –  the individual as citizen and person, as an abstraction and as a concrete human being. “The only group in Europe which fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction, were the Jews following their political emancipation. They were Germans or French citizens but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely… In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against ‘capitalism’ and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association.” (113)
  5. The final section concludes the article by summarising how “modern anti-Semitism… is a particularly pernicious fetish form.” (113)  There is a very striking paragraph which argues that just as the capitalist factory is where value is produced, the extermination camp is its grotesque negation. “Auschwitz was a factory to ‘destroy value,’ i.e. to destroy the personifications of the abstract. “Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip the “mask” of humanity away and reveal the Jews for what “they really are” – “Musselmanner,” shadows, ciphers, abstractions. The second step was then to eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.” (114) Finally, Postone ends by looking forward and cautioning the Left against pursuing

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory.

The article warrants a very close reading – much closer than I have offered here, where I am more interested in understanding how Postone makes his argument, than what his specific object of investigation is.

In summary, the articles proceeds as follows: introduction > critical review > development of theoretical argument grounded by historical example > broad justification for preceding argument > conclusion and way forward. Section three is clearly the most substantive section and in essence it employs Marx’s examination of commodity fetishism and his labour theory of value in Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1, to provide the analytical tools for a socio-historical and epistemological explanation of the Holocaust.

Wikileaks and the limits of protocol

In this chapter, I reflect on Wikileaks and its use of technology to achieve freedom in capitalist society. Wikileaks represents an avant-garde form of media (i.e. networked, cryptographic), with traditional liberal values: opposing power and seeking the truth. At times, http://wikileaks.org appears broken and half abandoned and at other times, it is clearly operating beyond the level of government efficiency and military intelligence. It has received both high acclaim and severe criticism from human rights organisations, the mainstream media and governments. It is a really existing threat to traditional forms of power and control yet, I suggest, it is fundamentally restrained by liberal ideology of freedom and democracy and the protocological limits of cybernetic capitalism.

Published in Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age. The Internet and Journalism Today.

Download this chapter.

Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001. 1)http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie. 2)See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis. 3)Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 Translated into English 2010 http://cybernet.jottit.com/

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2
2. See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/
3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/