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,  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,  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,  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,  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,  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.