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From the Moving Contradiction to the Automatic Subject

Nick Nesbitt

Moishe Postone’s principal book, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993) is unquestionably one of the most important studies of Marx’s Capital in the Twentieth Century. In its originality, systematicity, and influence, its publication marked a definitive break with the class-based, Left-Ricardian readings of Capital that predominated in the wake of the Russian revolution and the rise of Marxist Humanism following the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in 1932. In place of such political, not to say politicized readings of Capital (to be discussed below), Time, Labor and Social Domination undertook a systematic reading of Marx’s presentation of capital as a logical — yet materialist — system. Although a number of works had previously addressed Marx’s analysis as what Marx terms, in the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse, the reproduction of the real concrete as a  “thought-concrete” [Gedankenkonkretum], Postone’s was arguably the first to undertake a systematic reconstruction of the logic of Capital on these grounds.

The book’s title indicates, in shorthand, its principal points of intervention and originality. The focus on time arises already in Postone’s initial inquiry into the famous, so-called “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse. From Marx’s brief, ten-page presentation, Postone focuses on capitalism as a system of valorisation, characterized by what Marx terms a “moving contradiction.” This indicates the contradictory tendency for capital to eliminate over time the very source of the surplus value upon which it depends:  living labor. This tendential elimination of living labor from the capitalist production process occurs through the systemic necessity, expressed in the form of market-based competition, for each individual capital to realize unending increases in productivity via automation and the application of science, a process that Marx would name in Capital the production of “relative surplus value.” While in and of itself Postone’s attention to this important fragment of the Grundrisse is original and revelatory, in the course of the book’s overall development, the systematic analysis of this temporal dynamic as it is developed in Capital stands revealed as perhaps Postone’s most original contribution to Marxian theory. For, in the course of Postone’s analytic presentation, the initial, impressionistic and fragmentary analysis of the Grundrisse with which the book begins is gradually developed via a presentation of the fundamental categories of Marx’s analysis.

Postone focuses his analysis on the dynamic, temporal character of the system of capital, in which socially necessary labor time serves as the measure of value, the substance of which is what Marx calls abstract labor. As competition between individual capitals constantly forces reductions in socially necessary labor time in order to capture surplus value in the form of profit, the capitalist system as a whole enjoins what Postone famously and memorably termed a “treadmill dynamic.” This notion refers to the fact that as each increase in productivity and corresponding reduction in socially necessary labor time passes from leading firms to become generally adopted throughout any given industry or production process (in order for firms to avoid being put out of business through competitive pressures), the level of socially necessary labor time becomes recalibrated to that new, reduced norm. Each such recalibration then enjoins in turn a new process of scientific innovation to further increase productivity through the elimination of living labor in the form of variable capital.

Postone’s reference to labor in the title of his magnum opus indicates both the fundamental break, and point of greatest contention, in his influential reading of Marx. Postone’s adoption of a systemic, structural reading of Marx’s system led him to reject what he referred to as readings of Capital “from the point of view of labor,” in favor of a “critique of labor” itself, which he identified in Capital. Critique “from the point of view of labor” is characteristic of what Postone indicates by the term “traditional Marxism,” but which might be taken to encompass Left Ricardian critique in general.

This would indicate a rejection not only of the post-Leninist emphasis on the development of productive forces accompanied by egalitarian distribution of that wealth (“Soviets plus electrification,” in Lenin’s famous phrase), but all post-Ricardian critiques of capitalism that focus on the (re-)distribution of wealth without clearly distinguishing between the production of that wealth (in the the form of use-values) and the production of surplus value. This tri-partite distinction, between use-value, exchange-value, and value itself, along with the novel concept of abstract labor, is the theoretical innovation that Marx explicitly indicates as his radical break with, and critique of, classical political economy.

Postone, focusing on this conceptual-critical architecture in Capital as what he calls Marx’s categorial critique, rejects what he terms a general tendency of “traditional Marxism” to confuse or even remain unaware of the Marx’s basic, founding distinction between the production of wealth and that of surplus value. The key theoretical example Postone deconstructs on this score is that of Habermas, though a great many other examples in this general tendency of Left Ricardianism might be taken up on this count. In any case, in developing Marx’s analysis in this direction with such rigor, Postone carried the theoretical banner for what has since become arguably the primary turn in Marx Studies since 1989, away from class-based analysis, toward so-called “value-form analysis,” a theoretical tendency typified by the publications of the International Symposium of Marxian Theory (ISMT).

Time, Labor and Social Domination develops in this vein an innovative focus on capitalism as a general, socio-relational system of valorisation, in which all members of society contribute in various forms to the process of valorisation. One effect of this orientation, however, is that it displaces or at least calls into question the centrality of class conflict so key to the traditional Marxist critique of capitalism. This is so insofar as living labor, in the form of variable capital, is seen by Postone as fundamental to the valorisation process, even in its antagonism to the owners of the means of production. Class conflict itself is understood in this interpretation as the primary impetus toward the realization of increases in relative surplus value, as it compels the application of science and automation to production in order to realize corresponding diminutions of the quota of variable capital necessary in a given production process.

Social domination, in this view, is grasped negatively, as the general domination of living labor — of all humans subject to the general social compulsion to valorise value — by the inhuman totality that Marx famously named the “automatic subject” [automatisches Subjekt]. The place accorded to class struggle in a rigorous value-form analysis such as that initiated by Postone thus remains, perhaps, the most urgent question to be addressed in the wake of Time, Labor and Social Domination, as contemporary, posthuman capitalism founders upon its inherent contradictions, struggling to develop novel countertendencies to the “moving contradiction” that Marx, and Postone after him, identified at the heart of the political economy of capitalist society.



Nick Nesbit is a professor in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University and is a senior researcher at the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

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