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Against the Fetishization of Labor: Moishe Postone, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse on the Ascetic Character and the New Sensibility

John Abromeit

Postone’s Critique of Traditional Marxism

Moishe Postone characterized “Traditional Marxism” as a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor. He characterized Marx’s own Critical Theory, in contrast, as a critique of the historically specific form and function of labor in modern capitalist societies. Postone argues that Traditional Marxism fails to fully grasp the dual nature of Marx’s concept of labor, which encompasses not only its transhistorical ability to create use values, but also the historically specific role it assumes in modern capitalist societies, as both the source of value and the dominant form of social mediation. One of the consequences of this failure, according to Postone, is that Traditional Marxism remains trapped with the categories of bourgeois political economy, which rested upon a transhistorical labor theory of value. Many traditional Marxists view Marx’s concept of surplus value – and the exploitation of workers that the concept highlights – as the cornerstone of Marx’s theory. Against such an interpretation, Postone argues that value itself is a more crucial and fundamental category than surplus value. The danger of focusing too exclusively on surplus value is that this could transform Marx’s critique of political economy into a mere critical application of political economy, which uncritically accepts its transhistorical categories.

Two examples from Marx’s own work can be given to illustrate this point. The first is Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in which he states unequivocally that labor is not the sole source of use-value, and that it is the sole source of value only in modern capitalist societies. The second is Marx’s critique of Proudhon, who claims that property is founded on the theft of value produced by workers. Proudhon accepts the labor theory of value, as formulated by Adam Smith or David Ricardo; he just thinks that neither bourgeois thinker fully developed its critical implications, namely, that workers are not given the full value of the goods they produce. The only way workers could receive the full value of their expended labor, according to Proudhon, would be to abolish property altogether and thereby to create a fully transparent society of virtuous producers. Here one can see already that Proudhon’s theory is based on a logic of “producers and parasites,” which aims to eliminate “parasitic” property owners, who exploit workers directly, by appropriating surplus value, or indirectly, by living on interest or rent.


The Dual Character of Labor in Modern Capitalist Societies

In his interpretation of Marx, Postone heavily emphasizes the historically specific nature of Marx’s critical concepts. In particular, Postone argues that a concept like “abstract, value producing labor” possesses validity only during the historical epoch of modern capitalism. In a post-capitalist society such critical concepts would lose their object and thus also their validity. Max Horkheimer follows the same approach with his concept of the “anthropology of the bourgeois epoch.” Horkheimer developed this concept as a critique of the tradition of philosophical anthropology, which attempted to determine the essential characteristics of man in a transhistorical manner. Against such an approach, Horkheimer argued that the character structures of individuals and groups are shaped by the historically specific social relations in which they live.  In his 1936 essay, “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Epoch,”[6] Horkheimer explored the socio-historical formation and psychological traits of the bourgeois character structure, which became dominant in modern capitalist societies. If, as Marx and Postone argued, capitalism was defined as a discrete historical epoch by a specific form of production and specific forms of social mediation, so too, Horkheimer argued, was it characterized by a dominant character structure. Horkheimer’s description of the traits of this character structure has much in common with Max Weber’s more familiar description of the Protestant ethic, as a new form of inner-wordly ascetism, which celebrated labor and self-discipline as the privileged path to worldly success and otherworldly salvation. Horkheimer agrees with Weber that labor and self-discipline are central to the new bourgeois character structure. But, drawing on Marx and Freud, Horkheimer goes beyond Weber in focusing more on the ways in which the bourgeois character structure is imposed upon the lower classes, as these groups are forcefully integrated in modern capitalist societies.  Over the course of the modern period, in other words, the ascetic bourgeois character structure becomes the dominant character structure in society as a whole, even if it has very different consequences for different social groups. For the bourgeoisie, self-disciplined labor is linked to self-interest, whereas for the lower classes, it’s linked primarily to self-sacrifice. Herein lies, of course, the ideological nature of the bourgeois celebration of labor. Nonetheless, as Horkheimer demonstrates, large sections of the lower classes internalize bourgeois character structures.


The Persistence of the Independent Dynamic of Capital

Horkheimer and Postone both view the centrality of labor as a fundamental defining characteristic of the historical epoch of modern capitalism – albeit in different ways. Postone theorizes abstract, value-producing labor as the dominant form of social mediation in modern capitalist societies. But Postone’s interpretation of Marx also highlights the powerful tendencies immanent in capitalism to abolish labor, and thus to create the possibility of a post-capitalist society in which abstract labor would no longer be the dominant form of social mediation. Postone argues that “value is a critical category that reveals the historical specificity of the form of wealth and of production characteristic of capitalism,” and that “the form of production based on value develops in a way that points to the possible historical negation of value itself.”[7] What are the main factors that create this possibility of overcoming value? Postone points to the increasing importance of science and technology in the production process, which leads to a constant increase in material wealth, but also to a steady displacement of labor from the production process. As a result of these tendencies, “the productive powers of capital increasingly become socially general productive powers that no longer can be grasped adequately as those of the immediate producers alone.”[8] In other words, as a result of the changing organic composition of capital, the form of capital itself is increasingly transformed and separated from wage laborers. Postone argues, “Capital is not the mystified form of powers that ‘actually’ are those of the workers; rather it is the real form of existence of ‘species capacities,’ no longer those of the workers alone, that are constituted historically in alienated form as socially general powers.”[9]

Although the historical dynamic of capitalism creates the possibility for an emancipatory reappropriation of the alienated productive powers of capital, this possibility is, at the same time, thwarted by the powerful immanent tendency of capitalism to reconstitute production based on the accumulation of value, and the appropriation of living labor. Postone argues that “this historical dynamic entails […] that social mediation is effected by labor and, hence, that living labor remains integral to the process of production regardless of the level of productivity.”[10] As a result, “the development of technologically sophisticated production that could liberate people from fragmented and repetitive labor, reinforces such labor instead.”[11]


Marx after the Collapse of “Real-Existing Socialism”     

Postone’s focus on the tendencies within capitalism to displace labor, must also be seen in relation to the historical conditions in which Postone’s own theory emerged. For someone who stressed the importance of historical self-reflexivity as much as Postone did, it is perfectly fair to characterize his work as expressing the transition from the state-centric, Fordist forms of capitalism that were dominant in the mid-twentieth century to the new forms of globalized, neo-liberal capitalism that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of Postone’s work is that he explains why, precisely after the end of the Fordist-Keynesian period, the decline of the industrial proletariat, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marx’s critical theory is more relevant than ever. Traditional Marxists, who viewed the industrial proletariat as the historical gravedigger of capitalism, or who viewed so-called “real-existing socialism” as a genuine alternative to capitalism, had a difficult time responding to the incessant pronouncements of Marx’s death by liberals and conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s. For Postone, however, the transition to a new period of capitalism, now neo-liberal, signaled not the death of Marx, but instead the obsolescence of traditional Marxism, and its inability to grasp this transition.[12] In a series of articles from the 1990s onwards, Postone turned his attention to various attempts by Marxists and non-Marxist alike – such as Ernst Mandel, Daniel Bell, Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, and David Harvey – to explain the causes of the transition to neo-liberal globalization.

I don’t have time to explore his critiques of these other thinkers here, but I would like briefly to examine his own interpretation of that transition. Postone argued that the decline of the state-centric forms of capitalism that were dominant in the mid-twentieth century proved that the so-called “primacy of politics,” that is, the belief that the independent dynamic of capitalism could be controlled by states, was an illusion. In the 1930s, it looked like the Soviets’ turn inward to “socialism in one country” had shielded it from the effects of the Great Depression, but the global economic downturn of the 1970s had a devastating effect on the Soviet Union and left no doubt about its integration into the larger structures of the global capitalist economy. For Postone the collapse of authoritarian state communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the decline of the welfare state and state sovereignty in other parts of the world, demonstrated above all that the independent historical dynamic of capitalism continued to exist. As we have already seen, Postone also focused on the increasing centrality of science and technology to the production process, which played a crucial role in the transition to the so-called “post-industrial” economy. But Postone was critical of theorists like Daniel Bell who failed to recognize how the emancipatory potential of science and technology would always be thwarted by the compulsion of capital to retain value and abstract labor at the center of the production process.


The Historical Obsolescence of Bourgeois Anthropology?

One could say a lot more about Postone’s analysis of the objective factors involved in the transition to neo-liberal globalization, but it’s important to note that Postone also paid close attention to subjective factors. He viewed the emergence of what he himself called “new sensibilities” in the protest movements of the 1960s and the new social movements of the 1970s, as another sign that the labor-centric categories of traditional Marxism had become obsolete. In his critique of David Harvey, for example, Postone argues that Harvey fails to grasp the latent, emancipatory potentials that develop within capitalism, the “objective possibilities” of a liberation from abstract labor, which was signaled by the “rebellious subjectivity” of the 1960s and 1970s. Postone criticizes Harvey for overlooking “the historical generation by capitalism of needs and sensibilities that point beyond capitalism.”[13] 

Herbert Marcuse also interpreted the protest and new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s as a “new sensibility,” which pointed beyond capitalism. Marcuse argued that this “new sensibility” was more radical than a mere political or economic critique of capitalism, because it also represented a rejection of capitalism at the depth psychological level, that is, it represented a rejection of the bourgeois character structures, which had become dominant during the modern capitalist epoch. I would like at this point to return to Horkheimer’s concept of the anthropology of the bourgeois epoch, and to suggest that Postone and Marcuse’s interpretations of the new forms of subjectivity that emerged during the transition to neo-liberal forms of capitalism in the late 60s and early 70s make more sense when viewed against the backdrop of Horkheimer’s concept. For, as we have seen, Horkheimer’s analysis of bourgeois anthropology highlights the centrality of labor to modern capitalist forms of subjectivity. Horkheimer was also very aware of how bourgeois character structures were imposed upon and internalized by the lower classes, becoming “second nature” even among workers. Postone and Marcuse’s concept of a “new sensibility” highlights the rejection of this bourgeois character structure.


Backlash Politics: “Redistribute My Work Ethic”

But, as we have seen, Postone also stressed the tenacious tendency of capitalism to reconstitute the conditions necessary to maintain a system of production based on abstract labor. If Horkheimer was right, one of those conditions was the reproduction of the bourgeois character structure. In addition to the emergence of the new social movements, the 1970s also witnessed a right-wing backlash against the emancipatory impulses of the “new sensibility.” In an unpublished article written shortly after Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972, Marcuse interpreted this backlash as the open emergence of neo-fascist tendencies within the “bourgeois democracy” of the United States of America. Many commentators have pointed to the links that exist between the emergence of powerful right-wing populist movements and parties in Europe and the U.S. since the 1970s, and the brutal reconstitution of neo-liberal capitalism during that same period. We are all familiar with the social consequences of the neo-liberal restructuring of global production and exchange, such as the steady growth of inequality and the massive transfer of wealth upwards to a small elite; the decline of trade unions and the welfare state, and the rise of precarious forms of labor; and also the rise of mass incarceration, in the United States in particular. In response to the displacement of labor caused by technological advances, the irrational logic of capital has led to a massive maldistribution of socially produced wealth and socially necessary labor time.

I would like to focus here, however, on the labor-centric ideologies that have arisen to justify the sheer lunacy of neo-liberal capitalism. As Horkheimer once put it, “The more dubious socially necessary ideologies become, the more brutally they must be defended.”[14] With his concept of the anthropology of the bourgeois epoch, Horkheimer described how and why the celebration of labor became a socially necessary ideology in the modern period. Postone’s critique of traditional Marxism, and his and Marcuse’s interpretations of the protest movements and new social movements of the late 60s and early 70s, highlighted the increasing obsolescence of the bourgeois celebration of labor. Yet it is precisely such a celebration of labor has reemerged as the centerpiece of much contemporary conservative and right-wing populist ideology. For example, in their thorough study of the Tea Party movement in the United States,[15] Harvard sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson found that the central tenet of Tea Party ideology is that belief that society is divided into virtuous producers and immoral parasites. One popular slogan among the Tea Party movement was “Redistribute my work ethic.” Of course, the racist demonization of so-called “welfare queens” has been a central trope of neo-liberal ideology since the 1970s.  Not surprisingly, the term gained widespread currency in the mid-1970s, at the same time when neo-liberalism was beginning its triumphant rise.  Bill Clinton’s efforts to “put an end to welfare as we know it” made clear that the Democratic Party was not going to be outdone by the Republicans in its brutal implementation of neo-liberal ideology. The ideology of producers and parasites or, in its most recent incarnation, “makers and takers,” has remained absolutely central to conservative and right-wing populist political rhetoric, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have demonstrated. Donald Trump was elected president because he won a number of rust-belt states, which were thought to be solidly democratic, by promising to bring jobs back to the industrial heartland and to transform the Republican Party into a workers’ party.


Towards the Objective Possibility of a Non-Labor-Centric Society

Thankfully, the current political landscape isn’t completely devoid of alternatives to this retrenchment of labor-centric ideologies, although one needs to turn one’s attention from the United States to Europe to find them. Take, for example, Germany’s largest and most powerful trade union, IG Metall. After a series of strikes at the beginning of 2018, in which 1.5 million workers participated, the union won an agreement from employers to offer their employees more flexible hours, which includes the option of working as few as 28 hours per week. Union leaders state that the demands for more flexible hours reflect “a newer mindset among younger workers” for whom time is often more valuable than money. Such attitudes seem to confirm the prediction Marx made in the Grundrisse that when society reaches a certain level of material prosperity, real wealth begins to be defined as the amount of free time available to individuals and to society as a whole.[16]  Such developments, along with the increasingly mainstream discussions of a guaranteed income, point to the possibility of creating a society in which the irrational need of capital to constantly reproduce the conditions necessary for the appropriation of value would no longer dominate. In such a society social wealth and socially necessary labor time would be distributed more equitably. The anxiety of falling into poverty, which has contributed to the rise of right-wing populist movements in the U.S. and Europe, would disappear. And so would the masochistic celebration of “hard work,” which has become completely anachronistic. I hope to have shown here how Postone’s reinterpretation of Marx – together with certain key concepts from Horkheimer and Marcuse’s Critical Theory – can contribute to the theory and practice of moving beyond the obsolescent socio-economic and social psychological structures of the modern bourgeois epoch. 



John Abromeit is a professor of history at SUNY, Buffalo State in Buffalo, New York. This paper was first presented in May 2018 at the annual conference of the International Social Theory Consortium, held at Loyola University, Chicago.



[6] Max Horkheimer, “Egoism and the Freedom Movement: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era,” in Max Horkheimer, Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 49–110.

[7] Moishe Postone, “Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse,” in Marcello Musto (ed.), Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later (London, New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 120–137, here 125.

[8] Ibid., 133.

[9] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of

Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 349–350.

[10] Postone, “Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse,” p. 133.

[11] Ibid., p. 134.

[12] As Postone liked to say, “Reports of Marx’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

[13] Moishe Postone, “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey,” in Robert Albritton, Bob Jessop, and Richard Westra (eds.), Political Economy and Global Capitalism: The 21st Century, Present and Future (London: Anthem Press, 2010), pp. 21–22.

[14] Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926–1931 and 1950–1969, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 17 (translation amended).

[15] Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[16] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 704–705.

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