Transcript: Postone’s Lectures on Capital [1/8]

YouTube lecture:

The readings I asked you to do for today are sort of preparatory for Capital. What I want to do on the basis of these readings is sort of establish, initially, the plausibility of the kind of interpretation I’m going to be presenting. Like I said last time, I’m not interested in Marx the person. I’m also not treating this as an intellectual historian might, which is to say to look at the corpus of Marx’s writings to see whether there are inner tensions within the work. What I’m trying to do is take the critique of political economy, and on its most fundamental level, re-establish it as a social theory. A social theory that could have contemporary relevance. So my intention is not contemplative. No Marx torn between the implications of this analysis and his revolutionary impulses with regards to various movements of the time, for example.

I’m going to try to render plausible to you, that Capital should be seen as a foundational text of critical social theory. We’re not going to be dealing with it as a positive theory of economics. It also, in my view, is sociologically reductionist to understand it first and foremost in terms of class struggle. And I’ll try to make that plausible too. I’m going to try to view it, as I mentioned last time, as a critical and reflexive theory of social mediation — I hope that will become a little more meaningful to you as a term as we move along. A theory that would be adequate to the character and dynamic of modern society. Now when I use the word ‘critical,’ I mean not only criticisms of the existing distribution of wealth, power, and knowledge, but of the structure and nature of modern social life itself. The theory, I have tried to argue, is not a universal theory of human ‘being’ in the world, but is a theory of the specificity of modern society. It seeks to ground, rather than simply describe, what is fundamental to modern social life: the set of historically specific social forms.

The idea of the (?) possibility of historical transformation is very closely tied to the idea of the historical dynamic. And what I’m going to argue is that Marx’s theory is not intended as a snapshot that gives you a picture of modern capitalist society, but rather places, really at the center of modernity, a kind of dynamic. And by the time we reach the book Capital, history is no longer something presupposed, but is something explained.

At the same time, and this is something as we will see today that Marx was working towards, the theory understands itself as reflexive. That is, given the fundamental presupposition that people are molded by their historical context, a theory can only be consistent if it can regard itself as part of its context. That is, it is illegitimate for a theory to regard itself as one of historical context where it itself — the theory itself — is outside of its context. So it calls into question the validity of any theory that purports to have transhistorical validity, and in a sense, would characterize all such theories as metaphysical.

I think that might be good enough, just to get us started. What I think I’d like to do today — we have a huge amount to go through. I think that if we put all the reports on the table and then tried to go through it, we would just end up with a gulash. I would like to have report, discussion, report, discussion, report, discussion. We’re going to begin with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, then we will move to the Theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology, then we will move to the Communist Manifesto, and finally we will read some selections of the Grundrisse which I think are absolutely essential as a key to Capital.

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts

Let’s see if we can begin tickling out what might be ontological and what might not be. Where I’d like to start, I think, is at the beginning. As was mentioned in the report, it begins with the critique of political economy — of political economists. So, at the beginning of the manuscript that we have, we’ve proceeded from the premises of political economy. Why is this important? What is he not doing?

[Inaudible student dialogue]

Ah, let’s take this last part — “it expresses what society is.” There is a kind of double movement here that I think people should be aware of. He is not dismissing Adam Smith, David Ricardo, at all. He is not saying don’t pay any attention to these guys because all they’re doing is constituting some kind of fig-leaf for the bosses. He’s also not saying you can ignore it because of whatever other attribute — ‘they’re dead white men, just forget about it.’ What he does in the first paragraph is he says he begins with their categories, and he shows that if you develop those categories, you’re going to come to the conclusions which are the opposite of what they posited. So that’s fine, but is it just to score a debating point? Or is there a larger point that he is implying, by saying you SHOULD begin with the categories of political economy? Why?

Student: Because they are based on real observation of the current context.

He seems to be suggesting that. He seems to be suggesting that there is something about political economy that actually does — not GRASP, because it doesn’t do itself consciously, but let’s say reflects — contemporary reality. It’s not just ’made up.’ It isn’t good enough, but it should be the point of departure as political economists have really gotten hold of something which actually is salient, is relevant, does describe modern society. However, ultimately, what does he say in the first two pages about political economy, how does he characterize it? It’s inadequate, but in what way? It’s descriptive. It takes for granted what it should explain, is what he says. And this is in part because there’s a very important dimension that is being elided. So when he says, for example, at the top of page 71 in the Marx Engels Reader: “Precisely because political economy does not grasp the connections within the movement, it was possible to counterpose, for instance, the doctrine of competition to the doctrine of monopoly…”

Let’s unpack just those three lines. Let’s start on a very simple level: What is he saying about competition and monopoly? […] That they’re related, right. If you look just at the surface, they’re very different from one another. Competition has got all these little mom and pop shops competing, in monopoly you have US Steel, or whatever. Why doesn’t political economy see that they’re related, according to Marx? What does it mean that it doesn’t grasp the connection in the movement? Let’s translate that into other language. What is being left out? […] Yes, temporally. Competition over time generates monopoly. What is being left out is time. The temporal dimension is being left out. So what you have are your ‘types’ and that remains purely descriptive, because you can only see the ways in which they are or are not connected if you view things temporally. So his first statement about political economy is that they’re good descriptively, but bad analytically because they don’t have an adequate sense of the temporal development of things. This is of course very general.

Okay, now just moving along, he hits us with alienation. Everything is alienation, and without going through alienation A, alienation B, alienation C… let’s just look at the beginning and figure out what he means by alienation. He counterposes it in the bottom paragraph of 71 to something that he calls ‘objectification.’ It’s a very difficult passage, of course he’s just writing notes to himself, and he’s talking about two things while it looks like he’s only talking about one and the same thing. What is objectification? This is a notion of course that he has from Hegel. It’s not, incidentally, the way objectification has come to be used in recent decades, where it just means that you treat someone like an object. This is not what it means here.

Student: That the subject is realized through an object, the subject is only able to understand itself through an object.

Okay, let’s go to a prior level.

Student: It externalizes itself.

Okay, let’s put some meat on that. What does it mean to say it externalizes itself?

Student: It understands [inaudible]

Before it understands, what is it doing? Let me put it this way. You are a young Michael Jordan, shooting hoops a thousand times every night. What are you doing when you’re doing this? On the one hand you’re making the hoops, as it were. On the other hand, you are making yourself as a basketball player. When you practice music, you aren’t only creating the music, you are also creating yourself as maker of the music, as a musician. The idea with objectification is that you do not have a stable subject that then creates objects, but rather it’s the primacy of praxis — the word is bandied about and means a hundred million things and has almost quasi sacred significance, but here praxis is what creates subject and object. It’s Hegel’s way of getting beyond Cartesian dualism. And so it’s the primacy of the practice that creates both the object and the subject. So the object and subject are in a sense co-constituted, it is not that a subject constitutes an object or that a subject is constituted by an object.

Now, whether we go to Michael Jordan or a favorite musician, this notion of objectification is positively valorized. What it does, really, is praxis constituting a human mastery. If objectification in and of itself generates mastery, and in a sense generates humanness, which is something he will then bring in, what is alienation? What happens with alienation? […] Okay, so there is something about alienation which is the same activity as involved in objectification, but for whatever reason the more that activity proceeds, the more that what is created has mastery over the creator. So that, as Marx put it: “Labor’s realization is its objectification.” So if we switch over to the side of objectification, what is involved is realization. Not self-realization in the sense of the realization of something that was always already there, but rather it is the realization of a potential that becomes realized. Now, there are nice words in German that you can’t translate to English, so when it says in the next sentence, on the last two lines of page 71: “In the conditions dealt with by political economy” — I.e., modern capitalism — “this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers” — it would be closer to say de-realization; it’s the negative of realization.

So, when we’re talking about, not to put too fine a point on it, self-generated domination, people are dominated by what they themselves create, by their object. What does this mean, what is the object? We get a hint of it here in the next paragraph. It’s not the widget — you make widgets all day and you’re dominated by widgets and you may have bad dreams about widgets, but you’re not really dominated by widgets.

[Inaudible student interaction]

You’re right, but we’ve got to find another word for it. What word does he say at the end of the first full paragraph on page 72? ‘Capital!’ “So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the dominion of his product, capital.” We don’t know what capital is, at this point. We really don’t. We’re not sure that he knows what it is. But it’s a term that he’s giving to whatever it is that is constituted by labor that dominates labor itself. So the story of domination in capitalism is one of self-generated domination. The book Capital will be an attempt to unpack all of this.

The phrase ‘private property’ is used in ambiguous ways in this manuscript. When he first uses it and directly addresses it in the first manuscript, he makes it very clear that private property should be distinguished from alienation. Later on he gets sloppy and uses it as a synonym. Now, why should private property — he says in the text that alienation is not grounded in private property. This is a major break avant la lettre with most Marxism. The workers’ labor is not alienated because the capitalist owns it. That is not the ultimate ground of alienation. He claims, on the contrary, that private property is grounded in alienation. We’re not sure what alienation means at this point, but what difference does it make — is this just sort of like late late scholasticism? Is there any point in saying private property grounds alienation or alienation grounds private property? So what? Well, let’s continue down the manuscript. Where does he turn? To his favorite French socialist, Proudhon, who is the dominant socialist thinker of the 1840s. Proudhon writes a very well-known tract called Property is Theft. (Here Postone realizes that he had skipped the species-being section and will have to come back to it.)

Now, on page 79, what does Marx say towards the bottom of that page? That wages and private property are identical. Let’s try to make sense of that. What he seems to be opposed to — he starts with a kind of opposition:
“1) Political economy starts from labor as the real soul of production; yet to labor it gives nothing and to private property everything. From this contradiction Proudhon has concluded in favor of labor and against private property. We understand, however, that this apparent contradiction is the contradiction of estranged labor with itself.”

Can someone help decipher this? There’s an opposition between private property and labor. Political economy purportedly takes the side of property, Proudhon says he’s going to take the side of labor. So?

Student: (slightly audible: There is one structure that constitutes both private property and labor…)

Right, in other words, the opposition between private property and labor itself is embedded in the larger structure, it does not exhaust the universe of possibilities. It itself is within a larger structure which is constituted, he claims, by something he’s calling alienated labor. Now, on a practical level, what that means, as he says at the top of the next page, is that it is not an issue of simply raising wages. That does not get to the heart of the problem. Why not? I mean, people are better off if you raise their wages.

Student: Because the wage is the problem, because labor is not an end in itself.

(Video jump.)

Okay, so if we move down one paragraph, is it that “wow, the workers may get higher wages, but the CEOs are getting 500 times as much?” What does he say in the following paragraph?

Student: (slightly audible) It’s not an argument about raising wages…

It doesn’t touch the structural dimension. None of which we really know about, right? At this point we can just say what he’s trying to get at, we don’t really know what this structure is. But when he refers at the top of the first line of the second paragraph: “Even the equality of wages demanded by Proudhon…” — does anyone know what equality of wages meant to Proudhon? Is it just that all industrial workers should have the same wage? […] Proudhon had the idea that everyone in society should have the same wage. The worker, the doctor, the manager, the professor… everyone should just have the same wage. You have equality of wages, you don’t have class difference. So, is this a good thing according to Marx? You can tell by my question… but what does he say? Why is it not a good thing?

Student: “Society is then conceived as an abstract capitalist.”

Now, I don’t get it. If everybody has the same wage, and Marx still says what you’re going to have is capitalism, what does that mean capitalism is not?

Student: An inequality of wealth.

It’s not an inequality of wealth, and it’s not private ownership. We could conceivably abolish private ownership and still have capitalism. That’s what he’s saying in this manuscript, it’s up to us in the following weeks to figure out what this could mean. So, this is much more of an arrow pointing us in a certain direction than a real analysis.

Student: Private ownership would be different from private property, right? Private property would be the actual existence of a structure of alienated labor.

I meant private property as private ownership. In other words, what he’s saying is, a) Alienation is not a function of the fact that some individuals own the factories rather than the factories being owned by everybody, that’s not enough; b) Even if you were to take away the factories from everybody and pay everybody the same wage — the politbureau gets no more than anyone else — you still, for him, have capitalism. So we have to figure out what capitalism means for Marx, but it seems to be related to his notion of alienation, and it seems as if he really thinks this notion of alienation isn’t just a humanistic idea, but it is an analytic to get hold of the essence of capitalism. So this isn’t just sort of icing on the cake of what we all know about Marx, to know that it’s “against the bourgeoisie and let’s just sexy it up a little philosophically,” it’s not that.

Student: In light of that claim, how do you explain the third paragraph… (video jump)

It says that the beaver can only modify one kind of nature, right. Humans have the capacity to modify many kinds of nature. In other words, human labor is not pre-programmed. It’s a capacity that is not pre-programmed. The protean character of human labor has allowed humans over time — and that’s what I wanted to suggest — over time, to live almost anywhere, to wear almost anything, and of course to eat almost anything. Now, I think it’s legitimate to view this as ontological, but I think there’s another possible reading, which is that it is a capacity that points to a potential, and it’s something that is constituted over time, which is also what he does with the senses. So I think there is this notion that really, what he’s referring to, is a capacity that has evolved as a potential, and he’s setting up a contrast — it seems to me there are two ways to read the critique of labor and capitalism against the notion of species-being. One is that this is truly human nature, and therefore that capitalism is a perversion of human nature. That’s one reading, which I think is not implausible here. There’s another reading that I think is a little more interesting, which is that capitalism actually generates this huge leap in universality and at the same time constricts it incredibly narrowly. So that the life of the species and the life of the individual become very opposed to one another. […] In this passage he talks about how working socially doesn’t necessarily mean working communally. Rather, he says that when I’m working scientifically, even if I’m working alone at my desk or lab, I’m working socially. Now — how can he say that?

(Video jump.)

What he’s trying to talk about there, I think, and of course these are very rough manuscripts — what he’s trying to talk about is a notion of the richness of individual labor being in some respect commensurate with the richness of society as a whole, instead of being its narrow presupposition, where society as a whole is rich and variegated while what most people do is astonishingly narrow, and the one is the condition for the other. And he seems to be saying that isn’t always necessarily going to be the case. That it is conceivable that you could have a situation where what you do as an individual is commensurate to that wealth of society, rather than being its narrowed presupposition. I think he’s playing with this idea and with the notion of alienation, but at this point they’re not really tied.

Student: I’m not really clear on the difference between the two plausible accounts you gave, the one you gave and the one more tied to the notion of human essence. I don’t see how they’re totally in contradiction, it seems maybe the second one is just more of a richer account of some of the ways that it works out.

One position would argue that humans’ labor was always this rich, and it’s just that under capitalism that it has become narrow. And the other would argue that not only was labor not always this way, but that it is a potential which has been developing historically, and the condition for its development is simply that labor is unbounded. Human labor as an activity has no pre-given form, unlike what a beaver does or what a bee does. (“Even raccoons” — everyone talks about how smart raccoons are.) (Video jump.)

We could spend the rest of the hour and the next easily on the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, so we’re going to have to truncate a bit. I just want to point out a few other dimensions to you. He draws this analogy between — when he goes against Proudhon, he accuses him of generalizing private property, even though he has abolished private ownership of the means of production. He then also draws an analogy to some of the so-called utopian socialists of the 1840s — the 1840s were a little bit like the 1960s, you had communes and everyone waiting for the revolution, a time of great ferment. And so there are all sorts of types talking about abolishing bourgeois marriage, because what bourgeois marriage does is it simply makes the woman the property of the husband. And his critique is, if you look carefully at what most of them want, they want women to the be the property of men. Not singular, private property, they’re just generalizing. In other words they’re not changing what is fundamental, which is the woman as object. And the question of woman as object is not simply a function of whether the woman is an object of one or many — moving against the singular just doesn’t do it, it isn’t sufficient.

And then he talks about, I believe for the first time in the manuscript, he talks about human need. He talks about the need for another person as a person. So the idea is the need for the other as a subject. And this begins slowly to also point in the direction of a non-ascetic critique of needs. In other words, the critique isn’t of — “people are just slaves to their needs, and if everyone just lived a simpler life, it would be a more virtuous life, so what you have to do is separate yourself from the temptations of this world…” — but rather it has to do with whether the need is constituting of the person or emptying of the person. When he moves on to the issue of consumption in the latter part of this manuscript, he distinguishes between what he calls ‘appropriating’ and ‘having’. Do you remember this section? Because there’s actually something in common between this opposition and the opposition at the beginning between objectification and alienation. What’s the difference between appropriating and having, for Marx, writing at the grand old age of 26?

Student: Quantitative vs qualitative.

By the end of the manuscript, what you have are a series of oppositions that he has set up between objectification and alienation, appropriation and possession, subject and object, enriching and impoverishing, self-constituting and self-generated dependency, which also lines up with qualitative and quantitative. The notion of development that he is suggesting comes out most clearly when he talks about the natural sciences. This is something he’ll develop at greater length later on. He talks about the natural sciences — this is on page 90: “They have transformed human life practically. They have on one hand prepared for human emancipation, on the other hand consummated dehumanization.” So it is neither a position that argues that you just push science forward in its existing form, nor is it a position that rejects science per se as in some way distancing people from themselves, but rather it is at one and the same time something which prepares the conditions for emancipation, and yet it has consummated dehumanization. So that the possibility of transformation is given, even as it’s being constrained. And this motif is one that continues all the way through, and it’s his way of getting beyond a linear historical development on the one hand, a romantic rejection of historical development on the other. That’s all I have to say on the manuscripts.

Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology

People are, as he puts it, a function of what they produce and how they produce. So, ‘what they are’ — give me a kind of general statement that this would be making.

Student: Basically, history and what constitutes people’s lives individually and collectively is predicated on their material lives which is in turn predicated on what people produce and where they fit in the productive system.

Is it just what they produce?

Student: And how they produce it, what the relations of production are.

Okay, so it’s the relations as well.

Student: But the relations are predicated on the actual means of production, technologically.

Does he say that?

Student: Doesn’t he say somewhere that relations of production are predicated on the technological state of production?

He talks about stages of development of production and communication, which already gets you two different axes. I want to suggest that this is simply a sketch to make a point that has to do with his polemic against the young Hegelians. He’s basically arguing, it seems to me, that there is no such thing as a de-contextualized human. If there’s no such thing as a de-contextualized human, then there’s no such thing as a de-contextualized theory. Notice what he does is he begins by saying, after he does his swipe against the young Hegelians, then he says that it’s possible to distinguish humans from animals in a myriad of ways. They themselves distinguish themselves from animals through their productive activity. This comes back on the one hand to the notion of praxis, that people are constituting themselves and constituting their contexts. He then goes on after giving a sort of thumbnail sketch of a variety of contexts, he comes back to say “the fact is therefore that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way” — it shouldn’t be “definite” here, it should be “determinate” — “enter into these determinate social and political relations.” It’s a statement about contexts. Now what does this have to do with the young Hegelians? He goes on to say that at first ideas are directly interwoven with material activity, and then historically you get more and more of a separation. However, this is I think a very important sentence on page 154, the last complete sentence of the second last paragraph: “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from the physical life-process.” What’s he saying?

(Video jump.)

Okay, let’s leave the word ‘natural’ aside for a second. But it’s understandable that they see it this way, in other words, if the young Hegelians, according to Marx, have it backwards when they say consciousness determines being, if you’re going to claim as Marx does, that people and therefore theories have to be understood with reference to their context, then the young Hegelians getting it backwards has to be able to explained with reference to their context. It’s not simply a matter of saying they got it wrong, that they’re a bunch of ‘idealists.’ You have to render plausible the possibility of this form of thought with reference to their context. At this point, this is a programmatic statement. He takes a few stabs at it in the course of The German Ideology, I’m not convinced that he succeeds. Now, there’s a corollary to this. If you’re going to claim, as he does here, that theory, conceptions, and ideas have to be explained with reference to their context, and if you’re going to say that the idea of the young Hegelians itself can be understood contextually, what else are you going to have to be able to show? […] You have to be able to show the possibility of your own theory. Once you have this kind of theory, it’s illegitimate to say, not only that the young Hegelians are just stupid and not understanding a concept, but you cannot say that the young Hegelians are contextual while I, Karl Marx, am the world-historical spirit floating above everything, and I am free of context. You can’t do that. So for the theory to be able to go through, it has to be able to account both for the positions it’s criticizing, and for itself.

(Video jump.)

When I said he tries to take a stab at things, he tries, as far as I’m concerned, a crude but a beginning stab at “how could people think that ideas are independent?” Do you remember, there’s a section on page 159: “The division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears.” What does he give in the footnote as an example, when does this division appear?

Student: Priests.

Priests. Why is this a division of mental and material labor? Why is it a division of labor at all? […] There is a division of labor, you know — you are an Egyptian priest, a Mesopotamian priest, you are developing a calendar. The calendar is absolutely crucial for the peasantry, because the calendar is going to tell you when the Nile is going to overflow, or when it’s going to get too hot in the summer in Mesopotamia for you to be able to grow anything. So there is a division of labor, and you know priests were also astronomers, they were in charge of time. However, and he’s only suggesting this, the fact that they aren’t — you know, unless you’re some monk in the 6th century during the dark ages working your garden — they are not supporting themselves physically. So it becomes possible, and this is a stab on his part, for those who are engaged in mental activity to imagine that ideas have nothing to do with anything else, that ideas reflect the truth, the good, the beautiful.

Okay, but what about when you have people who say “this isn’t good, what exists isn’t good” — like Socrates making a royal pain in himself in the Agora until they got rid of him. Button-holding everybody: “What is justice?” The prophets coming up to the kings saying “you have sinned” before running off to the desert because they were gonna get killed. So these aren’t exactly affirmative, they are critical. So what is he trying to say here? How can Socrates or Elijah be part of the society yet be critical of it?

Student: Contradiction?

That’s what he says, right? It only works if you don’t think of society as a perfect sphere, as a unitary whole. But rather, if there are ideas that are opposed to what apparently is dominant, that can only be, according to Marx, if there is some underlying non-identity in the society, so that critical ideas express some non-identity, some contradiction that exists. So the word contradiction here, whatever it means, has an extremely important epistemological significance for Marx, because contradiction is the condition of possibility of critique. As we’ll see he’ll go much further than that. But you can see this is described in extremely general terms.

Student: Wouldn’t you say this is all in Hegel? (Video jump.)

Very quickly. If ideas are contextual, we have to be able to a) explain people you’re arguing against, whether they are Adam Smith or young Hegelians or Proudhon, b) outline the conditions of possibility of your criticism. This is made explicit again in the Theses on Feuerbach. Now, very briefly, this famous passage on the division of labor. You should be able to be a shepherd in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, a young Hegelian in the evening… so is what Marx actually has in mind sort of like a hippie commune? What is the point here with the division of labor in hunting, fishing, criticizing?

(Video jump.)

So, a problem here with the division of labor is that each person is slotted. They are slotted so that you have an opposition of the whole and the individual. He’ll develop this much further, but at this point he begins to use the language of alienation again. And, at this point also, he says that for something like this to change — what? He has two conditions on page 161. […]

The conditions must be such that the majority finds them intolerable. (Inaudible student interaction.) You need a high level of production or? — Or all you’re going to do is generalize want. So it’s not just a matter of masses moving, the conditions have to be such that you can reasonably talk about the division of labor and the abolition of division of labor. He’s clearly at this point not talking about returning to some pre-industrial society. That’s going to be a puzzle: What does it mean to have a high level of productivity and be able to abolish the division of labor? At this point it is a conundrum.

Thoughts, gestures, provocations