• History and the Critique of Capitalism

  • Por Moishe Postone | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: Teoría
  • I.

    The far-reaching transformation of the world in recent decades has dramatically indicated that contemporary critical theory must be centrally concerned with questions of temporality, of historical dynamics and large-scale structural changes if it is to be adequate to our social universe.1 The Marxian category of capital, in my view, could be of key importance to the constitution of such a theory of the contemporary world, but only if it is fundamentally reconceptualised in ways that distinguish it from various understandings of the category of capital in traditional Marxist interpretations as well as in recent social-sciences discourses.

    The category of capital, according to this reconceptualisation, has little in common with the uses of the term “capital” by a wide range of theorists, from Gary Becker through Bourdieu to the many Marxist theorists for whom “capital” generally refers to a social surplus that is privately appropriated. While agreeing with the latter, that Marx’s category of capital refers to the structuring of society as a whole, I argue that it not only delineates a determinate mode of exploitation, but also is, more basically, a category of temporal mediation. It grasps modern, capitalist society as a form of social life characterised by quasi-objective forms of domination that generate a historical dynamic.


    My focus on the historically dynamic character of capitalist society responds to the massive transformations of capitalism in the last third of the twentieth century. This period has been characterised by the unravelling of the post-World War II state-centred Fordist synthesis in the West, the collapse or fundamental transformation of party-states and their command economies in the East, and the emergence of a neoliberal capitalist global order (which might, in turn, be undermined by the development of huge competing regional blocs). Because these changes have included the collapse of the Soviet Union and of European Communism, they frequently have been taken as marking the end of Marxism and of Marx’s theoretical relevance. Yet these historical transformations also highlight the need to grapple with the problematic of historical dynamics and large-scale structural changes, which is precisely the problematic at the heart of Marx’s critical analysis.

    The central importance of this problematic is underlined when one considers the overarching trajectory of state-centric capitalism in the twentieth century from its beginnings, which can be located in World War I and the Russian Revolution, through its apogee in the decades following World War II, and its decline after the early 1970s. What is significant about this trajectory is its global character. It encompasses western capitalist countries and the Soviet Union, as well as colonised lands and decolonised countries. Although differences in historical development have, of course, occurred, they appear more a matter of different inflections of a common pattern than of fundamentally different developments, when viewed with reference to the trajectory as a whole. For example, the welfare state was expanded in all western industrial countries in the twenty-five years after the end of World War II and then limited or partially dismantled beginning in the early 1970s. These developments – paralleled by the post-war success and subsequent rapid decline of the Soviet Union – occurred regardless of whether conservative or social democratic (“liberal”) parties were in power.

    Such general developments cannot be explained in terms of contingent, local, political decisions, and strongly suggest the existence of general structural constraints on political, social and economic decisions. They also suggest the existence of dynamic forces that are not fully subject to state control.

    Consideration of the general historical patterns that characterise the twentieth century, then, historically relativises theories of the primacy of the political sphere, so widespread in the post-war decades, and also calls into question poststructuralist understandings of history as essentially contingent. In some respects, the post-Marxist turn of the 1970s can be understood as a critical reaction to the Fordist epoch – both in its Western and Communist forms – a reaction against a politics focused on material interests that were to be satisfied by a bureaucratic top-down organisation of society. The social and cultural movements of the late 1960s seemed to be a historical refutation of such a conception of the good life. The Soviet Union had ceased signifying an emancipatory option for large segments of the Western Left by 1968 at the latest. 

    Within this historical cultural context, political economy became understood as affirmative and history became coded as a priori meta-narrative. Marx’s conception of history and temporality became conflated with Hegel’s, which contributed to a revival of Nietzsche, the great anti-Hegelian. The cunning of history took its revenge, however. Post-structuralism and postmodernism have since been shown to be intellectually helpless to group the large-scale changes to which I alluded above. As critical topoi, they now appear to be bound to a social order that has long since seen its day.

    Such historical considerations, however, do not necessarily contravene the critical insight underlying attempts to deal with history contingently – namely, that history, grasped as the unfolding of an immanent necessity, delineates a form of unfreedom.

    That form of unfreedom is the object of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, which is centrally concerned with the imperatives and constraints that underlie the historical dynamics and structural changes of the modern world. Rather than deny the existence of such unfreedom by focusing on contingency, the Marxian critique seeks to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming. I am suggesting, then, that re-appropriating the category of capital allows for an approach that can overcome the classical opposition of necessity and freedom, recapitulated as one between a conception of history as necessity and its poststructuralist rejection in the name of contingency (and presumably agency). As I shall elaborate, the category of capital grounds the immanent dynamic of modern, capitalist society in historically determinate forms of social mediation. Within this framework, History, understood as an immanently driven directional dynamic, is not a universal category of human social life. Rather, it is a historically specific feature of capitalist society that can be and has been projected onto human social life in general. Far from viewing history affirmatively, a theory that grounds such a dynamic in the category of capital grasps it as a form of heteronomy.

    In this evaluation, the critical Marxian position is closer to postructuralism than it is to orthodox Second International Marxism. However, it does not regard heteronomous history as a narrative, which simply can be dispelled discursively, but as the expression of a structure of temporal domination. From this point of view, any attempt to rescue human agency by insisting upon contingency in ways that bracket the existence of such historically specific structures of domination is – ironically – profoundly disempowering.


    What is capital, in Marx’s analysis? At the heart of his category of capital is that of surplus value. This category generally has been understood as one of exploitation, as indicating that, in spite of appearances, the surplus product in capitalism is not constituted by a number of factors of production, such as labour, land, and machinery, but by labour alone. Surplus value, within this traditional framework, is a category of class-based exploitation. While not disagreeing with this analysis of surplus value, the position I am outlining regards it as partial. The conventional understanding of surplus value focuses exclusively on the creation of the surplus, but does not sufficiently consider the significance in Marx’s analysis of the form of wealth involved, namely value.

    Elaborating Marx’s conception of capital, then, involves briefly considering the most fundamental categories with which he begins his analysis, such as commodity and value.

    These categories should not be understood trans-historically, but as historically specific to modern, or capitalist, society.2 In his mature works, Marx sought to locate the most fundamental form of social relations that characterises capitalist society and, on that basis, unfold a theory that could grasp the underlying workings of that society. That fundamental form is the commodity.3 Marx took the term “commodity” and used it to designate a historically specific form of social relations, constituted as a structured form of social practice that at the same time is the structuring principle of the actions, worldviews and dispositions of people. As a category of practice it is a form both of social subjectivity and objectivity. (This understanding of the categories, building on those of Lukács and Adorno, suggests an approach to culture and society quite different from the base/superstructure model.)

    What characterises the commodity form of social relations, as analysed by Marx, is that it is constituted by labour and exists in objectified form.4 This analysis is tied to his conception of the historical specificity of labour in capitalism. Marx maintains that labour in capitalism has a “double character”: it is both “concrete labour” and “abstract labour”5 “Concrete labour” refers to the fact that some form of what we consider labouring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. “Abstract labour” does not simply signify concrete labour in general, however, but is a peculiar, historically specific category. It signifies that labour in capitalism also has a unique social function that is not intrinsic to labouring activity as such: In a society structured by the commodity form, labour and its products are not socially distributed by traditional norms or overt relations of power and domination, as is the case in other societies. Instead, labour constitutes a new form of interdependence, where people do not consume what they produce, but where, nevertheless, their own labour or labour products function as quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labour and its products in effect pre-empt that function on the part of manifest social relations.

    In Marx’s mature works, then, the notion of the centrality of labour to social life is not a trans-historical proposition. It should not be taken to mean that material production is the most essential dimension of social life in general, or even of capitalism in particular. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labour in capitalism of a form of social mediation that fundamentally characterises that society. Because labour in capitalism is not only labour as we trans-historically and common-sensically understand it, but is also an historically specific socially mediating activity, according to Marx, its objectifications (commodity, capital) are both concrete labour products and objectified forms of social mediation. The social relations that most basically characterise capitalist society, according to this analysis, are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations, such as kinship relations or relations of personal direct domination, which characterise non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations do continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new underlying level of social relations constituted by labour. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective formal character, and are dualistic: they are characterised 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 dimension of the social mediation underlying capitalism is expressed by value, the form of wealth dominant in that society. Marx’s “labour theory of value” frequently has been misunderstood as a labour theory of wealth, one that posits labour, at all times and in all places, as the only social source of wealth. Marx’s analysis, however, is not one of wealth in general any more than it is of labour in general. He analyses value as an historically specific form of wealth that is bound to the historically unique role of labour in capitalism. Marx explicitly distinguishes value from what he calls “material wealth” and relates these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labour in capitalism.6 Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors, such as knowledge, social organisation and natural conditions, in addition to labour.7 Value, according to Marx, is constituted by human labour-time expenditure alone; it is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism.8 Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations that are extrinsic to it, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.

    Within the framework of this interpretation, then, what fundamentally characterises capitalism is an historically specific, quasi-objective form of social mediation constituted by labour and objectified as the commodity form. Although this historically specific form of mediation is constituted by determinate forms of practice, it becomes quasi-independent of the people engaged in those practices. The result is a historically new form of social domination that subjects people to increasingly impersonal rationalised imperatives and constraints that cannot adequately be grasped in terms of class domination or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or institutional agencies of the state and/or of the economy. Like Foucault’s notion of power (if much more rigorously grounded), this form of domination has no determinate locus and, although constituted by determinate forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all.

    Significant in this regard is Marx’s determination of the magnitude of value in terms of socially necessary labour time.9 This temporal determination of value as a form of social wealth is not simply descriptive, but delineates a socially general, compelling, norm. Production must conform to this prevailing, abstract, overarching norm if it is to generate the full value of its products. The historically specific abstract form of social domination intrinsic to capitalism’s fundamental forms of social mediation, then, is the domination of people by time. This form of domination is bound to a historically specific form of temporality – abstract Newtonian time – which is constituted historically with the commodity form.

    The temporality of this form of social mediation, however, is not only abstract. A peculiarity of value as a temporal form of wealth is that, although increased productivity increases the amount of use-value produced per unit time, it results only in short term increases in the magnitude of value created per unit time. Once the productive increase becomes general, the magnitude of value per unit time falls back to its base level.10 The result is a sort of a treadmill. Higher levels of productivity result in great increases in use-value production, but not in proportional long-term increases in value. (Note that this peculiar treadmill dynamic is rooted in value’s temporal dimension. It cannot be fully explained by the way this pattern is generalised, for example through market competition.) Yet, although changes in productivity, in the use-value dimension, do not change the amount of value produced per unit time, they do determine what counts as a given unit of time. Ongoing increases in productivity push the unit of (abstract) time forward, as it were, in historical time. The movement here is of time. Both abstract time and historical time are constituted historically as structures of domination.

    The dialectic of these temporalities is grasped by the category of capital, which Marx analyses as self-valorising value. It is a category of movement, entailing a ceaseless process of value’s self-expansion, a directional movement with no external telos that generates large-scale cycles of production and consumption, creation and destruction. Marx signals that this category underlies the historical dynamic of modern, capitalist society when he first introduces it in Capital. There, Marx describes it with the same language that Hegel used in the Phenomenology with reference to Geist – the self-moving substance that is the subject of its own process.11 In so doing, Marx suggests that a historical Subject in the Hegelian sense does indeed exist in capitalism. Yet – and this is crucially important – he does not identify that Subject with the proletariat (as does Lukács) or even with humanity. Instead he identifies it with capital, a dynamic structure of abstract domination that, although constituted by humans, becomes independent of their wills. Ironically, precisely the idealist character of Hegel’s dialectic expressed this feature of capitalism’s historical dynamic.

    In his mature theory, then, Marx does not posit an historical meta-subject, such as the proletariat, which will realise itself in a future socialist society, but provides the basis for a critique of such a notion. This implies a position very different from that of theorists like Lukács, for whom the social totality constituted by labour provides the standpoint of the critique of capitalism, and is to be realised in socialism. In Capital, the totality and the labour constituting it have become the objects of critique. The historical Subject is the alienated structure of social mediation at the heart of the capitalist formation’s historical dynamic. The contradictions of capital point to the abolition, not the realisation of the Subject. In Capital, Marx roots capitalism’s historical dynamic ultimately in the double character of the commodity and, hence, capital. It cannot be grasped if the category of surplus value is understood only as a category of exploitation, as surplus value, and not also as surplus value – that is, as a surplus of a temporal form of wealth.

    The treadmill dynamic of capital I have outlined, driven by the dialectic of value and use-value, is at the heart of the very complex non-linear historical dynamic underlying modern society. On the one hand, this dynamic is characterised by ongoing transformations of production and, more generally, of social life; 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 labour and, hence, that living labour remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole) regardless of the level of productivity. The historical dynamic of capitalism ceaselessly generates what is new while regenerating what is the same. This dynamic both generates the possibility of another organisation of social life and yet hinders that possibility from being realised.

    With the real subsumption of labour, in Marx’s account, capital becomes less and less the mystified form of powers that “actually” are those of the workers. Rather, the productive powers of capital increasingly become socially general productive powers that no longer can be understood as those of the immediate producers alone. This constitution and accumulation of socially general knowledge renders proletarian labour increasingly anachronistic. At the same time the dialectic of value and use-value reconstitutes the necessity of such labour.12

    One implication of this analysis is that capital is not a unitary totality and that the Marxian notion of the dialectical contradiction between the forces and relations of production does not refer to a contradiction between relations that supposedly are extrinsic to production (for example, the market and private property) and productive forces that purportedly are extrinsic to capital (for example, labour). Rather, the dialectical contradiction is one between the two dimensions of capital itself. As a contradictory totality, capital is generative of a complex historical dynamic that points to the possibility of its own overcoming by a social order based on material wealth.

    As an aside, it should be noted that, by grounding the contradictory character of the social formation in historically specific dualistic forms (commodity and capital), Marx implies that structurally based social contradiction is specific to capitalism. In light of this analysis, the notion that reality or social relations in general are essentially contradictory and dialectical can only be assumed metaphysically, not explained. This also suggests that any theory that posits an intrinsic developmental logic to history as such – whether dialectical or evolutionary – projects what is the case for capitalism onto human history in general.

    The understanding of capitalism’s complex dynamic I have outlined allows for a critical, social (rather than technological) analysis of the trajectory of growth and the structure of production in modern society. Within this framework, capitalism is characterised by a determinate, runaway form of growth. The problem of economic growth in capitalism, within this framework, is not only that it is crisis-ridden, as has been frequently and correctly emphasised by traditional Marxist approaches. Rather, the form of growth itself, entailing the accelerating destruction of the natural environment, is itself problematic. The trajectory of growth would be very different according to this approach, if the ultimate goal of production were increased quantities of goods rather than of surplus value.

    This approach also provides the basis for a critical analysis of the structure of social labour and the nature of production in capitalism. It indicates that the industrial process of production is intrinsically capitalist and should not be understood as a technical process that, although increasingly socialised, is used by private capitalists for their own ends. Capital’s drive for ongoing increases in productivity gives rise to a technologically sophisticated productive apparatus that renders the production of material wealth essentially independent of direct human labour-time expenditure. This, in turn, opens the possibility of large-scale socially general reductions in labour time, and fundamental changes in the nature and social organisation of labour. Yet these possibilities are not realised in capitalism. The development of technologically sophisticated production does not liberate people from fragmented and repetitive labour. Similarly, labour time is not reduced on a socially general level, but is distributed unequally, even increasing for many.

    This understanding of capitalism’s possibilities and constraints reconceptualises its historical overcoming in terms of the self-abolition of the proletariat and the labour it does, as well as the elimination of the dynamic system of abstract compulsion constituted by labour as a socially mediating activity. It points toward the possibility of a transformation of the general structure of labour and of time, thereby providing the basis for a critique of both the traditional Marxist notion of the “realisation” of the proletariat, as well as the capitalist mode of abolishing national working classes by creating an underclass within the framework of the unequal distribution of labour and of time, nationally and globally.

    Although the logically abstract level of analysis outlined here does not immediately address the issue of the specific factors underlying the structural transformations of the past thirty years, it can provide a framework within which those transformations can be grounded socially and understood historically. It provides the basis for an understanding of the non-linear developmental dynamic of modern society that could elucidate the gap between the actual organisation of social life and the way it could be organised, especially given the increasing importance of science and technology. This gap has been growing for forty years. It has become expressed socially in the division of the population into a post-industrial sector and one of increasing social, economic, and political marginalisation.

    This approach could also provide the basis for a critical theory of “actually-existing socialist” countries as alternative forms of capitalist accumulation, rather than as social modes that represented the historical negation of capital, in however imperfect a form. More generally, it seeks to free the critical theory of capitalism from the affirmation of statist forms of development with which it had been associated for much of the twentieth century. Inasmuch as it seeks to ground socially, and is critical of, the abstract quasi-objective social relations and the nature of production, work, and the imperatives of growth in capitalism, this approach could also begin to address many contemporary concerns, dissatisfactions and aspirations, expressed variously by a range of movements, in ways that could tie them to the development of capital – even if not in traditional class terms.

    By fundamentally rethinking the significance of value theory and reconceptualising the nature of capitalism, this interpretation changes the terms of discourse between critical theories of capitalism and other sorts of social theory. It implicitly suggests that an adequate critical theory of modernity should be a self-reflexive theory capable of overcoming the theoretical dichotomies of culture and material life, structure and action, while grounding socially the overarching non-linear directional dynamic of the modern world, its form of economic growth, and the nature and trajectory of its production process. That is, such a theory must be capable of providing a social account of the paradoxical features of modernity outlined above.

    In constituting a framework for addressing such issues, the interpretation I have outlined seeks to contribute to the discourse of contemporary critical social theory and to our understanding of the far-reaching transformations of our social universe.



    1. I would like to thank Mark Loeffler for valuable critical feedback.
    2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London, 1976), pp.166, 169.
    3. Ibid., p.125.
    4. Ibid., p.128 ff.
    5. Ibid., pp.131-139.
    6. Ibid., p.134.
    7. Ibid., p.130.
    8. Ibid., pp.129, 130, 136.
    9. Ibid., p. 129.
    10. Ibid.
    11. Ibid., pp.255-256.
    12. These themes have been developed extensively in Moishe Postone, Time Labor and Social Domination (Cambridge and New York, 1993).

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