The book is based on the author's dissertation for Fachbereich Gesellschaftswissenschaften at the J. W. Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, and the writing style is dialectic. This style may discourage some Anglo-American readers who prefer what they regard as the 'straight line of argument', but there are some things in this world that may better be elucidated by dialectics. Following is my note of the book.
This book is, as its subtitle says, a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory, and departs from the traditional Marxism. The traditional Marxism is defined as follows:
all theoretical approaches that analyze capitalism from the standpoint of labor and characterize that society essentially in terms of class relations, structured by private ownership of the means of production and a market-regulated economy. Relations of domination are understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. (p. 7)
While the traditional Marxism is a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor, this reinterpretation is a critique of labor in capitalism (p. 5). Capitalism, in turn, is conceptualized "in terms of a historically specific form of social interdependence with an impersonal and seemingly objective character" (p. 3). Analysis of this seemingly objective social interdependence constitutes a critical assessment of "the form of modern society itself" (p. 66).
One of the important features of modern society that is critically assessed is social domination that capitalism imposes upon us.
People are dominated by capitalism they made and maintain, which is driven by capital that promotes production of commodities. In other words, people are alienated (p. 30) because the Subject of their history in their society is not them, but capital. I'll explain how specifically capital becomes the Subject of modern society below.
Our analysis of capitalism should start from the fundamental level, value, as it affects the more specific levels.
According to Marx, value in capitalistic society, commodity value (Warenwerte), a more exact term I prefer (See p. 52 ofDas Kapitel I) , has two factors: use value and exchange value (Please refer to articles: Marx's dialectics according to David Harvey http://yosukeyanase.blogspot.jp/2012/08/marxs-dialectics-according-to-david.html, and (if you can read Japanese) On the commodity according to Marx http://yanaseyosuke.blogspot.jp/2012/08/blog-post_14.html) . For reasons I don't understand, Postone doesn't use the term of exchange value very often, and often contrasts use value and value. But his point is clear: the contrast between the value that is qualitatively different for each individual (use value) and (commodity) value that is standardized socially and quantitative for measurement.
Capitalistic society is unique in that it prioritizes (commodity) value over use value, for in order to produce something as a commodity for living (either as goods or service), people need to produce it for exchange in a far more amount than they need for themselves. Value of a commodity in capitalistic society is seen mostly as exchange value for people in general in society rather than as use value for its producer. Value as commodity value is more social and abstract than individual and specific.
As Marx says, "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities'; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. (Penguin translation of Das Kapitel, p.125), and we begin to disregard the material side of use value and prize the social side of (commodity) value. Wealth in capitalistic societies is less about material wealth than socially constituted value.
On the other hand, in capitalistic societies where wealth results from socially constituted relations, people produce commodities for exchange value and are engaged more in abstract labor.
Abstract human labor, or abstract labor, is measured by "socially necessary labor time."
So in capitalistic societies where people produce commodities for exchange whose value as wealth is measured by the unit of the socially necessary labor time, people's work is estimated more as abstract labor than as concrete labor. In capitalism, concrete labor that is directly for material wealth matters less , and people must be engaged in abstract labor even when they may already have plenty of material wealth for themselves, for they have no means of living other than earning money for purchasing commodities they need by producing commodities they can produce whether it is goods or service. They earn money in proportion to the 'value' of capitalism that is determined by the socially necessary time as abstract labor.
But it is not true that capitalistic societies estimate only abstract labor, abstract time and (commodity) value. Abstract labor/concrete labor, abstract time/concrete time and use value as wealth/(commodity) value are in dialectical dynamic.
Commodities are the medium of this dialectical dynamic. This is why Marx put the chapter on the commodity at the beginning of Capital as the most important part.
It is absolutely critical that unlike other forms of societies, capitalistic societies makes social relations "objective" or "object-like" by commodities, money, and capital. Being objective or object-like, our relations become abstract, formal, homogeneous, standardized, and only quantitative.
Measured mathematically, labor and time of people are turned into commodities, and ultimately into money as the medium for universal exchange. Postone summarizes Marx.
A capitalistic society is mediated human labor and time that takes the form of commodities that are universally exchanged with money, a quantitative unit of measurement.
Furthermore, money changes into capital in capitalism. A producer may only use money to purchase what he needs: Exchange of Commodity 1 (C1) --say, his labor power-- with money (M) and then another exchange of M with Commodity 2 (C2) --what he purchases. He may be happy in this exchange of C1-M-C2 as long as he is ready to give C1 for C2, which are qualitatively different and not exactly comparable in quantity. However, for a capitalist, exchange is M1-C-M2 (he first invests money (M1) to produce a commodity (C) and receives money (M2) in return. Here, the comparison between the start (M1) and the end (M2) are purely quantitative, for they are not qualitatively different at all. If M2 he receives for M1 is equal in amount, there is no point of investing. M2 must be more than M1, and added quantity is called surplus value. Using the formula of M-C-M' to mean what I wrote as M1-C-M2, Postone says.
The movement of capital is without limit, without end. As self-valorizing value, it appears as pure process. In dealing with the category of capital, then, one is dealing with a central category of a society that becomes characterized by a constant directional movement with no determinate external telos, a society driven by production for the sake of production, by a process that exists for the sake of process. This expansion, this ceaseless motion is, within the framework of Marx's analysis, intrinsically related to the temporal dimension of value. (p. 269)
Surplus value, assessed only quantitatively not qualitatively, is now both the end and the means of capitalistic societies. Surplus value drives capitalistic societies as the agent and subject.
Labor, understood as a useful interaction with nature to get what people need in non-capitalistic societies, is now abstract labor standardized according to the objective abstract time in capitalism. As we rely more on commodities for survival than on our own concrete, useful labor, we become standardized according to abstract labor and time to earn money, and involved in capitalism as a means of ever-increasing drive of capital. We are driven to produce commodities endlessly.
We no longer own or control our labor and production. We don't labor or produce for ourselves but for capitalism. Our labor and production are now separated from our life. We're alienated by and from our own labor and production.
As laborers, we may labor long or short, but not valued by our specific work; We are only valued by the framework of capitalism: abstract labor and abstract labor. We are subsumed in capitalism.
... Marx analyzes the subsumption of individuals under abstract objective structures as a feature of the social form grasped by the category of capital. (p. 192)
This is how Postone criticizes labor; "Labor itself constitutes a social mediation in leau of overt social relations" (p. 150); "In other words, labor grounds its own social character in capitalism by virtue of its historically specific function as a socially mediating activity. In that sense, Labor in capitalism becomes its own social ground (p. 151)
Commodities and money started as means for the life of people. But as they develop into the media that constitutes capitalistic societies and move for their own life, not necessarily for the life of people. We may no longer be using commodities and money; commodities and money may be using us. We may be objectively dominated by a capitalistic society we live and work in.
Domination of people in capitalism is abstract and impersonal, unlike the domination by capitalists which the traditional Marxism assumed.
We are not only dominated but also propelled to work harder through the dialectic of capitalism. Because value is primarily determined by abstract labor time, not by concrete labor that produce material wealth, our value is diminished every time our productivity is increased through the introduction and spread of machines, for example. Because of the innovation, we may produce twice as much as we used to in terms of material wealth, but as we produce it half the amount of abstract time now, the material wealth produced after the innovation has only half the value, and we have to expend twice as much abstract labor time to earn the same value in the form of money. The innovation produces twice as much material wealth, but it also forces us to labor twice as much. We labor more, but we may not be all the happier. This is the treadmill effect of capitalism.
Because of the treadmill effect of capitalism, our history may now be unidirectional: people are to work harder to sustain capitalism.
What I have called the "appropriation" of the use value dimension by that of value thus can be seen as a process in which the use value dimension is structured by means of the sort of formal rationality whose source is the value dimension. The result is the tendency in modern life which Weber described in terms of the growing (formal) rationalization of all spheres of life, and which Horkheimer sought to articulate in terms of the growing instrumentalization of the world. Because this process increasingly involves the substantive dimension of labor and social life -- that is, the administrative rationalization of both production and the institutions of social and political life in postliberal capitalism -- Horkheimer located its source in labor per se. However, the ultimate ground of this substantive development is not the concrete dimension of labor but, rather, its value dimension. (p. 354)
We are forced to labor harder and controlled more, but we are not alone that are dominated and affected by capitalistic drive. The earth is, too.
We should control capitalism, not be controlled by it. We certainly can control it, for it is we that constitute capitalism. Postone concludes Chapter 9 as follows.