How we interpret “Late Capitalism” depends in large measure on what we feel are its defining characteristics. One way we can shed light on the ways these characteristics shape how we interpret late capitalism is to take the widely held, “traditional,” interpretation of late capitalism and see how it shapes our understanding of the last half century of global economic history. Notwithstanding the variety of interpretations we are examining in GEOG 170, the traditional interpretation intrudes at several points, either as foil, or as foundation, for how we interpret late capitalism.
For example, if I feel that capitalism is characterized by the contradiction between forces and relations of production, late capitalism will display characteristics that are plausibly leading to the end of this contradiction. If I feel that the forces of production are the socialized industrial working class and that the relations of production are the individual private property relations, then I am likely to feel that ending this contradiction is likely to entail the socialized working class overcoming or defeating the institutions or individuals who embody or otherwise support private property relations.
Most of the scholars we are reading explicitly or implicitly embrace this some features of this basic, traditional, interpretation of capitalism. To this basic understanding Wallerstein and Jessop add the conclusion that capitalism could not exist without the anti-market, the state, whose coercion is needed to create the fictitious commodity labor. This is consistent with the traditional understanding insofar as it lays the foundation, once labor is no longer a commodity, for labor to reclaim its social character from the private relations to which it has illegitimately been subjected. In either case, one side in the dynamic relationship, labor, will overcome the central contradiction within late capitalism by defeating the other.
Postone faults this traditional understanding on several related grounds. First, if labor is constituted by its relationship to capital, then he finds it difficult to explain how labor’s vantage-point holds the potential of overcoming the contradiction between it and capital without overcoming itself (along with its vantage-point). Second, if labor is constituted by this relationship then Postone finds it hard to explain how this relationship confers to labor a valid interpretation of this relationship–an interpretation beyond simple opposition or conflict. Third, if labor reconstitutes itself as labor following its defeat of capital, then Postone does not see how it could help but reconstitute the very contradiction its victory should have overcome. But, as a gloss on all three of these, Postone feels that the dynamic contradiction within capitalism is constituted by labor, and that, because labor is the source of this contradiction, it cannot also be the agent of its overcoming.
“Late Capitalism” from this vantage-point takes shape at those junctures where labor’s role in reproducing capitalism is exposed as a form of social, not economic, domination. This form of self-domination, however, constitutes a social form in which labor is rendered increasingly obsolete. The increasingly obsolete role played by labor opens up the possibility of ending this unique form of social domination by terminating the value-constituting role that labor is socially compelled to play. However, in order to realize this possibility, social actors need to actively reshape the practices, understandings and institutions that habitually reinscribe labor into this role. In other words, we cannot expect history to perform this separation of labor from capital on our behalf since, after all, we compose history through our actions.
This alternative reading of “Late Capitalism” presents a social scientifically powerful tool not only for understanding the nature of our own self-domination, but also for rethinking how we might transition from this unique form of self-domination to a social form or to social forms that yield greater determinate freedom than capitalism.