Karl Marx and Labor Economics

At 1 today, in Room 60, Evans Hall, we will continue our special lecture series on Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: a reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993). In this close reading of Marx’s critical theory, Postone explores Marx’s mature theory against the backdrop of the growing irrelevance of traditional Marxian theory, on the one hand, and the potential of genuine emancipatory formations, on the other. Today’s presentation and lecture look closely at the work of Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer, both of whom were founding members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. Mr Postone was my dissertation advisor at the University of Chicago.

The special lecture series is nested in a course, Labor Economics (ECON 151), that explores the standard models economists use to gain a better understanding of the contours of labor markets in developed economies, specially in the U.S. For this purpose, we are using Ehrenberg and Smith’s Modern Labor Economics.

Ehrenberg and Smith’s text is very helpful for students who wish to gain a solid grasp of the field. Foot- and endnotes offer students opportunities for further reading. And the text itself is littered with helpful illustrations from history and current literature. And, yet, insofar as they methodologically restrict themselves to social formations mediated by  labor in the abstract, Ehrenberg and Smith do not explore those possibilities immanent in the capitalist social formation that point beyond societies mediated by such labor, by, for example, tradition, climate, religion, etc.

Postone’s text is helpful here because it uses Karl Marx’s critique of labor to show how abstract labor and the value arising out of labor is proving increasingly anachronistic. This, of course, was already the case in the late 1850s and 1860s when Marx developed his mature social theory. It is even more so today. Innovation has generated huge efficiencies, efficiencies that might, under other circumstances, be distributed socially to reclaim pockets of time and interest that, under capitalism, are simply plowed back into the endless, sisyphean production of ever more efficiencies while passing the benefits on to a very limited number of individuals. This is not to say that all do not benefit in one way or another from these efficiencies, but that, on different grounds, critical reflection on these efficiencies and their social distribution may help economists to imagine alternative futures where abstract labor no longer mediates social relations.

As Postone notes, this distinguishes Marx’s mature social theory from traditional Marxism, which, not unlike standard contemporary economic theory, tends to assume that labor is necessarily a central factor in any system of production. For Marx, by contrast, capitalism creates the possibility — but no more than the possibility — for “labor” in the specifically capitalist sense to be aufhebungen, to be superseded by other forms of social mediation. Another dimension that distinguishes Marx’s mature social theory both from traditional Marxism and from standard contemporary economic theory is that whereas these presuppose a comprehensive, integrated social formation where all social action is mediated by abstract labor, Marx invites us to imagine a social formation whose mediations are much more dispersed and partial, not total, not comprehensive, not universal. This supersession of the comprehensive, integrated totality created by capitalism (and by labor under capitalism) also offers us to reflect critically on the variety of mediations — art, religion, family, nature, music — that might mediate social relations in addition to work and necessity.

This perspective could be central to any consideration of labor economics; and yet it is not. Our challenge is to show why reintroducing this perspective into the curriculum may help us to think through in a far more rigorous way many of the most challenging problems presented by labor to economic theory in the twenty-first century.

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