Hope (in theory)

After a long hiatus, we finally reviewed PRESENTATION 31 today. PRESENTATION 31 covers chapters 7 and 8 of Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Immediately following the lecture a student texted “Your lecture today made me feel like a beautiful soul. I mean that in a complimentary way.” And so there is hope (in theory).

The problem raised by Presentation 31 is how capitalism might give rise — not politically by way of political intervention, but internally out of its own social logic — to its own supercession. This K Marx finds in the expanding gulf between material wealth and abstract value. Material wealth is the things we make and consume, however frivolous or necessary, “material” or “intellectual” or “aesthetic.” Material wealth is the “substance” of what we make and consume. Abstract value, by contrast, is the substance that relates all factors of production to one another, e.g., human capital to the commodities produced to the fixed capital used to produce these products to the finance capital leveraged to finance production, etc. Abstract value, by definition, lacks specificity. It is, simply, capital. It is for “abstract value” that anything is produced at all under capitalism. No marginal benefit, no product; it is that simple.

Yet, since it is the aim of every producer to reduce the cost of production, by reducing factor costs, there is an implicit compulsion to replace human labor with robotics, cybernetics, mechanization. That is to say, there is an implicit, systemic rationality to produce wealth in order to maximize value. The only problem is that whenever any innovation becomes socially generalized, it sets the “value meter” back to zeros. The good news is that this intrinsic capitalist logic has generated immense material wealth. Graphically, we need to imagine two lines that begin on the left at zero, but from there diverge, the top line climbing more steeply than the bottom line which cannot climb any more rapidly than the population of actual workers wealth over labor time = productivity. The bad news is that with every innovative plateau, the value of labor returns to zeros across the board.

K Marx invites us to think about this divergence of material wealth from the labor necessary to create that wealth as an “immanent contradiction” within capitalism. It is immanent — as opposed to external — because the contradiction arises within capitalism itself. So, for example, we can think of the shortening of the working day and the working week as evidence that we are creating more with less; which is the definition of productivity. But this also suggests that material wealth is growing increasingly independent from labor. Labor is becoming increasingly obsolete.

Neo-classical economists — left, right, and center — view this as a disaster. We need full employment. Why? Because value arises out of labor. Should unemployment rise to unacceptable levels this would place downward pressures on consumption, leave inventories unconsumed on shelves, place downward pressures on prices, and, therefore, place downward pressures on wages. Left, right, and center, neoclassical economists agree — unemployment is bad.

According to M Postone, K Marx invites us to think about this gap between material wealth and abstract value differently. This gap clearly shows that wealth is not dependent on labor. This is not bad news. It is good news.

The bad news is that our society is mediated by labor. All of our laws, regulations, and institutions are bent to accommodate a society where labor (implicitly) is the source of value, and where value (not wealth), is the driving impulse behind innovation and efficiency. At the very moment that abstract value is becoming increasingly obsolete — because of innovation, mechanization, cybernetics, robotics, AI — we are politically, legallystructurally making sure that cannot walk away. Why? Not because labor is the source of material wealth. Evidently it is not. But because it is the source of abstract value.

In my summarization of M Postone’s work, this growing gap between wealth and value is leading to several social pathologies:

  • A  shrinking industrial sector; this is widely viewed as bad by neoclassical economists while, in fact, in should be viewed as a good;
  • The expansion of the low-skill, low-wage service sector; these are jobs that could easily be mechanized or self-managed (as with self-check-out), but for which we often employ human capital to lower cost — there are some tasks that even machines will not perform
  • The pursuit of abstract value at the expense of the conditions that make it possible; this is perhaps the most serious pathology. Our material world is screaming that it cannot sustain further depredations to produce increasing returns on investment — and, yet, abstract value is so central a determinant in our social formation that we will destroy the world in order to maintain the forced relationship between wealth and abstract value
  • Finally, although the production of wealth no longer requires such massive amounts of human labor, we are willing to expand our carcéral, policing, and military apparatus in order to fix the relationship between wealth and labor, wealth and abstract value. Humans who are no longer needed for the production of wealth, instead of being employed as artists, musicians, naturalists, fathers, mothers, caretakers, citizens are instead herded into prisons or into wars to preserve the relationship of wealth to value.

But, the point — the hopeful point — is that, thanks to capitalism, we now enjoy a compressive, integrated grasp of how the entire system works. We now see it as a total system. And so we also appreciate why it cannot take us to the next stage. On its own terms, capitalism will degrade human beings. It will destroy the environment. It will deliver ever larger segments of the population to ever more meaningless and dangerous occupations, simply to produce more abstract value — because we feel that this is required by natural law, by the way things work, naturally.

The most pressing task for economists today is to carefully think through the next phase. What happens when labor is not necessary? Or when minimal labor is necessary? We have mastered the world. We know how it works. We now know what is necessary. What now?

In the Preface to his Philosophy of Right, GWF Hegel pens a curious observation:

When philosophy paints its grey in grey,
then has a shape of life grown old.
By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood.
The owl of Minerva spreads its wings
only with the falling of dusk.

One way to interpret this observation is to note that we now really do understand our world. But understanding the world does not tell us where we go from here. Minerva has spread her wings. She has flown. We need to understand where she might alight next. I am guessing that it is in a world no longer governed by the necessary relationship between labor and value.

Perhaps that is hopeful thinking.

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