Moishe Postone

This Monday I participated in a celebration of the life and work of my dissertation advisor, Moishe Postone, who fell victim to a specially aggressive cancer at way too young an age. Since I met Moishe there is not a day I have not thought about him. Whatever scholarly success I have met I owe in large part to Moishe.

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Moishe served as co-chair, with Michael Geyer, on my dissertation committee (PhD, U Chicago, History, ’99). And I blame him, in part, for my never landing an appointment in history. My dissertation (and then book) offered a socially and historically embedded account for why Max Weber’s predictions of secularization, institutionalization, and disenchantment failed to materialize and why the most vigorously capitalist social formations proved also to be the most “spiritual.” Moishe’s reading of GWF Hegel and K Marx provided an answer: the value form of the commodity is the sublime form theorized by Immanuel Kant and then retheorized by GWF Hegel.

Because he isolated the transcendental value form from its material form of appearance, Max Weber never fully appreciated how deeply this form penetrated his and Marianne’s Sonntagskreise. Weber believed that this transcendental experience, which he shared with, among many others, Ernst Bloch and Georg von Lukacs, intervened from outside the “iron cage.” I argued otherwise.

But now I lecture in economics. And I have often struggled with how to bring Moishe’s insights to bear on a field to which he himself was only tangentially related. What I have discovered is how closely Karl Marx’s notion of abstract value parallels the treatments of his near contemporaries, William Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras. Because by the 1860s it was already clear that abstract value was the substance mediating social relations. What distinguished Karl Marx’s research from theirs is that Marx recognized the social and historical specificity of this social form. And he recognized its dynamic internal structure. Think Phenomenology §§18-19 and how dynamic GWF Hegel’s misrecognized spirit is. Marx recognized this socio-historical connection. And, by contrast to so many Marxian social theorists, Moishe Postone saw what Marx saw, and what I now see.

But, apart from this uniquely capitalist spiritual form, Moishe was observant. He was Jewish in a way I was not. Embedded deep in my own family’s past, Weiman became Wyman, and Jews became Christians; or, rather, they became Unitarians and transcendentalists. Personally I have resisted “spirituality.” I am convinced it is a surrogate of the value form. Which is why I prefer to think of myself as observant, as religious, not spiritual.

I am not inviting my students to leap over their own shadows. I am inviting them to reflect critically about the possibilities of real emancipation facing them. Not because a “natural” or “naturalized” class removed from the commodity form has appeared in our midst, but because here, not elsewhere, they can chart a course forward from a domination they comprehend to a freedom that is not unconstrained. These constraints mean that the path lends itself to modeling.

In his rejection of unmediated explanations of emancipation and domination, I believe that Moishe prepared me to think critically about economics; yes, of course, always as a surface expression of deeper social mediations. But I think that what Moishe never entirely grasped or at least never expressed was the degree to which neoclassical economics had moved beyond the rigid categories fetishized by so-called “Marxist” and “Marxian” theorists. He never fully grasped or at least never expressed how deeply contemporary neoclassical economics is a science of the “self-moving substance that is subject.”

And, yet, this I also learned from my mentor Moishe Postone.

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