Friday, November 5, 2021

Capital itself is the moving contradiction

 The phrase quoted in the title is probably the most well-known in the Grundrisse. It has been cited in books and journal articles at least a hundred times, an order of magnitude more frequently that the alternative translation found in the collected works, "capital itself is a contradiction-in-process," It is also a centerpiece of Moishe Postone's Time, Labor and Social Domination, where Postone quotes the sentence that contains it twice, in full: 

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition -- question of life or death -- for the necessary.

When I read that quotation a little over 22 years ago, I was awestruck. I rushed to find a copy of the Grundrisse to savor the sentence in context and discovered a citation of The Source and Remedy at the end of Marx's paragraph. I was fortunate to live in a big city with a big university library where I could ferret out a microfilm copy of the 1821 pamphlet Marx had allegedly "rescued from its oblivion." 

Actually, as I explained in "The Ambivalence of Disposable Time," the pamphlet was rescued by the Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature, with a big assist from Cambridge professor Herbert Foxwell, I should add.

Postone's interpretation of the passage from the Grundrisse was riveting and I feel a bit sheepish about taking issue with it all these years later. My criticism may sound like nit-picking but hear me out. Postone had interpreted, "increase it in the superfluous form" to mean increase superfluous labour time. His interpretation is consistent with how it was translated in the collected works version. But the more ambiguous "in the superfluous form" in the Penguin translation is more consistent with Marx's original German.

Am I splitting hairs? Not really. The superfluous form leaves open the possibility that the opposite of "labour time in the necessary form" could be either superfluous labour time or superfluous not-labour time (or both simultaneously). What motivated my variant interpretation was Marx's elaboration of the contradiction of the superfluous and the necessary in what I call the first two fragments on machines on pages 397-401 and 608-610 of the Penguin edition.

My interpretation is consistent with the emphasis that Marx gave to the question of surplus population and surplus capital in those two earlier fragments, as well as in his discussions in Capital of the general law of capitalist accumulation and the internal contradictions of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Postone's interpretation, I believe, lends itself to a more optimistic, Utopian cast to the cataclysmic "blowing up" of the foundation of "the social individual":

Forces of production and social relations - two different sides of the development of the social individual - appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

To be sure, Marx insisted on the necessity of a social revolution to positively move beyond the contradictions of capitalism. But there is a darker possibility, especially in light of the first and second fragments on machines. 

Postone's student, Fabian Arzuaga explored this grim scenario in his essay, "Socially necessary superfluity: Adorno and Marx on the crises of labor and the individual" that I mentioned in an earlier post. Especially relevant is his section, "Producing 'socially unnecessary' human beings" although his whole discussion of Adorno's thesis of the "liquidation of the individual" is also horrifying in light of our contemporary malaise of cult fanaticism.

This is not to say I deny the emancipatory potential. It is only that I do not see it as following "logically" from Marx's analysis of the development of the contradictions inherent in capitalism. Not only will the revolution not be televised, it will not be endogenous.

To be continued...


Anonymous said...

November 9, 2020

Opening Up New Frontiers for Marxist Political Economy in Contemporary China

For Marxist political economy to remain vital, it must evolve with the times. Practice is the source of theory. In the space of mere decades, we have completed a process of development that took centuries for developed countries. Behind all our incredible progress and achievements in economic development have been the tremendous momentum, vigor, and potential of theoretical innovation.

Xi Jinping

Anonymous said...

I think the passage by Xi goes far to help in interpreting Marx and your terrific writing in turn. You are superb.

Anonymous said...

Adorno's thesis of the "liquidation of the individual" is also horrifying in light of our contemporary malaise of cult fanaticism.

[ After a few readings, I just do not understand this passage. As for Marx and labor emancipation with productivity or advance of technology, I find that entirely reasonable or to be expected in a social democracy. ]

DJK said...

I don’t think you are splitting hairs and agree that Postone’s take is mote optimistic than your own (though still reading). But I think I’d refrain from calling his position utopian. It does seem like a, if not the, logical outcome of the development of the means of production and their contradiction with capitalist social relations. Perhaps one might suggest today that the other side of the contradiction, the pessimistic side, is something more like the kind of feudal rent extraction via either monopoly or monopsony that seems at the heart of Google, Facebook, Amazon etc business plans rather than any kind of return to C19 competitive capitalism. These sort of public utility services might be best brought into public ownership. Smaller scale units might be transferred to worker control - one thinks of the bike courier co-ops as good examples. I’m not sure if Anonymous’ suggestion that this can be done via Social Democracy is feasible as production would be for social need not profit is feasible (I sort of doubt it). But maybe that’s not important. The point is that the potential Marx identifies is there. To me, this is the great advantage of Postone’s and the post-workerists’ theories - value is specific to capitalism and is not eternal. Here is an overlap with value form theory. But Postone and the post-workerists seem to me to see the value contradiction becoming sharper as capital develops the means of production and reduces necessary labour within the capitalist mode of production for its own reasons. An emancipatory possibility opens up. If we can take it.

Anonymous said...

DJK, really helpful and interesting comment.

Anonymous said...

Not only will the revolution not be televised, it will not be endogenous.

[ That is precisely what Xi Jinping has been making clear and why China persists in opening no matter American pressure to reverse. This is very, very important as applied theory. ]

Sandwichman said...

Thanks, Anonymous and DJK.

I should clarify that I don't mean Utopian in a pejorative sense, although it has acquired that connotation in the supposed contrast between "Utopian" and "Scientific" socialism.