Robert Kurz and Moishe Postone: the critique of abstract labour

September 2nd, 2012

The following is an extract from a collection of essays called Vie et Mort du Capitalisme. The translators of the essays discussed a range of topics with Robert Kurz, as presented in the chapter called Theory of Marx, crisis and the supersession of capitalism (concerning the historical situation of the radical social critique). This talk was realised in May 2010 when this collection was published. The questions are those of the translators.

5. You , Robert Kurz , and Moishe Postone , of which Temps, travail et domination sociale has been published in French, develop two critiques of value which diverge on a central point. For you, with the gains of productivity, capital loses its substance (abstract work) and, with the third industrial revolution, it loses it absolutely. For Moishe Postone, on the contrary, the gains of productivity increase value, but provisionally. According to him, as soon as the gain of productivity has generalized itself, the growth of value is cancelled, the basic unity of abstract work (the hour of work) having been brought back to its initial level. Thus, for you, value is collapsing, whilst, for Postone, value is growing continually then comes back to its starting point. Hence the question: doesn’t that break down the plausibility of the critique of value? Or should we see in this a point undecided at the moment?

My common point with Postone is the critique of the concept of work conveyed by traditional marxism. The traditional vision has given to the purely negative critical and historical marxian concept of abstract labour a positive definition, by reinterpreting it as an eternal condition of humanity. What is lacking in Postone in the critique of abstract labour, it is the dimension of a theory of crisis -in this respect he remains traditional. A productivity which grows means that less human energy engenders more material products. That is why productivity never increases value, but always diminishes it, as Marx demonstrates it already in the first book of Capital. Those who pretend the contrary confuse the social level with the one of the economy of the firm, or confuse total capital with individual capital.

Individual capital increases its own productivity first in an isolated manner and acquires an advantage with competition. It offers the individual commodity at its best price, which permits it to sell more commodities and to realize for itself a greater part of the social mass of value. But that which, in terms of the economy of the firm appears as mere profit and, through this, a growing “creation of value” contributes , at the social level, to a diminution of value, and this at the expense of other individual capitals. From the moment that the increased productivity becomes widespread , innovative individual capital loses its advantage . But it is not a matter of a return to a point zero or to a previous starting point. (1) On the contrary , the augmented productivity transforms itself in a new general standard. The hour of work , as basic unity of abstract labour is always the same; it can’t have as such “different” levels. But the new standard of productivity imposes that less of these hours of abstract labour, always identical, be required for an increased mass of products. When, capital is devalued or destroyed , in the crisis, the standard of productivity reached remains the same, because it is inscribed in the aggregate that knowledge and know-how constitute.. (To say it simply: capitalism cannot go back from the standard of microelectronics to the use of the steam engine). A new growth of value becomes more and more difficult , from the moment that it must take place at an always higher level of productivity and, by the same token , to a new level of diminished substance of abstract labour. In the past , this constant diminution of value was always relative. Of course, with a standard of productivity always higher, the individual product could represent always less abstract labour and thus less value. But by the reduction of corresponding price , more and more old de luxe commodities have entered mass consumption – production and markets have increased.
In this manner , the relative diminution of the social substance of value by the individual product could nevertheless lead to an absolute growth of the global mass of value, because the increased social production mobilized globally more abstract labour that it was made superfluous in the fabrication of individual products
It is to this that is linked the mechanism that Marx calls “relative surplus-value”. The same process which reduced endlessly the relative part of the labour power (the only one to produce value) in the total capital reduces also – with the value of goods serving to the reproduction of this same labour power -the value of this one, thus making increase the relative part of surplus-value in the global production of value. But this is only worth in relation with each individual labour power. Now, what is determining for the social quantity of value and of surplus-value , is the relation between the growth of relative surplus-value by the individual labour power and the global number of labour powers which according to the standard of productivity , can be utilized socially. In the “Fragment on Machines”, Marx makes it known that, logically, that the increase of productivity must attain a point where it makes more labour superfluous that it can mobilize by the widening of the markets and of production . At this stage , even the growth of relative surplus- value by individual labour power becomes useless , because the number of labour powers which can be utilized globally falls too fast. One can demonstrate that this point, which Marx had anticipated abstractly, 
is reached at the same time in concrete terms and historically with the third industrial revolution. Apart from this , capital would have managed to mobilized on its own productive bases enough abstract labour and to increase the real production of value, instead of having to subsidize it, in an unprecedented measure , by getting into debt , financial bubbles and State credit. At all levels of capital, we are witnessing the shocks of devalorization. But there will be no return to some zero point starting from which this circus will be able to restart. today less than ever. On the contrary the cause of the disaster persist, that is to say : the new standard of irreversible productivity, laid down by the third industrial revolution.
That is to say there is no other possibility than the always new creation , by the States and by banks , of capital-money without substance and will collapse at more and more frequent intervals.

(1) Kurz is referring here to Chapter VIII of Moishe Postone’s, “Temps, travail et domination sociale”, Paris: Milles Et Une Nuit, 2009.

One Response to “Robert Kurz and Moishe Postone: the critique of abstract labour”

  1. NegPot Says:

    “The value of a commodity is, in itself, of no interest to the capitalist. What alone interests him, is the surplus-value that dwells in it, and is realisable by sale. Realisation of the surplus-value necessarily carries with it the refunding of the value that was advanced. Now, since relative surplus-value increases in direct proportion to the development of the productiveness of labour, while, on the other hand, the value of commodities diminishes in the same proportion; since one and the same process cheapens commodities, and augments the surplus-value contained in them; we have here the solution of the riddle: why does the capitalist, whose sole concern is the production of exchange-value, continually strive to depress the exchange-value of commodities? A riddle with which Quesnay, one of the founders of Political Economy, tormented his opponents, and to which they could give him no answer.

    “You acknowledge,” he says, “that the more expenses and the cost of labour can, in the manufacture of industrial products, be reduced without injury to production, the more advantageous is such reduction, because it diminishes the price of the finished article. And yet, you believe that the production of wealth, which arises from the labour of the workpeople, consists in the augmentation of the exchange-value of their products.” [7]

    The shortening of the working day is, therefore, by no means what is aimed at, in capitalist production, when labour is economised by increasing its productiveness. [8] It is only the shortening of the labour-time, necessary for the production of a definite quantity of commodities, that is aimed at. The fact that the workman, when the productiveness of his labour has been increased, produces, say 10 times as many commodities as before, and thus spends one-tenth as much labour-time on each, by no means prevents him from continuing to work 12 hours as before, nor from producing in those 12 hours 1,200 articles instead of 120. Nay, more, his working day may be prolonged at the same time, so as to make him produce, say 1,400 articles in 14 hours. In the treatises, therefore, of economists of the stamp of MacCulloch, Ure, Senior, and tutti quanti [the like], we may read upon one page, that the labourer owes a debt of gratitude to capital for developing his productiveness, because the necessary labour-time is thereby shortened, and on the next page, that he must prove his gratitude by working in future for 15 hours instead of 10. The object of all development of the productiveness of labour, within the limits of capitalist production, is to shorten that part of the working day, during which the workman must labour for his own benefit, and by that very shortening, to lengthen the other part of the day, during which he is at liberty to work gratis for the capitalist.”

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