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.