As anthropologists, we strive to speak up for the often marginalized and underprivileged populations we study. Aiming to do so rigorously by heeding the structures that create and reproduce the injustices we witness, many of us have found our way to the critique of capitalism by Karl Marx and his followers. Moishe Postone introduced cohorts of anthropologists and others who were drawn to his cross-disciplinary courses at the University of Chicago to Marx and critical theory. While his writings have inspired scholars and activists worldwide and across the social sciences and humanities, Postone had also paved a path from Marxian theory to empirical critique that ethnographic fieldwork is well poised to accomplish.
This path sets off with a reading of Marx’s mature writings as revealing an underlying dynamic of accumulation, concealed by a host of mediations. It winds through a criticism of anticapitalist sentiments that take these mediating forms of appearance, rather than their sources, as their starting point. And it concludes with a proposition for an alternative, “immanent” critique.
In his magnum opus, Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993), Postone traces the underlying dynamic of capitalism as one of ongoing accumulation—the production of surplus value—through a form of interdependence in which work and exchange are valued by, and thereby fashioned in reference to, socially necessary labor time. This is the average labor time that is necessary, within the prevailing constellation of material conditions and social relations, to produce the commodities with which these interactions are intertwined. That average labor time regulates the process of production as well as consumption, and by extension the institutions that grow out of them, implies the embedding of particular and seemingly discrete events and practices in a historically specific social totality. Indeed, this totality also reembeds precapitalist ties and powers (from family through ethnicity and religion to various political orders and hierarchies), reorienting them toward an impersonal form of domination that subjects their members to accumulation-driven imperatives and pressures.
Despite being a composite of everyone’s investments and expenditures, the social totality of capitalism dominates through a “treadmill effect” (Postone 1993: 289) that bars our accelerating productivity from effectuating genuine transformation—just as if we were running on a treadmill. Specifically, the competitive pressures it generates lead to incremental upsurges in productivity. Greater productivity in any given line of production reduces the time necessary to produce its commodities, and profit accrues to the producer who beats the average production time. But the advantage lasts only so long: competition makes other producers catch up, and a new base level of productivity is determined for the branch. And so, each unit of labor time in the branch goes back to producing as much value as it has before.
Magnified to encompass production in its entirety, this dynamic yields ever-greater amounts of wealth, but not higher levels of value per time unit. It therefore reconstitutes an undiminished necessity for labor-time expenditure, no matter how much wealth is out there or how technologically advanced its production. Indeed, the higher the standards of productivity, the more they must nevertheless be raised to generate a determinate increase in surplus value—intensifying therein the exploitation of work and the extraction of natural and human resources. Owing to this dynamic, which is determined by accumulation and enforced by competition, much of the wealth produced cannot be absorbed back into the society that produced it, and it is subsequently unequally appropriated, hoarded, and periodically destroyed.
Postone reads Marx by way of the mediations through which the capitalist dynamic operates, underscoring their relation to accumulation. So, profit draws attention to the amounts of capital forwarded toward its generation, concealing the surplus value from which it is carved up and distributed. Money, an externalization of abstract value in the form of a universal equivalent, seems like a conventional means of exchanging desired goods. Commodities, likewise mediations of abstract labor, appear to be these desired goods (or use values) that also have exchange value, while value reveals itself as wealth distributed by the market according to supply and demand, obscuring the measure of socially necessary labor time it represents. We encounter capital and labor in their embodied form, as capitalist and proletarian class entities with discrete, self-generated agendas, even as they are inhabitable social practices, antagonistically organized around the production of surplus value. Labor, in particular, appears as a foundational wealth-producing activity, whereas it only gains social significance in its abstract form, as labor-time expenditure calculated in reference to the totality of production (Postone 1993, 1998).
Reading Marx in this way, Postone shows how these mediations, in their relative tangibility, acquire life of their own, influencing individual thought and collective action. He pinpoints the limitations of sentiments and movements that understand themselves to be opposing capitalism but that launch their opposition from the standpoint of such surface appearances. This applies first and foremost to those who target the injustices of market distribution in the name of a proletariat (or a national community, or whatever other social group they deem foundational) that, if only liberated from fragmentation and exploitation, would receive all the wealth it produces; a sentiment that has no teeth against the structures it opposes because of its blindness to the dynamic that constructs and empowers these structures in the first place. A current variant of this sentiment is the widespread rage against the finance sector as rent-seeking and parasitic, in the name of a supposedly healthy, productive form of capitalism—disregarding the mutual constitution of production and finance as complimentary factors of accumulation (Postone 2012).
Postone explains these sentiments in terms of a fetishizing (that is, considering as real and foundational) of forms in which capitalism’s mediations appear on the surface. So, in the modern anti-Semitic thought that flourished in Europe against the fallouts of rapid industrialization, failure to recognize the sources of the abstract domination of capital led many to identify its nebulous and slippery power with what they deemed the elusive, conspiratorial powers of a rootless “International Jewry,” undermining the social health of the nation (Postone 1986, 2003). A very different example is how, in the late 1960s, as workers were becoming deeply implicated in the goals and institutions of capital, the focus by many leftist movements shifted to concrete expressions of domination such as military violence or bureaucratic police-state power—often identified with US imperialism—which further occluded the domination of capital, just as it was becoming less state-centric and thereby even more abstract (Postone 2006).
Reading Postone through the lens of anthropology, we cannot help seeing these false turns in the opposition to capitalism as a challenge for an empirical science like ours. The first thing we encounter as ethnographers in our respective field sites are surface appearances—indeed, appearances in which we are often ourselves implicated. How, then, can we get past them to launch a sustained critique?
Recall that, in Postone’s reading of Marx, the absence of general prosperity amid material plenty is primarily the result not of unjust distribution (though there’s plenty of that too) but of accelerated productivity generating greater wealth while at the same time reconstituting the necessity for labor-time expenditure. It is a conflict-ridden and contradictory dynamic that engenders the possibility of another organization of social life while it also hinders such possibility from being realized. To get to the roots of empirically overwhelming predicaments, it is this dynamic that ought to be targeted, and the contradictions animating it exposed. The point would be to show how what operates in the capitalist world as a social totality is neither unitary nor necessary. Postone calls this “immanent” critique (1993: 87–89), because it is not issued from a standpoint prior or external to capitalism. Rather, it mines the contradictory and transformative potential nested within capitalism itself.
There are different ways in which immanent critique could proceed, but ethnographic fieldwork, despite its vulnerability to appearances and mediations, can be among the most effective of them. Because capitalism’s forms of appearance have become institutionalized and powerful in their own right, tracing the workings of these institutions alone cannot suffice. As well, given their hold on thought and perception, analysis of public discourse and the eliciting of data from interviews are likely to reproduce fetishized versions of these forms. But good ethnographic fieldwork, informed by an understanding of how capitalism works, can triangulate analysis of institutions and interview data with long-term grounded observation of what people do in their framework, and locate moments in which informants’ expectations do not line up with the outcomes of their actions. Such an endeavor would bring to the fore the tensions and contradictions that, on the one hand, betray a dynamic whose consequences stray from the goals of the people caught up in it and, on the other, underscore the unfulfilled promises of the very same dynamic.
Realizing ethnography’s potential in this way can be as challenging as grappling with Moishe Postone’s oeuvre, but both are good ways of avoiding quick and facile “solutions” to injustices that fail to address their underlying causes. My own experience has been that critical sensibilities are sharpened thereby. Moishe Postone has opened my eyes to Marxian thought and guided me in the writing of my dissertation, but his mentorship extended beyond my graduate studies. To this day, like so many of my colleagues and comrades in anthropology and beyond, I can trace my strongest and most deep-cutting revelations to the things he taught me.
Hadas Weiss is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, whose work focuses on the social underpinnings and fallouts of financialization in Israel and Germany.
Postone, Moishe. 1986. “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” In Germans and Jews Since the Holocaust, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Jack Zipes, 302–314. New York: Holmes & Meier.
Postone, Moishe. 1993. Time, labor and social domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Postone, Moishe. 1998. “Rethinking Marx (in a Postmarxist world).” In Reclaiming the sociological classics, ed. Charles Camic, 45–80. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Postone, Moishe. 2003. “The Holocaust and the trajectory of the twentieth century.” In Catastrophe and meaning, ed. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner, 81–114. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Postone, Moishe. 2006. “History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism.” Public Culture 18 (1): 93–110. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-18-1-93.
Postone, Moishe. 2012. “Thinking the global crisis.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (2): 227–249. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-1548194.
Cite as: Weiss, Hadas. “Reflections on Moishe Postone’s legacy for anthropology.” FocaalBlog, 11 April. www.focaalblog.com/2018/04/11/hadas-weiss-reflections-on-moishe-postones-legacy-for-anthropology.