Last night I came across this interview with Moishe Postone via Ross Wolfe’s Charnel House blog. I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t seen it before—it’s definitely an example of Postone at his best, and (like many of his other interviews and shorter articles) brings into relief the positive political dimensions that are often missed if one sticks to Time, Labor, and Social Domination alone.
One of the more difficult conceptualizations at the heart of Time, Labor, and Social Domination is that Postone posits not simply one temporality unique to the capitalist mode of production, but two that unfold in a dialectical relationship. On the one side, there is ‘abstract time’, which operates like the new sense of time ushered in by Kant: it is “uniform, continuous, homogenous, ’empty’ time'” that serves as an “independent variable” with respect to events. On the other side, ‘concrete time’, the time of events, processes, cycles and movements—historical time as “dependent variable”.
In this interview, Postone’s interlocutors—Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda—pose the question of how this particular dialectic can be applied in a way that allows us to understand the dynamics of capital in the present moment:
You indicated that with the development of technology an hour of work can become intensified, denser, condensed and such that there is specific relation between to historically determined forms of time, so there seems to be a quantitative intensification that may ultimately even lead to a qualitative leap into the converse direction, such that at one point this is precisely where there might even arise a possibility for overcoming and liberating the worker from work, when technology reaches a point where the worker is no longer needed? Would you agree with this trivializing reconstruction? If so or even if not so, how does your analysis of time in and under capitalism relate to analyses of contemporary capitalism that seek to demonstrate how capitalism subtracts one or maybe even more than one dimension of time, such that there is a peculiar absence not only of future (as the no-future attitude asserts), but rather of a proper present (and therefore even of a proper past)?
to which Postone offers this rich and stimulating response:
The time(s) of capital are of a complex dynamic, that entails at one and the same time ongoing and accelerating transformations, which are not only technological but of all spheres of life on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the reconstitution of the fundamental basis of capital itself. That process of reconstitution of the basis of capitalism within the framework of Marx’s critique is the reconstitution of labour, not only as the source of the value form of wealth but, relatedly, of labour as the necessary socially mediating activity which gives rise to an entire structure of abstract domination. I suggested that people tend to view only one dimension of this complex dialectic: either they notice that the more things change the more they remain the same, everything is just this constant featureless desert of the present, or they become very excited about everything solid melting into air, about how everything is acceleration. The actual trajectory of capital’s development within the framework of the theory, as I understand it – and this is particularly powerful – should not be understood with reference to the one nor the other but as both at the same time. This means that it is not a linear development. There are growing shearing pressures, as one would say in physics, that are internal to the system. Both the form of production and the sense of historically constituted possibilities have to be understood with reference to what I call the shearing pressures of capitalist developments. Does this make sense?
One of the things that is interesting to me here is the way that Postone’s description of these two sides intentionally nods to distinct theoretical currents, by extension revealing the way in which what is offered as a theoretical reading is in fact the incomplete crystallization of some objective tendency. The static, frozen eternity of the present—this is the situation measured with equal parts dread and delight by Baudrillard, where capital’s furious compulsions to deterritorialization gives way to the motionlessness of the hyperreal. The other side, meanwhile, is the purview of the various accelerationisms (and indeed, Hamza and Ruda raise the question of accelerationism directly): not the cool desert of simulation and simulacra, but the liquid-hot torrents of development driving History itself to undergo escalating compression.
In a way, these two vantage points can be broadened beyond these distinct theoretical currents to the conceptual epochs that capitalism has often been divided into. Baudrillard’s hyperreal is, of course, ultimately a diagnosis of postmodernism, and effectively pushes Jameson’s conclusions—postmodernism as a cultural timelessness triggered by the advent of a global and financialized ‘late capitalism’—to an apocalyptic extreme, where terms like ‘post-‘ and ‘late’ can hardly even apply. Accelerationism, meanwhile, is all about modernity: each of its own internal currents, regardless of the contention they may regard one another with, seeks out identification with the processes of modernization, or more properly, seeks to reclaim the combustive energy of modernity in the face of the postmodern condition.
By denying the superiority of one of these positions against the other, and by tying them to a multi-faceted temporal dynamic oscillating in the heart of capitalism itself, Postone thus denies the logic that slates ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’ into a linear and successive framework. What was previously a rigid periodization is thus folded and twisted back on itself, producing the odd architecture of a contradiction-riven model of history, characterized by ruptures as much as by continuity.
The first two posts on the present blog [1, 2] were about Marx’s usage of geometrical growth—what today we would more commonly refer to as exponential growth—to define certain aspects of capitalist development. Foreshadowing a lot of technophilic theorists and utopians of today, Marx suggested that the development of the productive forces would tend towards geometric growth, and along with it, the deepening of the world market and the descent of the rate of profit. Presenting as such paints the picture of the capitalism as a globalizing, technologically-oriented accelerative force. But that’s only half the story: the rate of profit is as much an indicator of rising as it is impending stagnation and crisis. Everything is pregnant with its opposite, and ‘progress’ is denied any sort of smooth curve and intrinsic superiority: capitalist development comes into conflict without itself, and immense power translates effortlessly into extreme frailty.
This is the progressive side of capitalism being constantly checked by its regressive side, a situation which is reflected in Marx’s discussion of the limits of capitalism. Capitalism appears, as Deleuze and Guattari would masterfully describe in the most sublime—and overlooked—passages of Anti-Oedipus, to have no external limits, with each that it encounters becoming a threshold through which it simply expands itself. At the same time, however, it has an internal, absolute limit, which is capital itself. This seemingly esoteric formulation becomes clearer when one factors in value, as the magnitudes of socially-necessary labor time expended in commodity production, as the ultimate source of profit in the form of surplus value. What this means is that while capitalism might go stratospheric, “dispatch itself straight to the moon” or to Mars or wherever, it can never break with itself. The exploitation of human labor remains inscribed into the core of the system.
The fact that there is a limit to capital does not mean that capital collapses. Rather the limit is an asymptotic curve, you get closer and closer to an absolute limit but you never reach it.
One of the dynamics that has fascinated me over the past year (though I’ve unfortunately blogged about very little, relegating most conversation to twitter) is the double relationship between time and space that can be found in Marx’s analysis of capitalism: the spatialization of time and the temporalization of space. I’d like to suggest that this double character is precisely what gives rise to the two visions of temporality alluded to by Postone AND is intricately bound to capitalism’s external limitlessness and internal limit.
The ‘temporalization of space’ makes its appearance in the tenth chapter of the Grundrisse, where Marx takes up the relationship between the means of transport and communication and the sphere of circulation—that is, the market nexus of exchange relations. It is precisely here that we find the most clear of example of capitalism’s capacity for liquidating limits to itself:
The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange – the means of communication and transport – become for the costs of circulation. Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it. Only in so far as the direct product can be realized in distant markets in mass quantities in proportion to reductions in the transport costs, and only in so far as at the same time the means of communication and transport themselves can yield spheres of realization for labour, driven by capital; only in so far as commercial traffic takes place in massive volume – in which more than necessary labour is replaced – only to that extent is the production of cheap means of communication and transport a condition for production based on capital, and promoted by it for that reason. All labour required in order to throw the finished product into circulation – it is in economic circulation only when it is present on the market – is from capital’s viewpoint a barrier to be overcome – as is all labour required as a condition for the production process (thus e.g. expenses for the security of exchange etc.).
The operative phrase here—”the annihilation of space by time”—is the root of theories, advanced by folks like David Harvey, around “space-time compression” (something that, while close to acceleration, is only a reduced conception of it). Space-time compression indexes a world getting smaller, as spatial distance between points beings increasingly irrelevant in the circuits of production of exchange. This is accompanied by a generalized speeding-up of history itself, as events multiply, refract, and evaporate before one even has a chance to get a handle on them…
In Capital Volume 2, Marx revisits these elements via his discussion of turnover time, which is the circuit of capital—the reciprocal unfolding of production and exchange in pursuit of profit—understood as a recurrent and periodic system. Under the whip of competition, the capitalist seeks to shorten its turnover, and to achieve this end calls upon a whole ensemble of means. To accelerate the production process, “cooperation, division of labour, application of machinery”; and to accelerate circulation, “improved shipbuilding”, the construction of great railways, etc. This implies, in turn, a greater amount of capital advanced by each capitalist: “The time of turnover is lessened in that case by an increase of the advanced capital. More means of production and more labour-power must be united under the command of the capitalist”. This raises the specter of the organic composition of capital, the ratio of constant and variable capital, and with it, the question of the rate of profit. As mechanization of production (i.e. rising constant capital) becomes a tool for the shortening of turnover time, it becomes clear that the “annihilation of space by time”—the temporalization of space—is plugged directly into the rate of profit’s tendency towards or away from geometrical growth.
As Marx writes in the fourth chapter of Volume 3:
It has already been shown in detail in Book II how the quantity of produced surplus-value is augmented by reductions in the period of turnover, or of one of its two sections, in the time of production and the time of circulation. But since the rate of profit only expresses the relation of the produced quantity of surplus-value to the total capital employed in its production, it is evident that any such reduction increases the rate of profit… The chief means of reducing the time of production is higher labour productivity, which is commonly called industrial progress. If this does not involve a simultaneous considerable increase in the outlay of total capital resulting from the installation of expensive machinery, etc., and thus a reduction of the rate of profit, which is calculated on the total capital, this rate must rise… The chief means of reducing the time of circulation is improved communications. The last fifty years have brought about a revolution in this field, comparable only with the industrial revolution of the latter half of the 18th century… The period of turnover of the total world commerce has been reduced… and the efficacy of the capital involved in it has been more than doubled or trebled. It goes without saying that this has not been without effect on the rate of profit.
What of the ‘spatialization of time’? This, too, is first alluded to in the Grundrisse, in the course of a discussion of surplus labor (labor undertaken that is beyond what is necessary for the worker to survive) and surplus value:
…labour as such is and remains the presupposition, and surplus labour exists only in relation with the necessary, hence only in so far as the latter exists. Capital must therefore constantly posit necessary labour in order to posit surplus labour; it has to multiply it (namely the simultaneous working days) in order to multiply the surplus; but at the same time it must suspend them as necessary, in order to posit them as surplus labour. As regards the single working day, the process is of course simple: (1) to lengthen it up to the limits of natural possibility; (2) to shorten the necessary part of it more and more (i.e. to increase the productive forces without limit). But the working day, regarded spatially – time itself regarded as space – is many working days alongside one another. The more working days capital can enter into exchange with at once, during which it exchanges objectified for living labour, the greater its realization at once. It can leap over the natural limit formed by one individual’s living, working day, at a given stage in the development of the forces of production (and it does not in itself change anything that this stage is changing) only by positing another working day alongside the first at the same time – by the spatial addition of more simultaneous working days.
What this concerns, in the first instance, is the organization of the working day under the law of value, which then manifests in two internal forms: the prolonging of the working day (something that Marx would later discuss under the rubric of ‘absolute surplus value’), or the intensification of labor via mechanization (later to be understood via ‘relative surplus value’). Working from these two positions, one could even draw out models for periodizing capitalist development; it was after the great victories to shorten the working day, for example, that intensifying labor through mechanical means took priority over indefinite extension of labor time. But just as the hard boundary between modernity and postmodernity collapses under the double character of capitalist temporality, so too does the distinction between absolute and relative surplus value, which constantly glide into one another in a dialectical fashion.
In order for the law of value to structuralize social relations, a profound alteration in the experienced nature of time takes place. Time rich in qualities is emptied out, opened up, and made into something quantifiable. Value is both producer and product of a colossal leveling process that flattens the bourgeoisie and proletariat alike, making them little more than interchangeable cogs in a fearsome machinery. “Time is everything, man is nothing”, wrote Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy. “[H]e is, at the most, time’s carcase. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day… [this] is purely and simply a fact of modern industry”.
Lukacs, no doubt having Marx’s suggestion to understand the organization of the working day through a spatial lenses, drives home the implications of this leveling:
Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, free flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly seperated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.
Because we’re dealing here with value and surplus-value themselves, we’re in the zone of capitalism’s internal limit. This is exactly why the spatialization of time and the temporalization point in these two directions, and why we can understand Postone’s two registers of time in relationship to these two tendencies. In the case of the temporalization of space, we find capitalism as its most revolutionary and accelerative, transforming the productive forces, their effects rippling across an ever-more connected globe: there is here an absolute sense of futurity, marked by the dissolution of past forms. Creative destruction, in the clearest sense of the phrase. But in the case of the spatialization of time, we find the utterly unchanging, frozen world devoid of qualities. Because it poses the barrier that capitalism can never transgress, it denies the possibility of a future, which it rebounds into the permanence of the present. The higher the former climbs, the more the latter asserts itself: the end of capitalism becoming a forever-receding spot on the horizon.
It’s not enough, however, to make these tendencies into an oppositional polarity. They each penetrate one another on each level, even call one another into being: what is it but the increasingly spatial character of the working day that helps drive the temporalization of space, that is, the very destruction of space itself? And likewise, what does this destruction do but install the law of value everywhere, reconstitute the same flattened labor relations in every place, with all of the same mechanical, spatialized orders of lived time?