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08/11/15 22:51 « Critique and Dogmatism » : Interview with Moishe Postone - Critique de la valeur-dissociation. Repenser une théorie critique du capitalisme Page 1 sur 16 http://www.palim-psao.fr/2015/09/critique-and-dogmatism-interview-with-moishe-postone.html « Critique and Dogmatism » : Interview with Moishe Postone 5 Septembre 2015 Moishe Postone, Karl Marx et Gabriel Tarde (in Le Monde des Livres) « Critique and Dogmatism » : Interview with Moishe Postone In the beginning of 2011 I spent three months at the University of Chicago, studying under the supervision of professor Moishe Postone, my foreign advisor on PhD. As times pass ones outlook and theoretical perspective inevitably changes and many of the views I held at the time are now different or gone. Nonetheless professor Postone still remains a source of great inspiration, especially from the perspective of posing the right questions that remain valid as ever. At the time I used the opportunity to conduct an interview that was published in the student newspaper Tribuna, of which I was an editor in charge (2009 – 2011, an interesting story on its own, that deserves to have its own article). Anyway, the interview was never published in its original, i.e.

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08/11/15 22:51« Critique and Dogmatism » : Interview with Moishe Postone - Critique de la valeur-dissociation. Repenser une théorie critique du capitalisme

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« Critique and Dogmatism » : Interview with Moishe Postone

5 Septembre 2015

Moishe Postone, Karl Marx et Gabriel Tarde (in Le Monde des Livres)

« Critique and Dogmatism » :

Interview with Moishe Postone

In the beginning of 2011 I spent three months at the University of Chicago, studyingunder the supervision of professor Moishe Postone, my foreign advisor on PhD. Astimes pass ones outlook and theoretical perspective inevitably changes and many ofthe views I held at the time are now different or gone. Nonetheless professor Postonestill remains a source of great inspiration, especially from the perspective of posingthe right questions that remain valid as ever. At the time I used the opportunity toconduct an interview that was published in the student newspaper Tribuna, of whichI was an editor in charge (2009 – 2011, an interesting story on its own, that deserves tohave its own article). Anyway, the interview was never published in its original, i.e.

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in English. For someone that is already well acquainted with the work of Postone itprobably won’t be that interesting. For everyone else I do believe it will be of value,especially as an entry point in his theory.

Enjoy !

Anej Korsika

I.

Korsika : Professor Postone in your groundbreaking monograph Time, Labor andSocial Domination you provide us with an in depth rereading of Marx’s critique ofpolitical economy. Could you reflect on the evolution of your thought. On the eventsand theoretical traditions at the University of Chicago and later on in Frankfurt, thatmotivated you to devote yourself to this seminal project?

Postone : When I was student at the University of Chicago, I was caught between twointerests and intentions, theoretically. Although I regarded myself very much as aperson of the Left, it seemed to me that Marxism had too much in common withpositivism, on the one hand, and nineteenth century notions of progress, on the other.I was much more impressed at the time by conservative critiques of modernity. Ithought they grasped problems of modernity more fully than did Marxism. That wasin part because we had, at Chicago at the time, many émigré scholars who had fledNazi Germany. They brought with them a whole range of intellectual discourses thatcriticized various forms of positivism from various directions, that I found verypowerful.

I began to shift my attitude towards Marx, when I became aware of the Economic andPhilosophic Manuscripts, which was strongly received in the United States in the mid1960s. At that point I held onto the notion that there was a young, very interestingMarx and an older Marx, who unfortunately, had become a Victorian, having spenttoo many hours in the British Museum.

A further change for me was related to a large sit-in at the University of Chicago in1969. After the sit-in, students that had participated broke up into a number ofdifferent reading groups. Two main ones that I remember, were Youth as a Class (Idefinitely wasn’t part of that one) (smile and Hegel and Marx. It was then that I firstdiscovered Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which had been completely

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unknown here. It wasn’t completely translated into English until 1971. Even thoughsince than I have become much more critical of Lukács, reading him was a realrevelation. His insight that the Marxian categories are not categories of an economicbase that are merely reflected in consciousness, but are really forms of social beingthat are at one at the same time social and cultural, objective and subjective, struckme as enormously powerful and satisfying. It allowed one to deal with thought in away that was both adequate to the thought and yet allowed it to be contextualized, ina non-functionalist non-instrumental fashion. I found that remarkably illuminating.

At roughly the same time, I read an article by Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx,which was an introduction to theGrundrisse, which Nicolaus was translating. I foundit absolutely fascinating! It seemed to me that the scheme I had walked around with,that distinguished a young philosophic Marx and an old scientistic Marx, wasexploded by the Grundrisse. Consequently I decided to write a dissertation on it. Oneof my dissertation advisors, Gerhard Meyer, a German émigré and politicaleconomist who was familiar with the Frankfurt School, suggested I spend some timein Germany. My research was not archival, nevertheless he argued I would benefit agreat deal from the level of discussion in Germany, which was much higher than inthe United States. This is why I went to Frankfurt.

II.

Korsika : On of the cornerstones of your reinterpretation is the notion of traditionalMarxism. What are the main characteristics of this line of thought?

Postone : Let me begin to address this question by describing what I mean bytraditional Marxism. I don’t mean a specific identifiable tendency within the Marxistthought, such as II. International Marxism or Bolshevism. What I do mean is anunderstanding of Marx whereby labor is not only exploited in capitalism butconstitutes the standpoint from which the society (capitalism) is criticized. Capitalismis understood essentially in terms of the market and private property; its overcomingis thus seen in terms of the overcoming of the exploitation of labor and the cominginto its own of labor. It seems to me that is the very core of traditional Marxism. Thisdescription encompasses a very broad range of theories that differ from one anotherin significant ways. Nevertheless by creating this category I attempted to specifymore precisely what I was trying to do with Marx, and how it differed from thatbroad range of theories, including the Frankfurt school.

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III.

Korsika : Instead of trying to locate where the project of actually existing socialismwent wrong and what could have been done better you argue that these systemswere never outside the capitalist social formation, rather representing a specifichistorical moment in the development of capitalism. Can we therefore speak of socialdemocracy in West and socialist regimes in the East as two different expressions ofthe same historical social formation?

Postone : Yes, and I think the further away we will get from them, the more they willseem similar. I do not mean it in a political sense, that the one is just the same as theother. There are very significant differences — particularly for the experience of thepeople on the ground, I am not trying to deny that. However if one moves to a higherlevel of abstraction, it seems to me that social democracy and the communistcommand economies, really were part of the same historical epoch of capitalism.They developed at roughly the same time, they reached their high point at roughlythe same time and they entered into crisis and declined in the late sixties and earlyseventies. Although many people believe Soviet Unions crisis begun in the 1980s, Ithink it was earlier that the statist forms of economy run up against certain limitsthey couldn’t overcome. I don’t feel yet in a position to specify these limits; most ofthe existing studies of the historical limits of the postwar configuration focus solelyon the West and its Fordist/Keynesian configuration. I am interested in a theory thatcould encompass and analyze the Soviet Union as well.

Retrospectively, one of the differences between the Soviet model and socialdemocracy, was the radical national (state) ownership that was entailed by actuallyexisting socialism. This was perhaps the only way, during a certain epoch of capital’sdevelopment, that a peripheral nation was able to develop national capital. That is,what was developed was national capital, not socialism. Perhaps socialism couldhave come into being had the revolution been worldwide, but it seems to me that thecorollary of socialism in one country is really nationalism in one country. This alsodeeply affected the consciousness of the left which , at least in its orthodoxcommunist form, became a curious sort of nationalist movement — one relating to anation that is elsewhere.

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Postones’ office at the University of Chicago

IV.

Korsika : Your theory of anti-Semitism and National Socialism as a peculiar andfetishized type of anti-capitalism develops a radically new perspective on thecatastrophe of Holocaust. What was actually trying to be eliminated in the deathcamps and what can we make of contemporary forms of anti-Semitism?

Postone : For those of your readers that aren’t familiar with my work- I distinguishbetween anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. I argue that there is a deepmisunderstanding about anti-Semitism (in its modern form). Modern anti-Semitism isnot really the theory of the inferiority of Jews; it is a theory of the power of Jews. Ihave argued that, as such, it is a fetishized form of anti-capitalism. That is, the sense

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of the loss of control that people have over their lives (which is real), becomesattributed, not to the abstract structures of capital, which are very difficult toapprehend, but to a Jewish conspiracy. That is, the structures are accorded agency, Ithink this helps illuminate the Nazi program of extermination. Although this mightnot make any difference to the victims, I would distinguish between exterminationand mass murder. In Poland , for example, the Nazis murdered thousands andthousands of people, but mainly intellectuals and other leaders fo society, such aspriests, around whom Polish national consciousness and resistance could coalesce.They killed the intellectuals and the priests in order to enslave the rest of thepopulation. They didn’t want to enslave the Jews, they wanted to exterminate them.There was a misunderstandingof this on the part of many Jews. In the ghetto of Łódź,for example, many Jews worked in factories that were important for the Wermacht.They were certain that because they were doing important work for the Germanarmy, they would be spared. They expressed a form of rationality — that you don’tkill your own productive force. They were wrong.

I am suggesting, that it is because, within the framework of this worldview, the Jewsare seen as the embodiment of evil, rather than as inferior, because they are seen asposing such a threat, they have to be eliminated. In my understanding, anti-Semitismtherefore is a reactionary populist form of anti-capitalism. It is and has been deeplymisunderstood by much Left wing thought.

V.

Korsika : Perhaps we can continue this line of thought, especially regarding thearticle History and Helplessness, that you wrote as a reflection on the war in Iraq,especially concerning the certain paralysis left has found itself in?

Postone : The issues are complicated and a lot of people are angry at me because ofthe article (smile). I thought that the reactions to the war in Iraq indicated a kind of alack of orientation on the part of the left. What I mean is that, at the very least, theLeft should have problematized the situation as a dilemma: An imperial power wasinvading a country controlled by a brutal fascistic dictatorship. The reactions on thepart of much of the Left indicated that opposition to the United States is seen as asufficient criterion for being on the Left. It is as if people have never heard of the eraof facist “anti-imperialism” in the 1930s and 1940s. Japan, Germany and fascistmovements everywhere were very much opposed to the United States. There existeda fascist form of “anti-imperialism”. This has been elided from historical

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consciousness. I myself was against the war, but not in the terms that werewidespread. I found it significant that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the giantrallies against the war in Iraq ever featured an Iraqi oppositional figure, a leftist,someone who would be critical of both the Americans and, especially the Ba’athregime. Instead everything was presented in black and white terms, structured by areified form of anti-Americanism. For me this was an indication of certain bankruptanti-imperialism. What I wrote in that article is that, however naive one may think ofthem today, the mass movements against the American war in Vietnam weredifferent. Many were driven by the idea was that Vietnamese were buildingsomething progressive., which the Americans sought to prevent. Anti-americanismhere was tied to the support for a more progressive order, socialism.

Regardless of whether one thinks this was justified at the time or not, this motif hasdropped out completely, especially with regard to Middle East. I find it pitiful thatsome on the Left seek to tie the critique of Mubarak’s regime to anti-Americanism, byreferring to Mubarak as an American puppet. The Americans, however, did notcreate the regime. Mubarak inherited it from Sadat who inherited it from Nasser. TheLeft has tended to exclude actually existing Arab nationalist regimes from its criticalpurview., which I believe has had negative consequences for the left. That – to thedismay of many progressives in the Middle East –some people on the Left arealigning themselves with reactionary forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas indicatesthe degree to which the Left has lost its moral and political compass.

VI.

Korsika : As opposed to authors of traditional Marxism basically arguing labor needsto be liberated from capital your approach emphasizes that labor itself is the centralproblem, being a specific historical category?

Postone : Let me begin through the side door. One of the things I found very eyeopening about the Grundrisse, to go back to the beginning of our interview, was thatMarx was not simply interested in the end of exploitation of the proletarian labor butrather in the abolition of this labor. Most interpretations of surplus value missed thispoint. The idea that Marx was interested in the self-abolition of the proletariat andnot in its realization, led me to begin rethinking Marx fundamentally. The deeper Iexplored his works, the more I realized that he did not treat the category of laborsimply as an activity that mediates human interaction with nature (the way

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Habermas takes it). Rather, for Marx, that labor in capitalism is unique inasmuch as itconstitutes a very peculiar form of social mediation that is abstract, intangible,universal and beyond of control of the people who create it. So in a sense Maarx’sanalysis of labor in his mature works represents a working out of the idea ofalienation, in his early works. I think that has enormous implications, because itmeans that Marx’s notion of practice is fundamentally different from the currentlycommon understandings of practices in terms of immediacy, Such understandingstend to recapitulate the antinomy of structure versus agency. For Marx, however,practice is bound to historically unique forms of social mediation that generate whatfrequently are considered structures. This complex configuration goes beyond theopposition between structuralism and post-structuralism.

It also sheds a new light on the problematic of history. Capital for Marx is what hecalls self valorizing value, it is a dynamic category. I would suggest that a theory ofcapital is a theory of the existence of the historical logic. From the standpoint ofMarx’s analysis, Hegel’s notion of the unfolding of human history is a projection ontohumanity of what is actually valid for capitalism. Nietzsche and thinkers who followhim, focus on the contingency of history,. They do so because they are aware of thefact that the idea of logic to history really signifies a form of heteronomy. In order tosave the possibility of agency, however,, they deny the kind of real constrains onagency that the logic of capital actually represents. They declare it non-existent. As aresult, th workings of capital are obscured., In the name of empowering people, then,it disempowers them because it obfuscates the logic of capital. What Marx does, withhis concept of capital is to makes history, in the sense of the unfolding of a historicallogic, historically specific. Because it is historically specific, it has a beginning and itmight have an end. This is different from Hegel. The notion of contradiction in Marx,drives this dynamic, but also points beyond it. Of course I try to reformulate thiscontradiction: It’s not between capital and labor (labor being a form of capital inMarx’s analysis), but between the potential that capital generates and the inability ofcapital to let that potential be realized. The contradiction is temporal.

VII.

Korsika : What is your understanding of the notion of proletariat that Lukacsidentified with subject-object of history? Because nowadays it seems that the notion isbeing seen as anachronistic and various other concepts, such as cognitive labor, aretaking place. Furthermore, how to understand class struggle without falling in the

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historical regressions?

Postone : I think that class struggle is an intrinsic dimension of capital. It is an ongoing struggle that is built in to the strudtures of capital. For a while people thoughtthat ,with the success of social democratic forms after World War II. class strugglewas a thing of the past. It isn’t. Since the unraveling of the Fordist/Keynsiansynthesis the weight is now on the other side and the working class is being crushed.However there is a difference between saying that class struggle is part and parcel ofcapitalism and saying that it points beyond capitalism in the sense that the abolitionof capital will be the victory of the proletariat. I think there is a great deal of difficultyconceptualizing the necessity to support the working class, on the one hand, whilerealizing that an anti-capitalist movement has to go beyond working class. Workingclass movements have been enormously important in various ways, the most obviousone being, that they have helped humanize capitalism while developing forms ofmass political and social agency. Whether or not people have the sorts of safety netsthat social democracy developed really does make a difference in the way people live.Nevertheless, although working class movements humanized capital a great deal,they also were part of the motor of the development of capital itself. In Marx’sanalysis of the struggle for the 10 hour working day, for example, the victory of theworking class leads to what he called relative surplus value., which is a much moredynamic form of capital. So there is a complicated dynamic relationship betweencapital and labor movements; it is a mistake to look at it only statically.and thensimply declare that the workers ended up just reinforcing capital . In suchperspective capital and workers are taken as out of space and time.

Nevertheless, I think we are faced with a crisis than is outside of the field of vision ofpeople who criticize me as having left the working class behind. Capital itself isdiminishing the size of the working class and we are getting an increasing surpluspopulation. More orthodox Marxists, used to assume that the working class wouldjust continue to grow. Even today some people are saying that, although the sice ofthe working class is declining in the United States, it is growing in China. However,my understanding is that working class numbers have remained static in the past 10years in China. If this is a case, that it is incorrect to assume that the decline of theindustrial proletariat in the West is matched by a corresponding growth of theworking class in former Third World countries, such as China. What is happeningcannot fully be understood as the export of jobs. The main factor is the capitalist useof technology and processes of rationalization, which are wiping out many jobs. I

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think we are in a race for time and I don’t think anyone has a worked out politicalvision of getting beyond the system based on proletarian labor.

VIII.

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Korsika : Let us conclude with some questions dealing with the contemporarypolitical situation. First of all, what is your perspective on China as an emergingglobal power, especially in the sense of those authors that argue we are dealing withyet another new type of capitalism?

Postone : It is a very interesting form because it opened itself to global capital. Thiswas the difference between Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev. Gorbachev wantedpolitical reform but the Soviet Union was collapsing economically. Deng on the otherhand developed economic reforms that drew in to China gigantic amounts of capital,while maintaining political control. It is a curious kind of mixed form. Myunderstanding is that more than 50% of Chinese companies are owned by foreigncapital, something that would have been completely unthinkable just a generation ortwo ago. I don’t think the Chinese party considers this to be a threat anymore. Itwould have been a threat earlier, because it would have prevented the developmentof national capital. Now the Chinese don’t think it does. Perhaps the formation of qnational economy by the Party was an important historical precondition for thisnewer development, which I regard as. very much part of the neoliberal epoch.

But Chicna is also very much a rising hegemon, I don’t think there is any questionabout that. And I think this has become a factor in American strategic thinking. Forexample, I would argue that is played a role in the American war in Iraq. TheAmerican military thinks that as long as they control the Persian Gulf they can hinderthe transformation of a major economic competitor (China) into a military one. I thinkthat the issue of control of the Gulf plays a much more important role in Americanstrategic thinking than you would ever know from reading people John Mearsheimerand Stephen Walt, who seem to view everything in the Middle East through the lensof Israel-Palestine. American policy toward Iraqmust be understood against thebackground of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Earlier, the Americans could count ontwo major powers in the Gulf, Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi and Saudi Arabia. TheShaw was deposed and the Saudis began to occupy an ambiguous position, giventheir support for radical Islamist movements. Against this background, I think one ofthe motives for the invasion of Iraq was to create a client state in Iraq. They did soless because they needed the oil directly, but because they wanted to be able tocontrol the flow of oil. And at the same time the Chinese, I understand, are building ahuge naval base in Pakistan very close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. So, this kindof large scale geo-strategic thinking is motivating both Chinese and the Americans.

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(In order to circumvent the Americans, the Chinese are also building pipe lines acrossAsia.)

What I find very sad is that once upon a time the Left tried to understand globalshifts of power.

IX.

Korsika : From 2008 onwards capitalism is facing its greatest historical crisis. Insteadof being reaffirmed in its historical argument, it seems the crisis has unmasked all thetheoretical poverty and regressions that have accumulated on the left in the lastdecades. In that light, how do you understand the uprisings in the Arab countries? Itseems as if these events were ferociously adopted by the left and served to play a roleof smokescreen that would hide the emptiness of the left.

Postone : I have a slightly different view on the Arab revolutions and uprisings. Ithink they indicate the degree to which the Western left was absolutely bankrupt inits understanding of the Middle East. It is one thing to be critical of Israeli occupationand Israeli policies, to sympathize with the Palestinian movement for selfdetermination, which I do. Its quite another thing to have bought into the Arabnationalist line that the only thing that moved the Arab masses, which was reified assomething called the “Arab street”, was Israel-Palestine. The idea that all the troublesof the Middle East came from the outside, especially as represented by Israel, was anideology of legitimation for the various authoritarian regimes. What it indicated wasthe only problem of the Middle East is Israel. And the Western Left completelybought into this and was willing to overlook (if they ever knew) the suppression ofprogressive movements in the Arab world by the putatively anti-colonialdictatorships. I don’t think people seriously looked at Arab nationalism as aformation. By “Arab nationalism” I don’t mean the idea of the right to national selfdetermination. I mean “actually existing” Arab nationalism. I mean the Ba’athregimes in Syria and Iraq, Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen.They are different from one another but I think they have a lot in common. They areall completely authoritarian and dependent on secret police. But because they weren’tkings, much of the left took them to be progressive — progressives killed their ownleftists.

I won’t go into the negative role of the Soviet bloc in promoting this misrecognition.Suffice to say that this affirmation of Arab Nationalism as progressive was bound up

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with the Cold War: Egypt and Syria became client states of the Warsaw Pact. Afterthe defeat of these proxies in 1967, the Soviet Union shifted its weight to Palestinianmovements. The Middle East became interpreted by the logic of the Cold War.Among many negative dimensions of this was the effect on intellectuals. Earlier therewere Communist intellectuals like Dora Lessing, who were nationalists of the SovietUnion (Lessing later referred to herself in this context as having been a “useful idiot”More recently, many Western Leftists became Arab nationalists. One of the things Ifind very telling about the uprisings in the Arab world today is that Israel/Palestineis not a central issue. This does not mean that people are indifferent to it, but that,contrary to what we have heard for decades about the “Arab Street,” it is not aprimary focus of the uprisings. Central is their own misére and this has nothing to dowith the Americans. It does have to do with neoliberalism, which has made thepolitical repression intolerable because of the growing economic differentiation thatis happening in all of these societies (its happening in Israel too). There is a muchgreater gap between rich and poor. The one thing I am a bit pessimistic is that I amnot sure this can be solved even by a democratic society. That is what I am a littlenervous about.

But I think that the Arab revolutions have exposed the anti-imperialist left in theWest. It seems to me this underscores that we are witnessing a major crisis of the left.The most serious problem is not simply that the left has become bankrupt, but that ithas hidden its bankruptcy from itself, with dogmatism. It has been evident fordecades that classical working class socialism is not the way to the future. For avariety of reasons, I think it has been very difficult for the Left to come up with adifferent view of understanding the world. So, for example, it became very easy andunderstandable for many, in the face of the current economic crisis, to simply fallback to anti-finance position. But anti-finance positions neither address the source ofthe crisis nor do they point toward a solution to the crisis. I don’t have the solution,but I believe that the left has refused to seriously see how problematic its situationhas been,since the late sixties. One consequence has been the tendency by many tobecome dogmatic, furiously anti-imperialistic. This made life considerably easier- allyou needed was one criterion: if it is against the United States, we are for it! As aresult, much of the Left once again got in bed with a number of very unsavoryauthoritarian regimes. Aa brutal and horrible as colonialism was, Iin Libya, forexample, Italians killed huge numbers of people), I don’t think this can serve tojustify Gadafi. The Left must get away from this Manichean view, which has servedas an ideology of legitimation. I think in Algeria that was clear. Yes French

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colonialism was extremely brutal, but the brutal character of the FLN was simplyignored., even during the 1990s,when over 200.000 Algerians were killed in the aCivil War.

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