Monday, May 16, 2011

The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism, Part II

“Today I saw History riding on horseback.” — Hegel, 1806, after seeing Napoleon ride through town following the Battle of Jena

B. Concrete, Historical Time

Just as society under capitalism was manifesting this abstract form of time, it was simultaneously giving birth to a new form of concrete time, distinct from the sense of concrete time that existed before the preponderance of commodity exchange in society. This concrete sense of time was not that of habit, convention, or task-orientation. It was rather a newfound sense of historical time, understood as a linear chain of events, or as a succession of “stages” leading up to the present. Along with this newfound sense of concrete, historical time came a new consciousness of time, specific to capitalism. What lay behind this new historical consciousness?

For one, it was the increasing dynamism exhibited by the new form of society under which they were living, such that time-honored social institutions and traditional practices now underwent a visible series of sudden and spasmodic transformations. Longstanding social relations were often uprooted and replaced within the span of a single lifetime. As Marx and Engels famously recorded in the Manifesto, “[t]he continual transformation of production, the uninterrupted convulsion of all social conditions, a perpetual uncertainty and motion distinguish the epoch of the bourgeoisie from all earlier ones.” This shift in the underlying socioeconomic basis of society entailed a corresponding shift in the ideological superstructure: “All the settled, age-old relations with their train of time-honoured preconceptions and viewpoints are dissolved; all newly formed ones become outmoded before they can ossify. Everything feudal and fixed goes up in smoke, everything sacred is profaned.”[20]

Zygmunt Bauman thus rightly credited “[t]he considerable speeding up of social change” as a necessary condition for the creation of this historical consciousness. This speeding up, he added, “was duly reflected in the…novel sense of history as an endless chain of irreversible changes, with which the concept of progress — a development which brings change for the better — was not slow to join forces.”[21] The notion of progressive historical development was aided, moreover, by the ongoing technical revolutions taking place in the field of production. This concept of a progression of stages was then conversely projected backward through time, in the interpretation of history. It is therefore no surprise that this period saw the emergence of thinkers like Vico and Hegel, who looked to the past and interpreted it as an unfolding of qualitatively distinct “phases” — as modes of consciousness or spirit as the torch of civilization was passed from one society to the next.

At the political level, this historical understanding of time simultaneously grounded both conservatism and radicalism. In the former case, one saw the history leading up to the present as a demonstration of its necessity, while in the latter, one saw the present itself as merely transitory, as just another stop along the way in the moving train of history. Liberalism stood between these two extremes, in the static sphere of ahistorical Natural Rights. For the rest, however, this recognition of historical time dramatically impacted the way they viewed the world. And so, despite the volatility involved in the rapid upheaval of older social forms that came with capitalism, the memory that things had not so long ago been different granted to conservatives the hope for a return to “simpler times,” while for radicals it held the promise of leading to a more perfect, as yet unseen social arrangement.

But what was the actual dynamic in capitalism that necessitated this series of convulsive transformations? For it is easy to say that capitalism forced this state of chronic instability, but it is much harder to actually trace out the dialectical aspect of capitalism that compels its continuous flux. And so we must discover the specific origin of this dynamic, rooted in a dimension of capital itself.

A brief investigation into the constitution of capital will reveal that this dynamic is located in the value-dimension of capital. Value, when it appears in the form of capital, ceaselessly strives to augment itself through a process of self-valorization.[22] It here becomes clear that the Lukácsean simultaneous subject-object of history is not Labor as constituted by the proletarian class, but Capital as constituted by self-valorizing value, which assimilates the non-identical to itself through its own activity while remaining at all times identical with itself.[23] As Marx wrote, “[capital] is constantly changing from one form to another, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject.” Value is still the operative concept in its form as capital, however: “In truth,…value is here the subject of a process in which…it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value to itself is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization.” It thereby obtains an almost magical character: “By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself.”[24]

Capital achieves this valorization through the purchase of labor as a commodity. Productive labor thus enters the process of capitalist circulation as a socially mediating activity necessary for augmenting capital. “[C]apital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labor.”[25] Labor, which uniquely possesses the ability to enhance the value originally invested in its purchase,[26] produces surplus-value for its temporary owner in either of the following ways: 1) by an absolute increase in the time spent laboring beyond the socially average time necessary to reproduce the value advanced;[27] or 2) by a relative decrease in the time required to produce an equivalent value below that same social average, since “the prolongation of the surplus labor must…originate in the curtailment of the necessary labor-time,” assuming the length of the working day remains constant.[28] The latter of these methods can only be accomplished by an increase in the productivity of labor by technical or organizational means, either by the introduction of new machine technologies or a more efficient division of labor.[29]

Historically, capital at first relied on the production of absolute surplus-value through the extension of the working day in order to valorize itself, until labor negotiations and parliamentary legislation managed to secure a normal working day through the famous Factory Acts. These set a legal limit on the maximum number of hours a worker could be assigned in a day.[30] Thereafter, capitalist production was generally forced to make do with the generation of relative surplus-value, which it achieved by the successive institution of cooperative action between workers, the detail division of labor in manufacturing, and the implementation of heavy machinery in large-scale industry.[31]

At this point, our digression into the inner workings of capitalism reconnects with the investigation of the unprecedentedhistorical consciousness linked to the inner dynamic of capital. For it is the category of value undergirding capitalist society that is the source of its dynamism; the dynamic character of value in the form of capital is built into its very concept. The dialectical tension which characterizes capital always exists in potentia as part of its logic, but begins to unfold more rapidly with the general stabilization of the workday and the increased stress placed upon the generation of relative surplus-value.[32] Since relative surplus-value demands that the technical and social basis of production be constantly revolutionized so that productivity can be increased, but at the same time the rate of surplus-value thereby gained begins to vanish as soon as these technical and organizational advances are generalized, there is an overall “speeding up” of the production process. These frequent, usually violent speed-ups give rise to what Postone has called the “treadmill effect” of capitalist production, involving a “dialectic of transformation and reconstitution.”[33]

This is how an historical consciousness in the modern sense first manifested itself in society. For it was only with the further elaboration of the dialectic immanent to relative surplus-value that the concept of history as an unfolding progression of stages even became available. Postone explains: “Considered temporally, this intrinsic dynamic of capital, with its treadmill pattern, entails an ongoing directional movement of time, a ‘flow of history.’ In other words, the mode of concrete time we are examining can be considered historical time, as constituted in capitalist society.”[34]

C. Reflection on the Temporal Dialectic of Capitalism

Examining these two distinct senses of time that emerge out of capitalism, we may briefly state the characteristics that differentiate them and determine the extent to which they interact. Some differences between the two should be obvious. One is abstract and homogeneous, the other is concrete and heterogeneous. The one is cyclical and repetitive, while the other is linear and unprecedented, irreversible, and unreplicable in its exact constitution. Abstract, Newtonian time is scientific, and can be measured mechanically, by the gears in a watch. Concrete, historical time, on the other hand, must be comprehended either organically (in precapitalist societies) or dialectically (under capitalism), as a dynamic sequence of forces and events.

But despite all their differences, it is not as if these two forces are divided by an unbridgeable chasm. Rather, they are intricately and dialectically intertwined. If anything, the two separate temporal elements combine to create the unique structure of capitalist development through history. While on the one hand society is being propelled forward through a series of irreversible transformations, on the other, the repetitious pattern of day-to-day, hour-to-hour routines of social production continue according to their usual cycles. The result is regularity alongside radical disruption, repetition with difference — and these are features specific to modernity, not postmodernity, as Deleuze and Derrida would have it. And so it is proper, when speaking of the dialectical motion of capitalism, to describe it as following a cyclolinear path of production and circulation punctuated by periods of boom and crisis. The “historical” element of capitalist time allows the way in which capitalism manifests itself to change over time, such that distinct phases of capitalism can be identified (liberalism/monopolism/imperialism/Fordism/neo-liberalism or “flexible accumulation”). The homogeneous, “repetitive” element of time under capitalism allows it to remain capitalism throughout all of its various phases, founded on the same principle of the supervaluation of value. Only the historical transcendence and overturning of this principle would produce a revolutionary outcome, only then could a postcapitalist society emerge.

[20] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. From Later Political Writings. Pg. 4.

[21] “It was only [the] idea of perfectibility [made possible by the concept of progress] which paved the way for utopia.” Bauman, Zygmunt. Socialism: The Active Utopia. (George Allen & Unwin Limited. London, England: 1976). Pgs. 18-19.

[22] “The circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, for the valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless.” Ibid., pg. 253.

[23] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pgs. 75-77.

[24] Marx, Capital, Volume I. Pg. 255.

[25] Ibid., pg. 342.

[26] “[Labor is] a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value.” Ibid., pg. 270.

[27] “The prolongation of the working day beyond the point at which the worker would have produced an ex-act equivalent for the value of his labor-power, and the appropriation of that surplus labor by capital — this is the process which constitutes the production of absolute surplus-value.” Ibid., pg. 645.

[28] Ibid., pg. 431.

[29] “The technical and social conditions of the [labor] process and consequently the mode of production it-self must be revolutionized before the productivity of labor can be increased.” Ibid., pg. 432.

“[T]he production of relative surplus-value completely revolutionizes the technical processes of labor and the groupings into which society is divided.” Ibid., pg. 645.

[30] Ibid., pgs. 389-416.

[31] Chapters 13, 14, and 15 respectively. Ibid., pgs. 439-640.

[32] “With the development of relative surplus value…the directional motion that characterizes capital as self-valorizing value becomes tied to ongoing changes in productivity. An immanent dynamic of capitalism emerges, a ceaseless expansion grounded in a determinate relationship between the growth of productivity and the growth of the value form of the surplus.” Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 283.

[33] “The peculiarity of the dynamic — and this is crucial — is its treadmill effect. Increased productivity in-creases the amount of value produced per unit of time — until this productivity becomes generalized; at that point the magnitude of value yielded in that time period, because of its abstract and general temporal determination, falls back to its previous level. This results in a new determination of the social labor hour and a new base level of productivity. What emerges, than, is a dialectic of transformation and reconstitution.” Ibid., pg. 289.

[34] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 293.



Speedy G said...

Only the historical transcendence and overturning of this principle would produce a revolutionary outcome, only then could a postcapitalist society emerge.

So much for "Black Swan Theory"... It's really a shame that Marx wasn't more familair with the concept of modus tollens. lol!

Ross Wolfe said...

I love how Speedy busts out this freshman logic shit on modus tollens as if Marx didn't understand it. The man had read every text there was on Aristotle, including Prior and Posterior Analytics, both of which are pretty basic. I mean, I tutored symbolic/sentential logic for two really think this schoolboy horseshit is at all applicable in Marx's analysis? Besides, he was working in the vein of Hegelian logic, which he was also extremely familiar with.

Speedy G said...

lol! All I did was re-state some of Karl Popper's conclusions. But then, I suppose George Soro's philosophy hero was a bit of a school-boy in the logic department. Just look how his most prominent student turned out.

btw - Were you any good at tutoring symbolic/sentential logic, Ross? Somehow, I don't think you were. I think I see Aristotle turning over in his grave. :)

Speedy G said...

The Poverty of Historicism...

...and the poverty of Marxist scholarship.

Perhaps the Left should hire a freshman or two to could figure it out for them. ;)

Frank Partisan said...

Ross: I left a comment at your blog.

SpeedyG: I think pragmatism is a good fit for you.

Ross Wolfe said...


All of the students I tutored passed their Symbolic Logic class. Only one got less than a B (he got a C, but he was just stupid). I was paid $25/hour for individual sessions, +$5 per person for group sessions. Most got A's.


I'll go check it out.

Speedy G said...

Wow! $25 an hour. That's some serious Grub Street coin! Congratulations. Gorgias would be proud!

And your Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, how did they turn out? Were they "good" men, after they left your tutulage? I know, many sophists don't take responsibility for how their students turn out, but I'm not one of them.

Larry Gambone said...

Capital's need to eternally expand is rooted in this dynamic category of value. Trouble for capital is that at some point its expansion comes up against the physical limitations of both the Earth and the wage slaves it exploits. We are close to the former and as the working class in the so-called developed world is beaten down by austerity, union-busting, and outsourcing we will see the limitation of the latter emerge as a factor. Perhaps with the struggles in Greece, France, Wisconsin etc we are seeing the beginning of this too.

SecondComingOfBast said...

That's what we mean by the business cycle. "Capitalists" know and understand better than anyone that you never will have unlimited growth and expansion. Limited periods of growth, expansion, and increased profits will inevitably be followed by periods of decline. A bull market will always lead to a bear market. Anybody with the slightest degree of business acumen or financial savvy takes that into account and plans accordingly.

It's not those of the business community who are blind to this reality. It is the political elites who can not accept the reality of the business cycle, because it interferes with THEIR plans. They are the ones who need unlimited growth and expansion, in order to have a consistently deep well from which to draw the funds necessary to implement their various schemes aimed at power and control.

That's why government gets itself in the quagmire of picking winners and losers, and we all suffer for it.

The market should face some modest restraint, but it should never be enslaved to the dictates and tyrannies of government control.

Ross Wolfe said...

I guess my question is why should we accept a form of society that takes as its starting point a neverending series of crises. Even if there is great growth followed by general downswing, if we take the laissez-faire 19th century as an example, the crises just kept getting bigger and bigger up until the Great Depression. After that, with more government regulations, they were able to avert a big crisis until 1973. Since then it's been more and more deregulation. I can't really say I care, since I don't think it's possible to "correct" capitalism so that it's all highs and no lows. But I would say that ideally humanity should be looking for a social model that could maintain continuous growth without decline.

Frank Partisan said...

Some denied the cyclical nature of capitalism, during the 1990s.

Speedy G said...

I guess my question is why should we accept a form of society that takes as its starting point a neverending series of crises.

...and what makes you believe that there is a non-totalitarian alternative? Oh wait, you're FOR the totalitarian controlled society, I forgot...

SecondComingOfBast said...

Ross, don't you get it? You're looking for a result that is impossible. It's just against the natural order of things to expect any kind of system to produce continued growth with no period of decline. Capitalism isn't going to do it and neither is socialism, even if socialism worked in the best case scenario. You'd still have periods of decline and need for readjustment. That's called REALITY. You fail to take it into account at your own peril and to society's overall detriment. It's like planting an apple tree and thinking the goddamn thing will keep growing forever and producing more and better apples every year until it reaches the stratosphere. I don't get it, how you can think otherwise.

Not only is it impossible, but the more you try to force the issue, through government control or through any other means, at best you manage to delay the inevitable, and in the long you just make matters worse.

You talk about the Great Depression. Yes, it was initially caused by a near total lack of regulations. But then Hoover came in with his heavy-handed approach and exacerbated it, made it exponentially worse. For all the initial good Roosevelt did, his policies also extended it well past the amount of time it would have ordinarily lasted. He added to the amount of time it lasted for at least four years.

Ross Wolfe said...

Don't get me wrong, I don't advocate big government regulations on business any more than I advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Either way it's still capitalism, regardless of which form works better or worse. I hardly think that a new "New Deal"-type Democratic platform would faire any better than a Tea Party-backed Republican flat income tax.

Either way, though, the cycle of booms and busts seems to be accelerating. The Clintonite prosperity that everyone thought was going to last forever. The tech bubble recession of 2001-2004, the housing/faulty loan bubble of 2008-present, and economists are now predicting that a second tech bubble is just over the horizon. And it hasn't mattered that every president since Gerald Ford has systematically deregulated and dismantled big government programs, regardless of party,

Don't get me wrong; again, I'm not in favor of "more regulations" and "oversight" like the Democrats want. Frankly, I could give a fuck less.