Zero Squared #108: The Subject of Capitalism

Moishe Postone is a Western Marxist and a Professor of History at the University of Chicago and he is the author of the book Time, Labor and Social Domination a book that won the American Sociological Association’s prize in the theory. In this episode of Zero Squared, Postone discusses whether the working class is the true subject of capitalism and history, the particular particularity of today’s left, and the new Black Lives Matter visa card.

Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies is now available for pre-order through Amazon and to let you know that there will be a link to both the UK and US editions in the show notes.

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5 May 2017, 7:40am
by Mike Robinson


Okay, imagine a factory that is just robots. Surely for a sci-fi writer this isn’t a big stretch – in fact, technology has now reached the point that this is pretty close to where we are at present. Let’s say that the factory makes the same products in the same number as the factory next door, one that instead depends on humans on an assembly line. Do you not agree that both factories are creating value? How can it possibly that an iphone assembled by human fingers is somehow fundamentally different from one assembled by robot fingers? And if there is no real difference then the idea that under capitalism value is by necessity linked to the exploitation of labour has got to be wrong. It also means that taxing that factory and using those funds distributively to create aggregate demand, and thereby allow for that and other businesses to make a profit, is feasible. There is no basic difference in economic outcome between paying workers for their labour or instead having machines do the labour and then “paying” the (former) workers revenue extracted from the factory owners in the form of tax (except that now the liberated workers are now able to create more value in their own way with their newly-found free time, should they wish). I’m not saying UBI is the way to go or that it’s fundamentally just, but to say it’s a priori not workable seems just flat out wrong.


I do not agree that both factories are creating value, but both are creating wealth. This is, in fact, one of the key insights that Marx has, namely that value and use value are not identical under Capitalism.

15 May 2017, 6:13am
by Mike Robinson


But if your conception of value is such that we can have a system that produces great wealth but no value, that suggests there’s something wrong with your conception of value. In Marx’s time it was probable true that labor was the source of all value, but that now seems more like a contingent truth than a necessary one.

To settle whether or not Marx’s labor theory of value still holds is probably not going to be possible, at least we likely won’t settle the question by exchanging comments here.

That said, I don’t think it’s true that under capitalism an economy can function that produces no value. However, the rate of value production can decline so drastically that a society can produce real wealth while being economically in shambles. In 2008, for instance, huge stockpiles of unsold commodities sat around in warehouses due to the crisis.


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