Postone’s project – as he explains it – is to identify, or rethink, what is capitalist about capitalism. He notes that capitalism has assumed various ‘social-political-economic-cultural configurations’ in its history, and Postone enquires as to what is common – ‘core’ – to each of them. But this procedure, even if carried out ‘retrospectively’, is problematic; the question, in that it already assumes what it seeks to explain, is circular. If what is core to configurations of capitalism needs identifying, by what standard are these ‘capitalisms’ capitalist?
The difficulty is that Postone rules out a non-circular approach to this problem with his judgement that that the ‘mature’ Marx historically relativised what were for him previously ‘transhistorical notion’, restricting their validity to the capitalist mode of production. Thus, by situating his project within a rethinking of Marx in which ‘Marxist’ categories apply to where the operation of capitalist production predominates and here alone, Postone is left without categories by which to judge capitalist society (if I can for the moment use such a question-begging term) against other ones. Capitalism can only be analysed within its own terms of reference, and, as such, has to be assumed into existence.
Now, not to make too much of a fuss about it, I simply think that to say that Marx did historically relativise his concepts in this way is just wrong – wrong, in the sense of what it was that Marx said.
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