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Critical Social Theory and the Contemporary World


The far-reaching historical transformations of recent decades, including the decline of the Keynesian/Fordist organization of polity and economy in the West, the collapse of party-state command economies in the East, and the emergence of a neo-liberal capitalist global order, suggest that contemporary critical theory must be centrally concerned with historical dynamics and large-scale structural changes. The paper argues that these broad developments can best be apprehended by a theory premised on the Marxian theory of capital, but only if that category is fundamentally reconceptualized in ways that distinguish it from its usage in traditional Marxist interpretations.

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  1. See, for example, G.A. Cohen, History, labour and freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 209–238; Maurice Dobb, Political economy and capitalism (London: Routledge, 1940), pp. 70–78; Jon Elster, Making sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 127; Herb Gintis, “The reemergence of Marxian economics,” in Ollman and Vernoff (Eds.) The Left Academy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), pp. 53–81; Ronald Meeks, Studies in the labour theory of value (New York: Lawrence and Wishart, 1956); John Roemer, Analytical foundations of Marxian economic theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 158–159; Ian Steedman, “Ricardo, Marx, Sraffa,” in Ian Steedman (ed.), The value controversy (London: NLB, 1981), pp. 11–19; Paul Sweezy, The theory of capitalist development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 52–53.

  2. See, for example, Shlomo Avineri, The social and political thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 76–77; István Mészáros, Marx’s theory of alienation (London: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 79–90.

  3. See Moishe Postone, Time, labor, and social domination (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 84–90.

  4. George Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” in History and class consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971 [1923]) pp. 83–222.

  5. M. Postone, “Lukács and the dialectical critique of capitalism,” in Robert Albritton and John Simoulidis (Eds.), New dialectics and political economy (New York: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 78–100.

  6. See M. Postone, “Critique, state, and economy,” in Fred Rush (ed.) The Cambridge companion to critical theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  7. Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973 [1857–1858]), pp. 83 ff.

  8. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976 [1867]), pp. 125–129.

  9. Marx, Grundrisse, op. cit., p. 106.

  10. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., pp.131–139.

  11. Ibid., pp. 273–274.

  12. Ibid., pp. 131–138; Marx, Grundrisse, op. cit., pp. 701–702.

  13. The Marxian analysis of abstract domination is a more rigorous and determinate analysis of what Foucault attempted to grasp with his notion of power in the modern world.

  14. See Marx, Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 137 for the initial determination of this treadmill dynamic.

  15. G. W. F. Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of spirit, in Walter Kaufmann, ed., Hegel: Texts and commentary (Garden City, NY, 1966), p.28; Marx, Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., pp. 255–256.

  16. Lukács, op. cit., pp, 102–121, 135, 145, 151–53, 162, 175, 197–200.

  17. See Postone, Time, labor, and social domination, op. cit., pp. 324–349.

  18. Ibid., pp. 307–314.

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Correspondence to Moishe Postone.

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Postone, M. Critical Social Theory and the Contemporary World. Int J Polit Cult Soc 19, 69–79 (2005).

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Key words

  • Historical transformations
  • capital
  • abstract social domination
  • historical dynamics
  • capitalism
  • modernity
  • Marx