Oedipus Marx and the Chimera of Socially Necessary Labour Time

Oedipus Marx and the Chimera of Socially Necessary Labour Time

Karl Marx: “Pamphlet No. 1 ends with the statement: ‘Wealth is nothing but disposable time'”

No, it doesn’t. 

The pamphlet Marx cited was The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. The phrase, “wealth . . . is disposable time, and nothing more,” appeared on page 5 of the 40-page pamphlet. On page 6, the pamphlet’s author asked,

“Why then is it that no existing society, nor society that ever had existence, has arrived at this point of time, considering that in all times, and in all societies, excepting only the very barbarous, a few years would naturally have led to it?

The subsequent 34 pages were dedicated to solving that riddle — or at least illuminating it. In chapter 21 of Theories of Surplus Value and in the “fragment on machines” in the Grundrisse Marx wrote almost as many words misunderstanding the anonymously published pamphlet as its author, Charles Wentworth Dilke, had used to compose it. There were parts Marx obviously liked very, very much and there were others that he didn’t mention. 

Marx’s most glaring omission had to do with a calculation by Dilke of an unnamed quantity that one might describe as “socially necessary labour time.” It wasn’t the same socially necessary labour time that Marx would come up with some 40 years later. 

To arrive at “a rude guess” of capitalist exploitation, Dilke was compelled to “reason from a plain levelling principle.” The rationale for such an assumption was unmistakably from William Godwin, whose ideas Dilke paraphrased liberally throughout the pamphlet — including the “fine statement” that wealth is disposable time, or, as Godwin had written, “the real wealth of man is leisure.”

Marx’s comment that the pamphlet’s author “stands rather on Ricardian ground,” revealed what might be called an Oedipal blindness about the paternity of his radical intellectual project. In a notebook from the 1840s, Marx had written, “The theory of exploitation owes its further development in England to Godwin, and especially to Bentham… Godwin’s Political Justice was written during the terror…”

In The condition of the working class in England, Friedrich Engels acknowledged, 

…two great practical philosophers of latest date, Bentham and Godwin, are, especially the latter, almost exclusively the property of the proletariat… The proletariat has formed upon this basis a literature, which consists chiefly of journals and pamphlets, and is far in advance of the whole bourgeois literature in intrinsic worth. On this point more later.

Engels did not return to that point.

Remarkably, in a comment at the beginning of chapter 7 of Theories of Surplus Value, Marx explicitly excluded Godwin, by name, from consideration in the work:

In accordance with the plan of my work socialist and communist writers are entirely excluded from the historical reviews. These reviews are only intended to show on the one hand in what form the political economists criticized each other, and on the other hand the historically determining forms in which the laws of political economy were first stated and further developed. In dealing with surplus-value I therefore exclude such eighteenth century writers as Brissot, Godwin and the like, and likewise the nineteenth-century socialists and communists. The few socialist writers whom I shall come to speak of in this survey either themselves adopt the standpoint of bourgeois economy or contest it from its own standpoint.

Yeah, please try not to think of an elephant. Especially not the one that ends with the fine statement, “wealth is disposable time.” 

I am working on a critique of Marx’s category of socially necessary labour time and I am astonished that no one has thought to examine its history. They call it historical materialism, don’t they? Do all these Marxists really just assume that socially necessary labour time sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus?

Toward the end of Time, Labor and Social Domination, Moishe Postone wrote,

The trajectory of capitalist production as presented by Marx can be viewed, then, in terms of the development of the social division of time-from socially necessary (individually necessary and surplus), through socially necessary and superfluous, to the possibility of socially necessary and disposable (which would entail overcoming the older form of necessity). This trajectory expresses the dialectical development of capitalism, of an alienated form of society constituted as a richly developed totality at the expense of the individuals, which gives rise to the possibility of its own negation, a new form of society in which people, singly and collectively, can appropriate the species-general capacities that had been constituted in alienated form as attributes of the Subject.

But Dilke had already asked, two hundred years ago, “Why is it that no existing society, nor society that ever had existence, has arrived at this point of time?” 

It seems to me as though Marx reverse engineered his category of socially necessary labour time to somehow reconcile his profound insights into capital’s domination of labour with aspirations for the proverbial “realm of freedom beyond necessity.” Dilke and Godwin made explicit the requisite conditions for realizing that realm of freedom: Dilke: “The accumulation of capital is very limited, if the happiness of the whole, and not the luxuries of a few, is the proper subject for national congratulation.”

Godwin: “The commodities that substantially contribute to the subsistence of the human species form a very short catalogue: they demand from us but a slender portion of industry. If these only were produced, and sufficiently produced, the species of man would be continued. If the labour necessarily required to produce them were equitably divided among the poor, and, still more, if it were equitably divided among all, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure would be ample.”

Marx presumed that capital’s continual striving to exceed those limits would magically create the material conditions to “blow the foundation sky-high.” What is being blown sky-high nowadays are carbon dioxide emissions.

There will be a continuing series of posts on SNLT. One of the tasks in preparation for these essays was to search through all volumes of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value for mentions of socially necessary labour time. I will be posting excerpts in manageable snippets. Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination contains too many mentions of SNLT to excerpt. I will also refer occasionally to some of the voluminous literature on Marx’s category of socially necessary labour time, none of which so much as mentions Godwin or The Source and Remedy