Disposable time as a common-pool resource IX — Disposable time as a model for environmental governance

Disposable time as a common-pool resource IX — Disposable time as a model for environmental governance

Not only could disposable time be regarded as a common-pool resource similar to other common-pool resources, but it could stand as the single most far-reaching and democratically vital model of a common-pool resource. Donald Stabile alluded to something in this vein when he noted that, “Human labor is also the primary constituent of the society whose values must be part of any criterion of social evaluation. The appropriate starting point in any policy directed at social costs is with those imposed on labor.”

In “Accountants and the Price System: the Problem of Social Costs,” Stabile focused on the perspective introduced by John Maurice Clark in his Studies in the Economics of Overhead Costs. Clark argued that labor should be considered as an overhead cost of doing business rather than as a variable cost of the employing firm because the cost of maintaining the worker and his or her family in good stead has to be borne by someone, whether or not that worker is employed. “If all industry were integrated and owned by workers…,” Clark explained, “it would be clear to worker-owners that the real cost of labor could not be materially reduced by unemployment.”

Commenting on the efforts by some accountants during the 1970s to change the way social costs were accounted for on the corporate account books, Stabile concluded that those accountants had not developed useful concepts for examining social costs. To explain why they had failed, Stabile relied on the perspective on social costs set forth by Clark and by K. William Kapp in which analysis of the social costs of labor is central to a process of social evaluation. Such an outlook was missing from the works of social cost accountants, “Market values are a weak thread from which to hang a whole system of value,” Stabile argued, “but accountants cling to it doggedly. Without an alteration of this basic tenet of accounting, social cost accounting cannot develop into a criterion of social value.” 

Returning to Clark’s example of the hypothetical state where all industry is integrated and owned by workers, there is an instance of a non-market process of social evaluation whose results can be worked out with little hesitation, unemployment would be regarded as sheer waste rather than as an unfortunate but necessary measure for accumulating surplus value. Social accounting for unemployment would come to a very different assessment of economic “efficiency” than would a narrowly financial one from capital’s perspective.

Simply regarding disposable time as a common-pool resource would not automatically result in managing work as a commons. It is instead an important preliminary step that offers a rich conceptual framework for guiding the development of concrete policy proposals, research agendas, strategies and experiments. Such strategies and proposals can borrow from and combine experience in the governance of resources such as fisheries, forests and watersheds alongside lessons from trade union movements of the past and present and from feminist struggles for recognition and valuing of caregiving work.

Innovations that result from synthesizing such diverse experiences may seem disturbingly unfamiliar from the traditional perspective of viewing labour as a commodity. That is why it is important to not only foster an understanding of disposable time as a common-pool resource but in the process to not lose sight of what the traditional perspective entails and what is the relationship between the two views. In some of the most visionary lines of the Grundrisse, Marx rhapsodized about a future beyond the social contradictions of capital in which wealth is measured by the quantity of alienated labour time that capital is able to accumulate. In contrast to grim scenario, Marx briefly outlined a society in which disposable time become the measure of wealth:

For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour.

The degradation of individual to “mere worker” has its counterpart in the degradation of the earth to “mere resources,” to be extracted, refined, and manufactured as quickly and extensively as possible into commodities. Conceiving of disposable time as a common-pool resource establishes a framework for understanding and resisting both forms of degradations.