This Life: faith, work, and free time

This Life: faith, work, and free time

The blurbs on the first few pages of Martin Hägglund’s This Life are so surprisingly accurate that it would be hard to describe the book with an original superlative. “Monumental!” “Powerful!” “Important!” “Electrifying!” “Profound, thoughtful, compelling, and insightful!” Those blurbs were not idle puffery. All that is left for me to add is that I liked it very much. Oh, just one more thing…

Hägglund’s premise is that spirituality, and consequently freedom, is grounded in our mortality. Secular faith arises from an acute awareness of the risk of losing the relationships we cherish and manifests in our commitment to act to sustain the lives of the objects of our affection. 

In this context, freedom is not an abstract absence of constraints on our actions but the presence of the possibility to do what needs to be done to fulfill our commitments. As Hägglund writes in the introduction, “secular faith is the condition of freedom. … We are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time.”

Time looms over Hägglund’s discussion of secular faith in the first part of the book and inevitably forms the ground of spiritual freedom in Part II. After all, time is precisely what is finite in “this life.” At the beginning of chapter 5, “The value of our finite time,” Hägglund affirms the writings of Karl Marx as containing “the greatest resources for developing a secular notion of freedom.”

Hägglund’s account of Marx’s analysis of the concept of value is exemplary. As he points out, “Marx’s critique of capitalism stands or falls” on that analysis. Unfortunately, he argues, Marx’s analysis has been almost universally misrepresented as an extension of the labour theory of value as formulated by Adam Smith and David Ricardo rather than a critique of the theory’s contradictions.

At one point in his discussion of Marx’s analysis, Hägglund states that “Marx’s account powerfully demonstrates that the measure of value under capitalism is contradictory,” but does not provide an explicit explanation of why it is contradictory. Hägglund then offers his own explanation: capitalism “treats the negative measure of value as though it were the positive measure of value and thereby treats the means of economic life as though they were the end of economic life. This is very close to the explanation Marx did give in the Grundrisse of why the measure of value under capitalism is contradictory.

Hägglund cannot be faulted for overlooking Marx’s explanation. He certainly wasn’t the first. In fact, I haven’t found any author who has written about Marx’s explanation. It is “hidden in plain sight.” The clue to its location is contained in the “striking” use by Marx  of “the English term disposable time in italics in the original (rather than the German verfügbare Zeit).”

Marx used the English term because it was a quotation from an English pamphlet. The pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties was published anonymously in 1821. The author has subsequently been identified as Charles Wentworth Dilke. Marx cites the quotation profusely in the section of the Grundrisse on pages 704-709 (Penguin, 1973), which Hägglund describes as “luminous.”

But Marx also cites the pamphlet earlier, on page 397, translating disposable time there as verfügbare Zeit. In the following paragraph, Marx offers the enigmatic but profound observation that, “The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time.” He is here not referring specifically to the historical case of capitalism as becomes clear from the continuation of the paragraph:

The relation of necessary labour time to the superfluous (such it is, initially, from the standpoint of necessary labour) changes with the different stages in the development of the productive forces. In the less productive stages of exchange, people exchange nothing more than their superfluous labour time; this is the measure of their exchange, which therefore extends only to superfluous products. In production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time.

It is only in the last sentence that the distinctive characteristic of “production resting on capital” is identified. That characteristic is the reversal of the relationship between the necessary and the superfluous. Note that this is the only place in the Grundrisse where Marx refers to surplus labour time as superfluous (überflüssiger) labour time. 

Incidentally, disposable time in the above cited passage is rendered as disponibler Zeit rather than verfügbare Zeit. Nevertheless, the development of wealth resting on the creation disposable time is clearly a gloss on the quotation from the 1821 pamphlet.

The reversal of the necessary and the superfluous is taken up again by Marx on pages 608-610 where he discusses the necessity for capital of a relative surplus population and thus, “the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite”:

Labour capacity can perform its necessary labour only if its surplus labour has value for capital, if it can be realized by capital. Thus, if this realizability is blocked by one or another barrier, then (1) labour capacity itself appears outside the conditions of the reproduction of its existence; it exists without the conditions of its existence, and is therefore a mere encumbrance; needs without the means to satisfy them; (2) necessary labour appears as superfluous, because the superfluous is not necessary. It is necessary only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital. Thus the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite, so that a part of necessary labour – i.e. of the labour reproducing labour capacity – is superfluous, and this labour capacity itself is therefore used as a surplus of the necessary working population, i.e. of the portion of the working population whose necessary labour is not superfluous but necessary for capital.

This reversal of the superfluous and the necessary is, of course, echoed a third time in the luminous “fragment on machines” where the infamous moving contradiction of capital “diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.”

Marx’s explanation, spread out over “three fragments on machines,” of why capital’s measure of value is contradictory rests in the reversal, under capitalism, of the relationship between necessary labour time and superfluous labour time and the resulting subordination of the necessary to the superfluous. As a result of this reversal, superfluous labour time becomes split into surplus labour time, on the one hand, and surplus labour capacity on the other — both being equally “socially necessary” and the latter becoming both a condition for and a barrier to the realization of surplus value.

As I have mentioned previously, Marx did not use the term “socially necessary labour time” in either the Grundrisse or A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In my view, the three fragments on machines, pp. 397-401, 608-610, and 704-709 foreshadow the darker implications of socially necessary labour time, which Marx both downplays and attributes to “laws” in Capital. Those mediate laws, however, are ultimately expressions of socially necessary labour time.

For example, socially necessary labour time goes unmentioned in chapter 25, which deals with the relationship between the accumulation of capital and the disposable industrial reserve population. The absolute general law of capitalist accumulation, however, is the working out of the inherent logic of socially necessary labour time.

Marx’s conspicuous use of the concept of disposable time in the Grundrisse may offer a clue as to why Marx’s analysis just happens to be so germane to an investigation of secular faith. As mentioned previously, Marx’s source for the concept was The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. The author of that pamphlet, Charles Dilke, was a devotee to William Godwin, whose expression, “The genuine wealth of man is leisure, when it meets with a disposition to improve it.” was an obvious influence on Dilke’s “wealth… is disposable time and nothing more.” 

Godwin was trained as a minister in the tradition of  Rational Dissent and retained his Calvinist modes of thought through subsequent phases of atheism and deism. His lifelong advocacy of universal leisure can be fruitfully interpreted as a modernization and reformulation in secular terms of Jean Calvin’s doctrine of the particular calling, in which Godwin sought to elevate what he called the “contingent occupation” of leisure to equal status in “the business of life” with the “prescribed occupation” of a trade or profession.