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.
I gather from this that you are a scholar.
Would it be possible for you to write an essay explaining the value of all this without referring
to Marx (off-putting to many people) or to scholarly details (only interesting to scholars).
This is not a criticism. I just think that what you and Marx have to say may be too important to be left to scholars and Marxists.
That’s an excellent question, coberly. Yes it would be possible to write an essay without referring to Marx or to the scholarly details. I reckon it would take 3000-4000 words and that the length would be as off-putting to many of the same people as referring to Marx is. Why would it take so many words? Because the objections are baked in as “common sense.” People want more money, not more so-called “free time” when they would just get drunk or spend money they don’t have anyway. There isn’t a fixed amount of work to be done and instead of working less, we should be working more. Things are the way they are because that’s the way most people want them to be and you’re just some kind of elitist if you think things should be some other way. And so on. Part of that common sense is what makes Marx off-putting and makes scholarship off-putting. It is common sense that Marx leads to totalitarianism and that scholarship is elitist.
I was thinking of doing a piece that talks about the research I do as my hobby*. And maybe I will use the answer to your question as the lead in to it. The asterisk in hobby* is an allusion to a radio lecture on “Free Time” by Theodor Adorno from May 1969, about three months before he died. It the broadcast, which was in German, he used the English word hobby* and the asterisk in the English translation was to indicate that it was in English in the original. Adorno’s discussion of hobbies* comes across as condescending. Adorno was undoubtedly a snob but I think he was also making an important point about the unfulfilling, commercially-packaged superficiality of many of the activities that people do as “hobbies.*” A half-century after Adorno’s radio lecture, many people engage in social* media* as a hobby*. Q-anon is a hobby*. Being a Proud Boy or a Oath Keeper is a hobby*.
Adorno introduced his discussion of the hobby* with a personal anecdote: “Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby*. … I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby*.” Adorno had no hobbies because everything he did was in earnest, at least according to his self-evaluation. The Sandwichman is no Adorno. No one takes Sandwichman as seriously as Adorno took himself so my research, my blogging, my twitter posts are hobbies*.
Now if the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s were to commission me to write 3000-4000 words on the vagaries of free time (without mentioning Marx or scholarship), I would do it in a heartbeat because I would know that people would read it. Not because it was by Tom Walker but because it was published in a magazine they just paid eight bucks for. But I’m not going to do that kind of heavy lifting on spec.
all good thoughts…and, worked up, might begin to eat away at the “common sense” of economists who don’t do it for a hobby. [they get paid.]
i disagree about..both as it turns out…Marx and scholarship. People are put off by Marx because they were told he was evil by generations of very important people. and…i am sorry to say…by some very earnest people who did not know how to tell when their audience had stopped listening. that is not scholarship. scholarship is off-putting to non scholars (not scholars in the same field, anyway) because it dwells on obsessive fine points of scholarship that don’t seem to be leading anywhere that the reader has yet learned to want to go.
Marx had a story to tell. I think he probably told it. But I have never been motivated to read any of what he wrote. Tell the story; defeat the “common sense”. [i don’t object to scholarship because it is “elitist” [in quotes]. I object to it because it is elitist…not in quotes… which does not offend me in any sense of objecting to people who think they are better than me, but just because I am not an elite in their field I can’t understand much of what they are saying, or see why I should care about it. I hope that is not offensive, it is not at all meant to be. I don’t think you would enjoy talking to me if I talked about the subtler points in my field, complete with quotes and citations and the history of a certain phrase…
On the other hand, I think I might be very interested in a defense of free time.. hobbies are what people do who can’t get no satisfaction from their day jobs, and don’t have time or energy left to do anything that really matters to them [okay, so restoring vintage corvettes might really interest some people.. that’s fine with me, and I wish they had more time to do it, and less time to be mindless bureaucrats, for example.] [not all bureaucrats are mindless.]
It may help you to see my point of view if I share two incidents from my past. One is that about a year after my first marriage broke up in my late 20s I started going out with a newspaper reporter who I liked quite a bit but who from time to time would be very scornful of my ignorance on certain fine points of nomenclature, not to mention grammar. When that relationship fell apart, I suspected that part of my problem was my inarticulateness. Soon after, I returned to university to complete my degree — and hopefully polish my crude edges a bit.
The second incident occurred after I had finished another year of university and was on the home stretch. I proposed and wrote a semester long 100-page essay that delved deep into Marxist theory. When I had completed that paper, I resolved to never trouble myself again about what Marx said or who said what about Marx. Over the years since then, my interest has not been in Marxology but in why there is unemployment, why is there such feral hostility to shorter work time from economists, why unions and apparently a lot of workers seem to be apathetic or hostile toward the issue of the hours of work and the hours of leisure. As I look at these issues the spectre of Marx keeps crossing my path while a lot of presumed Marxists seem blasé about the issues I am concerned with.
To bring things up to date, for a few months I have been lurking on a “Marxist Philosophy” eventually an occasion came up the other day when people were saying pretentious things about something I actually knew about. And, OF COURSE, a reply came back from some academic bigwig that it was hard to take what I had to say seriously. It may seem to you that I am an erudite son-of-a-bitch but to ‘the people who really count’ I am still an unrefined ignoramus. My writing may look scholarly to the unscholarly but in reality I am just another dumb monkey flailing away at a keyboard.
i can understand how that would make you feel. but since you care about leisure, i think you should write about it and bnish the demons. my daughter had a first husband like your newspaper girl.. she got rid of him. you are still carrying yours around.
you don’t seem like an erudite son of a bitch to me. i like what you say (not the scholarly bits) and wish you would say more. of course, we all have our own ideas about what we want to do, and i can respect your choices. i have my own demons still unbanished.
Come to think of it… you probably have a very different notion of “non-scholarly writing” than I do. Writing news features is a job. Writing magazine features is a job. It is similar to writing ad copy, a software manual, a background report on privatization of government services, or a submission to a labour arbitrator. Somebody pays for it and one does the best job one can. My creative writing would tend toward the post-situationist. Lots of appropriation and détournement, juxtaposition of image and text but with a more formal arrangement.
“Wealth is disposable time.” There is something archaic about the essay so when I do essays they tend to deal with the arcane, in part because the prosaic is increasingly incoherent and pseudo-normal.
Looks like the option for including an image in comments is a false flag. https://twitter.com/Sandwichman_eh/status/1478962001325944832/photo/1
oh, i saw a bit of scholarly writing in the day. i gave it up. For me at least, it was a false idol. Still enjoy a bit of it when the subject interests me and it’s not beyond my comprehension. but I also got a laugh when a physicist, I think it was, submitted a paper of complete gobbledegook to a “new criticism” journal and it was accepted.
trouble is, even with honest research in an honest field, it’s a long way between articles that tell you anything you want to know.
Been meddling around with shop floor, inventory, demand, etc domestically and internationally for decades. It is my bailiwick.
It is fun when I was asked “how did you do that?.” Not so fun when they wanted to whack people. Fun when you implement a system and the boss says thank you and not so fun when the boss lays you off and says “I will always remember what you did” and then proceeds to place some jackass from sales in your position (so they could learn . . . ). Fun when you kept everyone working and not so fun when the work disappeared in the early eighties. Fun when the Controller came and said, “For 14 months we have broke even or made a profit during 4 of those months. We only lost money during one month.” attributable to your efforts (1982). And not so fun when they laid you off anyways.
My efforts were built around understanding systems, material and shop floor flows, labor hours, and giving people the ability to do what was needed to be done. As I read your words, you are kind of cryptic at times. I am just on the edge of realization or understanding for me only because I do understand manufacturing processes and flows and how Labor fits into it. Verbally, I am not a genius but I can write and back people off.
My Economics Prof (Univ of Chicago) at Loyola recognizes what I can do and has remarked on it in our conversations about what is going on today and why. Not flashy. Just a lot of foundation. I have no problems with what you say much of which makes sense to me on a practical level.
It may not be enough in a world of academia but it was in reality. You are on the right page . . .
similar to my experience, and the Sandwichman’s. The reptile hearted beings from outer space who run this planet are actually not very smart…except at managing human behavior by threat or fraud or promises of reward. I am fairly sure they bother with it because they feed on human misery.