Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day: "Wealth is Disposable Time… and Nothing More"

"Is there not a state of society practicable, in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?" -- William Godwin
Published anonymously in 1821, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, deduced from principles of political economy, in a letter to Lord John Russell, was, according to Friedrich Engels, "saved from falling into oblivion," by Karl Marx. At the time of Engel's remark, however, Marx had scarcely mentioned the pamphlet in published writings other than a scant footnote in Volume I of Capital. Some rescue! Nevertheless, Engels acclaimed the pamphlet as "but the farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat."

In his unpublished notebooks, Marx did declare the pamphlet an advance beyond Adam Smith and David Ricardo in its conscious and consistent distinction between the general form of surplus value or surplus labor and its particular manifestations in the forms of land rent, interest of money or profit of enterprise. Commenting on the pamphlet, Marx returned several times to what he referred to reverently as a fine statement: "a nation is really rich if no interest is paid for the use of capital, if the working day is only 6 hours rather than 12. WEALTH IS DISPOSABLE TIME, AND NOTHING MORE." Marx noted that Ricardo had also identified disposable time as the true wealth with the difference that, for Ricardo, it was disposable time for the capitalist that constituted such wealth. Ricardo's ideal would thus be to maximize surplus value as a proportion of total output.

Marx again cited the phrase in his Grundrisse, immediately following a characteristically explosive proposition:
Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material condition to blow this foundation sky-high. 'Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours.'
Just how successful Marx was in saving the 1821 pamphlet from oblivion remains to be seen. Obviously, the pamphlet was spared from total oblivion or I wouldn't be writing about it. Aside from the few references by Marx and Engels, there have been scattered mentions of the pamphlet but no sustained analysis of it, which seems odd considering the importance that Engels – and Marx, in his manuscripts at least – assigned to it.

Perhaps one of the difficulties has been the anonymity of its authorship. That problem would appear to have been resolved by a disclosure in the biography of the 19th century editor and literary critic, Charles Wentworth Dilke. Dilke's grandson, the biography's author, reported having found an annotated copy of the pamphlet, acknowledging authorship, among his grandfather's papers. Subsequent authorities on Dilke and the literary journal he edited for several decades, The Athaeneum, appear satisfied with the plausibility of this attribution, given Dilke's writing style, his propensity for anonymous and pseudonymous publication, his political inclinations and his subsequent career. There doesn't appear to have been any concerted effort to either definitively establish or to refute Dilke's authorship. So Dilke qualifies as the leading and, so far, only candidate for authorship.

If Dilke was indeed the author, this presents two rather significant bits of context to the pamphlet. First, Dilke was an ardent disciple of William Godwin, who wrote, 'The genuine wealth of man is leisure…" The poet, John Keats, who was a close friend and next-door neighbor referred to Dilke, somewhat patronizingly, as a "Godwin perfectibility man". He was said to have retained that political inclination throughout his life. Second, in his career as editor of The Athaeneum, Dilke campaigned famously against journalistic "puffery" – the practice of publishers placing promotional material for their books in literary journals, for a fee, under the pretext that they were independent reviews. Both of these contextual items could be significant for an interpretation of The Source and Remedy precisely because the pamphlet lends itself arguably to a reading as a Godwinist tract (rather than a proto-Marxist one) but also to a reading as a polemic against yet another brand of puffery: political economy practiced by apologists for privilege and wealth. As for "turning the Ricardian theory of value against capitalist production," such an intention would hardly seem to fit an essay that on its closing page counted among the great advantages of the measures proposed therein that "their adoption would leave the country at liberty to pursue such a wise and politic system of financial legislation as would leave trade and commerce unrestricted."

The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties had something to say rather distinct from the message Marx took away from it. In his various notes on the pamphlet, Marx paid closest attention to the first six pages of the 40-page pamphlet and glossed over the rest. In his discussion of the pamphlet in Theories of Surplus Value, for example, the reader may wonder if Marx was actually still talking about the pamphlet after a few pages or had gone off on a tangent inspired by the pamphleteer having allegedly overlooked the impact of unemployment on wages. It has to be cautioned, though, that Marx's extended comments on the pamphlet appeared in manuscript notes that were published posthumously. They were not polished, fully thought-out positions intended for publication.

Although the first six pages are indeed interesting, in the context of the pamphlet as a whole their function is to set the stage for the crucial pair of questions that appear on page seven. That is, after deducing from principles of political economy that capital, left to its natural course, would soon do away with further accumulation, the author asks why that seemingly inevitable result has never happened and how it is that with all the presumably labor-saving wonders of modern industry, workers work longer hours and more laboriously than ever before.

Dilke's answer was that government and legislation act ceaselessly to destroy the produce of labor and interfere with the natural development of capital. They do this indirectly by, on the one hand, maintaining "unproductive classes" at a constant proportion to productive laborers and on the other by enabling the immense expansion of "fictitious capital," based ultimately on protectionism and government finance. Government does these things so that it may raise an enormous level of revenues that it couldn't through direct taxation of the laboring population, because "it would have been gross, open, shameless, and consequently impossible." Instead, it makes the holders of this fictitious capital accomplices in a stratagem to exact a much-enlarged revenue. As partner in crime, the capitalist lays claim to a generous portion of the booty. Not surprisingly, war is a "powerful co-operator" in this relentless process of destroying the produce of labor while expanding the (asymmetrical) claims of fictitious capital.

As for the natural claims of surplus value exacted by the capitalist, Dilke viewed them as causing the laborer "no real grievance to complain of," a position at least apparently at odds with Marx's views of exploitation and almost certainly incompatible with Engels' assertion that the pamphlet turned Ricardian theory "against capitalist production." Not only was Dilke not opposed to capitalist production, he described it as leading to a virtually Utopian condition of freedom if only it was left to unfold according to its nature. In his note, Marx objected that the pamphleteer had overlooked two things in coming to such a sanguine conclusion about the trajectory of capitalist accumulation. One was unemployment. Marx never got around to specifying the other.

Dilke's reasoning, although thought-provoking, is far from airtight. He confessed in his closing pages that his argument "is not so consecutive, that the proofs do not follow the principles laid down so immediately as I could have wished. The reasoning is too desultory, too loose in its texture." Whether such regrets were heartfelt or simply a stylistic gesture of modesty is hard to say. The subject matter itself is elusive and no treatment of it could be entirely exempt from error. Nevertheless, the case Dilke presented was an original and compelling one that has, as far as I know, been overlooked by Marx and his intellectual heirs.

The part of the argument that Marx appropriated to his own analysis – the author's consistent reference to surplus value as the general form underlying profit, rent and interest was ultimately incidental to Dilke's main points that nature places a limit on accumulation and that the surpassing of those natural limits occurs only as a result of government intervention, which, in effect mandates the excessive exploitation of labor.

There is a problem that arises from Marx appropriation of the (for Marx) correct premise of the pamphlet without first having systematically refuted the author's own deductions from it. What if Dilke's deductions were either equally or more plausible than Marx's? Rather than being a focal point of class struggle, might not surplus value then be "no real grievance to complain of?" Rather than underpinning a contradiction fated to blow the foundation of capital sky-high, might not the tension between "things superfluous" and disposable time have the potential to be adjusted like wing flaps to help bring Capitalism in for a soft landing?

By things superfluous, I refer, first, to the unholy trinity of fictitious capital, unproductive labor and inconvertible paper money and second, to their commodified expression as luxury goods. What I am suggesting is that for Dilke it seems that the primary contradictions of capitalism (to use Marx's expression) lay not so much between capital and labor as between real and fictitious capital, productive and unproductive labor, convertible and inconvertible money, necessities and luxury goods. This internalizing of the contradictions recalls Solzhenitsyn's observation in the Gulag Archipelago that, "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts." Might we not ask if it's not only the line between good and evil that passes through every human heart but also the line between labor and capital, proletariat and bourgeoisie? From the standpoint of the arguments presented in The Source and Remedy, a proletarian revolution would be, in effect, superfluous. The possibility of revolution would arrive more or less at the moment when such a revolution would no longer be necessary.


Magpie said...

An intriguing post, Sandwichman.

SleepyTreehugger said...

The pamphlet doesn't appear to bear even remotely any resemblance to the product of an avowed disciple of Godwin, rather to that of his nemesis, Robert Malthus.

“One of the most striking instances of the truth of this…is to be found in the rapidity with which the loss of capital is recovered during a war which does not interrupt its commerce. The loans to government convert capital into revenue, and increase demand at the same time that they at first diminish the means of supply” (Malthus, pg. 329). Of course, war isn’t the only means. In fact, the very conditions of prosperity ushered in by war create the very opposite conditions when the war comes to an end: “a very unusual stagnation of effectual demand” (Malthus, 416)...“It is also of importance to know that, in our endeavors to assist the working classes in a period like the present, it is desirable to employ them in those kinds of labor, the results of which do not come for sale into the market, such as roads and public works. The objection to employing a large sum in this way…would not be its tendency to diminish the capital employed in productive labor; because this, to a certain extent, is exactly what is wanted…the employment of the poor in roads and public works, and a tendency among landlords and persons of property to build, to improve and beautify their grounds, and to employ workmen and menial servants, are the means most within our power and most directly calculated to remedy the evils arising from that disturbance in the balance of produce and consumption, which has been occasioned by the sudden conversion of soldiers, sailors, and various other classes which the war employed, into productive laborers” (Malthus, 416)."

Sandwichman said...

Sleepy Treehugger,

Thanks for the link. It doesn't support your argument. My assessment of the pamphlet is not based on an isolated passage but on consideration of the whole text, extant commentaries on it and on contemporary correspondence and social circles. I'll stick with Keats.

Magpie said...


I haven't read the whole pamphlet, yet.

Still, upon re-reading your post, I've noticed this point (admittedly, not the meat of your thinking):

"As for 'turning the Ricardian theory of value against capitalist production,' such an intention would hardly seem to fit an essay that on its closing page counted among the great advantages of the measures proposed therein that 'their adoption would leave the country at liberty to pursue such a wise and politic system of financial legislation as would leave trade and commerce unrestricted'."

Obviously, the measures proposed in the pamphlet (to, basically, "leave trade and commerce unrestricted") cannot be said to turn "the Ricardian theory of value against capitalist production".

In this sense, if Marx and Engels missed that (and I am not dismissing your idea out of hand) then their reading of the pamphlet was inaccurate.

Still, I don't think your interpretation is as straightforward as you believe. In matters of international trade -- and it may surprise contemporary readers and upset former blue-collar workers in manufacturing, as it did yours truly -- Marx was not a protectionist.

Both men, believe it or not, were free traders.

Mind you, neither entertained any illusions about the virtues of free trade, quite to the contrary:

"What will be the influence of the perfect unfettering of trade upon the situation of the working classes, is very easy to be resolved. It is not even a problem. If there is anything clearly exposed in political economy, it is the fate attending the working classes under the reign of Free Trade. (...)
"Take, for instance, the authority of Ricardo, authority than which there is no better. What is the natural normal price of the labour of, economically speaking, a working man? Ricardo replies, 'Wages reduced to their minimum — their lowest level.' (...)
"The powers of production will increase, the tax imposed upon the country by protective duties will disappear, all commodities will be sold at a cheaper price. And what, again, says Ricardo? 'That labour being equally a commodity, will equally sell at a cheaper price' — that you will have it for very little money indeed, just as you will have pepper and salt. And then, in the same way as all other laws of political economy will receive an increased force, a surplus of truth, by the realisation of Free Trade — in the same way the law of population, as exposed by Malthus, will under the reign of Free Trade develop itself in as fine dimensions as can possibly be desired.
"Thus you have to choose: Either you must disavow the whole of political economy as it exists at present, or you must allow that under the freedom of trade the whole severity of the laws of political economy will be applied to the working classes.
"Is that to say that we are against Free Trade? No, we are for Free Trade, because by Free Trade all economical laws, with their most astounding contradictions, will act upon a larger scale, upon a greater extent of territory, upon the territory of the whole earth; and because from the uniting of all these contradictions into a single group, where they stand face to face, will result the struggle which will itself eventuate in the emancipation of the proletarians."

(Marx's undelivered speech at the Free Trade Congress at Brussels, as reported by Engels to The Northern Star, No. 520, October 9, 1847: "The Free Trade Congress at Brussels")

Magpie said...

Due to length (sorry for that) I had to split the comment.

This is the final:

Or like Engels himself wrote 44 years later:

"To him [i.e. Marx], Free Trade is the normal condition of modern capitalist production. Only under Free Trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be fully developed; and the quicker the pace of this development, the sooner and the more fully will be realized its inevitable results; society splits up into two classes, capitalists here, wage-laborers there; hereditary wealth on one side, hereditary poverty on the other; supply outstripping demand, the markets being unable to absorb the ever growing mass of the production of industry; an ever recurring cycle of prosperity, glut, crisis, panic, chronic depression, and gradual revival of trade, the harbinger not of permanent improvement but of renewed overproduction and crisis; in short, productive forces expanding to such a degree that they rebel, as against unbearable fetters, against the social institutions under which they are put in motion; the only possible solution: a social revolution, freeing the social productive forces from the fetters of an antiquated social order, and the actual producers, the great mass of the people, from wage slavery. And because Free Trade is the natural, the normal atmosphere for this historical evolution, the economic medium in which the conditions for the inevitable social revolution will be the soonest created -- for this reason, and for this alone, did Marx declare in favor of Free Trade." ("On the Question of Free Trade", Preface by Frederick Engels for the 1888 English edition pamphlet)

I suggest it is in this sense that one must interpret the idea that the pamphlet turns "the Ricardian theory of value against capitalist production".

But, of course, that's me.

Sandwichman said...

I agree that the phrase about turning the Ricardian system against capitalist production is itself ambiguous and itself subject to various interpretation. My point was that it wasn't the pamphlet author's obvious (to me) intention for it's argument to be turned against capitalism. With regard to free trade, there is the problem that the slogan of free trade often is elusive and is often used to promote simply a different set of trade restrictions.

I beg to differ with Marx and Engels -- and agree with Georgescu-Roegen and Alf Hornborg -- about the "immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery." Steam, electricity and machinery don't produce bugger all. Labor and the consumption of fuel resources enables the transformation of matter into forms that provide greater utility for certain people (and waste).

Magpie said...

Well, I still have to finish the pamphlet, anyway.

"Steam, electricity and machinery don't produce bugger all. Labor and the consumption of fuel resources enables the transformation of matter into forms that provide greater utility for certain people (and waste)."

It's an interesting coincidence that you should mention "transformation of matter".

You may not believe it, but I've been thinking -- on and off -- about energy flows, as in ecosystem flows of energy, for a while. I understand -- but I may be completely mistaken -- that Georgescu-Roegen has written about related topics.

At any rate, have you heard of ecosystem flows of energy in relation to economics?

Sandwichman said...

"ecosystem flows of energy in relation to economics?"

Definitely. I teach a course in Labour and the Environment. I would recommend Georgescu-Roegen.