This post will be a bit of a backtrack. While going through my notes for chapter 7 of Theories of Surplus Value, I discovered a printout of a page from the Grundrisse that I had overlooked when writing the post on that book. Although it does not contain the term socially necessary labour time, the two and a half page section with the same title as this post speaks volumes about the concept.
First, a little context: the section follows discussions of T. R. Malthus and Thomas Chalmers on population. Or perhaps denunciations of Malthus and Chalmers would be more accurate description of Marx's notes on their arguments. In that earlier discussion Marx referred to Chalmers's On Political Economy in Connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society (1832) and quoted the passage, "Profit has the effect of attaching the services of the disposable population to other masters, besides the mere landed proprietors, … while their expenditure reaches higher than the necessaries of life."
Chalmers's celebration of this "disposable population" is a reprise of his 1808 introduction of the term in An inquiry into the extent and stability of national resources:
After the subsistence of all the necessary population, an immense quantity of surplus food is still unconsumed, and an immense population, supported by that food, is still unoccupied; and the productions of their industry are still in reserve to widen the sphere of enjoyment, to add to the sweets of human life, and the comforts of human society. This remaining population constitutes the third division of the population of the country; and to it I give the name of the Disposable Population.
In an unpublished paper, I speculated that Chalmers's "disposable population" was the inspiration for Charles Wentworth Dilke's disposable time as a rebuttal to Chalmers (see my earlier post on Disposable People). In contrast to Chalmers's delight about the disposables, Dilke lamented "all unproductive classes" that "destroy the produce of the labour of a society, and consequently prevent or delay the further increase of capital."
Marx, in the section on Necessary labour, etc. also appears to have been reacting to Chalmers in remarks about "idlers, whose business it is to consume alien products and who, since crude consumption has its limits, must have the products furnished to them partly in refined form, as luxury products."
Marx then contrasted the "disposable population" of idle consumers with the surplus population of idled labour capacities -- that is the unemployed, whose very idleness is "necessary" to the continued expansion of capital. The key phrase in the following is "turns into its opposite." The actually necessary labour appears as superfluous because labour because it is (socially) necessary "only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital":
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! This is the topsy-turvy concept of socially necessary labour time in embryo! Marx continued on in this vein for another page. What Marx was getting at is that the process is contradictory: the necessary labour of a portion of labour capacities becomes superfluous and at the same time the superfluous production of the labour necessary to capital's expanded reproduction becomes (socially) necessary. As Marx wrote in a later section, capital "posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary."
"Socially necessary labour time" is thus not merely an aggregate of individually necessary labour time and surplus labour time but is, in part, an inversion of the necessary and the superfluous. Whether this dialectical legerdemain results in insight or incomprehension remains to be seen. For my part, I think it is brilliant but suspect it is -- if you'll pardon the expression -- unnecessary.
Index to all posts on socially necessary labour time.
I will again take this opportunity to plug my publication, "The Ambivalence of Disposable Time" in each of these episodes. I am linking to the published journal article. If anyone needs free access to the author's preprint, let me know in comments and I will leave a link there.