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Disposable Time, Surplus Population, and Limitation of the Hours of Labour

Historical Materialism online conference, November 13, 2021: pdf

My presentation today stems from a two-decades long engagement with the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties which, according to Engels, Marx "rescued from its oblivion." In Time, Labor, and Social Domination, Moishe Postone twice quoted a provocative passage from the Grundrisse that begins, "Capital itself is the moving contradiction…" At the end of the paragraph containing that passage, Marx paraphrased and cited, "The Source and Remedy etc. 1821."

My curiosity about that citation led me to the basement of the U.B.C library where I retrieved a microfilm copy of the pamphlet. In "The Ambivalence of Disposable Time: The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties at Two Hundred" I examined the influence of the pamphlet on Marx's critique of political economy, an influence that has largely gone unacknowledged. My subsequent research is concerned how Marx's critique surpassed The Source and Remedy's already formidable critique of political economy.

Several times when discussing my essay, I mentioned that the author of the pamphlet, Charles Wentworth Dilke, had a concept of "socially necessary labour time," although he didn't call it that and it was different from Marx's category. Soon, I realized I needed to check for myself exactly what Marx's category was about before making any rash pronouncements. The first thing I discovered was that Marx hadn't used the term at all in the Grundrisse, although the germ of the as-yet-unnamed category was embedded in his discussion of disposable time, the superfluous-and-the-necessary, and relative surplus population.

As I rummaged through the Grundrisse for traces of the emerging category, my searches converged on two sections that bore lexical and syntactic similarities to crucial passages of the well-known "fragment on machines." Consequently, I now argue there is not one, but three fragments on machines. The first two fragments illuminate the sense of the terminology Marx used in the third.

Now, I would like to outline what I hope will be five takeaways from my presentation today:

First, I agree with Postone that Marx's analysis of the historical specificity of value in the Grundrisse 'provides a key to interpreting his mature critique of political economy,' and that Marx characterizes there 'a possible postcapitalist society in terms of the category of "disposable" time'

Second, Postone's interpretation, in Time, Labor, and Social Domination, of "the superfluous form" and of disposable time needs to be amended. The real significance of those two terms is revealed gradually over the course of all three fragments on machines.

Third, disposable time is the foundation of Marx's analysis of surplus value and his crisis theory.

Fourth, "The theory of surplus population and surplus capital" is Marx's crisis theory in a nutshell.

Fifth, Marx's analysis of disposable time and his theory of surplus population and surplus capital, are relevant to addressing contemporary issues of social disintegration and environmental degradation.

Before I continue, I need to say a few words about "socially necessary labour time" as Marx defined it in Capital.

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William Godwin's Ethic of Leisure and the Riddle of Social Justice

Leisure Studies Association conference, July 6, 2021: pdf

"The object in the present state of society is to multiply labour," wrote William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, "in another state it will be to simplify it." "The genuine wealth of man is leisure," he declared in a subsequent essay, "when it meets with a disposition to improve it. All other riches are of petty and inconsiderable value." Godwin concluded the latter essay, "Of Riches and Poverty," with the question: "Is there not a state of society practicable, in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?"

In Thoughts on Man: his nature, productions and discoveries, Godwin clearly articulated what had been a persistent motif in his earlier writing – that leisure was no less an essential element of a person's calling than was one's trade or occupation:

The river of human life is divided into two streams; occupation and leisure—or, to express the thing more accurately, that occupation, which is prescribed, and may be called the business of life, and that occupation, which arises contingently, and not so much of absolute and set purpose, not being prescribed: such being the more exact description of these two divisions of human life, inasmuch as the latter is often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits than the former.

Godwin stressed that leisure was of primary importance for self improvement, citing the example "that schoolboys learn as much, perhaps more, of beneficial knowledge in their hours of play, as in their hours of study." Godwin's reference to occupation clearly evokes Calvin's doctrine of the worldly calling. Repeatedly in Thoughts on Man Godwin reprised the proposition "that every human creature, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him."

Godwin had been educated as a Dissenting minister. His first tutor in theology, Samuel Newton, was a follower of Robert Sandeman, practitioner of an especially strict Calvinist creed. Many commentators have noted the persistence of Godwin's Calvinist habits of thought, despite his wavering successive professions of atheism and deism. "The Calvinist doctrine of the calling," observed William Stafford, "can be discerned just below the surface in Political Justice. It is a man's duty to labour in the station to which God has called him; he is answerable for every scrap of time, every thought and deed." While correctly observing the Calvinist undertone in Political Justice, Stafford neglected Godwin's systematic reformulation of the doctrine of the calling by his elevation of leisure.

As Harriet Martineau wrote in 1837, "The first attempt to advocate leisure as the birthright of every human being was made now some half-century ago." Martineau was referring to Godwin's The Enquirer, published in 1797, although he had also advocated for universal leisure in his Enquiry Concerning Political justice, published four years earlier. One might expect that such a formidable and precocious advocacy of leisure for all would make Godwin a major figure in leisure studies. Or at least a minor figure? However, there is no mention of William Godwin in A Handbook of Leisure Studies (2006), The Routledge Handbook of Leisure Studies (2013), or The Palgrave Handbook of Leisure Theory (2017). Moreover, there is no mention of Godwin in any of the subsequent articles that Google Scholar lists as having cited either of those publications. Searches for William Godwin in journals with "leisure" in their names covered by Google Scholar, JSTOR and EBSCO Academic Search Premier produced zero results.

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Degrowth as Social and Ecological Regeneration

Ecological Economics/Degrowth conference, July 8, 2021: pdf

It is fitting that this conference is, virtually at least, taking place in Manchester. In late November, 1833, "working people of Manchester, and their friends," met at Prince's Tavern to form the Society for Promoting National Regeneration with the objective "to remove the commercial and social evils, which are fast destroying every vestige of happiness and order." The highest priority reform advocated by the Society was reducing the length of the working day. Seventy-six years later, pioneering University of Manchester economist, Sydney J. Chapman's theoretical analysis of the hours of labour vindicated the Society's intuition about the prime importance of reducing the hours of work.

Over the past quarter of a century or so, ecological economists and degrowth advocates have included proposals for shorter working time in their programs. Scores of scholarly articles have been published examining some aspect of the relationship between hours of paid work and the environment. I confess I haven't read them all. But I have read enough of them to form an impression of how most authors view the contribution of work-time reduction.

Work time reduction is often advocated as a way to mitigate the unemployment effects of a low growth or no growth policy. Reducing the hours of work is presented as a benign way to absorb the effects of productivity gains without expanding consumption. The time released from working time is presented as a "normal good," leisure, that can serve as a substitute for manufactured commodities. These intuitively appealing rationales are often supported by time series data that show countries that work less emit less carbon dioxide, even controlling for income differences. A minority of studies challenge those empirical results.

All that is well and good as far as it goes. But there needs to be more depth to the analysis Working time is part of a metabolism, not a mechanism - not even a complex mechanism. For over two hundred years, political economy and economic science have, with rare exceptions, treated the hours of labour mechanically. Sydney Chapman, who I mentioned earlier, was one of those rare exceptions. The other exceptions were often critics of economics or political economy or were outsiders of the discipline. The insights on working time I would like to highlight in this presentation were by Chapman, William Godwin, Charles Wentworth Dilke, economists Stephen Leacock and Arthur O. Dahlberg, and that old bugbear, Karl Marx.

As Harriet Martineau wrote in 1837, "The first attempt to advocate leisure as the birthright of every human being was made now some half-century ago." Martineau was referring to Godwin's The Enquirer, published in 1797, although Godwin had also advocated for universal leisure in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published four years earlier. Godwin's rationale was that:

The commodities that substantially contribute to the subsistence of the human species, form a very short catalogue. They demand from us but a slender portion of industry. If these only were produced, and sufficiently produced, the species of man would be continued. If the labour necessarily required to produce them were equitably divided among the poor, and still more, if it were equitably divided among all, each man's share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure would be ample. ... Those hours which are not required for the production of the necessaries of life, may be devoted to the cultivation of the understanding, the enlarging our stock of knowledge, the refining our taste, and thus opening to us new and more exquisite sources of enjoyment.

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