WEALTH IS DISPOSABLE TIME, AND NOTHING MORE.
After all their idle sophistry,
there is, thank God! no means of adding to the wealth of a nation but by
adding to the facilities of living: so that wealth is liberty -- liberty
to seek recreation -- liberty to enjoy life -- liberty to improve the mind:
it is disposable time, and nothing more.
-- Anonymous, 1821, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.
In the preface to Volume II of Karl Marx's Capital, Frederick Engels stressed the importance of "this pamphlet of forty pages, which Marx rescued from oblivion. . ." Engels called the pamphlet "the most advanced outpost of a whole group of writings of the 1820s, which turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus-value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat, and fought the bourgeoisie with its own weapons."
For his part, Karl Marx commented approvingly in his Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63 on the "fine statement" by the anonymous author of the 1821 pamphlet: "'A nation is really rich if the working day is 6 hours rather than twelve. WEALTH IS DISPOSABLE TIME, AND NOTHING MORE.'" In the Economic Manuscripts and in several passages in the Grundrisse, Marx seems to be gently palpating meaning from the phrase as he repeats it several times and mulls over a sequence of interpretations, like Goethe's Faust contemplating how best to translate logos from the first line of the New Testament Book of John.
Just how successful Marx was at rescuing The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties from oblivion is open to question. The fine statement that wealth is disposable time turned out to be, for Marx, not a description of existing reality but the herald of a humanly desirable and practically achievable future. However, as Moishe Postone has argued in Time, Labor and Social Domination, traditional Marxism has overlooked the emancipatory potential that Marx attributed to disposable time. Too often, Marx's followers have shunted aside the imperative that wealth be realized as disposable time and have instead envisioned only a planned and more equitable distribution of commodities.
The ideal of the centrally-planned, state socialist production and distribution of commodities has lost its popular appeal because in practice it has proven to exacerbate rather than resolve the problem of political power. Critics invariably latch onto this paradox of political power -- see, for example, Frederick Hayek's The Road to Serfdom -- as a fatal flaw of "Marxism". It would be more accurate, however, to view the emphasis on economic planning as a retreat from Marx's crucial insight rather than as a model of the Marxian alternative.
Such centralized state socialism offers little more than a pretentiously re-labelled caricature of monopoly capitalism. Given well-meaning and competent administrators, such a system might smooth out some of the excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Blessed with less good fortune, though, it could lead (and, historically, has led) first to the self-righteous hunt for saboteurs and enemies of socialism to explain why the charade isn't 'delivering the goods' and ultimately to disillusionment with socialism and the cynical exhaltation of the market as panacea and utopia.
What economic planning doesn't -- and cannot -- address is precisely the revaluation of value suggested by the principle that "wealth is disposable time, and nothing more." As tantalizingly straight-forward as the fine statement may at first appear, on reflection it bears closer resemblance to a Zen koan than to a revolutionary slogan.
On behalf of a humanly desirable and still possible future (and as an aid to meditation), the TimeWork Web presents excerpts from four key texts on the elusive concept of disposable time: