Towards a hypothesis of the final collapse of capitalism (5)

by Jehu

Sidebar: Understanding the concept of labor time density

I received two comments to my last post that raise questions about my approach. The first comment is from Noa, who thinks my employment of the concept of superfluous labor time ignores capitalism’s drive to constantly reduce socially necessary labor time and eliminate unnecessary expenditures of labor in production:

“Wouldn’t that be a typical apologetic argument in favor of capitalism? Perhaps you’re thinking only of a few particular cases (like in the Simpsons episode where Homer replaces himself at work by a drinking-bird-mobile pushing a button). But on the other hand, perhaps more normal, take a look if you can at some car assembly line today, the worker literally becomes a cog of the machine, sitting in an machine-chair to speed up his every movement. That intensifies their labor. And I think the labor can be intensified not necessarily only by increased productivity due to a shorter working day, but also by cutting staff, increasing the workload of the remainder.”

The second, related, comment is from Коммунист, who wonders why the state’s currency printing, combined with capitalist greed, would not result in hyperinflation:

“I will probably be asking this question also on behalf of all bourgeois economists or at least people who base their everyday logic on these charlatans’ understanding of the economy. If the government start directly buying produce from capitalists with its printer “paper”, why won’t the capitalists just start increasing the prices, seeing that there is now suddenly a demand for their products? These prices can be increased in proportion (even ad infinitum) to the volume of issued “paper”. Isn’t this exactly what the typical bourgeois economist would quip at your ideas?”

My argument that there is a declining density of labor time does not in any sense imply that the worker becomes lazier or that her labor becomes less onerous. I assume a very high intensity of labor and that the capitalist maintains the intensity of labor by eliminating all superfluous or redundant staff while paying the strictest attention to costs of production. Further, I assume state currency printing will force capitalists to offset the declining ‘purchasing power of the currency, by increasing their prices. My argument about the density of labor time thus assumes no unnecessary social labor is employed in the production of commodities — capital continues to function exactly as we have come to understand it from Capital. I do not wish to invoke any other mechanism to explain the declining density of labor time than are already explicitly given in the definition of capital as described by Marx.

Despite this, as I will show, there is without a doubt a declining density of labor time in the aggregate social labor day.

The paradox of post-war productivity

Let me begin by discussing one of the great modern paradoxes: The post-war paradox of productivity: With a very high, and increasing, level of productivity, wage labor should be going away. Indeed, we constantly appear to be on the precipice of a jobs calamity, but that calamity never actually materializes; robots are constantly threatening to take away our jobs, but new jobs constantly appear in place of the jobs eliminated by automation. Despite the reduction of the labor content of commodities with the increase in the productivity of labor, the prices of these commodities continue to spiral upward.  It appears that the more the productivity of labor increases, the more prices of commodities increase.

Thus, despite the fact that the labor time required to produce commodities constantly declines, jobs never go away and prices never stop rising. There is a constantly rising new demand for additional labor power and a continuous expansion of economic activity. Some economists even attribute inflation to the rising costs of the machines that were introduced to reduce costs; others declare that the machines introduced to eliminate labor actually produce greater demand for labor. Needless to say, this is the opposite of what we once were led to expect from the glowing accounts of the impact of economic progress.

Who would have predicted 100 years ago that the industrial revolution would lead to higher prices and more work?

The very fact we are facing this productivity paradox of rising prices and demand for labor power hand-in-hand with rising productivity should be setting off alarm bells throughout Marxist academia. To put this problem in the simplest possible terms: the productivity paradox, with continuously rising prices and employment, looks a lot like a capitalist boom. The problem with this conclusion is that, up until about 2008, it had lasted for nearly 80 years! For about eight decades both prices and employment increased year over year!

So have the capitalists found a solution for the contradiction between the conditions under which surplus-value is produced and those under which it is realized? It would be nice to have an answer to this question, but crickets – cric … kets!

Marxist academics appear as unfazed by what appears to be 80 year of capitalist economic expansion as any low information voter. They blithely accept the nonsense from the neoclassical school that rising productivity creates jobs.

I have an alternative explanation that I will now develop through the employment of four approximations of the problem of the productivity paradox

Approximation one: A two sector model of labor time density

To account for the self-evidently bizarre fact that rising productivity is expressed in both more labor and higher prices, I proposed that the density of the social labor day is declining.

What do I mean by this?

To get a feel for what I am trying to describe, assume, as a first approximation, that our “economy”  is composed of two discrete sectors: the first sector is productive and operates entirely according to the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production as described by Marx. The second sector, however, is composed entirely of superfluous labor — as defined by Postone, based on his reconstruction of Marx’s theory. Superfluous labor is labor that produces neither value nor surplus value; labor that cannot take the form either of wages or profits.

The density of the labor time of the aggregate “economy” is thus a function of the labor expended in both sectors; one which produces value and surplus value, the other which produces no value at all. If the employed labor time of the superfluous sector of the economy increased relative to the size of the employed labor time of the productive sector, the density of the aggregate labor time of society would fall. On the other hand, if the employed labor time of the superfluous sector of the economy decreased relative to the employed labor time of the productive sector, the density of total labor time would increase.

The term, density of labor time is drawn from Marx’s Capital. In Marx’s theory, the increase in the productivity of labor is expressed in the increase in the quantity of exchange value that can be produced in a given period of time. A capital with a higher productivity of labor will produce more exchange values in the same period of time than a capital with a lower productivity of labor. A worker with a higher skill level will produce more exchange values in a given duration of labor than one with a lower skill level.

Approximation two: Uniform average density of aggregate labor time

In my second approximation, we have to consider the national economy as a whole. In this second approximation there is no longer two discrete sector, but a single economy with an average density of aggregate labor time. (Later, I will show why this is the only way we can conceptualize this density.) In chapter one of Capital Marx assumes a social labor day of a uniform average density, albeit composed of many separate labor powers with varying capacities to create value:

“Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. ”

This passage assumes the total labor power of society has an average density, i.e., has an average labor time that is socially necessary for production of commodities. But Marx also implies that it is composed of labor power of varying capacities. For example, labor power that is less skillful — that requires more labor time than is needed on average for producing a commodity — would qualify as labor of a lower density, i.e., as labor that requires a greater duration of expenditure to produce the same quantum of exchange value as the average of the labor power of society.

The density of labor time, in this case, is a function of a number of variables implied in this passage, the individual skills of the worker, her labor intensity and the social average productivity of all the producers taken together.

Approximation three: Labor density as such

As a third approximation to the concept of the density of social labor time, consider Marx’s argument on the subject in Capital, v1, c15. According to Marx, the rule that value is a direct function of the duration of labor time breaks down once hours of labor are legally limited. Once a definite limit is imposed on hours of labor, capitals are compelled to produce more exchange value in the same period of time:

“Otherwise, however, so soon as the compulsory shortening of the hours of labour takes place. The immense impetus it gives the development of productive power, and to economy in the means of production, imposes on the workman increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour-power, and closer filling up of the pores of the working-day, or condensation of labour to a degree that is attainable only within the limits of the shortened working-day. This condensation of a greater mass of labour into a given period thenceforward counts for what it really is, a greater quantity of labour. In addition to a measure of its extension, i.e., duration, labour now acquires a measure of its intensity or of the degree of its condensation or density. The denser hour of the ten hours’ working-day contains more labour, i.e., expended labour-power than the more porous hour of the twelve hours’ working-day. The product therefore of one of the former hours has as much or more value than has the product of 1 1/5 of the latter hours. Apart from the increased yield of relative surplus-value through the heightened productiveness of labour, the same mass of value is now produced for the capitalist say by 3 1/3 hours of surplus-labour, and 6 2/3 hours of necessary labour, as was previously produced by four hours of surplus-labour and eight hours of necessary labour. “

In this passage, Marx argues that not only can the skill and labor intensity of the individual worker vary, the time devoted to production of commodities is not absolute: one hour of social labor does not necessarily produce one hour of value. It is possible for one hour of labor to produce one and one fifth hours of exchange value. The density of the labor expended is a variable that may actually be completely independent of the actual labor time expended by the social producers. Conversely, following Marx’s argument in this passage, I argue we can imagine a situation where, under certain definite circumstances, one hour of labor may produce only forty, thirty or even, (at its extreme), less than two minutes of actual exchange value.

But what would this declining average density of social labor time look like?

Approximation four: An analogy for declining density

As the fourth approximation to the concept of the density of labor time, permit me to use an analogy: we can conceptualize the declining density of the social labor day as a phenomenon similar to the expansion of physical space-time in physics. (A caveat: this analogy may be more fragile than I think.)

As one website describes the expansion of the space-time of the physical universe:

“If there is no absolute scale of things we might ask why the scale is what it is, thereby implicitly assuming that the scale of material objects always has and always will remain the same. However, we now know that the universe appears to expand, which makes it natural to consider the possibility that the cosmological expansion might be and expansion of the scale of everything. If both space and time were to expand simultaneously everything would expand in proportion. Locally such an expansion would be very difficult to detect.

Since labor time, taken as a whole, is expanding it need not be ‘lumpy’, i.e., the interrelations required by production would be maintained even as the social labor day filled up with superfluous labor time. This is because superfluous labor time would not actually accumulate in one sector of this capitalistic space-time as I initially suggested; rather, each particle of exchange value created in the production process progressively moves away from all of the others, and the space between them gets filled with unnecessary labor time. With the interval between particles of exchange value filling in with superfluous labor time, the value content or density of aggregate labor time progressively declines.

Much as in an expanding universe, where each point in space-time moves away from all of its neighboring points, so in the social labor day, the particles of exchange value become more separated in time. Thus, fewer particles of exchange value are created during each period of aggregate “clock” labor time. The density of aggregate social labor time is only a measure of the exchange value produced in a given period of labor time in the “economy”. It is a way of thinking about the expansion of superfluous labor time in the economy that suggests, for any given duration of social labor time, less value is created as the density of labor time falls. Thus, it takes a longer duration of “clock” labor time to produce the same quantity of exchange value as before.

Since capitalism is concerned only with the production of value, a declining density of value per unit of labor time is expressed in an incessant drive to increase the total duration of social labor time no matter the actual requirements of the production of material wealth.

PROBLEM: Given the expanding space time analogy, how would we even know the density of labor has changed?

Now here is the thing: in Marx’s labor theory of value, there is no way to tell whether labor is productive or superfluous simply by looking at the labor itself!

Labor that produces steel may be entirely superfluous, while labor that produces a clown performance at a birthday party may be entirely necessary. I am not saying these examples are true, but you can’t tell whether it is true simply by looking at the concrete labors themselves. Trying to subjectively classify labor as productive or superfluous would be as wrong as trying to estimate the value contained in a commodity simply by physical examination of its material.

Moreover, just because labor time is superfluous, does not imply it creates no use values. You can have entirely superfluous labor time that produces both material and non-material use values. And the problem has nothing to do with “non-useful use values” that may include such obvious examples of waste as military spending. Steel, for instance, is a useful product of labor, clown labor is a trivial product, but both still can be repositories of living labor that produces no value. The question of the density of the social labor day has nothing to do with the product of the labor but with its value producing quality.

Moreover, what makes superfluous labor time such a difficult category of Marx’s labor theory of value to nail down empirically is that a society characterized by a very high degree of superfluous labor time need have no obvious or egregious examples of wasted expenditures of labor time. Even if we assume there is a growing quantity of superfluous labor time embedded in the social labor day, in general, the labor time of society will appear to be balanced between the various branches of production, consistent with the consumer power of society and, above all, required for the production of commodities. Since we ourselves are products of the mode of production, the increasingly longer duration of social labor does not and cannot appear to us as what it is: superfluous.

Instead, our progressively longer social labor day always appears to us to be necessary and useful.

The labor time not only appears to be necessary to us, it actually is necessary for capital. This is demonstrated by the fact that the declining density of labor time, the relentless expansion of superfluous labor time, is accompanied by the apparent cessation of depressions or, at least, by their moderation. The depressions of earlier times, when the whole of social production came to a sudden stop and the entire country was thrown into chaos, is replaced by mild ‘recessions’. What has made the apparent moderation of periodic crises possible — i.e., why there has been no replay of the Great Depression — is that the length of the social labor day is no longer confined to the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities.

Were this limit reimposed, i.e., were fiat currency once again tied to gold, capitalist production would implode. The collapse of capitalist production would not be caused by too little money, as the simpleton economists (and many Marxist academics following them) argue, but because total labor time of society would now be immediately limited to the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities.

Looking for the “red-shift” in the density of socially necessary labor time

Capitalism is very similar to the physical universe in that there is no social space outside capitalism that would allow us to objectively measure capitalistic labor time against something called absolute labor time. Whether the labor time expended in the economy is productive or superfluous cannot be determined by looking at the actual concrete labor of society; in fact, we cannot even see discrete instances of productive or superfluous labor. Thus, we could no more be able to detect the declining density of labor time than we would be able to visually detect the expansion of the universe.

In the case of the expansion of physical space-time, however, there is indirect evidence for the expansion of the universe: the Doppler shift of light reaching us from distant galaxies:

“[Light] reaching us from very distant sources would be affected by the cosmological scale expansion during the time for the light to reach us. It is easy to show that this light would become redshifted. In checking other observed features of the universe we find that it agrees with the Expanding Space-Time (EST), i.e. the EST universe looks and behaves exactly like our universe.”

In much the same way we can indirectly detect the expansion of the physical universe by the Doppler red-shift of light from a distant galaxy, is there a means to indirectly detect the decreasing density of social labor time? I think so. The solution to this problem is to be found in Marx’s theory of money.

Like the frequency of light in the model of the Expanding Space Time universe, the decline in the density of labor time is expressed indirectly in the secular increase of the prices of commodities relative to their labor time values. This increase in prices should be expressed more or less uniformly in the prices of all commodities. Since, in Marx’s labor theory of value, money is itself a commodity, the shift of prices relative to labor time consequent of a declining density of labor time should be take the form of what appears to be a rise in “price” of gold. (Of course, I put the term price in quotes because, in Marx’s labor theory of value, money has no price.)

For this reason, I believe the declining density of social labor time should be expressed in the secular decline of the quantity of a money commodity represented by a unit of state issued debased fiat currency.