Postone on the specificity of time in the capitalist mode of production

by Jehu

One of the most important, and most neglected categories of capital is time. This category is the central focus of Postone’s essay, “The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value”. Value, says Postone, “is constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.”

He writes:

“Let me briefly elaborate by considering Marx’s determination of the magnitude of value in terms of socially necessary labor-time. This term is not simply descriptive, but delineates a socially general compelling norm. Production must conform to this temporal norm if it is to generate the full value of its products. In the process, the time frame (e.g. an hour) becomes constituted as an independent variable.”

Socially necessary labor time, like labor power, wages and social labor, is not a transhistorical category, but a peculiar category of the capitalist mode of production. Socially necessary labor time states that the labor time that can produce value is subject to definite material limits that have nothing to do with the production of material wealth as such. Beyond this definite material limit the expenditure of labor power (social labor) is superfluous to the production of value.

To understand what this means, the social producers may labor eight or ten hours, but produce no more value than is contained in three or four hours of social labor. Postone illustrates his argument using what he calls the analogy of a treadmill. This analogy doesn’t completely work for me, but nevertheless I will state it.

According to Postone,

“The amount of value produced per unit time is a function of the time unit alone; it remains the same regardless of individual variations or the level of productivity. It follows – as a peculiarity of value as a temporal form of wealth – that, although increased productivity increases the amount of use-values produced per unit time, it results only in short term increases in the magnitude of value created per unit time.”

To restate Postone’s argument as I have in previous posts, the value of an hour of labor remains an hour of labor regardless of the productivity of the labor or the skill of the worker. Although increased productivity increases the production of material wealth in a given unit of time, in the long-run it has no impact on the amount of value created.

Postone continues:

“The result is a sort of a treadmill. Higher levels of productivity result in great increases in material wealth, but not in proportional long-term increases in value per unit time. This, in turn, leads to still further increases in productivity. “

In other words, in the long-run, improvements in the productivity of labor produce more material wealth (use-values), but cannot increase the quantity of value produced in a given period of time.

On the other hand, in the short-run, additional value can be created by improvements in the productivity of labor:

“…a peculiarity of value as a temporal form of wealth – that, although increased productivity increases the amount of use-values produced per unit time, it results only in short term increases in the magnitude of value created per unit time.”

To restate this argument by Postone: although the capitalist cannot increase the quantity of value produced in a given period of time, he has an incentive to improve the productivity of labor in order to gain short-term super-profits. In other words, although we assume that the value created by an hour of labor is constant, in fact it can and will vary in the short-run owing to improvements in the productivity of labor.

Postone:

“Once capitalism is fully developed, its temporal forms generate ongoing increases in productivity. Those increases, as we have seen, do not change the amount of value produced per unit time. However, they do change the determination of what counts as a given unit of time. The unit of (abstract) time remains constant; the same unit of time generates the same amount of value. Yet changes in productivity redetermine that unit; they push it forward, as it were.”

An hour of labor is always an hour of labor, but what constitutes an hour of labor in terms of the quantity of use-values that can be produced in an hour is constantly being redetermined.

In chapter one of Capital, Marx discusses the problem this way:

“The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.”

Within the capitalist mode of production, what we call time is not clock time, not abstract homogeneous time of absolutely invariant units, but a social category, “socially necessary labor time”. This category, like all other categories I have discussed so far, is not transhistorical; it is unique to the capitalist mode of production alone.

Next, I will apply Postone’s argument to the peculiar commodity of the capitalist mode of production, labor power.