Excerpt from: Time, Labor and Social Domination

Moishe Postone, 1993

Part III, Toward a reconstruction of the Marxian critique: capital
Chapter 9. The trajectory of production

The development of the social division of time

At the beginning of this work, I asserted that the notion of the historical specificity of value, which Marx develops in the Grundrisse, provides a key to interpreting his mature critique of political economy. I have shown that this idea is indeed the essential core of Marx's analysis in Capital of the nature of modern capitalist society and its possible determinate negation. At this point I shall briefly recapitulate what I have developed in this chapter and reconfirm the essential continuity of Marx's analysis in the two texts, by summarizing his conception of the trajectory of capitalist production in Capital in terms of temporal categories introduced in the Grundrisse -- that is, in terms of the development of what I shall call the "social division of time." In the process, I shall emphasize the central significance of the notion of historical nonnecessity. As we have seen, the growing historical nonnecessity of value-constituting labor -- that is, the necessary presupposition of capitalism and the constituent of its characteristic form of abstract social necessity -- is essential to Marx's understanding of capitalism's fundamental contradiction as one between what is and its own potential (rather than between what is and what also is).

In a passage from the Grundrisse quoted at the beginning of this work, Marx states:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition -- question of life or death -- for the necessary.[125]

My investigation of Capital permits us now to grasp these temporal categories. Marx's opposition of "necessary" and "superfluous" labor time is not identical to that of "necessary" and "surplus" labor time. The former opposition refers to society as a whole, whereas the latter refers to the class of immediate producers. In Marx's theory, the existence of surplus production -- more than is necessary to satisfy producers' immediate needs -- is a condition of all "historical" forms of social life. One can distinguish in every historical form between the amount of production required to reproduce the laboring population and an additional amount, expropriated by nonlaboring classes, "necessary" for society as a whole. According to Marx, in capitalism the surplus is value, rather than material wealth and is not expropriated by means of direct domination. Instead, expropriation is mediated by the form of wealth itself, and exists in the form of a nonmanifest division between that portion of the workday in which the workers labor for their own reproduction ("necessary" labor time) and that portion which is appropriated by capital ("surplus" labor time). Given the distinction between value and material wealth, so long as the production of material wealth depends largely on the expenditure of direct labor time, both "necessary" and "surplus" labor time can be considered socially necessary.

This, however, ceases to be the case as the production of material wealth comes to be based on socially general knowledge and productive capacities rather than on direct human labor. In such a situation, the production of material wealth may bear so little relation to the expenditure of direct labor time that the total amount of socially necessary labor, in both its determinations (for individual reproduction and for society generally), could be greatly reduced. The result, as Marx put it, would be a situation characterized not by the "reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour" but rather by "the reduction of the necessary labour of society in general to a minimum." [126]

My examination of the dialectic of the two dimensions of capitalism's underlying social forms has shown, however, that a general reduction of socially necessary labor that would be fully commensurate with the productive capacities developed under capitalism cannot occur, according to Marx's analysis, so long as value is the source of wealth. The difference between the total labor time determined as socially necessary by capital, on the one hand, and the amount of labor that would be necessary, given the development of socially general productive capacities, were material wealth the social form of wealth, on the other, is what Marx calls in the Grundrisse "superfluous" labor time. The category can be understood both quantitatively and qualitatively, as referring both to the duration of labor as well as to the structure of production and the very existence of much labor in capitalist society. As applied to social production in general, it is a new historical category, one generated by the trajectory of capitalist production.

Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx's analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of "extra" time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of "superfluous" labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.

It should be clear that "superfluous" is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx's analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, "superfluous" is the historically generated, immediate opposite of "necessary," a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one.

My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite -- historical nonnecessity -- which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.

The understanding of the determinate negation of capitalism implied by the unfolding of Marx's categories in Capital parallels what he presents in the Grundrisse. In the latter, he characterizes a possible postcapitalist society in terms of the category of "disposable" time: "on the one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all."[127] Marx defines "disposable" time as "room for the development of the individual's full productive forces, hence those of society also."[128] This is the positive form taken on by that extra time, freed by the forces of production, which under advanced capitalism remains bound as "superfluous." The category of superfluous time expresses only negativity -- the historical nonnecessity of a previous historical necessity -- and therefore still refers to the Subject: society in general in its alienated form. The category of disposable time reverses this negativity and gives it a new referent: the social individual.[129] It presupposes the abolition of the value form of social mediation: only then, according to Marx, can (nonalienated) labor time and disposable time complement one another positively as constitutive of the social individual. Overcoming capitalism, then, would entail the transformation not only of the structure and character of social labor but also of nonworking time, and of their relation. In the absence of the abolition of value, however, any extra time generated as a result of the reduction of the workday is determined negatively by Marx, as the antithesis of (alienated) labor time, as what we would call "leisure time": "Labour time as the measure of wealth posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time."[130]

The trajectory of capitalist production as presented by Marx can be viewed, then, in terms of the development of the social division of time -- from socially necessary (individually necessary and surplus), through socially necessary and superfluous, to the possibility of socially necessary and disposable (which would entail overcoming the older form of necessity). This trajectory expresses the dialectical development of capitalism, of an alienated form of society constituted as a richly developed totality at the expense of the individuals, which gives rise to the possibility of its own negation, a new form of society in which people, singly and collectively, can appropriate the species-general capacities that had been constituted in alienated form as attributes of the Subject.

The development of the social division of time is in Marx's analysis a function of the complex dialectic of the two dimensions of capitalism's underlying structuring forms. As I have argued, by grounding capitalism's directional dynamic in the twofold character of the fundamental structures of this society, Marx breaks with any notion of a single transhistorical human history with an immanent principle of development; further, he demonstrates that this directional dynamic cannot be taken for granted but must itself be grounded by a theory of social constitution. Within the framework of this interpretation, the emergence of capitalism can be seen as an ever-less random development with the rise and full unfolding of the commodity form -- but not as the unfolding of an immanent principle of necessity. The history of the capitalist social formation, however, does have an immanent, as opposed to a retrospective, logic, according to Marx; as a result of its form of social mediation, capitalism is marked by a form of historical necessity. Yet the dialectic of its underlying social forms is such that capitalism points beyond itself to the possibility of a future society based on a different form of social mediation, one that would be neither quasi-objectively constituted nor traditionally given. Marx's analysis implies that a society so constituted would allow people a greater degree of freedom over their lives, individually as well as collectively, and could be considered a situation of historical freedom. To the degree that one can speak of a notion of human history in Marx's mature works, then, it is not in terms of a single transhistorical principle; rather, it refers to a movement, initially contingent, from various histories to History to a necessary, increasingly global, directional dynamic constituted by alienated social forms which is structured in a way that it points toward the possibility of historical freedom, toward the possibility of a future society free from any quasi-objective directional logic of development.

The specificity of capitalism's dialectical dynamic, as analyzed by Marx, entails a relationship of past, present, and future very different from that implied by any linear notion of historical development. The dialectic of objectified present time and objectified historical time can be summarized as follows: In capitalism, objectified historical time is accumulated in alienated form, reinforcing the present, and, as such, it dominates the living. Yet, it also allows for people's liberation from the present by undermining its necessary moment, thereby making possible the future -- the appropriation of history such that the older relations are reversed and transcended. Instead of a social form structured by the present, by abstract labor time, there can be a social form based upon the full utilization of a history alienated no longer, both for society in general and for the individual.[131]

For Marx, then, the historical movement of capitalism, driven forward by social conflicts structured by the dialectic of labor and of time, can be expressed in terms of the development of the social division of time, and results in the possibility that the social meaning of time be transformed: "The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time."[132]



125. Grundrisse, p. 706.

126. Ibid.

127. Ibid p. 708.

128. Ibid.

129. For a discussion of disposable time which focuses on a possible system of rotational employment, see Becker, Marxian Political Economy, p. 263ff.

130. Grundrisse, p. 708.

131. One could draw a parallel between this understanding of the capitalist social formation's history and Freud's notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but, rather, in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present. The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible. The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future.

132. Grundrisse, p. 708.