Sunday, September 6, 2015

Labor Day: "Wealth is Disposable Time… and Nothing More"

"Is there not a state of society practicable, in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?" -- William Godwin
Published anonymously in 1821, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, deduced from principles of political economy, in a letter to Lord John Russell, was, according to Friedrich Engels, "saved from falling into oblivion," by Karl Marx. At the time of Engel's remark, however, Marx had scarcely mentioned the pamphlet in published writings other than a scant footnote in Volume I of Capital. Some rescue! Nevertheless, Engels acclaimed the pamphlet as "but the farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat."

In his unpublished notebooks, Marx did declare the pamphlet an advance beyond Adam Smith and David Ricardo in its conscious and consistent distinction between the general form of surplus value or surplus labor and its particular manifestations in the forms of land rent, interest of money or profit of enterprise. Commenting on the pamphlet, Marx returned several times to what he referred to reverently as a fine statement: "a nation is really rich if no interest is paid for the use of capital, if the working day is only 6 hours rather than 12. WEALTH IS DISPOSABLE TIME, AND NOTHING MORE." Marx noted that Ricardo had also identified disposable time as the true wealth with the difference that, for Ricardo, it was disposable time for the capitalist that constituted such wealth. Ricardo's ideal would thus be to maximize surplus value as a proportion of total output.

Marx again cited the phrase in his Grundrisse, immediately following a characteristically explosive proposition:
Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material condition to blow this foundation sky-high. 'Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours.'
Just how successful Marx was in saving the 1821 pamphlet from oblivion remains to be seen. Obviously, the pamphlet was spared from total oblivion or I wouldn't be writing about it. Aside from the few references by Marx and Engels, there have been scattered mentions of the pamphlet but no sustained analysis of it, which seems odd considering the importance that Engels – and Marx, in his manuscripts at least – assigned to it.

Perhaps one of the difficulties has been the anonymity of its authorship. That problem would appear to have been resolved by a disclosure in the biography of the 19th century editor and literary critic, Charles Wentworth Dilke. Dilke's grandson, the biography's author, reported having found an annotated copy of the pamphlet, acknowledging authorship, among his grandfather's papers. Subsequent authorities on Dilke and the literary journal he edited for several decades, The Athaeneum, appear satisfied with the plausibility of this attribution, given Dilke's writing style, his propensity for anonymous and pseudonymous publication, his political inclinations and his subsequent career. There doesn't appear to have been any concerted effort to either definitively establish or to refute Dilke's authorship. So Dilke qualifies as the leading and, so far, only candidate for authorship.

If Dilke was indeed the author, this presents two rather significant bits of context to the pamphlet. First, Dilke was an ardent disciple of William Godwin, who wrote, 'The genuine wealth of man is leisure…" The poet, John Keats, who was a close friend and next-door neighbor referred to Dilke, somewhat patronizingly, as a "Godwin perfectibility man". He was said to have retained that political inclination throughout his life. Second, in his career as editor of The Athaeneum, Dilke campaigned famously against journalistic "puffery" – the practice of publishers placing promotional material for their books in literary journals, for a fee, under the pretext that they were independent reviews. Both of these contextual items could be significant for an interpretation of The Source and Remedy precisely because the pamphlet lends itself arguably to a reading as a Godwinist tract (rather than a proto-Marxist one) but also to a reading as a polemic against yet another brand of puffery: political economy practiced by apologists for privilege and wealth. As for "turning the Ricardian theory of value against capitalist production," such an intention would hardly seem to fit an essay that on its closing page counted among the great advantages of the measures proposed therein that "their adoption would leave the country at liberty to pursue such a wise and politic system of financial legislation as would leave trade and commerce unrestricted."

The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties had something to say rather distinct from the message Marx took away from it. In his various notes on the pamphlet, Marx paid closest attention to the first six pages of the 40-page pamphlet and glossed over the rest. In his discussion of the pamphlet in Theories of Surplus Value, for example, the reader may wonder if Marx was actually still talking about the pamphlet after a few pages or had gone off on a tangent inspired by the pamphleteer having allegedly overlooked the impact of unemployment on wages. It has to be cautioned, though, that Marx's extended comments on the pamphlet appeared in manuscript notes that were published posthumously. They were not polished, fully thought-out positions intended for publication.

Although the first six pages are indeed interesting, in the context of the pamphlet as a whole their function is to set the stage for the crucial pair of questions that appear on page seven. That is, after deducing from principles of political economy that capital, left to its natural course, would soon do away with further accumulation, the author asks why that seemingly inevitable result has never happened and how it is that with all the presumably labor-saving wonders of modern industry, workers work longer hours and more laboriously than ever before.

Dilke's answer was that government and legislation act ceaselessly to destroy the produce of labor and interfere with the natural development of capital. They do this indirectly by, on the one hand, maintaining "unproductive classes" at a constant proportion to productive laborers and on the other by enabling the immense expansion of "fictitious capital," based ultimately on protectionism and government finance. Government does these things so that it may raise an enormous level of revenues that it couldn't through direct taxation of the laboring population, because "it would have been gross, open, shameless, and consequently impossible." Instead, it makes the holders of this fictitious capital accomplices in a stratagem to exact a much-enlarged revenue. As partner in crime, the capitalist lays claim to a generous portion of the booty. Not surprisingly, war is a "powerful co-operator" in this relentless process of destroying the produce of labor while expanding the (asymmetrical) claims of fictitious capital.

As for the natural claims of surplus value exacted by the capitalist, Dilke viewed them as causing the laborer "no real grievance to complain of," a position at least apparently at odds with Marx's views of exploitation and almost certainly incompatible with Engels' assertion that the pamphlet turned Ricardian theory "against capitalist production." Not only was Dilke not opposed to capitalist production, he described it as leading to a virtually Utopian condition of freedom if only it was left to unfold according to its nature. In his note, Marx objected that the pamphleteer had overlooked two things in coming to such a sanguine conclusion about the trajectory of capitalist accumulation. One was unemployment. Marx never got around to specifying the other.

Dilke's reasoning, although thought-provoking, is far from airtight. He confessed in his closing pages that his argument "is not so consecutive, that the proofs do not follow the principles laid down so immediately as I could have wished. The reasoning is too desultory, too loose in its texture." Whether such regrets were heartfelt or simply a stylistic gesture of modesty is hard to say. The subject matter itself is elusive and no treatment of it could be entirely exempt from error. Nevertheless, the case Dilke presented was an original and compelling one that has, as far as I know, been overlooked by Marx and his intellectual heirs.

The part of the argument that Marx appropriated to his own analysis – the author's consistent reference to surplus value as the general form underlying profit, rent and interest was ultimately incidental to Dilke's main points that nature places a limit on accumulation and that the surpassing of those natural limits occurs only as a result of government intervention, which, in effect mandates the excessive exploitation of labor.

There is a problem that arises from Marx appropriation of the (for Marx) correct premise of the pamphlet without first having systematically refuted the author's own deductions from it. What if Dilke's deductions were either equally or more plausible than Marx's? Rather than being a focal point of class struggle, might not surplus value then be "no real grievance to complain of?" Rather than underpinning a contradiction fated to blow the foundation of capital sky-high, might not the tension between "things superfluous" and disposable time have the potential to be adjusted like wing flaps to help bring Capitalism in for a soft landing?

By things superfluous, I refer, first, to the unholy trinity of fictitious capital, unproductive labor and inconvertible paper money and second, to their commodified expression as luxury goods. What I am suggesting is that for Dilke it seems that the primary contradictions of capitalism (to use Marx's expression) lay not so much between capital and labor as between real and fictitious capital, productive and unproductive labor, convertible and inconvertible money, necessities and luxury goods. This internalizing of the contradictions recalls Solzhenitsyn's observation in the Gulag Archipelago that, "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts." Might we not ask if it's not only the line between good and evil that passes through every human heart but also the line between labor and capital, proletariat and bourgeoisie? From the standpoint of the arguments presented in The Source and Remedy, a proletarian revolution would be, in effect, superfluous. The possibility of revolution would arrive more or less at the moment when such a revolution would no longer be necessary.