On Marx on Time, Primitive Accumulation, and the Working Day / by Michael Motala

Source: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2018/05/why-marx-more-relevant-ever-age-automation

Source: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2018/05/why-marx-more-relevant-ever-age-automation

I respond to Karl Marx’s (Tucker, 1978) analyses of the role of time as it relates to primitive accumulation, the working day, and industrial relations generally. I make three arguments. First, Marxist theory in these selections, like Aristotle’s, presuppose a genderless world (Shippen, 2014, p.39). While Marx is to be lauded for emphasizing the relational dimension of the modalities of capitalist production, his analysis would benefit from a feminized conception of work and care to account for the exploitation of women in society and as a corollary his social theory of capital. Marx must adopt a meso-level form of relational analysis, rather than leaping from micro-to-macro generalizations about the individual labourer and the collectivity to be useful today. Second, I argue that Marx’s account suffers from a focus on actual timewhen instead he should account for social timeand the implications of time-space compressionin post-modernity to render a more complete account of contemporary capitalist exploitation. Third and finally, I argue that Marx over-emphasizes the role of the state, whereas today, many transnational corporations exist in effectively stateless markets. Only in these ways can Marx render a truly holistic account of time as it relates to industrial capitalism.

         (1) Why are the rich, rich, and the poor, poor?  Marx accounts for the feudal origins of private property, but his theory of the accumulation of property and property rights suffers from blindness to gender. “This primitive accumulation,” Marx explains,” plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology” (Tucker, 1978, p.431). “Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human races,” Marx elaborates (ibid.).

What about Eve?

Liberal theories of human nature, we are told, assume a binary pre-historic world: on the one hand, there are “the diligent, and intelligent, and above all, frugal elite” who hold wealth, and “the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living” (ibid). Rather than believing this myth, Marx insists we must instead look the capitalism’s feudal pre-history to see how “[t]he economic structure of economic society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society” (ibid., p.432). Whereas there was once a landless feudal peasantry that subsisted on freehold lands, the Tudor enclosure period converted what were once public lands into private property, driving the landless peasantry into the cities. This historical movement “changes the producers into wage workers,” couched in language about the “emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of guilds,” while altogether robbing peasants of “their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements” (ibid., p.433). 

Marx thence elaborates ad nauseam about the appropriation of surplus-time by the new industrial potentates, yet his theory is tinged by its absence of a gendered lens. It is ironic, as Shippen (2014) argues, that “[t]he strengths of Marx’s analysis include his ability to debunk mainstream liberal renderings of individuals as isolated beings, rather than as relational beings” (p.42), for his notion of discretionary time does not incorporate an understanding of female contributions to the household. Like Aristotle, it seems Marx readily accepts “this unequal division of labour” (ibid., p.39), rendering Marx’s analysis compelling, but incomplete. While it is true “Marx recognizes time as fundamentally related to the development of human potential in the context of a political community,” he fails to address the contribution of women and familial relations to child-rearing and the household generally (ibid., p.44). To improve his account, therefore, my first argument concludes that Marx must look not just at the relationalities between worker and capitalist and collectivity, but rather, within the unit of the household itself. Only then can socialist analysis theorize the balance between work, life, and care. 

(2) Marxist analysis of time also appears, at least implicitly, to be concerned with actual time versus what I call social time. “Labour power is bought and sold at its value,” Marx explains, “[and] [i]ts value, like that of all other commodities, is determined by the working-time necessary to its production” (Tucker, 1978, p.361). His emphasis on actual time, I believe, is evidenced in Marx's discussion of the "duration" of the "working-day" (Tucker, 1978, p.362), being one composed of hours measurable by "bells and clocks" (Thompson, 1967, p.90). To account for the exploitation of labour in contemporary capitalism, such as Amazon's treatment of its workers or Uber's fleet of so-called "driver-partners," I argue the Marxist must adopt a conception of social timewhich is broadly affiliated with the post-modernist critique of international political economy. Social time, in the usage here, refers to the human experience of time in the context of digital capitalism, emphasizing how technology has compressed both time and space when viewed from a transactional perspective. The defining feature of the current transformation of industrial relations is the ability of digital brokerages or intermediaries such as websites and GPS-enabled apps to increase the pace of transactions, labour-output, and consumption. In the case of Amazon, for example, the company uses smartphone technology to track its workers delivery of goods to customers through a phenomenon known as algorithmic management. Uber, similarly, does the same with its fleet of independent contractors deployed in localities. While Marx is correct that the “capitalistic mode of production produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical conditions of development and function (Tucker, 1978, p.374), he merely speaks about industry’s pursuit of surplus-labour in a twenty-four hour clock. What is needed in today’s economy is a notion of social-timethat accounts for the increased pace of transactions and the space-time compression affected by algorithmic management—indeed the new frontier of feudal-like exploitation of labour.

         (3) Marx’s theories place too much faith in the state. The various means of capitalist exploitation, he writes, “employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society” (ibid., p.436). While it is indeed true that the state buttressed the market in the socio-historical development of capitalism, particularly in early modern Britain, it is not necessarily the case today. Transnational corporations, such as the foregoing examples of Airbnb and Uber, transcend national boundaries and eviscerate conventional political authority. They operate in effectively stateless markets. While I likely over-emphasize this point in everything I’ve responded in recent years, these readings inspired me to think of a new implication of the statist presuppositions of Marxist theory. A better theory of socio-capitalist democracy, I believe, ought to adopt Marx’s relational and temporal premises, but instead develop and actor-centric theory of capitalism situated in the firm itself. Rather than taking the state as given, I argue future social theories of capitalism must focus on the temporal processes and relations within the firm itself. Such an approach can be found in the synthesis of American pragmatist John Dewey's process-relational liberal philosophy with Jürgen Habermas's concept of universal pragmatics, a discursive approach that circumscribes notions of good, the just, and fair from extant political philosophies. See my forthcoming book The New Business Ethics(forthcoming 2019) for more on this. 


Works Cited: 

Shippen, Nichole. “Criticizing after Dinner: Marx and the Fight for Time in Human Development.” In Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure, and Freedom(Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), pp. 39-71.

Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" (1967) Past&Present 38, pp. 56-97.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader2 ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [1972] 1978.*