The measure of capitalist wealth: “Surplus labor-time” Ruthless Criticism | Money – the “real community” | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Supplement 1 | Supplement 2 | Supplement 3

Supplement 2:
The measure of capitalist wealth:
“Surplus labor-time”

A few thoughts Marx noted in Notebook VII of his Grundrisse [Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy] (Penguin ed., p. 704-8) [11] may help explain the contradiction that is included in the way labor is obscured in the market economy as the source of the exchange value that is made absolute and objective in money and takes its real, productive, tenable form in the antagonism between labor for wages and capitalist enrichment through wage labor.

Marx holds firmly here to the fact that under the direction of the capitals, scientific knowledge and technical advances are introduced into the social production process in a grand style and therefore less and less labor brings about more and more goods: “... the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.” He draws attention to the fact that the social wealth does not exhaust itself in the manufactured amount of goods; much more crucial is the potential to produce them almost at discretion: “Real wealth manifests itself … in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends.” The society then disposes not only of a heap of useful things, but frees itself to a great extent from the necessity of having to continuously toil for its continued existence. He recognizes real social affluence in this freedom: “‘Truly wealthy [is] a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is … disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’”

Marx is correspondingly stunned by the fact that, for all the explosive developments in the use of the productive forces, there can be no talk of decreasing the labor time of the workers. Their utilization, on the contrary, exceeds any reasonable measure: “The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.” Marx of course knows and observes that machinery is not to blame, but command over its application: “it [capital] diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form.” A growing part of the labor organized by capital is “superfluous” in the sense that it is not necessary for the preservation of the working people and their enjoyment of life; Marx expresses this as a determinant form of labor, because capital aims precisely at this part of the expended labor time and organizes the labor process so that not a single residual moment is accidentally left over, but methodically increases beyond the quantum that working humanity toils for its own requirements: It “posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition ... for the necessary” labor. Capital makes what could be “disposable time” for the workers into labor time, and not only that: with a vengeance, it increases this potential free time in order to turn ever more of its workers’ lifetime into working hours, to be able to wangle more productive activity from them for itself; something that then obviously only functions, but then as effectively as possible, when the amount of labor that is necessary for the reproduction of working people is made dependent on them performing “superfluous” labor time for capital as a community service.

Capital thus enriches itself by appropriating a relatively and absolutely growing amount of socially expended labor time – and, at the same time, it ensures that it depends less and less on the “quantum of applied labor” for “the creation of real wealth.” The wealth that capital is about – and thus the mode of production named after it – just does not consist in useful goods and free time, but in the social labor time organized and occupied by it; capital itself thereby dissolves every technically founded ratio between labor time and material wealth. “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.” “On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value” – that is, as its wealth, which is measured in the amount of appropriated surplus labor time. “Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation.”

The determination of wealth in the market economy as property measured in money, which arises from surplus labor time, corresponds to a kind of poverty that has nothing to do with unsurmounted shortages. It coincides with the function of the workers in their role as suppliers of surplus labor, and is measured in the minimum of labor time necessary for their own livelihoods in order to extract a maximum in productive activity from them for the increase of capitalistic property. “Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour.” This “degradation” even has another downside that comes to light as soon as the enrichment of the capitalists through the appropriation of their employees’ “surplus” labor no longer functions smoothly. In this mode of production, the combination of absurdity and brutality in the organization of social labor goes so far that capital expands surplus labor time by reducing necessary labor time and in this way accelerates its growth, but thereby again and again overshoots its target, in fact makes more “excess” labor available than it can use as suplus labor for its surplus – and it leaves this highly paradoxical dilemma to its workforce by declaring it surplus: capital “increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value [is] directly its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour. If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour” on which the worker always lives “is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital.” In the interest of its faster and faster increase through more and more surplus labor, capital again and again sets too much surplus labor in motion; it can’t get rid of its product and responds to this by reducing or even discontinuing the labor as a whole. If this caused only its own source to dry up, this contradiction could safely be left to the capitalists themselves. But the workers have to hold the bag: They have to pay for it with their sudden impoverishment when capital has once again gone too far in increasing its means of enrichment, the productivity of labor – something that really only exists in this system! They atone for capital's ever further developing contradiction – now worldwide – with permanent unemployment.

Marx not only thought the mind wouldn’t stand this absurdity, but that the “narrow basis” of capitalist production would inevitably “spring in the air”: “As soon as labour in the direct form,” in which human labor power slaves away without much aid, wresting its livelihood from nature, “has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value.” Impressed by the grandiose perversity of an entire mode of production, he makes a mistake even in tense and mood: “The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth ... With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.” And yet a hopeful outlook: “The more this contradiction develops,” namely that the increase of labor productivity conflicts with the purpose of enrichment that capital pursues with it, and the workers still having to suffer under it, “the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on 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. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.”

All this has still not really quite “turned out.” That, however, does not make the analysis wrong, but sheds a light on the force that was and is necessary and not long in coming to maintain the “moving contradiction” which harmfully subsumes workers as functional appendages in the market economy. Ultimately, it is not quite left up to itself for social wealth to exist as capitalistically appropriated surplus labor and simply not as abundance and free time available to everyone: a veritable monopoly on violence is responsible for the stability of the system.


[11] These remarks from the Grundrisse are elaborated in detail in Capital Volume 1 as systematically as a textbook, and generally need explanation only because of a long history of misinterpretation.