I got some good feedback on the last script I posted- not a lot of feedback, but the comments I did get were good. So I am posting this draft of my script on Socially Necessary Labor Time (SNLT) before launching into the production of the video. Please, if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions that might make it a better script feel free to leave a comment. Because SNLT is a relatively simple concept at one level I tried to take this script in a more interesting direction- talking about the relation of SNLT to capital and to Marx’s critique of value and capital.
SNLT- draft, version 2
Alone on his tropical island Robinson Crusoe can take as long as he wants to build a cabin for himself. It’s up to him. We don’t have that luxury when we produce for market exchange. When Wonder Bread makes bread they are competing in the market against Pepperidge Farm, Arnold and White Rose. If their workers are less productive, if they take longer to make bread, that doesn’t mean they can sell their bread for more money. The social value of bread is set by individuals but by the average amount of time it takes to produce bread. This is called the “Socially Necessary Labor Time”. (SNLT)
In neo-classical economic theory there are all sorts of concepts that, though mathematically elegant on paper, have very little descriptive power in the real world. When was a capitalist society ever in General Equillibrium? When was there ever Pareto Optimality? When did consumers ever measure their desires in utils?
SNLT is a great example of the practical, real-world nature of Marx’s value theory. SNLT is something very real that we can observe at work everyday. The private labor that goes on behind factory doors will not know for sure what its social value is until the products of that labor enter the market to be compared to the products of other workers. In the market these private labors become social. Socially necessary labor time is asserted. This SNLT then acts back upon production. It disciplines what goes on in the factory. Factories that were spending more labor than was socially necessary are considered inefficient. They must change their production methods or else go out of business. Factories that were producing under the socially necessary time, that were more efficient than average, are rewarded.
Competition drives producers to constantly try to produce under the socially necessary labor time. If the SNLT for bread is 10 minutes a loaf and I make a new machine that allows my workers to produce bread for 5 minutes a loaf then I am producing at half the SNLT. But I still sell my product at the SNLT. This means that there is a difference between the amount of value I create and the amount of value I sell the product for. I appropriate extra profit in exchange. This is a super-profit. Why a super-profit? Well I already make a profit by exploiting my workers (I discuss this concept in another video). This is an addition to that profit. I am stealing profit away from my competitors in exchange when I produce under the SNLT. I can produce more products than my competitors in the same amount of time. I can out-sell them in the market, appropriating value in exchange. This race for super-profits is one of the main incentives behind all technological change in a capitalist society.
This super-profit will attract competitors to increase the efficiency of their production. Soon everybody will be producing at 5 minutes a loaf. A new SNLT is established and my super-profit disappears. The race begins again to try to be the one who produces more efficiently than this. Thus SNLT is a constantly changing thing as capitalists compete to produce more efficiently than their rivals.
Super-profit gives the illusion that value is being created in exchange. But it isn’t. It means that I am filching value away from my competitors who produce at the SNLT. The value is created in production, but transfered in exchange. (1) Any time a commodity is sold for more than its individual value, it is appropriating value in exchange. The money that buys the commodity represents more labor time than went into producing the commodity. But there is a finite amount of value in the economy because a finite amount of labor has been performed. When one person appropriates value in exchange it means that someone else looses value. Thus the competition around SNLT always has as many losers as it does winners.
This process goes on everyday in a capitalist society. We have an obsession with time and efficiency. Everything from the working day, to the motions of workers are timed and rationalized. From the moment the alarm clock rings you are checking train schedules, punching time cards, and working as efficiently as possible. There is an entire field of industrial engineering which is devoted to decreasing SNLT in society. Some of the most influential minds of the last century have been people like Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor who made substantial contributions to the reduction of SNLT, all in the quest for a super-profit.
This drive to produce a super-profit does not mean that less and less labor is happening in society. It means that the same amount of labor is producing more output. We are often told that machines will make life easier, reducing the need for work. But this has never been the case in a capitalist society. Machines just create more output per hour worked. Often times machines are used to get more work out of workers because the machine can dictate the pace and intensity of work to the worker. SNLT is a force that presses down upon us, disciplining our motions, driving us to produce value merely for the sake of producing value, rewarding us when we can produce above the average productivity and punishing us when we fall behind.
This production of value merely for the sake of producing value becomes capital. Capital is a process of value expansion in which money is invested in production not with the aim of producing any particularly useful things but in order to make more money. It is a never-ending cycle of money turning itself into more money. Constantly growing, constantly expanding.
This capital doesn’t just take the form of money. It also becomes machines, raw materials, wages paid to workers… and a person: the capitalist. The capitalist is a personification of capital, a person who owns this process of value expansion. This means that we can see the social relation of capital in two ways. In one sense capital is an antagonism between our own creative powers and ourselves. Our own labor produces this surplus value that becomes an external force acting back upon society, shaping production to its own needs. In another sense this antagonism between society and itself becomes personified in an antagonism between workers and capitalists. The minority of people who own capital embody the interests and perspective of capital. By acting in their own interests capitalists also act in the interest of this impersonal force that is capital.
As the amount of technology needed to produce at the SNLT increases this mass of machinery acts as a barrier to competition. A huge investment of capital is needed to start a business and enter an industry. As competitors who fail to keep up with the SNLT go out of business, industries centralize, gobbling up competitors. Capital becomes larger and larger, dominating more physical and economic space.
Now imagine a socialist society of people operating the means of production in cooperation. Cooperation means no competition between producers to lower the SNLT which means no markets and no capital. Imagine a factory in this society in which the people who work the machines are the same people that design the machines. The workers don’t produce under the compulsion of competition because their pay is not a result of their output but a result of their needs. (Remember Marx’s famous description of communism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”). This means that these workers have radically different incentives in the way they design and carry out their work. Rather than using technology to increase their output and pace of work in order to make a super-profit they would most likely use technology to make work more fulfilling, and reduce working hours. It is a sad commentary on the unfulfilled promises of capitalism that with all of the dazzling technological progress of our society we still have masses of impoverished unemployed and masses of people working 60 hour weeks, two-jobs, and foregoing retirement who still must rely on mortgages and credit to make ends meet. It’s sad that despite all the labor-saving technology in the world people still hate their work. In a capitalist society our own creative control over the labor process is taken away from us to become a tool for our own exploitation and over-work.
Bourgeois theories of subjective value like to project the current subjectivities of modern society backwards and forwards in time as if humans have always been and will always be rational, utility-maximizing individuals operating with the same cold, calculating logic of the CEO. But economic choices for maximizing self gain only occur in a society in which we produce not for our own needs but for exchange. It is production for exchange which creates an autonomous force of profit and capital which drives society to follow its bidding.
Our private labor doesn’t immediately become social. It must become value in order to be social. But in becoming value it is disciplined by socially necessary labor time. SNLT acts as an external force which disciplines our private labor, constantly compelling us to work more efficiently, yet never actually making our work easier or more fulfilling. SNLT creates the possibility for super-profits when one produces under the SNLT. These profits which stand above society, compelling the motions of workers, become capital. It is the expansion of capital that drives our work, not production for our own needs.
In a society not producing for competition or capital, but for communal ownership there would not be a SNLT. The engineer-worker would be free to design their labor time anyway they wanted, without the external compulsion to maximize output per labor time. There would still be an incentive to increase efficiency, but it would not be an external compulsion to increase efficiency at the expense of the worker. A job would cease to be a job- that is, a passionless series of motions we are compelled to carry out in order to eek out a living in the market. Work could become something much more deep and fulfilling, a means of self-discovery and expression, and a means of establishing social bonds. A radically different notion of work would mean a radically different world.