[OPE-L:6503] [OPE] Time in a bottle (was: what is prior?)

Alan Freeman (a.freeman@greenwich.ac.uk)
Sat, 25 Apr 1998 00:44:55 +0200

Paul writes[14/4/98 09:37] Slightly changing his original order:

> About a mile from here there is a large ship being
> constructed by Kavaerner in Govan for Sea Launchers. The ship has been
> under construction for over a year. Just down the road there is a bakery
> selling scones which were baked last night.
> If we were to follow your procedure and add up the stock of goods for
> sale in the country we would be adding the ship( or its labour content)
> to the scones (or their labour content). If we expressed this as a daily
> product we would overvalue the ships contribution. If we expressed it as a bi-yearly
> product we would undervalue the scones contribution.

I understand Paul's concern but I think there is a difference between
adding the ship to the scones, and adding the labour-content of the ship to
the labour-content of the scones.

For me, that's the whole point of value, or at least, a very large part of
the whole point. If I proposed to add the use-value of the ship to the
use-value of the scone, I think Paul's criticism would be valid. But that
isn't what I propose to do.

If I say that the ship contains 1,000,000 labour-hours and the scone
contains 1/10 labour-hour, then I cannot see the objection to adding the
two together to make 1,000,000.1 hours.

> The only stock figure that is meaningful is the number of workers employed
> at each enterprise, since only this has the right dimension.

I'm not sure what the word 'right' means. I suspect that the underlying
idea is that a stock, since it is timeless, must not involve time in its
own dimensions. I think this is plausible at the level of an apparent
verbal paradox that merits deeper study, but I don't think it stands up to
closer examination. On the contrary, if we cannot treat the value of things
as accumulated dead labour, then in essence we are saying that value
cannot exist as a stock. It then becomes very hard to attach a meaning to
statements such as 'this book has a value of 1 hour', for example.

Power is conceived of in physics as energy per hour, so that your electric
fire might have a power-rating of, say, 1 KW but this means, it consumes
1KWh in each h. The stock form is energy or KWh and the flow form is power,
or just plain KW without the h. Just because the h has cancelled out, this
does not invalidate the concept of energy or the idea that energy can be
treated as accumulated power.

I just placed a piece of tree on my fire. It takes about 1/3 day = 1/1000
year to burn, and I think it was about 1/50 of the whole tree. Measured in
trees, I am burning 20 trees/year. But the tree took 10 years to grow; I
counted them by looking at the rings. So I can also write, I am consuming
200 tree-years per year, that is, 200 rings/year.

Not an unimportant piece of economics, if I want to know the necessary
sustainable stock-ratio (200 trees/peasant). So, tree-years is a useful
magnitude, and it can be represented as a stock: a definite tree, with a
countable number of rings.

Why can't person-years be a stock?

If I employ 2 workers for a year, then there will be 2 years of labour in
whatever they make, even if they must work for a year to add this 2 years.
Thus, and not least, we have to distinguish between the labour-time that
has flowed, and the time that it has taken to flow. The "hours per hour"
added by labour is not a meaningless notion.

But if 2 workers can add 2 hours in each hour, why can't we say that at the
end of this hour, the result has grown by 2 hours? Or, if there are 500
workers, that at the end of a year (which, pessimistically, we suppose to
contain 2,000 working hours) they have added 1,000,000 hours to the
product? And hence, why can't we say that the product contains 1,000,000
hours, considered as a stock of value that has (in Marx's words)
'crystallised' in the product?

Paul seeks to reduce everything to persons. Actually, even if this is done,
I do not see the substance of his argument. The flow of value into the ship
is measured in person-hours, pt^(-1). The ship's accumulated value over
time is measured in persons, p. The scone is likewise measured in pt^(-1)
though there are less p and more t. But its dimension is still p, persons.
Add the ship to the scone and we get an amount of p, a quantity of embodied

What is the difficulty with that? It can only cause a problem if one denies
that the value of the ship (or scone) may be measured in anything at all,
that is, if one denies that the ship (or scone) has value. Or, to put it
another way, if one denies that persons can exist in alienated form. I have
sympathy with this, but I also have sympathy with the idea that capitalism
is unnatural. Unnatural it may be, but it still exists.

But in any case, I don't actually think that the appropriate measure is
simply 'persons' since one must also ask what these persons are doing, and
in what capacity they are acting.

Not all persons add value, for example the tiny children of the workers
provide the capitalists with very little value, but they are nevertheless
persons and, if we take Paul literally, should count as part of the stock
of value of society. I think we need therefore to distinguish a particular
kind of person, and indeed, a particular kind of activity by this
particular kind of person, that is, socially-necessary labour. Moreover, if
the workers are all on strike, as was generally the case when I lived in
Govan, then the value they add to the ship each day is nothing. The measure
of value is not just persons but a particular activity of a particular type
of person. It is not, therefore, the person as such but the activity of
the person, which accumulates. Value is not just a number of persons, but
the accumulated productive labour of persons in the service of capitalists.

We are thus measuring, not just the persons but what the persons do. What
they do is not just measured in the number of persons, but the proportion
of each personality which is spent in the service of the capitalists in
producing something that the capitalists can sell.

This proportion is measured in hours, days, or years: in units of time. The
measure of accumulated value is not just persons but a particular
expression of their Being as persons: the time they spend making saleable
things for their bosses. Unless one can propose an operatially-meaningful
basis for deciding that sleeping, or eating, or playing, counts for a
smaller or greater portion of the personality of the workers than working,
one is obliged to measure all of these things in undifferentiated units:
the natural measure of any activity, time.

If the workers now active in the service of Kavaerner work with an
intensity equal (on average throughout Kavaerner) to the average in the
industry, then each will, in each hour, add one hour of abstract
labour-time to the ship. If there are 500 workers, then taken together they
will add to the ship 500 units of socially-necessary abstract labour-time
(SNALT) in each hour, which will thus accumulate SNALT at the rate of 500

If it takes a year (pessimistically 2000 working hours) then in that year,
they will add 1,000,000 hours of SNALT to the ship in that time. Thus at
the end of the year, it will accumulate 1,000,000 hours. This will then be
a stock of 'crystallised' or accumulated labour-time. If we deny this, then
it seems to me we deny that any object may have value embodied in it or, to
put it another way, we deny that it may have value at all.

If what Paul states were literally true, and value could only exist in the
form of living persons, then value could not be an attribute of any
inanimate object, any object that did not itself consist of persons.

The dimension of the stock of living labour-power is labour. (Marx:
"Labour-power in use is labour itself. The purchaser of labour-power
consumes it by setting the seller of it to work. By working, the latter
becomes actually, what before he only was potentially." [Volume I, Chapter
VII, first sentence]). The dimension of its rate of discharge into the
product is time/hour. This happens to be 1. This seems 'right' enough to
me. It is not incidental or trivial for two reasons:

(1) if we have more than one worker, then the 'time per hour' is equal to
the number of workers, due allowance made for complex or more intensive

(2) the 'time per hour' transferred by means of production is proportional
to the quantity of the use-value of these means of production that is
consumed, the time-per-use-value having been fixed historically in these
means of production by the circumstances in which use-values of their
generic type were produced, at the time that they lost their specific
character as a distinct use-value, as a result of being consumed.

Taken together, these two facts seem to me to constitute the law of value,
insofar as it is a law.

> The problem is that the ratio of stock to flow varies widely between
> different products.

Just as the ratio between the speed of a waterfall and the size of a lake
varies widely between locations. Or the ratio between the size of a battery
and the rate at which electricity is consumed from it. Or the ratio between
a sum of money in the bank, and the rate at which it is spent or
accumulated, or the ratio between a number of professors and the rate at
which they generate PhDs or research papers. There is nothing in the fact
that stock/flow ratios 'vary widely' which makes aggregation a problem.

This is, indeed, the purpose of the concept of turnover-time. Suppose a
lathe has a turnover-time of, say, ten years, and has a value of 1000
hours. In that case, in each year, it passes 100 hours to the product. From
this, we can deduce a stock-flow ratio; 1/10 of the stock per year is
transferred to the product. Turnover-time is thus the inverse of the
stock-flow ratio.

This is not, it seems to me, altered because the dimension of the value of
the lathe itself involves hours, which seems to be the point that worries

> We want to measure the social value product, whose dimension is value per
> unit time v/t : say value per annum. Value itself has dimension person hours =
> persons times hours,pt, thus the social value product has dimension
> pt/t = p = persons, allowing for some scalar to adjust for the number of working
> hours per year.

As indicated above I would say we should be more precise about the persons
and what they are doing, though this doesn't substantially alter the
question. And since we cannot ask what they are doing without at least
conceiving of their doing it, we require a measure of 'doing' which is
time, but time of a specific type, labour-time.

Thus it helps to remember that the hours under discussion are not hours of
time in general, not Jim-Croce 'Time-in-a-bottle' but a particular kind of
hours, [sna]-labour-hours.

The flow form of value is (socially necessary abstract labour time)/hour
or SNALT/hour for short. The stock form is SNALT. The flow form is
SNALT/hour. This is not altered because SNALT happens to be measured in
hours, or at least, I do not see that any inconsistency arises from this
way of talking about things.

> In looking at value we are just looking, in another way, at the static division
> of labour in society. Value relations are the relations between people in
> the division of labour. In commodity producing society these take on
> the fetishised form of relations between things but dimensional analysi
> strips this illusion away.

> It is an illusion, strictly speaking commodity fetishism, to think that one can
> derive the value product by adding up a number of things rather than adding
> up a number of people.

Couldn't agree more. But, as indicated above, I do not propose to add the
things. I propose to add the value of the things. What you seem to be
denying is that it is possible to have a stock of something whose dimension
includes hours. If this was literally impossible, how can we have
rechargeable batteries which store up energy and discharge power?

Something else that might progress the discussion: I would slightly take
issue with the turn of phrase "static division of labour". I think that
value expresses the accumulated results of the past.

If we replace 'static division of labour' with 'static equilibrium of
forces' then we would have to conclude that the present solar system is
equivalent to another system in which all the planets are at the centre of
the sun, since this is their long-run natural place. The energy levels in
both cases are the same.

Eppur si muove.