Value, Time, and Labour

Historical Materialism Conference 2019

Chris Arthur                      Value, Time, and Labour

An important foundation of my work-in-progress is that the argument is shaped by the protocols of value-form theory. This relatively new approach to the critique of political economy sets itself against neglect of the relevance of the form of value, as if this form passively reflects the material metabolism of production; on such an account, value itself may simply be identified with labour. In contrast, value form theory affirms that value relations play an active part in determining the shape, and purposes, of material production. The value-form par excellence is the money-form. So the theory underlines the active role of money in directing economic life; it is not merely a mediator of more fundamental forces.

It follows that theory must accept the reality of formal determination, distinct from – albeit working alongside – causal determination. For example, when it is claimed that the magnitude of value is a function of socially necessary labour time, it may be considered that the former is ‘caused’ by the latter. However, such a view fails to account for the very existence of such a relation. It is only the social form of commodity exchange that determines why, and how far, such a function can exist. It is the value-form that determines the dimensions of the so-called ‘production’ of value.

Remark In what follows I use the term ‘posit’. This is to be understood as primarily a reality. It is not merely that thought affirms the posited entity is logically consequent, but that it arises from an objective movement. (Logically, an effect posits a cause, but, physically, it arises from the cause.) In our case I take value to be a form logically implicit in the objective movement of its positing, and thus established as its result. The process of its positing is borne by the material process of commodity production.


I maintain that the relevant time dimension of value-positing is pure duration; value is the crystal of the time that elapsed during the process of positing value. This elapsed time is not immediately value. The immanent diachronic dimension is transformed into value with determinate magnitude only through its commensuration with other such times in the space of exchange. ‘Time’ turns to ‘Space’ in the synchronic relation of commodities. Moreover, I shall argue that ‘abstract labour’ is properly the abstraction from labour, which leaves the pure activity of value positing to be fixed as value.

Value defines itself as what it is through a necessary relation to how it came to be. There is a transition in the genesis of value from the time of value positing to the space of co-determinant posited values. However, the process of positing value is mere immanence, albeit known to be a process taking time. It lacks determinacy until the magnitude of this immanent time is retroactively imputed when the synchronic determination of values on the market is achieved.

The act of positing value results in its own fixity in the resulting value. This result must have a material product to inhabit but what counts is its social form as value, hence absenting its determinate material features and reducing it to nothing more than the result of activity. Thus the value ‘substance’ is nothing other than the condensation of the activity that posited the commodity as a value. When the ‘becoming’ of value comes to rest in a result, namely a marketed commodity, value is posited. The resulting value, abstracted from its contingent use value support, has to be considered simply as what has become from the unrest of its becoming, as the various times of different production processes are commensurated in exchange.

The only possible result of the passing of time (distinct from production in time) is the time that passed, totalised at the ‘Schrödinger’ point of intersection with another process of passing time, registered synchronically as the value relation. Dialectically, the ‘being’ of value becomes determinate only in its ‘being-for-another’, only in the encounter of one commodity with others that recognise it as valid. The shock of the encounter transforms the indeterminacy of time immanent to a determinate magnitude of value. So the truth of value requires both dimensions, diachronic and synchronic.

The elapsed time is not the immediate time of production, as this process occurs in time. For

the material production process is determined ideally as the trace time-passing leaves in the world. This socio-historically specific shape of time is ‘empty time’, unqualified by any natural rhythms, because the force of abstraction is a practical reality. The time the process takes becomes fixed as the time taken.

Nothing is in truth produced (other than the materiality of use value) when value positing takes the shape of the pure form of activity. But how can there be ‘plenty of nothing’? This raises the issue of determining the magnitude of value. What is the immanent determinant of the magnitude measured in money terms? The answer is that this ‘nothing’ is a determinate nothingness resulting from the passing into fixity of the restless process of its becoming, a cessation that sublates its origin, i.e. preserves the process in the product as a definite magnitude. The only measure of such activity is the time it goes on for.

However, if we have as the result of time passing only a spectral ‘body of work’, it can be measured only through the peculiar immaterial dimensionality of money. The dimensionality of the source (time) is simply given a different categorial status in the produced commodity as finite result of so much time that has passed. A crystal of precipitated time, the fixing of time passed, is the magnitude represented in money. So value isn’t made out of something other than itself, but it comes from itself in motion to itself then taken in fixity. Qua process, its magnitude is time but, posited in a determinate relation to other such times, through the mediation of money, elapsed time appears as the immanent determinant of the value measured in money.

The importance of my account is that it avoids both the simple identity of value and time, which might involve absurdities such as ‘the measure of value is time’, or ‘the measure of time is money’, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, an external quasi-causal determination of value by time.


Because it is capital that brings commodities into relation, and capital that commensurates them, it is capital’s time that counts. Capital having sunk into production, the time of production is the time of capital. Capital is not primarily interested in the particularities of the determinate transformation of material, only in the reproduction of value. In this commensuration the concrete heterogeneity of the processes of production, as capital moves in matter, is sublated; only abstract time is considered. While capital produces a material product, it generates value only if the production time is absented in favour of its logical equivalent, namely that of the positing of value. The time of capital in its fluid form is pure immanence, a process of absolute negativity. Although the material production process moves in time, the time of capital is an empty time, which fixes itself in its result, retrospectively making itself present in this dialectic of fluidity and fixity.

But, if value is time condensed to a spectral objectivity, then from the perspective of this result, time passing is the activity of a spectral “subjectivity”. The time that passed in the production process, the time it takes, is now posited retrospectively by the spectre of capital as the time it took. The former is folded into the latter. Value then exists in two states, when the fluid form is posited retrospectively by capital as the subjective source of what is then present as a phantom objectivity.

This makes it seem that mere time passing is ‘production of value’, and thus to think ‘waiting’ is the source of profit. But, interpreted as the time capital is necessarily tied up in production, we see the objective validity of the fetish character of such a movement of time.

Time is not what value is ‘made of’ because this suggests a relatively external relation of form and matter (e.g. ‘the statue is made of marble’). Rather value is time in a transformed shape, crystallised rather than fluid.

It is not correct that value has ‘two measures’, the immanent, time, and the external, money. Time is certainly an immanent determinant of value; but this determinacy is merely notional because, as immanence, value lacks determinate magnitude until the money measure forms it, and posits the time taken in the context of systemically determined value measures.

Time itself cannot ‘produce’ anything of course; but it counts as the value ‘substance’, once the produced commodity is granted the form-determination of value. It is not at all obvious that labour as such should be measured by its duration; but it is necessary that pure activity exists solely in the dimension of pure time.


What now of living labour? New value cannot be generated all at once, but takes time, because living labour takes time to produce what has value, as distinct from value itself. Living labour is therefore determined as the carrier of the time of value-positing. What really moves is always a concrete material process, yet this is determined as the carrier of the ideal logical movement; thus the adding of concrete labours by time is required because this is the dimension in which the comparison of one process with another is undertaken by capital.

 I argue that the form of ‘abstract labour’ arises through the reflection on the labour process of the unity of production established by capital on the ground of pure time.  As thus subsumed by the valorisation process, labour is not regarded under its specific useful forms, but it is reduced to an abstract activity. Thus, even though all real labour is particular in its action, here indifference towards the specific content of labour is not merely an abstraction made by the observer, it is effectively made by capital.

All the material differences of labour are absorbed in the homogeneity of the valorisation process, and this posits the labour process virtually as a universal production process carried out by undifferentiated human labour.  The absenting of the concrete determinacy of labour leaves an abstract residue, namely time passing.

Yet, if we consider the collective labourer, the sum of labours making up the collectivity seems a false aggregate because it really exists only as a material combination of detailed labours, not just as one type of labour defined by the product. While such labours cannot be aggregated concretely in any meaningful way, capital makes this senseless aggregation ideally; and it does so under the aspect of time only, because it needs to get the commodities to market as quickly as possible. Capital must time labour, because that is central to its competition with other capitals. Capital not only imposes the qualitative reduction of ‘labour’ to pure motion, but its quantitative reduction to simple time of production as determinant of magnitude of value.

The given inputs of concrete labours are the raw material shaped by capital into a content adequate to the determination of value magnitudes. It is capital that selects out time-passed as of the essence, and promotes the pertinence of a socially necessary labour time.  But, immediately, it seems that development is on the side of the content in that changes in labour time feed through in a linear way to the magnitude of value. Yet, mediatedly, labour time is a determined determinant in that it is capital that continually seeks to increase the productivity of labour. This is possible because wage-labour is not ‘outside’ capital. Once it has been internalised it appears as capital’s own use-value, although one must never lose sight of labour’s tendential resistance to exploitation. In this sense, the materiality of production is economically determinant. For, materially, only concrete labour is subject to reshaping. Capital cannot ‘economise’ on labour in the abstract.  Only labour as concrete can be measured and minimised, and each industry has its specific way of pumping out such labour, even if ideal demands are presented to it abstractly and require concrete interpretation by managers. (The structure is tailor-made for institutional blindness: ‘Don’t tell me how you do it, just meet that order in time’.)

In sum, capital is a totality of value-in-process. The living labour capital exploits is determined as the carrier of its own predicate: the time it takes. Through this objective hypostatisation, the workers are predicated of their own predicate.

The use value of labour is abstracted from, so that now it counts merely as the bearer of value positing insofar as all concrete determinacy involved in production is absented, leaving the logical category of ‘positing’ as such. Self-valorising value posits itself, in comprehending within itself production, through negating dialectically (i.e. preserving the material side within it) the realm of the real labour of production. So far from labour embodying itself in commodities and thereby constituting them as values, capital embodies itself in production, subordinates its purposes to value creation, and realises itself in the product, posited as nothing but its own result. When production is formed as production for exchange, the new product is socially formed as value.

It seems there is nothing wrong with abstracting from the concrete character of the various material production processes as long as the abstraction is not hypostatised and said to be the real basis of the concrete, such that the concrete is then simply a body for the logic. But this mystical inversion is a reality. For in the process of valorisation there is indeed an autonomous existence of the ideal insofar as the concrete labour-processes carry a distinct set of abstract determinations that posit value. Here the abstract formula of production, namely ‘positing’, is in its very abstraction a reality. A real inversion has occurred; value-positing is the ‘truth’ of the labour process, and it determines the latter as the effective carrier of the valorisation process. Living labour becomes a phantom ‘labour’, and its result, value, is a phantom ‘objectivity’ borne by commodities.

If new value arises in production under the impulse of capital to valorise itself, the capitalist production process is from the start form-determined. When all inputs entering production, including labour–power, are commodities purchased with money-capital, they are not ‘devalorised’ when they become active as material factors.

It is usual in value-form theory to say money is the measure of abstract labour. However, this requires careful explanation. After all, money is the measure of value, not of such a supposed determinant. Moreover, it is not a matter of making do with an external measure because we cannot measure directly, it is that the magnitude that is to be measured is itself indeterminate until money makes value actual and therewith determines how far the time of production counts socially. Nonetheless it seems clear that the dimension of time is the immanent determinant of value magnitudes, although the time of value-positing only becomes a money magnitude in its phenomenal existence.

Capital cannot compare the various times of production directly (nor labourers their ‘toil and trouble’) because the only given form of commensuration of products is in money price. The point is that the elapsed time of the production of each commodity underlies the synchronic relation. It is this transformation of process into product that gives rise to the dimensional discrepancy mentioned above.

Just as the useful character of the commodity is completely abstracted from in the resulting value, so must the labour that produced it be completely abstracted from. If value is ontologically distinct from use value, albeit consubstantial with it in the commodity, then the labour process is the carrier of the valorisation process, just as use value is the bearer of exchange value. Labour enters into value not as abstract labour, but rather as its reality is abstracted from. The value-form is imposed on living labours as an alien universal, identifying them against their reality as concrete, rather than elucidating a generality they already have. Form-determined by capital, labour now ‘counts’ not as itself but simply as the carrier of the activity of value-positing.



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