Socially Necessary Labor Time

Submitted by vicent on February 20, 2016

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 not 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 Equilibrium? When was there ever Pareto Optimality? When did consumers ever measure their desires in utils?

SNLT is not like that. 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.

Let’s say that the average television takes 1 hour to make. 1 hour is the SNLT for televisions. But the owner of the ACME TV factory invests in some fancy new machines that make his workers twice as productive. They can now make a television in 30 minutes. They are producing way below the SNLT. This allows ACME to produce twice as many televisions in the same amount of time.

Now if ACME sold their new TV at half the old price they wouldn’t make any more money than before and there would have been no point in investing in all that new stuff. Rather than sell them at their individual value (30 minutes) they continue to sell them at the SNLT (1 hour), or perhaps just under the SNLT in order to out-sell their rivals. Because the price of TVs hasn’t changed significantly there is still the same demand from consumers for TVs, but now there is a giant surplus of TVs on the market because ACME has been making twice as many TVs. ACME’s rivals won’t be able to sell all of their TVs. Part of their product will go unsold. Meanwhile ACME will sell most of their TVs at the SNLT, making not just their normal profit, but an additional “super-profit” because they sold their TVs above their individual values by selling at or near the SNLT.

Profit vs. super-profit

Profit comes from exploiting workers. The only way to turn money into more money is to invest it in workers, or to be precise, in labor power, the only commodity which can produce more value than it costs. (This is all covered in the video “Law of Value 5: Contradictions”.) When ACME sells TVs at under the SNLT they don’t just reap their normal profits from exploiting workers. They also get super-profits: profit appropriated in exchange because their TVs are made at under the SNLT.

It is this race for super-profits that drives much of the technological dynamism of a capitalist society as capitalists compete to constantly lower SNLT. By doing so capitalists don’t just exploit value from workers. They also appropriate value in exchange.

Physical vs. Value Productivity

A superficial look at the ACME TV factory might give one the impression that ACME is making more profit because they are creating more value. But this is not the case. The same amount of workers are doing the same amount of work as before. The same amount of labor time is being performed, spread out over a greater number of commodities. Thus the amount of value they create is not increasing merely because the physical output is increasing. It is extremely important to understand this difference between physical productivity and value productivity. As it becomes easier to make TVs their prices fall. Thus, just because we can make more of something doesn’t mean we have created more value. If other firms were to adopt technology similar to ACME’s we would see the SNLT of TVs fall to half of its former value and ACME’s super-profits would disappear.

Appropriating Value in Exchange

What does it mean to say that ACME makes a super-profit by appropriating value in exchange? If you trade one commodity for another of greater value then you have appropriated value in exchange. There are lots of ways this might happen. One of these ways of appropriating value is to produce a product at less than the SNLT but to sell it at the SNLT. Thus we get back more in exchange than we put into exchange. But where does this appropriated value come from?

At first glance it appears to come from the consumers that buy the commodities. But these consumers are buying a commodity at its value, at the SNLT. They are not losing value in exchange. They pay $50 for a TV and they get a TV worth $50. The people that do lose value are all of the other capitalists who are still producing at the SNLT. They are not able to sell all of their product. They lose out. ACME is able to lure more consumers away from them.

Exchange is a zero-sum game. Whenever one person wins another must lose. There are only so many people willing to buy TVs at the SNLT. When ACME appropriates value in exchange this doesn’t mean that they are stealing money from the coffers of their competitors. It means that they are filching away sales from their rivals. More value comes to ACME than it actually created, less goes to its rivals. (1)

SNLT and the Labor Process

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. 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.

SNLT and the centralization and concentration of capital

Capitalists compete to lower the SNLT by investing in fancier equipment. The better the machines the more efficient the labor process the higher the output the lower the prices the more super-profit the more money available to invest in new machines… Competition for SNLT means that more and more equipment is needed in order to stay competitive. This makes it harder and harder for small firms to stay in the market. The size of the firm gets larger and larger and the amount of firms in an industry shrinks. The winners gobble up the losers and capital is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. If firms become powerful enough they may even take measures to blunt competition so that nobody can produce more efficiently than them. (2)

SNLT and Market Socialism

The tools we use to critique capitalism determine how we envision an alternative to capitalism. Models for market socialism that talk of worker-owned cooperatives coordinated by market exchange clearly see that production for the enrichment of the capitalist class must be done away with if we are to overcome capitalism. Yet any society coordinated by market exchange is still disciplined by SNLT.

This means that workers in such a society would still have to discipline their actions to the social average. Cooperatives that worked at under the SNLT would appropriate value in exchange. Cooperatives would compete to modernize their equipment so as to lower the SNLT. And how would co-ops obtain the money to invest in better, labor-saving equipment? They would have to exploit themselves. That is, the more money that workers want to plow back into making their labor competitive, they less they can pay themselves. Not only would the workers be disciplined by SNLT, they would also find themselves disciplined by the need to amass surplus value so as to stay competitive. What happens to the workers in firms driven out of business by the centralization of industries? Where do they get the capital to start new firms? Do they have to sell their labor in the market?

Production of surplus-value for its own sake, fierce competition over super-profits, the disciplining of the labor process to the whims of impersonal market forces… sound familiar? Now perhaps one might be of the opinion that it is impossible to do away with SNLT, with market coordination. If this is the case then our best option is do debate what type of market socialism would be least exploitative, least alienating. But why not challenge ourselves to imagine a world without these things?

A world without What?

This seems to be the big question whenever we critique capitalism. Surely labor will always take time and we must have a way of coordinating labor to produce all of the goods society needs. Surely this labor must not just produce immediate goods but also surplus goods, as well as invest in long-term projects like infrastructure and machines that will make work better in the future. So we can’t say that we want to produce a society without work, without time, without surplus product, or without machines. (4)

What is unique about capitalism is that labor time, surplus and commodities are all measured in value. The types of commodities created, the types of assets the surplus is invested in, and the quality of the life of those who do the labor are not important. What is important is this endless expansion of value for its own sake. This is capital’s defining substance.

But if we are to coordinate human labor, the production of surpluses, innovation, distribution, etc without value production then what other method are we to use? It is not within the scope of this series evaluate different proposals for alternatives for capitalism. But it is the place to talk about how Marx’s analysis of SNLT might help us evaluate these different proposals.

We’ve probably all heard Marx’s famous description of the higher phase of communism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Marx didn’t actually come up with this phrase but he quotes it in one his rare commentaries on communism. Here an hour of one person’s work is equal to an hour of anyone else’s, creating a basis for real equality throughout society, regardless of the productive abilities (or privileges) of individuals. In the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx describes the lower phase of communism as a system in which, after an hour of labor, all workers receive a certificate entitling them to a certain amount of consumption goods in proportion to their working time, not their level of productivity. There is no SNLT, and no inequality, because everyone’s work has the same social power. Obviously this is not a robust plan for how a communist society should be run. But it gives us a glimpse into the sort of radical questions we should be asking ourselves when thinking about communism. (5)


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, and the search for super-profits drives much of the mad, chaotic development of the productive forces of a capitalist society, generating all sorts of unforeseen consequences.

In a society not producing for competition or capital, but for communal ownership, there would not be a SNLT in this same sense. This means that work would not exist in order to make value. Work would exist in order to both provide use-values for society and to better the life of the worker. In our culture we have an intense fascination with those rare people whose work is fulfilling and challenging. Great musicians, athletes, artists, etc inspire us because these are people whose work has challenged them to become the best possible person they can be. Perhaps in a world without SNLT such an experience of work could become more universal.

1. Here is another example of the way in which individual value and social value diverge. Many times lay-critics of Marx (like the trolls often found stalking this blog) think they can “disprove” Marx’s theory of value by pointing to instances where the individual value of a commodity (the amount of time an individual put into making it) diverges from its social value. But as we can see such deviations are a central part of Marx’s theory. In fact it is these deviations of individual value from social value that create the dynamism and disequilibrium that Marx was so intent on theorizing. It is important to constantly point this out as many lay objections to Marx’s theory of value come form the misconception that social value and individual value must always coincide.

2. On the other hand, there are counter-acting forces that sometimes exert pressures to decentralize capital. The opening up of new, labor-intensive lines of production is one.

3. From Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program:
“T]he individual producer receives back from society…exactly what he gives to it…He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor…and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor costs. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.”

4. No doubt many viewers are familiar with the ramblings of the “Zeitgeist Movement”. These folks believe that technology can liberate us from all work, establishing a labor-free, money-free paradise where robots do everything for us. These folks also believe, in some form or another, than the liberating potential of machines is being kept from society by the conspiring powers of bankers and other elites tied to “the money system”. As much as I share their desire for a society with out money, bankers, elites, over-work, etc, I am very critical of many of their explanations of the way capitalism works (they don’t use the word capitalist much actually) and the solutions these critiques point them towards. Chief amongst these complaints of mine is their notion of work. They have essentially projected the capitalist experience of work onto the entire experience of work for all time and space, implying that the universal nature of work is evil, something to be avoided. In contrast Marx sees work as the very substance of society, the thing that binds us together as it shapes our social life. The organization of our work effects how we understand our selves individually and collectively. I think that radicals need to recast the nature of work in a potentially liberating way. Similarly the Zeitgeist folks are entirely saturated by the contradictory experience of machines in a capitalist society. On the one hand machines fascinate us with their amazing, seemingly-liberatory potential. On the other hand the reality of the machine is that it is a tool for control of the labor process at the expense of the worker and that the consequences of technology are often socially, environmentally biologically, and psychologically degrading. The Zeitgeist folks make the assumption, then, that if we just had more machines then the problem would be solved. They share the bourgeois romance of the machine as liberator. Without going into an argument as to the ability of machines to replace all human labor, I would question what we would do without some sort of social labor. What would be the point of anything? As well, I wonder that if machines could really do everything that people could do, including much of our creative labor as the Zeitgeist folks claim, would they not be conscious entities of some sort capable of refusing work, of withholding labor, of claiming some sort of juridical rights in society? I believe that in posing alternatives to capitalism we should aim to heal the separation of conception and execution in the capitalist labor process, not to carry that separation to a further level of alienation.
5. One of the crucial aspects of such a method of organization is that without productivity-based labor certificates there is no chance of these certificates circulating as money. Indeed this is Marx’s objection to some of the labor-money schemes advanced by his contemporaries. What would keep such labor-notes from circulating as money, merely replicating commodity production? Wouldn’t they just make labor indirectly social again? In Marx’s scheme all labor is directly social and therefore there is no reason to exchange labor notes on any black markets. For more on this point see Andrew Kliman’s “The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the Critique of the Gotha Program.”