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Socialism Is Dead!  Long Live the Commons and Social Accounting!

In his essay, “Degrow or Die?” in the December/January 2011 Red Pepper magazine, John Bellamy Foster criticized degrowth advocates’ proposals for shorter working hours as not “dealing with the unemployment problem directly” and as not being viable on a broad scale unless they were part of a transition to “a post-capitalist (indeed socialist) society.”  In his reply to Foster’s essay, Ted Benton defended the shorter working week as a potentially transformative innovation that would free time for “constructive, convivial and creative activities” as well as for expanded leisure.

While not wanting to downplay either the potentially transformative role of shorter working time or its prospects as a transitional element to a post-capitalist society, there is an important aspect of this issue that both writers appear to have overlooked.  The result of shorter working time, increased time at the disposal of the individual worker, is not simply an improvement or a palliative.  Disposable time is also a key conceptual category for Marx.  In fact, it underlies “one of the most important points in the whole of political economy” (Engels): the distinction between labor and labor power.  As Marx stressed in the Grundrisse, disposable time is the antithesis, from the perspective of the collective worker, of capital’s compulsive pursuit of surplus value.

Werner Sombart described the concept of capital as something that “did not exist before double-entry bookkeeping.”  “Capital,” he wrote, “can be defined as that amount of wealth which is used in making profits and which enters into the accounts.”  In “Accounting and Control of the Labour Process,” Rob Bryer has written of a capitalist mentality that consists of using accounting information to control the labor process “by holding the collective worker accountable for the rate of return on capital.”  Such control from the bottom line is central, not incidental, to both the domination of the labor process by capital and the evolution of the ways that domination has been implemented through successive forms of technology.  Any alternative to that domination requires the development of a counter-mentality, one that “turns the capitalist development of calculation and accountability to other ends.”

Bryer called such a counter-mentality a “socialist mentality” but I would amend that to a “social accounting mentality” to both enlist and implicate an incumbent social-accounting tradition as well as to distance the alternative mentality from advocacy of state socialism.  Ownership of the means of production may well be beside the point.  The forms of adaptable ownership — including, crucially, the revitalization of the commons — may be more eclectic than traditional socialism assumes.  It is not private ownership per se that is onerous but its hypertrophy and its domination over the labor process that a one-dimensional accounting mentality enforces.

Social accounting is simply the kind of accounting that has to be done when two or more accounting entities are being aggregated.  It differs from the accounting of a single enterprise in the way that transactions between the constituent parts are treated.  Great care needs to be taken in defining the boundaries between parties to avoid errors such as “double counting.”  It is, in effect, the systematic double counting (triple counting, etc.) of the returns due to capital that maintains the social domination of capital and obstructs social justice.

Among the most elementary and symptomatic forms of double counting is the exclusion from national income accounts of consideration for gain or loss of disposable time.  Overcoming that exclusion is a fundamental strategic necessity for contesting the social domination of capital.  (See the author’s “Time on the Ledger: Social Accounting for the Good Society” and Jobs, Liberty and the Bottom Line for an elaboration of the proposed strategy and an historical survey of social thought anticipating such an approach.)

Reading the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties and then reading the passages in the Grundrisse and the Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 where Marx cited that pamphlet, one can almost hear the gears turning in Marx’s brain and a light clicking on.  “Not labor, but labor power!”  Marx’s own metaphor was more explosive:

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.  In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.  ‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours.  Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’  (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.)  (Grundrisse, page 706)

Tom Walker is an independent scholar and activist who lives in Vancouver, Canada.  He blogs at Ecological Headstand: <>.

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