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In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (1978) penned the famous phrase, "All that is solid melts into air." Already in 1848, so soon into the era of Capital, Marx and Engels had noticed Capital's propensity (under the direction of the Bourgeoisie) for an accelerated pace of change.

Later, when Marx wrote about labor-time as the central determinant of exchange value, he dwelt on the fact that speed would be a crucial variable in the development of capitalist political economies. Still, Marx might have understated the degree to which a labor theory of value is dependent on a theory of speed -- or more properly, a theory of accelerating production. Teresa Brennan's 1993 reexamination of Marx's argument explicitly recognizes the role of space and distance in the value composition process. Drawing on the theory that labor is the source of all value, Marx focused the labor theory of value on a critique of exploitation -- with special emphasis on the character of capitalist exploitation. Within his argument about the structural character of unequal exchange, Marx showed how capitalists recognized time, or more specifically, labor-time as the crucial measure of value in its reified form -- namely money. That way, Capital could make every diverse form of labor commensurate with a universal standard of measure. The category of wage labor rests precisely upon abstracting out from any particular kind of labor the time expended in labor as measured in hours and minutes. Our measures of efficiency depend on this.

Those following in the tradition of Marx observed that Capitalists have historically sought to wrest (exploit) more value from labor by means of "the speedup." In pointing to the exploitative power relationship that drives speedups, this Marxian tradition has located these as class struggles between Capital and Labor over power on the factory floor. And yet, though class conflict was the practical matter at hand, there was more than class conflict at work here -- because speedups of production also aimed at overcoming another fundamental contradiction of capital accumulation.

Marx pointed to the general speedup in production processes when he addressed (in the Grundrisse) the contradiction between the commodity form and the dead-time that occurred in the cycle of commodity production, distribution, sales and reinvestment. Marx variously referred to this phase of Capital in the circuitry of circulation as 'fallow time' or time 'at rest' -- but his point was always that such time represented 'negated' Capital (see Grundrisse, (1973: 546; 621; Harvey, 1982: 85). When Capital takes the form of stock inventories, this is time when Capital cannot be 'at work.'

Delays in the circulation of the commodity through its cycle represent opportunity costs, for any time that the commodity form spends in warehouses, or sitting on shelves, means that the money equivalent of that commodity could not be reinvested and "earning" more return on equity. In short, time spent in circulation is time not spent in production or commodity realization. David Harvey puts it this way:

"There is, therefore, considerable pressure to accelerate the velocity of circulation of capital, because to do so is to increase the sum of values produced and rate of profit. The barriers to realization are minimized when the 'transition of capital from one phase to the next' occurs 'at the speed of thought' (Grundrisse, p.631). The turnover time of capital is, in itself, a fundamental measure which also indicates certain barriers to accumulation. Since an accelerating rate of turnover of capital reduces the time during which opportunities pass by unseized, a reduction in turnover time releases resources for further accumulation" (Harvey, 1982: 86)

Marx defined circulation time in terms of how long it takes to "realize the value embodied in the commodity through the exchange process" (see Harvey, 1982: 62). The speed and efficiency of the transformation of the commodity form of capital into the money capital is pivotal to the reproduction/expansion of Capital (71).

In the century and a half since Marx began writing, Capital has come up with many new institutional mechanisms for overcoming drags on commodity reproduction. The massification of the credit system in the early 20th century still stands out as one of the most dramatic such interventions. The nurturing of marketing and advertising systems to stoke up additional demand for goods comprise another familiar approach. Each successful intervention was soon mimicked by competitors, and thus every advancement in shortening cycle time contributed to a further quickening of commodity circulation, until today speed and turnover are the watchwords of the Marketplace.

Speed has as its referent not just time but also distance. Speed refers not only to how quickly or slowly the digital pulse of a timepiece moves, but also to movement across space. For firms like FedEx and UPS the question of speed refers to how fast they can transport goods from one geographic site to another place. FedEx and UPS have defined themselves as supply chain management specialists. They claim to be able to move as fast as is necessary to keep up with the integrated global supply chain in such a way that clients can minimize warehousing costs.

Companies like Intel in the semiconductor chip manufacturing sector the question of speed refer to how rapidly a processor can cycle and cycle again, and to the way in which Moore's Law continues to play itself out (Moore's Law states that chip capacity doubles every 18 months). Measured in Gigahertz, every corporate research group is competing to build the fastest chip yet.

For firms like Amazon.com, the question of speed refers to the absence of time spent in physical infrastructures -- the effort to overcome the idle time of products sitting on a shelf that Marx referred to as a barrier to value realization. Amazon.com's business model touted its being an Internet business - the store on-line as opposed to the more prosaic land-locked storefronts - land and buildings have rents, taxes and insurance costs associated with them, while Amazon's cyberbusiness promised consumers nearly immediate shipment of the books at discounted prices. Why leave the house, when we can rush it to you?

Teresa Brennan observes that "speed, measured by distance as well as time, involves a linear axis, time, and the lateral axis of space" (147). Brennan's point is that the space-time of short-term profit comes into conflict with the "generational time of natural reproduction" and that in the struggle to overcome the contradictions of the profit mechanism, the market driven space-time of speed eventually displaces (she says "takes the place of") generational time." (147; 150)

Brennan's distinction hinges on the assumption that generational time is a biological constant. But is it? Not according to the mass media -- which with its own ax to grind has held that generational time itself has undergone a speedup in recent decades, shrinking adolescence into a series of fashion cycles. This prompts concerns about how children are growing up too fast, losing out on the romance and innocence of childhood. Generational time itself has been turned into a commodity and is thus subject to the same internal pressures as any other commodity.

Brennan builds her argument on an opposition - a contradiction between the "competing dynamics" of 1) the Speed of Capital, driven by the demand to realize short-term profits and further Capital formation, and 2) the existence of a Natural Order, whose rate of reproduction must remain relatively constant (133).

The premise of a natural order driven by biological imperatives seems to us problematic. Like many other academics we have grown skeptical of anything that comes labeled as "the natural order of things." Isn't such recourse to claims regarding "Natural Entities" yet another socially constructed fantasy, although always important nonetheless, precisely because it is social fantasy? Maybe it is one of our most important collective fantasies, a need to believe that we are part of some natural history.

Brennan's theory poses the contradiction stemming from the Speed of Capital in terms of the postulate of "organic time." Is this organic time, the pace at which generational change takes place, a question of empirical reality or metaphysics? Indeed, why pose the social contradictions of speed in such Rousseauian terms? Is it because it assumes something of Marx's critical ideal of "species being?"

Perhaps because we still want to believe that our most inherent sensibilities will prompt us to snap back against mounting forms of capitalist alienation, this argument about a fundamental schism between the accelerating cycle time of commerce and the 'natural' time of organic life becomes inviting. The myth of organic time beckons because it offers the prospect of achieving a form of spiritual salvation.


Speed: conquering time & space

Representing time < Previous

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey