the time economy

Image: Francesco Ungaro


The strength of Marxist theory was to lay the foundation of social value in the employment of time.

According to systems theory, the economy is an autopoietic social system[I] whose middle (medium) is the job, that is, the job of time.[ii] The middle employment distinction for the economy is between free/busy time. This conception makes systems theory compatible with Marxist theory, as it is possible to prove that, for Karl Marx, “work” (work) as the foundation of the economy is basically a temporal variable (hours worked).[iii]

However, Marx sees capitalism as a system whose main form is the commodity (and not money, which is just one of the “metamorphoses” of the commodity). The commodity for Marx is a two-sided form. The inside (capitalist) is the “exchange value”; the outside (non-capitalist) side is “use value”. Thus, we understand technical production in Marx as an interface between the capitalist system and the “outside world” of the capitalist system, which is the lifeworld of the worker, since technique is what regulates the use values ​​of produced objects. Karl Marx also associated use value with time through its “consumption”, but with a different temporality.

According to the ideology of the capitalist system, all “exchange value” (the internal side of the commodity form) corresponds to the exchange of equivalents. The equivalence of exchanges is the main classical argument for the market's tendency towards economic equilibrium and the fairness of transactions. good part of The capital endeavors to disprove this thesis. That is why Marx elaborates the concept of “surplus value”, pointing out precisely that there is no equivalence in the exchanges of the capitalist system.

The reason is that “time” is a variable that does not allow exchange equivalence. According to the second law of thermodynamics, time does not admit reversibility, which means that it “is not conserved”; therefore, capitalism as an economic system based on the employment of time cannot be based on an exchange of equivalents. Marx then proves the “falsehood” of the liberal thesis of economic equilibrium through the non-equivalence of exchanges.

Surplus value is understood in Marx in an absolute way (direct exploitation of labor) or relative (exploitation through labor productivity) by absorbing the value of the hours actually worked by the worker. This value reflects the resolution between “free/busy time” observed by the worker's side (that is, by the lifeworld side). However, the capitalist system only recognizes the commodity and its respective “metamorphoses” as its basic forms (BELLUZZO, 2013). As the exchange value is assumed to be the same from production to consumption, the temporal question internal to the system must be observed from another perspective, that of the capitalist.

The temporal question from the perspective of the capitalist system enters through the consideration of the duration of the economic circuit (DMP-M'-D'),[iv] that is, the circuit runs from capital investment (D) to its realization in cash (D'). It is in the interest of the capitalist to reduce the duration of this circuit as much as possible. At the same time, capital reinvestment (D'-D) starts another cycle. Therefore, the reduction in the duration of the individual circuit allows for a greater number of annual cycles. If a cycle used to last a year, but due to productive development it is now carried out in six months, this means that in the same period of one year when there was a cycle, there are now two. Reducing the circuit time by half doubled the frequency of the cycles. The greater the number of cycles, the greater the accumulated surplus value, as only after the complete completion of the circuit does the capitalist have a return on his investment (D').

However, this process has its “contradiction”. Exactly because the temporal reduction of a single circuit increases the frequency of the cycles, this generates an overload on the realization sector, which is basically the tertiary commercialization sector. It is this contradiction that generates the problems of “overproduction”. A cycle should not begin before another ends, and the overlapping of cycles saturates (“stresses”) the tertiary sector responsible for its realization.

In the current digital turn of the economy due to its “platformization”, the time duration of an individual cycle has been substantially reduced by the time savings obtained by the rationalization of digital logistics, and by the greater adequacy between supply and demand for products.[v] The consequence of this technical advance is the increase in the frequency of cycles, generating greater overloads in the retail sector.

It is possible to speculate that the increase in the intensity of the reproduction of cycles on the retail sector and its saturation is one of the main causes of the resurgence of the extreme right in global political terms, since this movement, as many studies demonstrate, is mainly composed of the so-called class “petty-bourgeois”, which is basically the merchant class. In the Brazilian case, the rise of the retail bourgeoisie in Bolsonarism is a notable and peaceful case. I will not develop this thesis in this article; however, I note that this sector of capitalism used to be the least privileged in terms of capital accumulation, but gained greater systemic importance precisely due to the increase in the frequency of production cycles.

Another foreseeable consequence of the increase in the “rotation” of cycles is simply what we mean by the “acceleration” of the system. The system is “running” faster. But this acceleration has an entropy cost that undermines the “global warming” issue. The faster the rotation of the capitalist system by the frequency of its production cycles, the greater the entropy dumped into the environment by this process. As the system is mostly “fed” by fossil fuels, this translates into global warming. Such is an ecological concern resulting from the acceleration of the system that it deserves an exclusive article.

What is important to point out here as a conclusion is that the capitalist system literally “consumes social time”. If the economy is indeed the organization of the use of time, as I argued at the beginning of this article, the continuous and more accelerated repetition of capitalist economic cycles maintains the permanent “occupation” of work time. Technical productivity should reduce busy time and increase workers' free time, but this is not what happens. Through absolute surplus value, free time is transformed into unemployment; due to relative surplus value (increased productivity), the worker's busy time remains the same while production increases.

Unemployment becomes the central problem of the economic system, as it means that society is not rationally allocating its temporal resources, which are finite as they are limited by the twenty-four hour day. The worker does not have the option of determining the form of his free time; all of his time is “occupied” by unemployment (that is, in the struggle for subsistence).

Karl Marx understood the so-called “realm of freedom” based on his conception of free time. Friedrich Engels famously said that freedom is the knowledge of necessity. The strength of Marxist theory was to place the foundation of social value on the use of time, that is, on the ability to distinguish between the time of freedom and that of necessity. For this reason, I maintain that, contrary to the “accelerationist” vogue, communism in the Marxist conception does not mean the unrestricted increase in social wealth and the fair distribution of the greatest productive surpluses through the control of the technical apparatus by the workers.

Communism would rather represent a society without surpluses, in which only what is necessary would be produced. In other words, it would be the reduction due to the gain in technical productivity of the “occupied time” in the lives of workers. The absence of unemployment in a communist society would be the social right of each worker to manage his free time, minimizing his busy time, that is, his socially necessary work time.

*William Preger He holds a PhD in Literature Theory from UERJ. He is author of Fables of Science: scientific discourse and speculative fables (Ed. Gramma).


BACHUR, John Paul. At the gates of the labyrinth. For a critical reception of Niklas Luhmann's social theory. Rio de Janeiro: Beco do Azougue, 2010.

BELLUZZO, Luiz Gonzaga. Capital and its metamorphoses. São Paulo: Unesp, 2013.

DANTAS, Marcos et al. The Value of Information. On how capital appropriates social work in the age of spectacle and the internet. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2022.

HARVEY, David. The capitalist production of space. São Paulo: Annablume, 2005.

LUHMANN, Niklas. Social Systems. Stanford, California. Stanford UniversityPress, 1995.

MENDONÇA DA SILVA, Edson. For a constitution of the capital category: comments on the metamorphoses and cycles of capital in Book II of Marx's Capital. Annals of the XXIII National Meeting of Political Economy, 2019. Available at

PREGER, William. From the circular economy to the ecology of networks: the comparative advantages of digital transformation for the Solidarity Economy. Annals of the XVIII Habermas Colloquium and IX Colloquium on the Philosophy of Information, 2022. Available in


[I] Social Systems Theory is a broad theory, generally attributed to the name of Talcott Parsons. Its autopoietic version refers particularly to the extensive work of Niklas Luhmann (1995).

[ii] This statement, by myself, is heterodox and controversial in the reception of Luhman's work. Luhmann characterizes the functional subsystem of the economy having as its medium money and the basic payment/non-payment distinction. In my view this would reduce the economic system to the monetary system. Additionally, I do not consider that the money variable is “autopoietic”, capable of self-reproduction. The characterization of the economic system as a monetary system makes Luhmann's work incompatible with the Marxist perspective. This relationship is studied by João Paulo Bacur (2010). Bachur considers functional differentiation and capitalism to be equivalent as historical descriptions. This article is a challenge to this position. If the medium of the economic system, however, is considered as the employment of time, in this case it becomes possible to reconcile Luhmann and Marx. The time variable is naturally self-referential, as the distinction for the use of time consumes time. Hence, it is possible to distinguish an autopoietic system based on the distinction between free and busy time, which is precisely the distinction of employment.

[iii] I develop this thesis in a recent article (PREGER, 2022). Although not explicitly, Marx considers work as the main variable of the economy in a different way than the Ricardian model on which he was based. For David Ricardo and the classical theory, work is observed by the first law of thermodynamics as a transformation of energy and, therefore, is a variable that is conserved throughout the production process. But Marx considers that work is rather a relation and not a substance. This relationship is temporal (based on hours worked). With this, Marx came to the conclusion that the value of work is not conserved in production. Despite not having made explicit the dependence of his conception on the second law of thermodynamics (which was still being formulated while Marx was writing his magnum opus), work is observed in Marxist theory as a source of social organization and, therefore, as a reduction of entropy. As you know, by the second law of thermodynamics, entropy is not conserved, it only increases. The work thus counteracts the tendency of entropy increase. Time is the entropy variable par excellence, as the more time passes, the greater the entropy.

[iv] Description of the classic circuit of Marxist theory, where D is the money invested in the acquisition of goods (M). P is the production process that performs the transformation M-M'. D' is the increase in money obtained in carrying out the circuit. D-D' is the transformation relative to surplus value, as capital accumulation. Check out MENDONÇA DA SILVA, 2019.

[v] Check the analysis by DANTAS, 2022 on the effects of digitalization of platforms on the reduction of the capitalist economic circuit.

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