Caleb Crain does a Marxist analysis of Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time. The premise of the movie is that people exchange, rather violently, time rather than money. In order to live past the age of 26 it’s necessary to acquire additional time. Once he understood the economic of the film’s world, Crain writes,
I found myself thinking, Marx would love this shit. Thoreau once famously asserted that he could walk as fast as a locomotive, so long as when you calculated the locomotive’s speed you added to the denominator the time it cost to earn the money for the ticket, and Thoreauvians will particularly enjoy the scene where a character is asked to choose between a bus ride that costs two hours and a walk that will take a hundred and twenty minutes.
Crain is referring to Marx’s theory of commodity exchange, or at least part of it. Crain explains, “Marx believed that the uniformity of time underlay the fungibility of money; the time it took to make a commodity was, according to his theory, the basis of its value in the marketplace.”
Not to be too nitpicky, but Marx came up with the idea of equal labor time (or to be more precise, socially-necessary labor time) to explain the second of two forms of value. The first is use value, which is the value of an object in its use. That’s pretty straightforward. The second is exchange value, which is where the complications set in. For Marx, only socially-necessary labor time can be equally exchanged in the way In Time refers to it. Socially-necessary labor time is the time spent constructing something for its creator’s use. Say it takes four hours to create a wheelbarrow to use in a garden. But say that same person started cranking out wheelbarrows beyond what he needs to use. The time spent is surplus labor time. This labor time can be exchanged for money, the primary medium of exchange value.
Except in In Time. The whole plot of the film turns on the exchange value of time, and its weirdnesses can be found in the process of exchanging labor value and the social stratification that emerges. Even reduced to its barest essentials, labor value for Marx is never innocent, never a pure value that can be traded equally. Writing in Specters of Marx, Derrida reminds us, “as soon as there is production, there is fetishism: idealization, autonomization and automatization, dematerialization and spectral incorporation, mourning work coextensive with all work, and so forth.” Doesn’t this also sound like a movie?