Productive labor - a short note

From: Jurriaan Bendien (andromeda246@HETNET.NL)
Date: Fri May 21 2004 - 12:25:40 EDT

A concept of productive work is necessarily implied by Marx through the
distinction between newly created value and conserved value, thus, the
distinction pertains to that labour which creates new, additional value, and
labour which only conserves or circulates value, and the relationship
between those. In considering new value, involved is both a procedure
for netting the new social product in an accounting period, and a
consideration of who appropriates this new value from whom.
Because of the enormous growth of capital transactions
outside the sphere of production, the distinction between new value and
conserved value is often much more difficult to draw, and this impacts
on the way we understand productive labour.

Thus, the concept of productive work has important implications for defining
the boundaries of the sphere of production itself, and the boundaries of
commodity production, what the attributes of a commodity are, as an object
which can satisfy a human need, to which private property rights can be
attached and exchanged. A number of necessary distinctions ought to be made,
required to understand the historical evolution of the capitalist mode of
production and the specifically capitalist division of labour:

- commodity production versus other production
- production versus circulation (exchange)
- production for profit versus non-profit production
- productive consumption versus unproductive consumption
- material (tangible) production versus non-material production
- production of use-values versus production of exchange-values
- production of value, versus creation of revenue
- production of income versus distribution of income
- production versus destruction

These distinction reflect many important social contradictions of the
capitalist mode of production. We could add to this list nowadays, the
distinction between relations of communication and relations of exchange.
If, however, we just approach that
problem via a statistical classificatory exercise, we may not solve it
conceptually, it must be understood dynamically, i.e. in movement, i.e. it's
really ultimately about the dialectics of use-value and exchange-value, and
how this affects the transformation or modification of the social division
of labour by the specifically capitalist mode of production, and the
output-orientation  of the production process. This point is not well
understood among Marxists. As a result, the services sector and its
socio-economic significance are not really understood either. Marx paid
little attention to industrial services, partly because he thought that
capitalism would tend to convert services increasingly into mass
reproducible commodities, and partly because the services are often either
really goods, or directly contribute to the production of goods. The real
division of labor and
organisation of labour is often hidden by statistical classifications;
businesspeople prefer to talk about "product chains".

To give some examples of the complexity of the topic:

(1) if surplus-labour has been performed, but the output has not been sold,
then no surplus-value is realised and therefore, as far as the owner of
capital is concerned, the work wasn't productive in any transactional sense;
(2) a worker may perform both productive and non-productive activities in
one job.
(3) surplus-value can be claimed today in respect of (productive)
surplus-labour expected to be performed in the future.

Generally, Marx adopted the criterion for social accounting purposes, that
if a labour function (a task) is itself unproductive, then if this task,
previously shared by many different workers, becomes the specialised
function of one worker who has this as a job, which helps generate
surplus-value for the owner of capital, then the function itself does not
thereby become productive - but whether this theorem is always correct is a
moot point, it must be understood dialectically, which in a few cases could
be very difficult. The real issue however is to understand whether value is
conserved, or newly created, i.e. how surplus-labor corresponds to the new

Five aspects to understand about the topic, I think, are that:

(1) the concept of productive work should not be viewed as static,
cut-and-dried, fixed and eternal, but historically and developmentally, i.e.
it is historically defined according to the real development of the social
and technical division of labour, the real development of real capitalist
societies. Only empirical analysis can reveal what the real magnitudes are
and what the class relationship is. '

(2) the definition or determination of productive work itself is never
neutral but subject to a contest between social
classes, and the only "objective" definition, is a definition in terms of
what work is conducive to the expansion of the capitalist mode of production
as a whole, the expansion of the mass (volume) of surplus-value, but
acquiring precision here requires an empirical analysis. If real production
stagnates while financial claims to the social product multiply, then you
can say that the capitalist mode of production is in decline, but saying
that in itself doesn't of course resolve the conceptual problem.

(3) whether or not work has been productive or not can really be known only
a posteriori in capitalist society, because the commodity-producing living
labour, in contrast to labour power, is in most cases definitely valued in
the market only after it has been performed when its product (a good or
service) is exchanged and paid for.

(4) The imperialist division of work creates an international hierarchy of
occupational functions, concentrating financial and technical service
functions in the imperialist countries, and material production in the
dominated  countries. In addition, that hierarchy is replicated within the
developed countries themselves. At the top, there are wellpaid permanent
functions by qualified workers, in the middle lower-paid permanent and
contract jobs, and at the bottom parttime, casual and unpaid jobs.

(5) The growth of the economic significance of services reflects the growth
of productivity in the sphere of material production of goods, i.e. it is
itself an expression of increased material wealth and higher educational
levels. Services include both production tasks and exchange tasks.

Labour-value is "lodged in commodities and services exchanged for money (a
commodity is a tradeable object, which could be a good or defined service;
in the case of a "true" service, the production and consumption of the
service in Marx's sense are simultaneous), and thus we must be able to
distinguish between the total commodity product, and financial claims on
this product. If we start saying, for example, that financial claims on the
total commodity product are themselves part of the commodity product, then
this just confuses things, because then we conflate financial claims on
material wealth, with the real increase in real material wealth, and we
confuse production and exchange.

When we seek to establish the real value of the social product (the value
product) in a Marxian sense, we must distinguish the constant capital that
buys labour-time performed for the purpose of implementing financial
transactions that facilitate the circulation of the product, and ensuring
that those financial transactions will occur in a regulated way. This type
of labour is unproductive macroeconomically in the sense that it relates to
functions which have to do purely with

(1) the existence of class society,
(2) the existence and securing private property relations,
(3) financial transactions,
(4) competitive processes
(5) insurance and safety

Generally, the owner of production capital looks at productive labour from
the point of view of whether this labour is an impost on production, a
necessary cost, or a faux frais of production, which does not directly add
value to the commodity product that is the source of surplus-value, or
whether it directly does add value to this tangible output of the
enterprise. This may be difficult to determine by management even at the
enterprise level prior to the payment upon sale of output. But from the
standpoint of society as a whole, from the standpoint of total social
capital, the labour regarded as productive micro-economically may not be
regarded as productive, i.e. a variable capital may be a circulating
constant capital from the social point of view. This much is necessarily
implied by Marx's premiss that no additional value is added through the
process of exchange itself (I'm not talking about physical transportation
and storage of perishables etc. here, just about financial transactions).

From the point of view of the working class under capitalism, the question
is not whether the labour produces surplus-value or not, it is (1)whether or
not this labour represents a net addition to the tangible material wealth,
which, as we know, has acquired the value form under capitalism, and (2)
whether it is socially useful labour. If the labour just consists in
producing financial claims to products, then whereas micro-economically this
may appear productive, insofar as it generates surplus-value for owners of
capital, it isn't productive from a macro-economic point of view. It's just
that, if the proportion of service labour and financial parasitism grows,
and the sophistication of means of communication increases, then culturally
it becomes much more difficult to make the distinction in a credible and
precise way. Even so, it is perfectly clear in 95% of cases what productive
labour is. In 5% of cases it's a bit blurry.

In a real military war, where the survival of society is at stake, the
dispute is usually resolved jolly quickly, all blurriness vanishes, and the
difference between what is production and what is exchange asserts itself
with a vengeance; people realise jolly quickly that the whole edifice of
financial claims on the tangible social product, and the labour that
specifically maintains these claims, is dependent upon real material
production of tangible goods and services in which value is lodged, and not
vice versa. The uneven development of capitalism on a world scale, producing
extremes in the social division of labour, may mystify this, but a real war
sorts it out the conceptual distinction very quickly.

In a socialist society, the allocation of human labour-time in the economy,
required to sustain and develop human life, would be evaluated and decided
upon primarily according to

(1) whether the labour promotes an increase in real material wealth,
(2) whether it is socially useful,
(3) whether it is ecologically responsible,
(4) whether it promotes human satisfaction and development
(5) whether it promotes or destroys human health and wellbeing.

But if this is to be done correctly, we cannot just vent
banalities about productive labor, we really need to understand and
separate out empirically those functions in the technical and social
division of labour which are a legacy of capitalist mismanagement
and bureaucracy, and those which are genuinely necessary and
technically indispensable.

Based on these sorts of considerations, I would not throw out the critical
concept of productive and non-productive labour, precisely because it is
part of the critique of capitalism that

(1) it devotes an increasing portion of society's labour-time to activities
which either do not add to material wealth, inhibit this, do not really
conserve it, or in fact reduce material wealth (destroy it), and

(2) it modifies the social and technical division of labour, according
to private profit-oriented conceptions of productive labour, which create
occupations which are technically unnecessary, alienating, harmful or
stultifying for human beings, without being "productive" in any other way
than expanding the volume of surplus-value or maintaining the production of

Be that as it may, the real problem is that people quibble about the
definition of productive labour instead in investigating the division of'
labor and the social organisation of labor empirically. Marx did not
have the last word to say on the topic, nor could he, since the
capitalist modification of the division of labor changes the definition
of what is productive and what is not.

In the final analysis, work is not "naturally productive", both in the sense
that it takes work to make work productive, and that
productive work depends on tools and techniques (means of production) to be
productive. Thus, we should distinguish between a transhistorical concept of
productive labour, and a specifically capitalist concept of productive
labour. The transhistorical concept is that the producer must be able to
create a product larger than is required to sustain and reproduce the
labour-power of that producer over time, i.e. a magnitude greater than the
equivalent of his means of subsistence. In other words, he must be able to
perform surplus- labour. The specifically capitalist concept is that the
work creates surplus-value which is privately appropriated upon realisation
in exchange, in virtue of capital ownership and command over the labor of
others. The two concepts may not imply each other; thus, in the case of
slave labour, forced labour or super-exploitation, the producer becomes
expendable in the relentless pursuit of surplus-value.


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