[OPE] MIM, Guidelines on studying unproductive labor

From: glevy@pratt.edu
Date: Tue Feb 26 2008 - 10:15:04 EST

Of interest, given our recent discussion of this topic.
solidarity, Jerry


Guidelines on studying unproductive labor 

a.. See also another article criticizing the destruction of
Marxism by another organization on the question of unproductive labor 
We keep getting the same questions over and over again on unproductive
labor. At some point we are going to achieve practical guidelines that
people feel they can follow to get this question right. We have made much
progress in our journey to understand Marx, but maybe we can make some

Difficulties reading and digesting Marx 

First we want to understand the difficulties in reading Marx. 

1. Marx had a long concentration span. What he wrote in the
"Grundrisse" and "Theories of Surplus Value" on
unproductive labor was often in reaction to what others were saying. He
restates what others are saying and then often much later gets back to
what he thinks. He tries to humor what others are saying, even if only at
the margin and in a very specific context. 

2. At the margin,
Marx tried to use anything on the subject of unproductive labor as
something that could potentially illustrate a principle. We have to
understand that if Marx uses an example, it does not mean he believes that
example is concretely the same for all times and places. We should read
Marx for illustrations of principles. We should not pretend that
everything Marx saw in his day is the same today. Even what Marx saw in
his day, he used to illustrate principles. Conditions change but methods
and some theoretical principles may be the same. 

3. Marx did
respect some bourgeois academics more than others. On unproductive labor,
he made it clear he'd rather stick with Adam Smith than venture into the
territory of many other writers on the subject. So it's all relative. Adam
Smith looks like gold on the topic when there is so much dreck. Obviously
that can be confusing to the proletarian used to thinking of Adam Smith as
bourgeois theorist of bourgeois theorists. 

4. Marx was often


1. Marx's theory of
surplus-value and productive labor is meant to be specific to capitalism
and its economic relations. If you are talking about something that was
done under feudalism or slavery by ordinary people, not the
proto-bourgeoisie, then that's a good guideline that you are not talking
about productive labor. 

Example--there were priests, army and
security guards under feudalism too. The economic relations in hiring for
these people did not change. Many professions did not come under new
business dynamics. So ask yourself: "did this profession or business
work this way under slavery and feudalism too?" If so, it's not
productive labor. 

Related to this, if the work done is not a
commodity the way labor products are under capitalism, then the work is
not productive labor. M-C....C'-M' is distinctive to capitalism and we can
learn about that from reading Marx's Capital or the Fundamentals of
Political Economy published in Shanghai under Mao. The process
M-C....C'-M' does not characterize other non-capitalist time periods. If
"profit" refers to this formula then "making a profit"
characterizes capitalism, but most people use the word "profit"
more loosely. "Profit" is a necessary but not sufficient
condition for existence of productive labor. 

2. Marx's firmest
guideline on unproductive versus productive labor once we have situated
ourselves in capitalism is the distinction between capital and revenue. To
this day, business school students learn the difference between capital
(stock) and revenue (flow). 

There are countless things that a
capitalist does in business. Ordinarily, whatever a capitalist or any rich
persyn does comes from revenue. To employ a stock of wealth, something
special has to come up for the capitalist. He has to see a special
business opportunity to make him put a stock of wealth at risk instead of
just consuming this or that out of revenue. 

If there is NO or
LITTLE capital at risk, there is no productive labor hiring--even if
someone is making a "profit." So ask yourself: "is there
capital at risk, why or why not?" 

3. If you live in an
imperialist country, and you are looking at a business without monopolies,
chances are good you have found a service-sector hospitable to the
petty-bourgeoisie and there is no productive labor going on. Where there
is productive labor typical of capitalism going on, as Lenin pointed out,
monopolies tend to form. If not, you are looking at something that is not
really most characteristic of capitalism but which can go grow because of
parasitism generated by imperialism. So for example, priests can be hired
more and better than before, because of the general parasitism of the
society, not because there is some new way of passing the plate. Ask
yourself: "are monopolies formed or forming in this business or
profession? How did this business escape monopoly ownership?" 

Discussion of guidelines with examples 


Marx ridiculed the idea that thieves make profit and therefore are
productive laborers. "Profit" is a good first approximation
"from the point of view of the capitalist," but it is not what
makes someone a "productive laborer" according to Marx. Thieves
existed under feudalism to enrich themselves. Nothing is new about them.
We can dismiss them under rule number one as unproductive sector. 


As of yet, we have no transporter beams like in
"Star Trek." So, China is not able to manufacture our pizzas for
us and transport them to us fresh and hot. There are certain businesses
that are thus naturally protected from competition. 

China manufacture pizzas? Of course. Would that possibly be productive
labor? Yes. Why does it not happen? The reason it does not happen has to
do with the peculiar character of service. 

We want our pizzas
fresh and hot. Dominoes Pizza or Pizza Hut are in fact attempting to
monopolize the pizza business. However, there are still countless
independent pizza outlets. The reason is that putting capital at risk in
the pizza business only goes so far in establishing dominance in the
business. Pizza is an in-between thing--monopolies are trying to take hold
but have thus far gotten only so far. Pizza chains can work out good deals
on purchase of cheese and sauce. They can also manufacture dough. These
areas of the business are subject to productive labor considerations.
Other areas are not so subject to productive labor considerations.
Delivery for example--investing capital is not usually going to make
delivery faster. Joe Independent can send someone on a bike or in a car
and so can Dominoes. Now, IF Dominoes Pizza could afford to install
transporter beams and independent pizza owners could not afford it,
because it required large amounts of capital to install advanced transport
mechanisms, then we might see that the independent pizza business
disappear. That would be an example where productive labor leads to

On the other hand, Joe Independent pizza-maker might
be an astute business persyn and might say, "OK, I cannot compete
with the monopolies in this area and that area. However, pizza transport
is not my 'core' business. Making the tastiest recipe in the neighborhood
is." So then Joe might form an alliance with a transport company
which does own the expensive transporter beam equipment. Joe may pay for
the use of that equipment out of revenue and if his recipe is a hit, he
may beat the monopoly pizza-companies in his neighborhood. So the whole
topic has to do with the question: "what is the real nature of the
pizza business? What matters?" 

There is some productive
labor in the pizza business. It has an in-between character. The
petty-bourgeoisie is still holding out fine though, without productive
labor under its control in the pizza business. 

Hair cuts and
shoe shines 

Hair cuts and shoe shines are not commodities.
People paid for them under feudalism too, the same way. 

is no monopoly hair-cut company. Why? Because it does not pay. In the last
40 years, the most significant change in the business may have been the
improvement of hair dryers. However, hair dryers have improved so that
less capital is involved in barbershops than before. Hair dryers used to
be a rare kind of equipment that people would not own at home. 

Capitalists have found no way to invest capital and improve the basic
experience in hair cutting. Someone raises a pair of scissors or a shaving
blade and that is how it has been for hundreds of years. 

Attempts at monopolizing barber shops are centered on using them as
outlets for hair product sales on the side--shampoo etc. In all
businesses, there is also the idea of monopolizing the advertising
connected, but that leads to the newspaper, radio and tv business, another
business entirely. So again, there is a question as with pizza, "what
is the business here?" We are answering the original question, not
making up new ones, so we are not going to talk about the advertising or
hair color products business. 

Likewise with shoe shines. No
capitalist has invented a machine in which say 200 gentlemen step up and
simultaneously have their shoes shined. Shoe shining is still a service
difficult to make into a commodity, something where stored capital can
make a difference. 

There is no investment opportunity for the
capitalist; thus we can be sure there is no productive labor going on in
barber shops and shoe shining. 


Not all
singers are the same. They have differing economic relations behind them.
Today, the vast majority of professional singers are petty-bourgeoisie in
the imperialist countries. Again, making a "profit" is not
adequate. Doctors, lawyers--other typical members of the petty-bourgeoisie
make "profit." 

Were there musicians and singers
under feudalism for wedding parties and the like and were they hired the
same way? Yes. Rule number one eliminates most professional singers from
being considered productive labor. 

Is there really capital
involved in playing/singing at the high school prom, the wedding or the
bar --not enough that the petty-bourgeoisie is not in control. 

What about the monopolies like Sony? That is a good question. Here we
suspect if we scrutinize, maybe we will find some singers in productive

But then we have to ask "what the hell business is
SONY?" Who needed the idea of rock stars? Was it not the advertising
business known as radio? Is the rock star productive labor, because
capital goes into the rock star business? Would there be a rock star
without radio or the like communications? So if not, "what is the
real business here?" Advertising or music? If it is music, why does
Britney Spears and the like have to be sexy? 

This is an
example where monopoly has developed to the point where it's obvious the
rock star is a capitalist, not productive laborer. The pay of the rock
star is in the means of production or access to them. Some of the kiss-ass
parties are recruiting rock stars and baseball players and change their
line to see them as "workers" "exploited" by
"owners." This is a crock of shit on the question of
appropriation of labor and not worth examining along these lines. There
would be too much to sort out. If Lee Iacocca bangs on some hubcabs on
some Chryslers, it does not illuminate much to say he is a productive

If a singer is in a niche that sells but not so well
that it makes the singer a capitalist, then if that singer has capital
invested in machinery and CDs (by someone), then that singer could be
productive labor. Even in this case, MIM has considerable doubt, because
the productive labor goes into manufacturing the CDs. What the singer does
is the same as it has been under feudalism. 

Ordinarily, the
singer is a petty-bourgeois with his own means of production. That's why
Marx raised the case of non-competition where it pays to hire singers not
to sing. If such a situation arises, and putting more capital into hiring
people not to sing works, then there is the appearance of productive labor
in some regards, but it could also be just a matter of "one
capitalist kills many," the capitalist swallowing up the

Reminders as conclusions 

Marx did not discuss "productive labor" as a lifestyle
recommendation. He rather saw it as a "curse" to produce
surplus-value for the capitalist. 

2. Marx does not think at
the individual level of the capitalist. Attempts to dumb down and pass off
Marx that way are called "vulgar Marxism." 

3. In the
imperialist countries we can talk about monopoly capitalist companies that
may illustrate the whole process of production from extraction of raw
materials to sales. What matters then is the monopoly capitalists' overall
profit or the class's overall profit. 

4. We study productive
and unproductive labor for a number of reasons. 
a. The distinction
helps us predict under what circumstances there will be a profit crisis
and possibly a business cycle. 
b. The distinction gives us yet
another way to verify the class structure empirically. 
c. The
distinction helps us orient ourselves toward abolishing exploitation and
helps with regard to problems to look out for. 

ope mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Feb 29 2008 - 00:00:03 EST