RE: [OPE] Studying unproductive labor: CEPR report

From: Paul Cockshott (
Date: Sat Mar 01 2008 - 16:08:36 EST


I think this treatment of Marx's writings on productive labour is seriously anachronistic.

Marx was writing prior to the modern situation in which a significant part of the cost
of reproduction of labour power and the production of knowledge is socialised.

An analysis of what is productive in a social formation consisting only of capitalist
production and petty commodity production is not adequate for analysing a social formation
in which capitalist production interacts with a significant state sector, one which,
in countries like Sweden, actually accounts for of the order of half of national income.

The reproduction of relative surplus value is a societal phenomenon not something that
occurs in an individual workplace. Relative surplus value rises when the labour content
of the real wage is reduced. The capitalists who reap the rewards for this can be far
removed from those who made the original innovation. Those innovating do not even 
have to be capitalists. The improvements in european agriculure since the formation
of the EEC have significantly reduced the labour input into food production and
have thus contributed greatly to the production of surplus value on a social scale -
if only by releasing large quantities of labour to capitalist employment. But a large
part of the increas in productivity has taken place within petty commodity producing
farms. Clearly not all of it has, there is a capitalist agricultural sector but it 
is not the only sector that has contributed to the reduction in labour in food.
Modern European self employed farmers using modern machinery produces more food with
less labour than their grandparents did.

To understand relative surplus value one has to look at the I/O table for the economy
as a whole -- and not all of the economy is directly capitalist.

To know the labour value of any commodity one needs to know the labour
values throughout the basic sector, to know the rate of surplus value one
needs to know the labour content of the real wage, and that involves not
just the basic sector but also the entire wage goods sector.

Thus I think that attempting to understand the production of surplus value in the
economy today with an analysis that focuses just on individual employment relations
is mistaken.

Paul Cockshott
Dept of Computing Science
University of Glasgow
+44 141 330 1629

-----Original Message-----
From: on behalf of Jurriaan Bendien
Sent: Sat 3/1/2008 12:40 PM
To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
Subject: [OPE] Studying unproductive labor: CEPR report
Paul C wrote:

"State expenditure on education and research is generally productive, as it enters indirectly into the production of relative surplus value".

Maybe the transmisson of skills & knowledge from one generation to the next is productive in the general sense that it makes labour more productive, but at least for Marx the issue was just whether the education & research involved the employment of labour by capitalists to make profits. It is not an expenditure which is productive, but the labour which it buys that is productive. 

To the extent that state expenditure funds non-profit education and research, the labour involved is not capitalistically productive although it can reduce the costs to capitalist business associated with research and training (in the same way that banks can reduce circulation costs). Thus, in Marx's view, capitalists have an interest in privatizing those parts of research & education which can yield profits, and in adapting education & training to the current and future requirements of business. It is just that schoolchildren cannot normally be turned into employees. 

Thus, Marx opines that the same non-productive school operated on a non-profit basis, funded by tax money, can become a productive business when it is operated for profit and funded directly by consumers of education. But the transition from the one to the other (the ransformation of education into a commodity) can be a highly contradictory process, which is reflected in neoclassical economics, since education is viewed simultaneously as a consumption of education services, and as an investment in human capital.


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