Re: [OPE] "Parasitism"

Date: Thu Feb 19 2009 - 07:32:01 EST

Paul (19/02/09) suggested that "some of the formulations of productive labour coming up in the [current] debate" may not be particularly helpful in arriving at a relevant way of identifying  applications of labour which are in some significant way especially valuable to the community.
As Paul points out, Adam Smith was attempting to distinguish between labour which he understood to be making a positive contribution to the growth potential of the economy, and labour which diverted resources away from accumulation and expansion of the economy to other (though not necessarily trivial or useless) applications. Smith however got himself into some difficulty in attempting to make clear just what he meant by 'productive labour' - instead of  being content with an explanation in general terms of what he saw as the strategic role of productive labour, he got himself bogged down in attempting to devise precise criteria by which activities could be classified as productive or unproductive. The resulting inconsistencies and ambiguities served only to bamboozle subsequent generations. I think we should take the point that narrow, 'mechanical' definitions of productive labour - in terms of the durability or materiality or vendibility of
 the product, or profitability of the operation - are always likely to pose conundrums;  it may be more rewarding to assess (while taking into account the particular circumstances) an activity in terms of a broader (fundamental) criterion. For  instance, in the Smith context of economic progress, labour might be deemed productive if the activity on which it is engaged - never mind whether the product is a physical commodity or a service, or indeed whether the activity yields surplus value to a capitalist employer or not - makes a necessary contribution to the maintenance and growth of the productive capabilities of the economy.  
Slainte mhath!

--- On Thu, 19/2/09, Paul Cockshott <> wrote:

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Subject: Re: [OPE] "Parasitism"
To: "Outline on Political Economy mailing list" <>
Date: Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 9:48 AM

On this thread I would like to integrate what Jurrian wrote about the former
prime minister
of new Zealand.
I recall hearing him speak in Scotland in the early 80s when he used the
concept of
productive and unproductive labour to justify his program. He was basically
saying that
the state sector was unproductive, and that if the size of the unproductive
sector got
too big it would threaten the economy as a whole, and thus had to be cut back.

I dont know if he had read Smith himself or whether he got it from Bacon and
Eltis or
from some popularisation of them, but there the was both truth and falsehood in
argument and one needs to be able to counter these arguments theoretically and
I fear that some of the formulations of unproductive labour comming up in the
fail to do that.

Smith was addressing a real problem when he raised the concept -- the problem
of the
way the state, the church, the legal professions and an idle and licentious
drained resources from the economy and held back economic development. In
hands the concept had a critical edge. But there were certain ambiguities in
it which later
generations of bourgeois economists could use in a semi appologetic way. In
his notion of productive labour as that from which a vendible product issued,
could be
re-interpreted as simply saying that what the private sector did was productive
what the public sector did was unproductive.

Marxist authors during the latter part of the 20th century ( starting I think
with Gillman )
returned the concept to its critical roots by pointing out that some sections
of activity
in the national accounts ( advertising, banking services, legal services )
which were
performed by the private sector should actually be viewed as the recipients of
payments from the really productive sector.

Thus when, in the late 70s and 80s there came pressure to cut public
expenditure for
the benefit of the private sector, justified on the grounds either of Bacon and
Eltis's work
or on the grounds of 'crowding out', one left wing response was to say:
yes, there is
too much unproductive labour, but the sections of unproductive labour that
should be
cut are things like banking and advertising rather than healthcare or

My concern has been to theorise the issue in a way that is amenable to
politics and which is critical of the vendible commodity - private is good -
I feel that at times, what Paula has been saying has veered towards the
vendible commodity
interpretation, which does not lend itself to justifying progressive policies.

We must remember the function of political economy is what it says --
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