[OPE-L:3506] Productive and Unproductive Labour

S.Mohun (S.Mohun@qmw.ac.uk)
Wed, 23 Oct 1996 02:23:50 -0700 (PDT)

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I've raised the topic of productive and unproductive labour a long time ago,
but there were no takers (although It has sort of surfaced in the discussion
of prison guards recently). Anyway, I want to try again, perhaps in a more
focussed manner. In my opinion, the topic is central to Marx's account of a
capitalist economy; it generates for some the most acrimonious and for
others the most dismissive discussion; it is the subject of ridicule by the
neoclassical mainstream (at least in my experience in the UK); it is the
hardest concept to work with empirically; and so on.

The way I want to raise the issue has a bearing on a number of recent
discussions. I will put the issue in a non-TSS way, but any reformulations
that TSSers come up with will, I think, run straght into the same problems.

Consider the l vector in the standard value equations. This refers to
'value-creating labour-power hired'.
Suppose all labour is productive.
Now the l vector in the price of production equations refers to hours of
labour worked, which when multiplied by the wage gives the wage cost of
production. On the face of it, this is not the same l vector.
Lipietz (in JET82) talks of a tensor of exploitation which converts the one
l vector into the other. Duncan in his book points to the problem, but is
prepared to assume an underlying class struggle which converts hours of
labour-power hired into the same number of hours worked.
Suppose we go along with some such assumption.

Now suppose some labour is unproductive.
The l vector in the standard value equations, as before, refers to
'value-creating labour-power hired'.
But in the price of production equations the labour cost to the firm must
presumably be both the cost of productive and the cost of unproductive
labour, such labours being undifferentiated in cost terms to the firm.
How then do we understand prices of production in firms which employ both
productive and unproductive labour?
As transformed value? But if unproductive labour costs are omitted, such a
definition bears no relation to long run supply price, or to a centre of
gravity around which market prices fluctuate, or to a lower level of
abstraction as theory attempts to comprehend the world.
And what of firms which are wholly unproductive of value, such as commercial
and financial capitals, which do not expand value themselves but whose
operations are essential to valorize value in an M-C-M' circuit? What of
their prices?

Anybody prepared to bite?

Also seeking clarity,

Simon Mohun,
Dept of Economics,
Queen Mary and Westfield College,
Mile End Road,
London E1 4NS,
Telephone: 0171-975-5089
Fax: 0181-983-3580