[OPE-L:5653] Re: labor process and R&D labor

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Sun, 26 Oct 1997 12:39:30 +0000

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IMHO there is a flaw at the centre of modern discussions of the
productive-unproductive labour distinction, that is hanging over
this discussion of the location of R&D labour, as well as a recent
exchnage on the role of advertising labour..

For Marx (textual evidence will be dug out if necessary in response
to disagreement) productive labour was that productive of *value*.
It is, IMO, clear that we cannot restrict the terms 'commodity' to
the products of the agricultural + manufacturing sectors: the
(multifarious) service sectors also produce commodities.

It follows that it is generally true neither that what is
'unproductive' in the technical sense is necessarily 'wasteful' in
some humanitarian sense; nor that what is 'productive' for capital
is in any humanitarian sense, necessarily socially useful or
desirable. A number of political points rest on disentangling the
implicit conflation of 'productivity' wrt value from
trans-historical social desirability (that makes its alienated and
distorted appearance in the bourgeois epoch only under the category
of 'use-value'):

A. It is inappropriate for socialists to hanker after some golden
era of capitalism when there were many more 'real' jobs in
manufacturing (often suitable for 'real men', ... but that is another
story), as opposed to inadequate service sector jobs.

B. It is inappropriate for socialists to yearn for some
non-capitalist future in which some new version of such 'real jobs'
will once again become dominant.

[These yearnings are not some figment of my imagination: the left of
the labour movement in the UK has often exhibited such romantic
[ More theoretically, I would suggest that Baran & Sweezy's
'potential economic surplus', or at least the uses to which it has
been put, has tended to conflate the distinction between what is
'wasteful' about capitalism in some humanitarian sense and what is
'unproductive' for capital.]

The point is that what will be socially useful and desirable work
under socialism and communism has little to do with productive labour
under capitalism. These questions are, if you like, in the bourgeois
epoch, orientated around 'use-values'; and more generally
(trans-historically) around the creation of socially useful objects
(tangible or not).

But there are also a number of conceptual points, central to the
understanding of value creation, that seem to rest on the
same conflation:

A. All kinds of labour in sectors concerned primarily with
circulation (in distribution, marketing, financial services, etc)
that may legitimately be seen as socially wasteful in some
trans-historical sense are not thereby necessarily 'unproductive' in
Marx's sense. First of all they may contribute to the production of
commodities, and thus, putatively, to the creation of surplus value.
The inputs and outputs in these sectors are regulated by the
value-form (reproduced more concretely by a system of markets). And
secondly, whether they produce commodities or not, these sectors
typically are necessary to the reproduction of the capitalist
economic system as a commodity system (without which value production
would not be the driving force of the epoch).

B. If they are *only* useful for this, it is appropriate to view them
as socially wasteful in some trans-historical sense. But for
capitalism, the distinction between labour that makes a product and
labour that makes the product a commodity cannot easily be mapped
onto a distinction between labour *productive* of value and labour
*unproductive* of value - for value production we need commodity
production, for which both kinds of labour are necessary.

To try to escape between the horns of the dilemma by saying that
circulatory labour is a 'cost' which is to be minimized doesn't work:
so is the product producing labour (however contradictory that is for
capitalist macrodynamics).

In the debates around 'domestic' and 'state' labour in the 1970s,
the term 'indirectly productive' labour emerged for a while. But even
this 'third way' doesn't seem right - surely if labour is necessary
to the production of value, then it is productive? Of course,
domestic and state labour may deserve some special term because they
are not regulated directly by market mechanisms (the value-form). But
this is not true for the allegedly 'unproductive' labour that is
regulated by the value form, being fully located in the market system
(ie most of it): it is necessary to the production of commodities,
and often itself issues in the commodity form.

C. All this tends to make me question the import of the
productive/unproductive labour distinction. As ever, Marxists can
approach the problem in two broad ways:
1. By revisiting Marx's own texts on the matter to find out what we
can make of them: exactly what role does the distinction play in
Marx? does the logic of his system *need* the distinction? etc... .
2. By continued theoretical and empirical work in contemporary
Marxism: can we make the distinction coherent, in the light of 21st
century capitalism? can it be operationalized empirically? if not is
that because it lacks real existence, or only because of measurement
or data-collection problems? does it make any significant difference
to our quantitative modelling? etc.

OPE-L has often exhibited a tension between these two
avenues of on-going research. IMHO this tension has mostly been
creative, especially if we can restrain ourselves from putting down
work in the avenue that we ourselves do not presently favour.

Any comments?
"Books are Weapons"

Dr Michael Williams
Department of Economics Home:
School of Social Sciences 26 Glenwood Avenue
De Montfort University Southampton
Hammerwood Gate SO16 3QA
Kents Hill
Milton Keynes
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