[OPE-L:5687] Re: productive and unproductive labor

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Thu, 6 Nov 1997 18:59:12 -0500 (EST)

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On Tue, 4 Nov 1997, Michael Williams wrote:

> A commodity is produced in the middle of a large desert. All of its
> consumers are on the periphery. I cannot see the grounds for
> maintaining a distinction between the labour that gets the commodities
> as far as the factory gate, and that which takes it the rest of the
> way to the retail outlets for the consumers to purchase.

There is no such distintion in Marx, either, and that is not
what Fred is saying. Physical transportation of commodities
to the point of sale is productive labour. See (the
little-read) vol. II of Capital.

> My worry is about the labour of trade, transportation, distribution
> and finance that facilitates commodity circulation (in a sense not
> dissimilar than that in which the labour that produced the commodity
> as product 'facilitates' its circulation as a commodity), and takes
> place under capitalist relations of production.

This is (from the standpoint of what Marx wrote, at any
rate) a conflation. Transport is productive, but labour
that is purely associated eith the transfer of property
titles is, says Marx, unproductive.

More generally, as I see it Marx makes two "cuts" among the
various labours performed in capitalist society. First, he
distinguishes between labour performed within capitalist
relations of production, for wages and in the pursuit of
profit for the employer, and other labours (of the
self-employed, or of the personal servants of the capitalist
class). Only the former are in the running as candidates
for the "productive" designation. Then he makes a second
cut, saying, in effect, that to be employed within a
capitalist enterprise, to be paid a wage, and to contribute
to the profitability of one's employer is not enough to
count as productive (of surplus value): one must also
satisfy the (negative) criterion that one's work is not
purely to do with the transfer of property titles.
Transport workers are OK, so to speak; sales clerks are not.

Personally, I'm a little uneasy about this (i.e. Marx's
second distinction). The transfer of property titles is,
IMO, at least in part, a socially specific form of a
trans-historical necessity, namely the recording of the
disposition of the product among various users -- an
informational function that is a necessity (in some form or
other) under any mode of production. I'm not quite as sure
as Fred that Marx is making a distinction that does not
depend on a presumed contrast with socialism (where the
transfer of property titles would not be required); nor am I
quite sure that the presumed contrast is correct.

Like Michael, I'm not stating a "position" here, but airing
a half-formed doubt that I have harboured for a while.

Allin Cottrell.