Response to Freeman

jurriaan bendien (
Fri, 16 Jan 1998 20:19:58 +0100

Alan Freeman writes:

Productive labour is labour that makes value for the
> capitalists. Value takes the form of commodities. So, if you don't make
> commodities, you ain't productive. What's to worry?
Well I agree with Alan's basic approach, but the "worrying issues" are (1)
the concept of "commodity" itself (determining the frontiers of commodity
production), hence of the total commodity product, and (2) the presentation
and calculation of flows and ratios using national accounts data, in
relation to analytical objectives.
These issues seem to get a bit mixed up in Shaikh's treatment for
instance. The annual expenditure on unproductive labour (just like
depreciation of fixed capital) becomes a fraction of the annual surplus
product measure. In this way Shaikh feels he has re-allocated all
components of the gross product given in official statistics (minus those
bits which are just nonsense, such as rental value of owner-occupied
houses), so that the identity "value of total factor income = value of the
total product" is respected.
I am suggesting:

(1) that the theoretical assumptions underlying gross output in the
official accounts are such that it isn't really possible to re-allocate or
rework the components of gross product as given in a manner fully
consistent with Marxist theory (though Shaikh is to be congratulated for
trying). What we can do is infer some indicators from the data to establish
trends. That is the utility of statistical information.

(2) Official measures of "total gross product" are not the same as "value
of the annual total commodity product".

(3) I am further suggesting that we need to be theoretically very clear
about new value added vs. preserved/transferred value in defining the
capitalist value product and value of production (net output and gross
output). But this issue tends to get mixed up with discussions about
contributions and additions to the national wealth and the materialised
surplus product (a la Adam Smith). Thus in Shaikh's view haircutting,
concert acts and school teaching become commodity production, which they
cannot be, because the labour does not materialise in something which is
alienated from the owner and appropriated by another owner, in the
separation of the act of production and the act of consumption in space and
time, and it is precisely this condition which forms the very basis of
commodity production (and, incidentally, the relative expansion of human
As regards the concept of "commodity", I find Mandel's "categorical"
discussion in his Introduction to Capital Volume 2 (Penguin edition)
useful. He says, the object of Marx's analysis is the capitalist mode of
production, and he simply determines what is productive and what is not
productive for the functioning, the rationale of that system, and that
system alone" (p. 41). So what is the overall dynamic, the rationale of
that system ? Despite temporary countertendencies, it is the
generalisation of commodity production - i.e. precisely to convert, through
successive technological revolutions, more and more use-values and services
into Smithian "vendible commodities", and to produce these commodities with
greater and greater economies of scale. The limits of this dynamic are
only the current state of technique, social relations and what human beings
physically can cope with. The inability of late capitalism to convert an
increasing mass of labour into productive labour is, precisely, part of the
crisis of the bourgeois order and of humanity (we can interpret that crisis
variously in a liberal, socialist etc. way).
Actually, whether the "vendible commodity" happens to consist merely of a
communication or a statistic, let's say on a floppy disk, is irrelevant to
the definition, what matters is whether or not private property rights can
be asserted and maintained, and that a communication, if produced, stored,
presented and "packaged" in an appropriate way, can be a "product"
alienable from the owner and appropriated by a buyer just like half a ton
of coal or a yard of linen.
Mandel says explicitly, "only within the realm of commodity production...
is productive labour performed. No new surplus-value can be added in the
sphere of circulation and exchange..." (p. 42). He then looks at

- the distinction between the regions of material and non-material
- the distinction between the regions of production and circulation
- the distinction between different kinds of labour within the region of
commodity production itself
- the distinction between the regions of simple commodity production and
capitalist production

>From these distinctions a fairly clear concept of commodity production
So far so good. The question I raised in the measurement issue now is,
given that the total commodity product = c+v+s, to what extent and how
expenditures on unproductive labour enter into the value of the total
commodity output of a nation, and how they should be accounted for. And
that is not an easy question to answer, and something which, as Mandel
remarked in conversation with me, we can never fully disentangle from
official national accounts statistics, simply because they don't give that
sort of information. We can, applying considerable labour, only get some
indicators of proportions and trends out of the data. I don't think that
should be a "worry" though. The critique of the "fetishism" in the use of
official product measures, which exposes the assumptions underlying those
measures, is just as important.