Re: Commodities and Services: response to Michael Williams

C. J. Arthur (
Sun, 18 Jan 1998 15:52:25 +0000

Alan wrote
>I'm with Michael all the way on this one.
>Or at least, 93% of the way.
>Though Marx tends to maintain Smith's *terminology* according to which
>commodities are material as distinguished from services, the whole of
>the first part of TSV I is a critique of this distinction when used to
>separate productive from unproductive. ...
>We are dealing here with a concept in evolution through a process of
>critique. If one wants to be pedantic we can stick with the
>Smith-as-Physiocrat distinction that Marx was critiquing and in that case I
>could rephrase my NIPA proposal in terms of 'consumable articles'. How much
>easier just to say that the obvious and logical development of this passage
>is that 'consumable articles' is just another word for commodities, in the
>strict scientific sense defined in Volume I, namely an indissolubble unity
>of use-value and exchange-value?
>However, the category of 'services' as reported by NIPA is a horrible
>hotchpotch because it includes such things as telecommunications along with
>banking. So though commodities include services, I would stop short of
>saying that *all* services are commodities. The dividing line is, for me,
>whether their principal function is to circulate existing use-values or
>whether they create a new use-value.

I'm with Alan 96% of the way. Of course hairdressing etc is productive of a
use value and realises an exchange value so many services are
unproblematically commodities and if done by wage labourers are productive.
The difficulty arises with services whose usevalue appears to be in some
way purely parasitic. Alan puts this in terms of circulating USEVALUES.
However it could be argued this is itelf a use value. For example we
standardly take advertising and estate agents as unproductive but in any
society it is useful to provide information about the availability and
performance of products so some sort of analogue for these services will be
required under socialism.
As for financial servies here the use value seems to me merely that of
circulating VALUE and I would say that even though these have a commodity
form they are certainly not products as the industry presumptiously claims
and the service is purely parasitic on the circulaton of value. For
instance when a bank sells me a bond there is a transfer of ownership
(something Jurrian seemed to think was important to the commodity) but of
an asset which simply represents a claim to part of produced value. So the
labour of the bank salesman is unproductive - at least from the point of
view of capita as a whole. Mike's radical position is that even such
services are of use IN THIS SOCIETY but I think that without the
distinction between production and circulation of values we could not
sustain any connection with labour. For example the people employed to
speculate in currency may or may not create fortunes for their employer and
bonuses for themselves but the return has no relation to the hours spent.