Re: Commodities and Services: productive/unproductive labour

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Mon, 19 Jan 1998 00:56:51 +0000

Thanks to everybody for their thoughtful responses to my raising of
this old canard. Since these replies taken together suggest to me
that the distinction is melting away before our eyes, you will excuse
me if I push my sophomoric (sophomoronic?) concept-mongering a little

What is left is the distinction that I made in my opening post:
productive labour is that which produces a successful commodity under
capitalist relations of production. Such labour creates surplus value
- whatever its specific (use-value producing nature)

First to Ian Hunt's message. I unfortunately lost this (finger
trouble) whilst I was replying to it. But I remember it as effectively
agreeing with the above, and giving the examples of domestic labour
and self-employed traders as exemplifying unproductive labour. Just
so - because they are not performed (with a caveat about Alan's point
that de facto capitalist relations may be lurking behind the
apparently self-employed) under capitalist relations of production,
don't produce a commodity, etc.. [Of course, here we could cue a
discussion about 'necessary but unproductive' or 'indirectly
productive' labour, but that would be a digression.]

Turning to Alan Freeman, he wrote:
> Alan wrote
> >I'm with Michael ... 93% of the way.

And then goes on to argue why.
And later gets to the 7% remaining matters of disagreement, writing:

> >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.

And I need to know why the service of circulating existing use-values
is not a use-value, and so the labour doing it is not commodity
producing and productive (just so it takes place under capitalist
relations of production)?

And so to Chris Arthur, who is:
> with Alan 96% of the way.

And so presumably agrees with me 89.28% of the way (unless, of
course, some of what he agrees with Alan about falls into the 7%
about which Alan disagrees with me ...)

Chris goes on:
> The difficulty arises with services whose use-value appears to be in some
> way purely parasitic. Alan puts this in terms of circulating USE-VALUES.
> However it could be argued this is itself 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.

Now this makes clear that Chris's criterion of the unproductive (and
indeed the productive) here is a comparison with some rationally and
humanely organized society. Of course such a comparison is an
important source of political critique of capitalist society - but it
is not relevant to a distinction the first (and I think
uncontroversial) criterion for which is the creation of

But he continues:
> As for financial services 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 presumptuously claims
> and the service is purely parasitic on the circulation of value. For
> instance when a bank sells me a bond there is a transfer of ownership
> (something Jurriaan 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 capital as a whole.

Well, I have a problem with this notion of 'parasitic' here, if we
mean draining the life-blood from capitalist commodity production
and circulation.. Financial 'products' certainly have a use-value -
they help in the dynamic allocation of money capital to the sectors
most likely to be in a position to employ labour most likely to
generate lots of surplus-value.

Chris continues:

> I think that without the
> distinction between production and circulation of values we could not
> sustain any connection with labour.

I need this unpacked a little for me.

and then
> 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.

Again, I don't see why not, if we look at the specific services of
speculation in bringing to a head monetary crisis, that is a
use-value, as is helping to establish exchange rates in accordance
with relative national value-productivity. Of course, this opens up
massive opportunities for gambling - that is a zero-sum game, in
which value just changes hands. But is bookmaking labour employed by
Ladbrokes unproductive?

And so to Jurriaan's post. He writes:

>In probably 80-90%
>of cases we can agree on where the frontier [between productive and
>unproductive] should be drawn, as Alan >would point out, so it's not
>really so quantitatively significant.

Yet Duncan, in a recent post, thought that the absence of an adequate
productive/unproductive distinction in NI accounts was one of (the
few) difficulties with using them for Marxist empirical work. It is
clear that conventions differ across Country's NI accounts, and also
that labour not employed under capitalist relations is treated
inconsistently. Going on the 'Keynes marrying his housekeeper
reducing National Income' story, I am sure that domestic labour
doesn't figure in the UK accounts. Last time I looked, it was also
the case that the money value of State labour's untraded products
was based only on the costs of inputs. All of which seems to suggest
that the problems for Marxist quantitative work are probably
fragmentary, if not random.

Jurriaan goes on:

> his [Mandel's] "second cut" definition looks at what labour is productive
>for capital as a whole, i.e. what labour adds to the total mass of
>surplus-value (which may not be the same as additions to "wealth",
>understood as the total mass of use-values)

Maybe, but someone will have to explain to me how labour that is
productive (of sv) for an individual capital systematically fails to
add to the total mass of surplus-value

Jurriaan goes on to cite an example from Marx:
>In this sense Marx discusses, in Capital Volume 2, the case of e.g.
>the buying and selling agent, whose surplus labour does not create
>any new value, arguing: "...society does not appropriate by this
>means any additional product or value. But the costs of circulation
>that he represents are reduced...". (Penguin ed., p. 210).

But as Chris and Alan agree, it is difficult to argue the case that
trading labour does not produce a (service) commodity; and if it is
capitalistically employed, it will in general create new value.

Jurriaan concludes:
>The question to ask then is, from the standpoint of capital as
>whole, do schools, hospitals, hairdressing, cleaning services etc.
>as necessary elements of social reproduction also add to the total
>mass of surplus-value (to the social surplus-product) ?

This implicitly trails the red herring of potentially 'necessary but
unproductive' or 'indirectly productive' labour. Apart from that, the
answer rests upon the basic criterion - are these labours employed
under capitalist relations.

Continuing ...
>Does the capitalist society (as distinct
>from an individual capitalist) appropriate through these activities
>themselves any additional product or additional commodity value ?

Again, if the one does, paru passu, so does the other.

And then:
>There are various ways to answer this question, but I've tended to
>think that the answer is no, that these are necessary maintenance
>activities which do not themselves expand (add to) the total mass of
>surplus-value, from the social point of view.

Are not the 'maintenance' workers in a factory, *servicing* the plant
and machinery typically productive?

And finally:
> I could be wrong about
>that but I see no general principle that would fully adjudicate the
>issue or eliminate all controversy.

Well, this has been the point that I have been posing: that the clear
criterion of demarcation can only be production relations. The rest
is empirical contingency of no more import than the fact that some
labour employed by capital may turn out to not contribute to the
creation of sv, because the (potential) commodity they produce fails
(is in excess supply). (But that opens up another can of worms.)

Thank you for your patience.

Comradely greetings,
"Books are Weapons"
Dr Michael Williams
Department of Economics Home:
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences 26 Glenwood Avenue
De Montfort University Southampton
Milton Keynes SO16 3QA
tel:+1908 834876 tel/fax: +1703 768641
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