Re: Commodities and Services: productive/unproductive labour

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Mon, 19 Jan 1998 13:14:25 +0000

In response to my question, Jurriaan writes:
> Marx insists that e.g. labour involved only in trading commodities
> (circulation labour) is not productive labour. That is to say, this labour
> does NOT create new value or surplus-value, it therefore adds NOTHING to
> the total mass of surplus-value. If the capitalist engaging this labour
> nevertheless does realise surplus-value, this value is appropriated
> (transferred) from other sectors. Hence, Shaikh & Tonak distinguish
> between the rate of surplus-value (applying only to productive labour) and
> the rate of exploitation of surplus-labour (applying to all wage labour).

I know that Marx (sometimes) insists on this position, and am aware
of S&T's distinction, that might be derived from it. My problem is
that I cannot see the rational basis for this claim.

Jurriaan continues, on maintenance labour:
> It depends what you are talking about. I'm suggesting that most cleaning
> services are a necessary cost of production, a faux frais of production,
> which does not add new value to any product.

I cannot see the logic of a position that doesn't count as
(potentially) productive labour all labour, expended under capitalist
relations, that is necessary for (socially) producing a commodity.

> Marx insists, as I said before, on the fact that
> no new value is created as a result of exchange processes themselves.

As I have argued a few months ago on this list, I agree entirely that
the mere act of exchange does not add value.

Jurriaan continues:
> The
> labour involved in circulating (trading) commodities, capital and money is
> not productive labour, it does not add value or surplus-value to the total
> product, even although it occurs within capitalist production relations and
> even although the extraction of surplus-labour is involved.

This does not follow from the above agreed assertion. The various
services involved in circulating commodities have to be done. If they
can be commodified, then the labour involved will be
(potentially) productive.

There was clearly something concerning Marx in this
productive/unproductive labour distinction, but for the life of me I
cannot yet see what it was. It may be time for a reconsideration of
all Marx's main passages on the matter in context and together to get
to the bottom of it. (I'm afraid I cannot devote time to this just
now .. but sometime?)

All the best,
"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
fax:+1908 834979