Re: Productive and Unproductive Labour

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Tue, 20 Jan 1998 10:06:56 +0000

I liked Duncan's carefully measured intervention.

He writes:
> I don't think the definition of the commodity can resolve this.

That may well be right, but then I cannot see the relevance of a
distinction based soley on trans-historical comaprison of use-values
to the question of the reproduction and macrodynamics etc of

And then:

> If you go down this road, then there isn't going to be any
> distinction between productive and unproductive labor (which is the view of
> the mainstream economists, who maintain that the willingness of someone to
> pay for an activity is prima facie evidence of its productivity).

My view does not reduce to this, since it insists on a commodity
produced by the performance of labour under capitalist relations of
production. Domestic labour, non-commodity producing state labour
etc, however indirectly relevant for valorisation (most obviously via
any effects on labour productivity), is not productive of new value;
And, however humanly desirable, is not productive of new value.

Duncan continues:
> I think Marx distinguishes use-values that arise in and are conditional on
> the commodity form of production, basically those activities having to do
> with securing of property rights and their transfer, as unproductive. I
> think this is a coherent distinction, but its economic and political
> economic significance is not made very clear.

I entirely agree that there is a coherent distinction here, but, as I
have already said, I cannot see what it has to do with the
macrodynamics of the reproduction of capitalism (as opposed to a
political/moral critique of the alienation, waste etc of capitalism).

> One subtext of Marxist discussions of unproductive labor is to underline
> that the "real" productivity of labor is higher than it looks, so we may be
> closer to overcoming scarcity than the social relations of production allow
> us to see.

Following your line of argument, the "real" from which the scare
quotes distance us must be unpacked in terms of species human wants
and needs, not in terms of specifically capitalist reality, driven by
the needs of valorisation and accumulation. Your reference to
overcoming scarcity suggests that this is indeed what you have in
mind. Again (leaving aside the effects on class -consciousness of
the revelation of the inherent wastefulness of capitalism on humanist
criteria) this has nothing obvious to do with the macrodynamics of
capitalist reproduction.

> If we could socialize the whole surplus
>labor time we wouldn't
> have to work very many hours a day or lifetime to reproduce ourselves, and
> could spend the rest of the time on science, art, and philosophy.

Just so. There thus appear to be two distinct classifications of
labour into productive and unproductive. One based on the
identification of the inherent social wastefulness of capitalism:
that labour is unproductive which produces use-values relevant only
to a capitalist commodity society. This is primarily a tool of
ideological critique. And one based on the creation of new value, and
so the production of successful commodities (that Duncan does not
seem to think is a criterion for a distinction?). This is relevant to
grasping the macrodynamics of capitalist reproduction.

This classification seems very close to the one that Alan
enunciated. The difference of my take on it is that I see these as
two quite different distinctions, not two aspects of the same
distinction. In particular, the first distinction, in terms of
humanly undesirable or redundant use-values, does not map easily onto
labour exchanged against revenue; whilst the second (non-commodity
producing labour) does so map.

And so, with reference to transformations of NI accounts, it may well
be necessary to make one transformation to take account of the first
distinction, for the purposes of 'identifying the waste' in
capitalist economy, and to *instead* make a quite different
transformation for the purposes of taking account of the second (does
it create new sv?) distinction, in pursuit of empirical
investigations of capitalist macrodynamics.

Thanks to everyone for their patience. This exchange has clarified my
thinking greatly (whether or not it is stopping now ...).
"Books are Weapons"
Dr Michael Williams
Department of Economics Home:
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences 26 Glenwood Avenue
De Montfort University Southampton
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