Re: Unproductive Labor and the "Mage heresy"

jurriaan bendien (
Tue, 20 Jan 1998 23:46:51 +0100

Murray writes:

I differ with Jurriaan on two points. First, according to Mage, SNUL
> that is exchanged with (constant) capital is not confined to the sphere
> circulation; it also includes labor in the employ of the capitalist
> Second, the "Magean" allocation of SNUL to constant capital does not
> necessarily involve the view that services that are produced and
> consumed virtually simultaneously (a haircut, a concert, passenger
> transport) are not commodities. My own view (and I think Mage's) is that
> many services assume the commodity form and that labor that performs such
> services is indeed productive. I won't pursue these points now, but I
> to make it clear that while Jurriaan and my views converge on some
> they diverge on others.

In response, I am happy to concede the same argument made for circulation
labour applies to most employees of the capitalist state. My experience in
New Zealand was though that many central state functionaries were
capitalists in their own right, millionaires even. But this does not
affect the question of public service salaries in the national accounts.
The consistent viewpoint is, then, to argue that if state bureaucrats do
not generate any addition to value or surplus-value, the expenditure on
their salaries just like any other unproductive labour should be treated as
a constant capital outlay in the social account.
As regards the commodity/services distinction, I think "in general" (as
Marx says) the distinction is quite clear (service production is by
definition NOT commodity production) but in the case of some services it is
difficult to decide whether they are commodity production or not (for
example, the singer who is "engaged by an entrepreneur who makes her sing
to make money... [and] produces capital directly" - CI, p. 1044; my
argument is that the CD is a commodity, the live performance is not), and
(2) some instances of "services" in the national accounts are
straightforward commodity production (for example the production and
installation of telecommunications equipment).
It seems to me that the correct approach to the productive/unproductive
distinction is to recognise that there does not exist one universal
criterion that can be applied (as rationalist Marxists would like) and to
take different categories of concrete labour and consider them from the
standpoint of their function for capital as a whole (a "composite"

Murray asks:

Why do so many Marxists insist on defining
> the value category "constant capital" so narrowly? Why is it almost
> seen as merely that capital which is invested in physical means of
> production?

Presumably because they just followed Marx's discussion, and they never
tried applying Marx's categories in a consistent way to the national
accounts and make them do "some real work" in analysing and explaining real
data. In this sense, empirical research is surely a great way to
discipline the use of our categorical distinctions. Furthermore few
Marxists consider that the definition of productive labour might change
itself under the impact of technological revolutions.
Incidentally, "faux frais of production" (unavoidable incidental expenses)
such as insurance costs must also be considered as a constant capital
expenditure in the social account. (In the New Zealand accounts, I found
that "consumption of fixed capital" actually included insurance payouts for
damage to fixed assets).