Re: Reply to Michael on productive labour & services

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Wed, 21 Jan 1998 00:25:12 +0000

Thanks to Jurriaan for his quick response.

I had written
> >
> > The question of the extent of real subordination, that may well be
> > related to the nature of the use-value (although not in a way that
> > can be mapped simply on the physical product/services distinction),
> > seems a thin reed upon which to base this apparently fundamental
> > distinction.

> This seems to be merely a point-scoring remark by Michael.

The 'thin reed' remark may be enigmatic. What I have in mind is that
fundamental categories and distinctions in Marx attempt to grasp
systemically *necessary* forms. Thus a distinction that depends on
the *contingency* of how easy it is to impose real subordination on
this or that specific type (specific use-value producing) of labour
operates at a much lower level of abstraction, is less fundamental,
etc. There is likely to be a random distribution of contingent
degrees of success in pumping out different levels of sv (including
some negative numbers as well as zero) and so on. What is more there
will be some labour-processes abstractly taken to be productive
(producing material commodities) that will, contingently, be in there
as well. This indicates a problem, I think, for a distinction based
upon the criterion of contingent success in real subordination that
you proposed.

Jurriaan goes on:
> The point being
> made is that some labour activities by nature, or contingently, do not lend
> themselves to being transformed into capitalist commodity production, i.e.
> be fully subsumed by the specifically capitalist mode of production. And I
> would would place services such as hairdressing, cleaning, teaching,
> prostitution, security guards etc. in that category. They can be
> transformed into commercial or wage labour, but their product is not a
> commodity other than perhaps some exceptional circumstances such as we
> might imagine.

I already know that this is your (quite widely shared view) but I
still don't know why, because, as I said and you cited:
> It is a matter of degree, related also to such
> > contingent matters as the managerial mechanisms in play, the degree
> > of competition in output and labour markets, etc, etc. In terms of the
> > matter at hand, none of these factors will show up in NI accounts ...

To which you replied:
> I don't see what managerial mechanisms and competition have to do with it,

I think a little reflection will indicate the relevance of these
(amongst other, of course) factors to the contingent degree of
success of real subordination - ie controlling the labour process.
Such things are, of course, very specific grounding of the
fundamental social forms of capitalism - but it is your reference to
differential 'difficulty/facility' of real subordination as the
criterion of demarcation between productive and unproductive labour
that has gotten us 'down here' ... .

Later, in discussion of a Marx passage, J. said:
> What Marx is referring to is the social form of the labour, the social
> relations under which it is carried out, quite irrespective of the specific
> content of the labour.

I agree - the legitimate ground for the distinction is whether the
labour is performed under capitalist, commodity producing relations
of production and exchange or not. So, as you note:

I had written, a bit later
>> But then the last sentence rules out any necessity of
> > use-value difference either. So use-value difference is neither
> > sufficient nor necessary.
> >
to which J.:
> No it does not. Marx says a given kind of concrete labour may be productive
> or unproductive, depending on the social form under which it is carried
> out. That is, labour is not productive because of the kind of concrete
> labour it is, but in virtue of the social form under which it is carried
> out.

I agree, I agree, I have always agreed!

Jurriaan again:
>But this is logically quite compatible with saying there are labour
> activities which, in virtue of their specific nature, cannot assume the
> specifically capitalist social form, i.e. which cannot be converted into
> commodity production, although maybe they can be performed as wage-labour.

It is compatible with it - but why can labour performing the kinds of
services you exemplify not be commodified (by which, you will
remember, I do not mean converted into, or substituted by physical

> Jurriaan writes:
> > >It merely means that the specific content of the concrete labour
> > >(the specific use-value produced) must be related to the objective
> > >of capitalist production for surplus-value.
> Michael replies:
> > There is in the passage Jurriaan has cited, *nothing* to support this
> > assertion. On reflexion what does 'related to ... etc.' mean in this
> > context?
> Well this is this is the drift of, or an implication of, Marx's discussion
> in the text. "Related to" means that whether or not labour is productive
> for Marx is to be judged by whether the labour produces surplus-value.
> This is the general criterion. However now we have to look (as Marx begins
> to do) at particular types of concrete labour and their social form and
> ask: does this labour produce surplus-value or not, and why ? Some forms
> of labour are simply faux frais of production, a cost which must be met,
> but which doesn't generate surplus-value, and therefore must be kept as low
> as possible.

I agree that Marx says this, in several places. (We have quite a
mixed bag of services gathering now - prostitution etc, and now the
famous faux frais ... .) In my recent post in response to Fred, I
argued, in slightly different terms that *of course* a cost doesn't
'generate surplus value'. A cost is a sum of money paid to a
capitalist for (here) the services performed by her labour-power. If
this is carried on under successful capitalist production relations,
why doesn't it generate (on average) surplus value ( for the services
capitalist of course, not the capitalist who buys those services)?

Later, in response to my
>> But why does
> > this characteristic of services stop them being commodities?

Yes, but that of course would merely assume what is under dispute
between us - whether commodities are distinct from services

Jurriaan again:
>Because of
>that quality, you can mass-produce commodities
> but you cannot mass-produce services, at most you can train up lots of
> people to perform the service.

There are physical product commodities that you cannot mass produce,
as well as services that - with the aid of IT - you can (without
necessarily turning them into physical products).

In response to some gratuitous sarcasm, that I will not quote:

I do not think that the truth can be decided by democracy. I
do however, think that it is indicative that there is a problem with
the productive/ unproductive labour distinction that there is a wide
range of often incompatible criteria on offer - sometimes from the
same person - from this collection of highly experienced Marx
scholars, the work of all of whom I respect.

> I refer Michael to a passage from Capital Volume 2:
> "If we have a function which, although in and for itself unproductive, is
> nevertheless a necessary moment of reproduction, then when this is
> transformed, through a division of labour, from the secondary activity of
> many into the exclusive activity of a few, into their special business,
> this does not change the character of the function itself" (Penguin ed.,
> p. 209).

I know Marx says this - and it is the basis of the paradox I
outlined in my previous post

Later, I had said
> >
> > I don't doubt Marx does say this [that teaching was unproductive]. But what is it about teaching type
> > services that resists commodification in a way qualitatively
> > different from other sorts of wage labour? Surely at most it can only
> > be a matter of degree?
To which J:
> The force of "resistance" in this case is the fact that teaching by nature
> usually presumes an instantaneous and unmediated interaction between pupil
> and teacher, i.e. the production and consumption of teaching coincides (in
> the class room).

And why can this interactive relation not be commodified? More
realistically, the package 'A good English Public (ie private) school
education for one term' and the like, already *is* a commodity. On
what basis is the teaching labour performed in its production not
productive of surplus value for the school owner/capitalist?

Jurriaan continues:
>However, it is
>nowadays technically possible to impose
> the commodity form on teaching more and more - we can substitute TV
> programmes, computer programmes, through which we begin to mass produce
> teaching as a commodity. The "teaching factory" Marx jokes about as a case
> of formal subsumption by capital is becoming a reality.

As I have just said - why can the package of services (and perhaps a
few material products) not be a commodity?

Jurriaan concludes:
> The substantive
> difference between us is that I argue that
> (1) for Marx (commercialized) services are not commodities

I know Marx argues this. I still don't know why.

> - concrete labour is not a commodity, only labour power is a

I agree with this
> (2) if they are not commodities, the production of services is not
> commodity production.

I agree with this conditional, but, of course, I am still seeking to
be persuaded of the antecedent.

> (3) if production of services is not commodity production, it cannot
> qualify for Marx as capitalistically productive labour.


So I guess the difference between you and I is that you are persuaded
by Marx's assertions that (some?) services cannot be commodities,
whereas I have yet to hear an argument for it that stands up. And in
the multitude of shifting criteria on offer, I glimpse a distinction
that has had its day. All labour that produces capitalist
commodities, including services, is, in principle productive of new

That's all!

Sorry about the long post.

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
fax:+1908 834979