Re: [OPE-L] Re: commodities/services

jurriaan bendien (
Sun, 25 Jan 1998 00:42:56 +0100

I wrote (among several other things) in reply to Alan:

> > I think what emerges out of the debates about productive labour
> > that 1. Marx himself wasn't really fully consistent in his definitions,

Alan now responds to this point:
> Er, excuse me? How has this emerged from the discussion? I have to
> this escaped me. I think it emerged that not everyone likes Marx's
definitions, which is a
> different matter.
My reply:

I think it is manifestly clear from all the conscientious textual analysis
that has been done by many scholars that Marx has various notions about
whether and which kind of services are productive or unproductive labour -
in Capital Volume 1, 2 and 3, the Grundrisse and TSV, and that he doesn't
present a comprehensive, rigorous and generally applicable definition
covering all cases, which is what we are after for accounting purposes.
Such a definition must be extrapolated from his various remarks and
arguments. Nor does he clarify how expenditure on unproductive labour
should be accounted for in the calculation of the gross product, although
he was clearly aware of the problem:

"The difficulty is rather as follows. Since the labour-time and labour of
the merchant himself is not value-creating labour, even though it procures
for him a share in the surplus-value already produced, what is the
situation with the variable capital that he lays out on the purchase of
commercial labour- power ?" (Cap III, p. 408).

Notice how the "variable capital" here is a peculiar kind of variable
capital, because it does not directly generate additional value and
surplus-value, it doesn't behave in the way that Marx portrays and defines
it in Capital Volume 1. Marx puts this whole problem aside as "to be
investigated". Lateron he remarks however that "The increase in this
[unproductive commercial] labour is always an effect of the increase in
surplus-value, and never a cause of it" (ibid., p. 415). Likewise Murray
and I have suggested that we should not make expenditures on unproductive
labour a "cause of an increase in surplus-value" in the social account, as
others have done by including it as a fraction of surplus-value, but rather
treat this labour expense as a constant element of circulating capital
making valorisation possible. My claim is that for accounting purposes, it
does represent an element of the value of the gross product, but it isn't a
portion of new surplus-value.

>From the point of view of the aspiring Marxian social accountant, Marx's
dialectical method of exposition is often more a hindrance than a help,
insofar as Marx's definitions aren't fixed once and for all, but are
changed and modified in different steps of abstraction seeking to
understand dynamic processes (see in this regard Marx and Engels's remarks
on the relativity of scientific definitions). That is to say, the social
accountant needs clearly and unambigiously defined counting units in order
to meaningfully aggregate data, but at least in the case of the
productive/unproductive labour distinction Marx doesn't provide them.

At the beginning of this debate, Alan said explicitly, productive labour is
labour producing commodities, that is it, "nothing more to worry about".
But there is something to worry about, from the point of view of a social
statistician at least. Things are not so cut and dried as Alan claims, for
a start because the boundaries of Marx's "capitalist commodity production"
are not completely clear, especially in relation to services. Sometimes he
emphasises the capital-relation more, sometimes he focuses on the use-value
produced and the manner in which it is produced, seeking to distinguish
between social form and material content. Whereas in Capital Volume 1 he
insists that it is the physical properties of a thing that make it a
use-value, remarks he makes elsewhere suggest that the use-value doesn't
really need to be so "corporeal" or physically embodied in an alienable
object that can be exchanged. This vagueness does not cause me to throw
out Marx"s analysis on the ground of lack of clarity, rather I see it as a
challenge for conceptual refinement and development. It just means a
definition works well for 8 cases out of 10, while in 2 cases things are
not so clearcut and we have to make a methodological decision which is true
to the intention of Marx's analysis.

Even so "orthodox" and textually-oriented a Marxist as Ernest Mandel
acknowledged that "a real indeterminacy persists in [Marx's] conception of
productive labour" (Late Capitalism, p. 404). Rhetorical flourishes and
admonitions are not helpful here, Alan. Rigorous thinking and
comprehensive definitions are, and we certainly ought not to dictate who is
allowed to investigate problems which Marx left explicitly "to be
investigated" in manuscripts he didn't publish himself.


Jurriaan Bendien