Gerald Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sun, 3 Oct 1999 10:10:03 -0400 (EDT)
Since Jurriaan has, from his perspective, attempted a summary I also will
offer a summary of the debate to date.
As I can recall, Jurriaan began this exchange about productive vs.
unproductive labor with an expressed desire to concretize this concept
more so that it can be "operationalized", e.g. in Marxian empirical
studies which use national income data.
Most of the debate -- involving many listmemnbers -- focused on whether
advertising labor was, or could be, productive of surplus value. We went
on to discuss other issues such as whether managerial labor could be
productive of surplus value.
Although we have concentrated on discussing areas of disagreement, it
should be noted that we, i.e. the participants in this exchange, seem to
agree that the distinction between productive and unproductive labor does
_not_ concern the moral, ethical or political nature of the activities
themselves. We also seem to agree that labor employed by the state is
unproductive labor. This might be seen as "progress" if we measured our
discussion against most previous discussions on this topic. Some other
issues that have been discussed in relation to this topic in other
contexts, e.g. whether domestic labor employed outside of the direct wage
labor-capital relationship is productive labor, have not been discussed in
We further agree, in principle, that productive labor is labor which is
productive of surplus value. It seems, though, that our consensus ends at
Here are what I see as the issues that have been raised in this thread to
1) material production?
Jurriaan raised the issue of the material form that commodities took as it
related to whether certain labor, e.g. labor engaged in the production of
a service, was productive labor. This lead to a discussion of the
distinction between Marx's concept and Smith's "vendible commodity"
concept which associates productive labor with a physical product (with
Paul C contributing a bunch of quotes about this topic).
I argued, in this connection, that from Marx's materialist perspective all
labour, whether it was productive of a physical object or a service, was
material production. This led us into a short digression about materialism
and the possible merit of metaphysics.
I don't recall hearing anyone else on the list support Jurriaan's view on
this matter -- although, we are not scoring points here and having a
minority of 1 position neither establishes validity or invalidity of the
2) basic vs. non-basic
Paul C suggested that Sraffa's distinction of basic vs. non-basic goods
could be used to discuss what labor constituted productive vs.
unproductive labor. This, I believe, came up in terms of our discussion of
There wasn't much discussion of this distinction.
Perhaps where this distinction might be the most controversial is in
regards to the production of "luxury goods", i.e. means of consumption
produced especially for capitalist class consumption. I think I hear
everyone saying that labor which produced luxury goods for capitalists can
be productive labor. Yet, aren't the commodities so produced "non-basic"?
3) trans-historical category?
Mike W has argued very strongly that the distinction between productive
vs. unproductive labor only refers to labor operating under direct
capitalist conditions. I.e. it is a distinction which concerns what labor
is engaged in commodity production under capitalism and what labor
is working under the direction of capital. He, in particular, argues that
this is not a "trans-historical" distinction in which the possible role
of labor under socialism has relevance. Moreover, he has stated --
repeatedly -- that in his view all arguments which say that advertising
labor are unproductive ultimately rest on a trans-historical view of this
This debate was perhaps posed most sharply in the exchange between Paul Z
and Mike W.
While Jurriaan and Mike W have come to agree on many subjects in this
thread (to, I think, the surprise of both of them), there was
disagreement here with Jurriaan insisting on his right to "explore" the
trans-historical implications of this distinction. (Mike W supported
J's right -- "right on!" -- but disagrees with J on this issue). This is,
perhaps, not surprising since one of Jurriaan's main interests (expressed
in another thread) is the political economy of socialism.
I took exception to Mike W's claim that all arguments concerning how
advertising labor constitute unproductive labor ultimately rest on a
trans-historical view of this subject. Therefore, I have been very
explicit in several of my posts explaining how my understanding of this
concept did _not_ rest on a trans-historical or moral distinction.
4) production and distribution
This is what _I_ see as the nub of the debate, especially as it relates to
whether advertising labor is productive of surplus value.
>From Mike W's perspective, advertising labor can be productive if the
labor is employed by capital and the product takes the commodity form.
I agree that these are _necessary conditions_, but not _sufficient_
conditions. That is because I have highlighted the fact that for labor to
be considered productive labor it must be labor employed in the sphere of
*production*. Thus, labor employed in the sphere of *distribution*
concerns not the production of value and surplus value but the
*realization* of surplus value.
Furthermore, what occurs in the sphere of distribution concerns who has
title to, i.e. possesses and appropriates, value rather than who produces
Mike W has argued that since advertising services can have a use-value and
an exchange value and can constitute commodity production under direct
capitalist relations, such labor can be productive. He further argues that
the question of the realization of value concerns, in this context, the
use-value that capitalists derive from purchasing advertising services as
a commodity. As such, it concerns the *consumption* of value by
Yet, from my perspective, this is not a sufficient answer since it fails
to recognize my main point which concerned the temporal and logical
separation of production labor from distribution labor.
5) advertising labor
We have also discussed what the function of advertising labor is.
Ian argued, in this connection, that:
> I agree that value can be destroyed. Advertising expenditure prevents that
> destruction and so- in that sense - creates value. It is arguably also part
> of teh use-value of a product that its uses are known. A completely unknown
> thing that has potentially extremely useful properties has no use-vale.
> Advertising expenditure can be productive in that sense. But this is partly
> like the way a sale can be productive. Putting products on shelves and
> putting tyhem in the posssession of a user may augment the use-value of a
> product. You could still argue, though, that all this means is that such
> labour is partly productive, which is compatible with it's being partly
> If you accept that transformation of the form of value does not add, in
> itself, to the use-value of a thing, then you will regard all that labour
> involved in the transformation of value as unproductive. If a company hires
> its own advertisers and salespeople, that labour is unproductive. But if
> its unproductive expenses involve paying a sales or advertising company to
> do the selling and avertising, then the labour of those employees is
> productive. An unproductive expenditure of the company seeling the product
> provides returns for a company selling advertising or sales services.
> Ultimately, you could take all labour involved in the realisation of value
> as productive of value and surplus value (realised value and surplus value)
> or you could take the distinction between value and realised value
> seriously, and treat the capital funds required for sales and advertising
> as increasing the capital stock required to sustain a given flow of value
> (as Paul suggests with his example of the way that advertising plays a role
> in increasing the start-up funds a company requires before it turns a
While I agree that value can be destroyed, rather than just consumed (and
indeed Ian's remarks were responsive to this point that I made), I think
it is misleading to suggest that advertising labor can -- to the extent
that it might inhibit the destruction of value -- create value.
Again: the distinction that I would draw concerns labor engaged in
production vs. labor engaged in distribution. And, let us not forget, that
a critical role for advertising labor concerns the *distribution of
surplus value among capitalists*. Perhaps we need to discuss the relevance
of *rent* for comprehending this topic.
Other issues have also come up: e.g. the question of advertising and
consumer sovereignty and the role of advertising in oligopolistic markets.
6) managerial labor?
Recently, there has been an exchange over whether certain sections of
"managerial labor" could be considered to be productive labor.
I argued that the purpose of management was to extract surplus value from
workers and as such managers functioned as the designated representatives
of capitalists in the production process (similar to paid "seconds" in a
duel). Thus, their function was not to produce surplus value but rather to
pump it out of others.
Jurriaan in particular argued that this was an altogether too "simplistic"
view of the production process and that certain segments of management
were technically required for production ... and would still be required
under socialism. I argued that this type of trans-historical argument was
not valid for discussing this distinction.
While Jurriaan pointed to the "complexity" of the production process and
suggested that different managers perform different roles, it was unclear
at least to me which managerial he views as potentially creative of surplus
value and which managerial labor he views differently.
As noted earlier, this thread began with Jurriaan noting that this
distinction was vital to operationalizing Marxian theory. Yet, we have an
a) all of the attempts to operationalize Marxian theory that I know of
have employed a very different understanding of productive vs.
unproductive labor than Jurriaan is using.
E.g. the work by Shaikh/Tonak, Cockshott/Cottrell, Moseley, Murray, etc.
all -- unless I am mistaken? -- view advertising labor and managerial
"labor" as unproductive labor. As such, advertising labor represents
deductions from surplus value rather than additions to value.
This leads to very different empirical results than a perspective that
views these types of labor as, in part, productive labor. (This is
especially important in Fred's empirical work.)
b) if some managerial labor is productive and other such labor is
unproductive and if certain advertising labor is productive and other such
labor is not, then _any_ attempt to operationalize this in terms of
national income accounting becomes very problematic.
Thus, the irony is that although Jurriaan wants to operationalize Marxian
theory more, his distinctions make it much more difficult -- perhaps even
impossible! -- to do so.
The discussion, regardless of "summaries", continues. Although we agree on
much, this discussion also highlights how much we disagree on the vitally
important topic of value.
In solidarity, Jerry
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