(OPE-L) accounting for productive and unproductive labour

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Nov 08 2003 - 08:30:38 EST

> I must admit I do not understand the distinction between productive
> and unproductive labour. I tend to think that if someone is willing to
> pay for some labour then it is productive in the economic sense,
> irrespective of whether that labour is productive from some moral or
> utilitarian point of view.

Productive labour concerns  which wage-earners who are employed by
capital produce surplus-value.  Other wage-earners may be unproductive
(of surplus value) if they are employed by the state (and are therefore
paid out of revenues) or if their wages represent a deduction from
profit.  This was not intended to be a  'moral' or 'utilitarian'
distinction. In developing this distinction Marx's focus (surplus value/
class exploitation) was quite different from the focus of Adam Smith
(namely, what labour increases national wealth).

You write above that you tend to believe that "if someone is willing to
pay for some labour then it is productive in the economic sense."
Then you must believe that _state employees_ are productive of surplus
value since the state pays for their labour time?   (Or -- a less meaningful
question -- what about all of the young people who are employed
part-time by working-class families to 'baby-sit' their own children or
mow their lawns or shovel their snow? Someone is  obviously willing to
pay for their labor -- does that mean that they are productive of surplus

> But I am looking at it this way: in principle a capitalist can create
> value  by  their labours, just like anyone else. But surplus value is
> precisely value  workers do not receive -- but capitalists do. So
> although some  capitalists may create value they are not exploited
> because they receive any surplus value created in the form of profits.

Before turning to your example below, let us address _why_ capitalists
come to be put on payroll.  There are often significant tax and benefit
advantages  for  capitalists of being  considered  _for legal purposes_
to be "employees".   For instance, health insurance costs and a
pension and 'business costs'  (including transportation and travel
expenses) may now be paid for by the company rather than being
paid for out of the personal income of the individual.  This is
simply an accounting trick to give themselves more perks and avoid
paying a certain amount of taxes -- in no meaningful economic sense
could these capitalists be said to be productive of surplus value.

Now let's turn to your "concrete example":

> Here's a concrete example: a firm of 10 employees and 1 capitalist
> owner. The owner works a normal day just like the workers, and
> performs similar tasks. The product contains the labour of 11 workers.
> But the revenue from that product isn't split into 11 roughly equal
> shares.
> There are 10 wage incomes and 1 profit income. Assuming profits
> are made, the capitalist owner gets it, and is therefore not exploited.
> What's wrong with this?

To begin with, what's wrong with this is that you selected a hypothetical
example (rather than a "concrete" one) concerning  ... small business.  The
petty-bourgeoisie is not one of the "two major classes" in  capitalist
society and it is a class which, due to the process of the concentration
and centralization of capital, become less and less "major" alongside
the accumulation of capital.   I can think of _no_ concrete example of
where any _major_, i.e. non-petty,  capitalist  performs "similar
tasks"  in the  production process as wage-earners who are productive
of surplus value.  Yet, they typically _are_ on payroll for the reasons
I indicated above.

Returning to your hypothetical example and expanding upon it. To
begin with, suppose that there are 1,000 wage-earners (rather
than 10) and 1 capitalist.  Now, suppose -- we are getting far-fetched!;
maybe there's a plot for a silly Hollywood film here -- that the identity
of the 1 capitalist isn't known to the workers and that the capitalist
hires herself as a wage-earner (!) and goes to work on an assembly
line actually performing "similar tasks" as the rest of the wage-workers.
Does she _now_ (under these absurdly unrealistic circumstances)
produce surplus value?   In this hypothetical circumstance, we could in
effect treat the 1 woman as if she was 2 women --  in her secret life
_as a wage-earner_  she could be productive of surplus value and in
her more meaningful role she would be a capitalist who lives off the
surplus value created by others.  Talk about  Dr. Jeckyl and Ms. Hyde!
Yet, in the world of _small_ business such anomalies are possible:  e.g.
there are workers who are employed by capital during the day and
own and operate  their own business  after work (indeed, inflation
and/or mass poverty may push workers in some parts of the world
into doing this as a way of supplementing their income). Thus, it is
possible  for 1 person to be both productive of surplus value and
not productive of surplus value but in those instances those individuals
are splitting  their time performing  qualitatively different economic

In solidarity, Jerry

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