Monday, January 01, 2007

 

Extra note: Productive and unproductive labour

In many places in his writings, Marx is concerned to distinguish between modern wage-labour and (a) the sort of labour for wages or fees performed by large numbers of workers before capitalist production - soldiers, domestic servants, porters, etc.; (b) the vast variety of people in capitalist society who, while not wage-workers, produce some "service" or another.
It is plausible to "read forward" the distinctions which Marx makes in those respects into a distinction between sections of the modern working class - between those who are "productive" in a capitalist sense (they produce surplus value), and those who are "unproductive" in a capitalist sense (do not directly produce surplus value: retail and finance workers, public service workers, etc.)
We would then conclude that the "unproductive" workers are in some way "less" workers than the "productive" ones. Since on all estimates the percentage of "unproductive" workers is large and rising (despite privatisation, which tends to reduce that percentage), this conclusion is politically dramatic. Ideas of roughly that sort were common among the "Eurocommunists" of the 1970s, used by them to argue that politics based exclusively or primarily on the core working class were no longer viable.
I think such "reading forward" is wrong. Marx's basic distinction is between workers who are employed by capitalists acting as capitalists, and workers or other people who are employed, or paid, by capitalists acting as owners of revenue - the distinction between a cook employed by a restaurant-owner, and a cook employed by a rich person to provide meals in the plutocrat's own home.
Most modern "unproductive" workers are employed by capitalists acting as capitalists. Or, at least, that is so if we conceive that the capitalist state can act as a capitalist as well as sometimes acting as an owner of revenue (when distributing patronage of many sorts). But surely it can.
Note, however, that the "unproductive" workers (nurses in public hospitals, for example) are "fully" workers because they are employed by capital - not because they perform useful services for the maintenance of capitalist society.
Marx is vehement - and rightly so, I think - against the idea that "productive" labour can be defined as effort which provides useful services for the maintenance of capitalist society. Define it that way, of course, and it is impossible to argue that the capitalist is not "productive".
Marx made his point vividly by a sarcastic disquisition on how the criminal is "productive" in capitalist society.
A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we take a closer look at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices.
The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as “commodities”. This brings with it augmentation of national wealth, quite apart from the personal enjoyment which — as a competent witness, Professor Roscher, [tells] us — the manuscript of the compendium brings to its originator himself.
The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc. ; and all these different lines of business, which form just as many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human mind, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the production of its instruments.
The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a “service” by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only compendia on Criminal Law, not only penal codes and along with them legislators in this field, but also art, belles-lettres, novels, and even tragedies, as not only Mullner’s Schuld and Schiller’s Räuber show, but Oedipus and Richard the Third.
The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces.
While crime takes a part of the redundant population off the labour market and thus reduces competition among the labourers — up to a certain point preventing wages from falling below the minimum — the struggle against crime absorbs another part of this population. Thus the criminal comes in as one of those natural “counterweights” which bring about a correct balance and open up a whole perspective of “useful” occupations.
The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail. Would locks ever have reached their present degree of excellence had there been no thieves? Would the making of bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers? Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds? Does not practical chemistry owe just as much to the adulteration of commodities and the efforts to show it up as to the honest zeal for production?
Crime, through its ever new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defence, and so is as productive as
strikes for the invention of machines.
And if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And has not the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

(Economic Manuscripts of 1861-3, chapter 33).
As regards the wage-workers employed by those capitalists which are "unproductive" from the point of view of capital as a whole, Marx argues very differently.
What about the commercial wage-workers employed by the commercial capitalist...
In one respect, such a commercial employee is a wage-worker like any other. In the first place, his labour-power is bought with the variable capital of the merchant, not with money expended as revenue, and consequently it is not bought for private service, but for the purpose of expanding the value of the capital advanced for it. In the second place, the value of his labour-power, and thus his wages, are determined as those of other wage-workers, i.e., by the cost of production and reproduction of his specific labour-power, not by the product of his labour...
Since the merchant, as a mere agent of circulation, produces neither value nor surplus-value... it follows that the mercantile workers employed by him in these same functions cannot directly create surplus-value for him... merchant's capital derives profit from not paying in full to productive capital for all the unpaid labour contained in the commodities (in commodities, in so far as capital invested in their production functions as an aliquot part of the total industrial capital), and by demanding payment for this unpaid portion still contained in the commodities when making a sale...
[But] the mass of the individual merchant's profits depends on the mass of capital that he can apply in this process, and he can apply so much more of it in buying and selling, the more the unpaid labour of his clerks. The very function, by virtue of which the merchant's money becomes capital, is largely done through his employees. The unpaid labour of these clerks, while it does not create surplus-value, enables him to appropriate surplus-value, which, in effect, amounts to the same thing with respect to his capital. It is, therefore, a source of profit for him. Otherwise commerce could never be conducted on a large scale, capitalistically.
Just as the labourer's unpaid labour directly creates surplus-value for productive capital, so the unpaid labour of the commercial wage-worker secures a share of this surplus-value for merchant's capital...

(Capital volume 3, chapter 17)
Marx is clear that whether labour is capitalistically "unproductive" or "productive" does not depend on whether it produces a tangible "thing". For example, a school teacher in a private school is a "productive" worker; one in a state school is "unproductive".
"A schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune".
(Capital, chapter 16).
Marx took it as given that the bulk of the workers employed by capital were "productive", and the "unproductive" ones a small minority. The great bulk of "unproductive" workers in his day were domestic servants, employed by revenue rather than capital. Still, it is notable that in his discussion of "unproductive" workers employed by capital there is not the slightest hint that these workers are in any way "less" workers than the "productive" workers.
Some "unproductive" workers have different, and less "alienated", work conditions than the majority of the working class. But then so do some "productive" workers (software developers, for example). There are many important differences between sections of the working class. Only, the difference between "unproductive" and "productive" workers, as such, is not particularly important.
"Unproductive" workers generally have no tangible "product" they can point to. But as technology advances, that is also more and more true of "productive" workers. That development would not in the least dismay Marx.
On the contrary, he saw the tendency of production to become more and more social production, in which it was more and more difficult to identify an individual item as the individual product of an individual worker, as organic to capitalism. The individual tie between the individual worker and the individual product is characteristic not of developed capitalism but of an economy of small workshop masters or craft workers: it is more likely to generate craft economism than working-class socialism.
Yes, as capitalism develops, the argument about exploitation becomes more and more a "moral" argument about the general mass of riches produced by the working class, and less a crudely "material" argument about the arithmetic of the particular items produced by the particular worker. But that is another way of saying that it becomes more and more a class, socialist argument, rather than a craft or trade economistic argument.
"The product ceases to be the direct product of the individual, and becomes a social product, produced in common by a collective labourer, i.e., by a combination of workmen, each of whom takes only a part, greater or less, in the manipulation of the subject of their labour. As the co-operative character of the labour-process becomes more and more marked, so, as a necessary consequence, does our notion of productive labour, and of its agent the productive labourer, become extended. In order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough, if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions".
(Capital, chapter 16).
That the distinction between "productive" and "unproductive" worker is unimportant for the analysis of the working class does not mean that the distinction between "productive" and "unproductive" capitalists is unimportant. On the contrary.
My opinion is that it is extremely important, and that the writings on the rise of "unproductive" capital by Fred Moseley and Simon Mohun are among the most important work done in Marxist economic theory for many decades.

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