[OPE-L:1143] Re: Re: Unproductive labour income and Marxian social accounts

From: Jurriaan Bendien (djjb99@worldonline.nl)
Date: Tue Sep 07 1999 - 16:42:03 EDT

Well I have just been writing on East Timor and it is a bit of a leap back
to my discussion about unproductive labour. However a few points are in
order in reply to Michael Williams.

>I think it is likely that the exemplar of a commodity in Marx's mind's eye
>was usually a physical object. Nevertheless, the overall logic of his system
>does not preclude it being a service.

Marx never got around to a rigorous system of social accounts, although in
the manuscript on the "results of the Immediate Process of Production" and
in Capital Volume 2 he does start to lay the basis for it - might I add
long before anybody else had achieved that insight. Had he done so, he
would have refined his notion of services, distinguishing between
productive and unproductive services. Very likely he would have conceded
that some services are part of commodity production. However he would, I
suggest, still argue against the notion that just any labour subordinated
to capital is productive labour. Following the Williams argument, security
forces produce a commodity in the form of a service. Following Marx, they
normally don't.

>> He does tend to say that a commodity
>> must be a product of labour separable from the producer. But, imo, the
key import of 'separation' is that the product of the labour is not theirs
to sell. It belongs to the capitalist employer. This is as true for
services as 'goods'.

The key import of the separation is twofold: the product is not theirs to
sell, and the employer can sell it, in the first instance because it is
separable (alienable).

>a) Social (national?) accounts neglect domestic production and deal
>inadequately with state production and production of the voluntary and
>not-for-profit sectors (typically by measuring them in terms of values of
>inputs not outputs).

This is not quite correct, at least not for UNSNA accounts, which make
provision for non-market production and advise an imputation of the value
of these sectors. The reason why many national accounts inadequately
represent state production is because the information required does not exist.

>c) Just a question for clarification: by 'wealth creation' I assume we are
>thinking only of capitalist-specific wealth creation - i.e. valorisation -
>not some transhistorical notion of the ability to produce socially desirable
>useful 'objects'?

I am inclined to say a "bit of both", because you see there isn't any such
thing as the "purely capitalist society" that Kozo Uno describes. A
specific capitalist economy contains many elements of a non-capitalist past
within it.
Marx does want to argue definitely that financial wage labour performed
within the capital relationship does NOT add value to the social product
(or create net additions to wealth),

>I know that Marx does this. But imo, this distinction is not sustainable
>within the overall logic of his sytem.

I think you can sustain it with reference to a macroeconomic concept of
material wealth, although you might find that some productive labour takes
place within the financial sectors as well (it would be difficult to
measure statistically). All I am saying is that such a concept of material
wealth cannot be objective, it implies a value or goal itself. But that
would not be a problem for Marx.

>Well, without revisiting the relevant parts of Marx's texts, I would argue
>that [calling financial labour unproductive] is not the result of his
prejudice, but of the fact that he had not finally worked through the
implications of his value-form system; had not finally emancipated himself
from the physicalist prejudice about 'wealth'
>associated with many of the classicals. With a hundred and fifty more years
>of capitalist development visible to us, we have less excuse for not
>completing that emancipation.

I disagree with you.The value-form hypothesis is yours, not Marx's. Marx's
concept of capitalist wealth is definitely that objectified (reified)
material wealth, which he contrasts with human wealth. He advances on the
definition of wealth by the political economists. Except he did not spell
out exactly and completely what this concept means empirically, and even if
you could develop this concept, it might be difficult to measure it. We
are, after all, talking about the nature and purpose of living labour in
motion. What is true is that Marx lived in the time ofthe ascendancy of the
bourgeoisie, whereas now this class is becoming a bit rotten, introducing
new questions and distortions. I believe Marx would still uphold the view
that no new value is created in exchange, except perhaps in cases such as
where non-capitalist countries are plundered and the goods sold in a
capitalist country.

>I do not see that the inclusion of services under Commodity undermines
>anything but the long-discredited *embodied* labour theory of value. Once we
>are in the realm of abstract labour accounting, the 'value theory of labour'
>and a value-form view that value and money are two aspects of a single
>system, we are indeed better able to apply Marx's fundamental critique to
>late second millenium capitalism.

I broadly agree with you there at present.

>> If you argue a meaningful and coherent
>> distinction between productive and unproductive labour can be made, but
that it
>> is not objective, and that it must refer to the usefulness of particular
>> activities in wealth creation, this is I think going to lead to tension:
productive labour is ab initio that which produces surplus-*value*. Now we
are suggesting that the
>distinction is to be based on *use*-value considerations. There may be this
>tension in Marx. But we can, with the benefit of more extensive hindsight,
>transcend it.

It is a tension in Marx, because of the dialectics of use-value and
exchange-value, of abstract labour and concrete labour. The challenge is to
work out which labour really do add value to the product or really do add
to wealth in some definition. It is meaningless to say productive labour is
labour producing surplus value, that's a tautology. As soon as you want to
give the definition some bite, you have to spell out what this means in
terms of concrete labour, specific production processes. Not many Marxists
have understood this, but capitalists understand this bloody well.
>It seems to be that there are large areas of agreement between Jurriaan and
>I. The crux of the disagreement seems to be J.'s feeling that we need to
>'explain' why services appear to be commodified in contemporary capitalism,
>which I do not share. This *may* derive from his concern with some
>'underlying' notion of 'material' wealth.

The thrust of the argument is that Marx considered capitalism would
supplant services with "vendible commodities" in the long run. How long is
your long run ?

Imo, the term seems to refer to
>some ahistorical concept of humanly useful objects. It is a specific
>characteristic (and target for critique) of capitalism and bourgeois society
>more widely that it is driven by the epochally specific form of wealth -
>Value - rather than by any concern with human usefulness.

I dispute that most strongly. I am not talking about any ahistorical
concept. Further, ask any industrialist worthy of the name and he will
prove to you he is very concerned with human usefulness. In this respect, I
do not share your notion of value, which seems somewhat mystical to me.
Marx's critique is not that capitalists or "healthy capitalism" disregards
human usefulness, rather that a reversion of proper means and ends occurs.
Extreme attention is indeed paid to the use-value of commodities, but only
in order to be able sell them for a profit. Because, if they don't make a
profit, capitalists go out of business. Capitalists do not moralise. They
provide what people want. If people want things that are immoral, that's
their problem, and that is tolerated within the limits of bourgeois law as
it happens to be enforced. A socialist society would operate in an
analogous way, although there would be much better incentives for not
engaging in mindless consumerism.

I assume what J.
>is after is an interpretation, rectification or amplification of national
>accounts for the purposes of examining capitalism empirically from a Marxist
>(economic) perspective.

Yes, indeed.

Imo, this is a different project from, for example,
>an attempt to construct social accounts that recognise non monetary
>phenomena such as envrionmental impact and so on, which can, of course,
>provide empirical ammunition for the critique of the inadequacies of
>capitalism in terms of human needs.

The two are quite compatible. I might say here that for Marxists the
environmentalists are merely fellow travelers, and their "critiques" must
often be taken with a pinch of salt. Bourgeois economics tries to impute a
price for environmental despoilation, and in social accounts try to specify
"strategic natural resources". What we are interested in however is not
primarily to quantify environmental costs, although that can be important,
but most generally to establish to potential and real capacity of the
physical world ("nature") to sustain a given population at a certain
standard of living, under specific conditions. The environmentalists scream
about pollution and overpopulation, whereas we think the planet can sustain
a much larger population, under specific conditions, among others a
socialist economy. They are culture pessimists, we are revolutionary



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