apropos Cullenberg: unproductive labor

Hans Ehrbar ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Wed Oct 19 18:14:29 MDT 1994

Since Jones-Bhandari mentioned Cullenberg, I thought the following
might be interesting to you which I had on my computer.
It argues that Cullenberg's theory regarding unproductive labor
is far inferior to Fred Moseley's (Hi Fred).

Hans G. Ehrbar

Much has been written by Marxists about the rate of profit.  Fred Moseley
takes a minority point of view in that he distinguishes, in his empirical
research, between productive and unproductive labor.  Fred has been
criticized for this, even by Marxists, but in my view, his approach
is right on target.

The labor theory of value argues that machines do not create value.
The value of a good signals how much of society's limited pool of
labor has been taken up by that good.  Machinery does not create value
but only transfers its own value to the product because the powers of
nature which the machine uses are ``free'' to society: they do not use
up any social resources, and therefore they are also not reflected in
the social relationships of exchange.

Only some of the cost factors contribute therefore to the value of the
product.  Marx pushes this distinction one step further with his
theory that one has to distinguish even among different kinds of labor
hired by the capitalist.  Not all labor automatically produces value,
even though it may be socially necessary.  So-called ``unproductive
labor'' does not even transfer its own value to the product like
machinery, but it does not contribute to the value of the product at
all and must be paid out of the surplus value generated by productive

This notion has always been controversial among Marxists.  One can no
longer argue for it in a manner analogous to the case of machinery.
If the production process requires a lot of supervisory labor, labor
for advertisement, insurance, collection agencies, check-out clerks,
and other circulation expenditures, then this {\em does\/} use up part
of the finite labor pool available to society.  Furthermore,
production cannot be had in any other way in capitalism or for that
matter in any society, because some coordination is necessary in any
society.  This is why many Marxists ignore Marx's distinction and
consider all the labor employed by the capitalists as productive.

Moseley, by contrast, following Marx, paints a picture of the
capitalist economy in which profit is the ultimate objective and all
proftis come from labor, {\em but only a fraction of the workforce indeed
creates this profit}.  The productive laborers create exorbitant
amounts of surplus value, but much of this surplus value never sees
the light of day because it is immediately again used up in
unproductive expenses associated with the production process itself.

I want to argue here that Moseley's picture is more accurate than the
theory according to which surplus value is the joint product of
productive and the necessary unproductive labor.  Moseley splits the
production of profits into two parts which can be clearly defined and
which follow their own separate regularities.  The direct production
of surplus value is governed by the technology of modern mass
production.  The supervisory and circulation labor, on the other hand,
depend on quite different factors: one on the docility of the
workforce, the other on the communication infrastructure, the depth of
the social division of labor, and the competition for scarce
purchasing power.  One of Moseley's central empirical findings is that
advances in direct production follow Marx's prediction with increasing
organic composition, increasing rate of surplus value, but decreasing
rate of profit.  But he also argues that growth in productivity will
inherently be much slower in the circulation sphere, and that the
recent declines in the rate of profit can be attributed to an
increasing drag from the sphere of circulation.

In my view, Moseley's theory is far superior to both of his critics,
Cullenberg in RRPE and Laibman in Science \& Society.  Cullenberg
argues: one cannot really say that unproductive expenditures are a
deduction from surplus-value, because they are also a condition for
the rise of surplus-value.  This is like saying: trucks used in oil
exploration are not really using gasoline, because they are a
condition for the increased availability of gasoline.

Even if productive and unproductive labor coexist empirically and
cannot be separated empirically, they must be separated by a theory
which wants to make predictions which go beyond a simple empirical
extrapolation.  One can theorize some trends in the development of
productivity in direct production, and one can theorize some trends in
the development of circulation labor, but there is no necessary
connection between the two, and putting them into the same equation
and estimating partial derivatives as Cullenberg does it is, to me, a
classic example of mis-use of mathematics in social sciences.
Philosophers call it actualism, it is the failure to recognize that
certain relationships are not necessary but contingent.  Moseley makes
the same point much more concretely when he responds to Cullenberg
that, for instance, supervisory labor may be hired with the intention
to intensify the labor of productive workers but that this effect may
not occur.

Laibman acknowleges that Moseley's approach allows for very plausible
interpretations of recent developments, but he also seems to be blind
to the merits and even the necessity of the distinction between
productive and unproductive labor, which seems too theoretical to him.
I could not quite believe that Laibman did not get the point: it was
exactly this ``theoretical'' taking apart of what happens empirically
into its constituent parts which gives Moseley's work its explanatory
power.  [Apologies to David Laibman: I did not do your contribution
full justice. I have to work on this one.]

I think even outside the debate around the falling rate of profit, the
differential economic recognition of different labors is an important
aspect of capitalism.  Some branches of social labor are not
considered labor at all, like housework, childrearing, shopping, and
they are accordingly neglected.  And all the circulation labor, the
important task of social coordination, is subordinate to profits and
takes the form of a deduction from profits.  This is how the
irrationality of capitalist distribution interferes with the
technological advances of direct production.

Stephen Cullenberg.
Unproductive labor and the contradictory movement of the rate of
{\em Review of Radical Political Economics}, 26, June 1994.

David Laibman.
 The falling rate of profit: A new empirical study.
 {\em Science and Society}, 57(2):223--33, June 1993.

Hans G. Ehrbar                                    ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Economics Department, 308 BuC                     (801) 581 7797
University of Utah                                (801) 581 7481
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-1107                   (801) 585 5649 (FAX)


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