Productive and Unproductive Labour

John Edmundson JWE21 at
Wed Nov 1 04:03:59 MST 2000

Lou Paulsen wrote:

> >>Now, if someone wants to save me from my heresy by coming up with
> >>SOME case in which the production/circulation distinction has actually
> >>been USEFUL to any Marxist agitator, revolutionary strategist, economist,
> >>historian, etc., ANYWHERE, at any time, PLEASE let me know of its
> >>existence.

While Marx wrote Das Kapital etc with the express aim that it be a
tool of the working class and its allies, he at no time that I'm aware
of changed his analysis of capitalism "in order to make it more
immediately useful" to Marxists. So revising the productive vs
unproductive labour distinction to make it more "USEFUL" would
be a brave undertaking. It would require that you prove, not just
assert, the productive nature of Marx' "unproductive labour". Marx
himself obviously saw no problem with this division and he didn't
see any need to define "unproductive" labour as being somehow
still exploited "in" the production process. Instead, he saw the
actual material process of exploitation as taking place quite clearly
in the sphere of production. He then explained that, as the
capitalist class as a whole exploits the working class as a whole,
through the equalisation of the rate of profit, those capitalists
involved in unproductive sectors still claim their share of the total
surplus value of society. I'm not sure that the distinction is always
that necessary - the "Is that cleaner a productive or unproductive
labourer?" question - but the distinction is an important theoretical
one. At a practical level, the office / factory floor division is a real
one exploited by bosses to divide and rule the work place, so
understanding the mechanism is important. The ideas that shape
workers' impressions of that separation between workers weren't
put there by Marxist theoreticians. They got there from somewhere
else. So we can't just write them out of existence by deciding all
labour is productive. Instead we have to understand and explain the
underlying process, production under capitalism, that creates this

Comment on Phil F's post snipped...followed by Lou's thoughts on
the issue in practice:

> First, empirically:  for the past twenty-five years there have been
> MASSIVE assaults on the jobs of production workers in the US, in
> industries like steel, auto, electronics, and just about every other
> form of manufacturing. Plants have been closed; re-engineering has
> resulted in massive layoffs. Meanwhile, there are many circulation
> workers on whom lengthened work days have been imposed.  I am thinking
> of telephone workers, postal workers, and workers in transportation.
> (Furthermore, being forced to work two jobs is a way of lengthening
> the work day.)

Many of those production jobs have been exported of course, so
that the same or other capitalists are still making profits from
production, it's just that it's taking place somewhere else. Other
businesses in the US have gone bust entirely of course. I suspect
that much of this is because they supported / serviced the
operations which have up and left town for sunny Mexico :-) Service
industries cannot so easily relocate as they are delivering the end
product to the home population. Their response is therefore
different. They increase the hours of their staff, crack the whip
harder etc.

> Second, logically: if a circulation worker's labor is actually
> socially necessary to the capitalist realizing the surplus value, by
> turning the commodity back into money, then how can the capitalist
> actually go and slash their jobs at will?

They can't do it at will. These tasks are, as you say necessary
(which is different from "productive") so they do keep as many staff
as they need on. But businesses do of course try to make savings
on "office" staff. In small businesses in particular (in New Zealand
80% of staff work in businesses of 10 or less employees) the office
person is often the first to go, or to have a cut in hours. Often
bosses in these situations actually work long hours at home doing
the paperwork, or a wife (usually) does this work gratis.

> Third, theoretically: if capitalists actually do pick and choose among
> which workers to fire and which workers to speed up, on what basis
> would they speed up the production workers and fire the circulation
> workers? They have not read Marx and do not refer to Marx's version of
> the labor theory of value.  Is there any management literature which
> would encourage them to keep the production workers and fire the
> circulation workers?  No, bourgeois management literature consistently
> DE-emphasizes production.

Perhaps, but at ground level, most bosses do know that their staff
produce the profit. They don't always understand that it's the labour
power, (ie, that its v, not the whole c+v), but they do know it's the
workers. They know also, that their receptionist, although essential
to the running of the business, is not actually producing the profit.
Some bosses actually understand it even more clearly than this. I
worked for several years in a small factory producing canvas bags.
My boss costed the products by adding up the raw material costs
plus the labour per bag. He then multiplied this by a percentage for
his profit and so arrived at his selling price (the c+v approach).
When the business was sold, the new boss got advice from an
insurance broker / parasitic investment advisor friend of his. He
then recosted everything. Raw material costs were passed on
unmodified. The labour cost was multiplied by three. Voila, new
selling price. The investment advisor explained that the profit was
derived entirely from the productive labour. The boss's revenue and
the office staff's wages were a demand on that profit. The focus
changed from miniscule improvements on the layout of the patterns
on the cloth to standing over the machinists timing their work,
breaking down every process to get precise labour costs and to
speed up production. Later, I read Marx...

  It is tempting to say that the conventional
> wisdom is to fire the production workers and keep the marketing
> people.  Anyway, what I predict they would do is to concentrate on
> eliminating the jobs of the highest-paid workers, the ones who are in
> unions, the more senior workers, and in general on implementing
> whatever organizational and/or technological changes will provide them
> with the same output with a lower wage bill.

Yes, individual businesses will make decisions based on their own
bottom line. They don't care, on an individual level, whether or not
their staff are part of the productive or unproductive sectors, they
just want the best possible return on their capital. It's not
necessarily even about achieving the same output. They might stop
being manufacturers and become importers. Then all their staff
might be unproductive. It doesn't matter to them.

> To clarify the point: suppose the capitalist employs 500 production
> workers and 500 circulation workers.  Let's assume they all get the
> same wages.  The capitalist is presented by his/her advisors with two
> schemes. Scheme A allows them to get the same output with 400
> production workers and 500 circulation workers.  Scheme B allows them
> to get the same output with 500 production workers and 400 circulation
> workers.  Phil would predict that the capitalist would implement
> scheme B, because it allows him/her to retain more surplus value.
> Phil might also predict that the market price would tend to stay the
> same under scheme B, but that it would fall under scheme A. I don't
> see how either thing would really happen, though.  I suggest that the
> two schemes are equivalent, and that the market price tends to fall
> after the implementation of BOTH schemes.

This model is too abstract. As I said before, the individual capitalist
doesn't make the kind of decision proposed above. But capitalism
does attempt to increase production (or at least the rate of
exploitation within it) and at the same time eliminate layers from
the circulation process. Factory-direct prices, elimination of middle-
men and the like, are elements of this process. Things like e-mail,
allowing more efficient stock control and reduced warehousing is
another. They enable someone, either the manufacturer or the
seller or both, to grab a bigger chunk of the surplus value. If it
resulted in a fall in value, there would be no incentive for the
producer or the retailer to eliminate the wholesaler.
So if 300 surplus value was being shared equally between three
equally sized capitalists, producer, wholesaler and retailer they
would receive 100 each. Now if the wholesaler is eliminated,
according to Marx, the remaining two now receive 150 each.
Maybe in the interests of market share they take 140 each and 20
is passed on to the consumer in the form of cheaper goods. If the
circulation process was actually adding value however, we would
now have a reduced surplus value of 200 being shared by producer
and retailer. No improved return for the remaining capitalists and
not even a market share increase. This would suggest if circulation
was value producing, there would be no incentive to eliminate the
cost of circulation. Instead, manufacturing business engages in a
constant love-hate relationship with the "middle men" of the
circulation process, dependent on them yet resentful of their
parasitism, "buying cheap and selling dear" without producing
anything themselves.

The point about the whole division is that it is a division inherent in
capitalism, not in social production per se. If you want the
distinction to be useful, use the theory to explain how the office
workers are still being exploited by the capitalist class as a whole,
and that not only is their "unproductive" work useful, or in fact often
essential, but that even if they didn't exist, conditions for the
"productive" workers would be no better. All that would happen is
that a greater part of the total surplus value would return to the
coffers of the capitalist. Aim to build unity across the blue collar /
white collar divide, not by trying to redefine "unoroductive" work
as"productive" but by emphasising the fact that regardless of the
nature of the work, all workers are collectively exploited as a class
by the capitalists as a class.

So in terms of your plea for someone "coming up with SOME case
in which the production/circulation distinction has actually been
USEFUL to any Marxist agitator, revolutionary strategist,
economist,historian, etc., ANYWHERE, at any time", all I can say
is that in my own small way, I've argued this in workplaces, with
my fellow (blue collar) workers, when they've muttered about the
admin staff. I've emphasised the generalised exploitation of all of us
as a class, against the tendency of my workmates to see the
admin people as part of the enemy. It's been harder the other way
around. I've never had as much time to discuss stuff with the office
people. I hope this hasn't been too vague and waffly!
John Edmundson

> >>

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