Productive and Unproductive Labour

Lou Paulsen wwchi at
Mon Oct 30 21:05:48 MST 2000

-----Original Message-----
From: Philip Ferguson <plf13 at>
To: marxism at <marxism at>
Date: Monday, October 30, 2000 4:38 PM
Subject: Productive and Unproductive Labour

(OK, Phil Ferguson to his credit takes up my challenge:)

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

First, though, he feels called upon to reassure me that the "unproductive"
workers are no less useful human beings, and that the distinction is not a
moral one:

>  Marx's analysis is not a moral one - it is an analysis
>based on who *produces surplus-value* in capitalist society.
>For instance, firefighters who save your house from burning down
>are doing more socially useful work than workers in an armaments factory.

Phil... I knew that.  Please don't reassure me any more.  My concern isn't
for the wounded feelings of the truckers and firefighters.  It is that, as
you say:

>Moreover, in a society organised around the production of surplus-value, it
>is rather essential to know exactly who produces surplus-value.

It would seem so.

Phil then goes on to cite two supposed areas where the distinction is of
practical importance.  His second one, though, doesn't really count.  He
says that you can accomplish certain things by telling professors that the
factory workers are paying their way.  But this is clearly independent of
whether the statement is false or true.

So let's move on to his other example, which actually WOULD answer all my
objections.. if I believed it.

Phil asserts:

>When the rate of profit falls, the ruling class has to cut down on the
>amount of surplus-value which goes to paying the wages of non-productive
>workers and which is being spent on areas which do not produce
>surplus-value.  Thus understanding the difference is important for
>predicting the scale of attacks on workers who do not produce
>Whereas in the sphere of surplus-value production, the attacks will be
>aimed at increasing the rate of exploitation, the attacks on non-productive
>workers may aim at eliminating as many of the non-productive workers as
>possible.  At a practical level, it's important for Marxist agitators to be
>aware of what is coming for non-productive workers.

OK, this is a concrete prediction based on the production/circulation
distinction.  Or, well, it MAY be concrete.  Phil says that when the rate of
profit falls, the bosses will try to fire "as many of the non-productive
[circulation] workers as possible."  And we Marxist agitators should go warn
them of this.  Whereas in the case of the production workers, the bosses
will NOT try to fire as many of them as possible, but will merely "increase
the rate of exploitation."  I ASSUME that Phil means that the boss will try
to cut their wages and/or lengthen their work day and/or make their work
more productive.  Another way of "increasing the rate of exploitation" would
be to fire half of them and make the other half do twice the work, but this
would obliterate the distinction he is trying to make between production and
circulation workers.  Therefore we Marxist agitators can presumably reassure
the production workers that they don't stand to lose their jobs, but that
the boss will try to work them harder.

This is what is predicted, says Phil, if it is true that surplus value comes
only from the production workers and not from the workers of circulation.

I believe, however, that Phil's prediction does not come true in practice,
and would be very surprised if he had any hard date suggesting that it does.

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.)

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?

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.  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.

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.

Are there data that would confirm Phil's predictions?

Lou Paulsen

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