the vexed issue (Fwd from Jurriaan)

Julio Huato juliohuato at
Sun Jun 10 10:44:00 MDT 2001

This is from Jurriaan:

>From: Jurriaan Bendien <j.bendien at>
>To: juliohuato at
>Subject: the vexed issue
>Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 17:20:41 +0200
>As I have argued before, an "objective" or "neutral" concept of productive
>labour is not really possible in a class-divided society. In the debate
>about the concept, the question of the generation of wealth gets mixed up
>with the question of the production of value and surplus-value, and the
>question of the social usefulness of labour. That's why it's often so
>I don't fully agree with Shaikh's social accounting concepts because I find
>them in some respects eclectic. For instance Shaikh includes educational
>institutions in the productive sector, meaning that teachers and
>educational administrators produce commodities and create surplus-value. I
>find this a little hard to believe, insofar as most of these institutions
>are not even in the private sector, leaving aside the question whether
>educational services can be considered "commodities" anyhow.
>If, following Shaikh, the wages of unproductive workers are viewed as a
>DEDUCTION from the current flow of surplus-value, then it is difficult to
>maintain simultaneously, as he does, that they are PART of that flow of
>surplus-value, since surplus-value is the residual which remains after all
>production costs are accounted for. And it makes considerable difference
>whether we include those wages in the nominator or in the denominator of
>the rate of surplus-value (Surplus-value divided by variable capital),
>especially in modern times, when the service sector is very large in the
>developed capitalist countries. Implicit in Shaikh's argument is the idea
>that the surplus-labour of productive workers sustains the mass of
>"unproductive workers", as well as the capitalist class, but in fact much
>of the labour of these "unproductive" workers is equally indispensable to
>sustain the productive workers. And unproductive workers may not be paid
>out of currently produced surplus-value at all.
>Marx explicitly says in the first part of Capital Volume 1 that it's the
>physical properties of a commodity that constitute a use-value capable of
>satisfying a (socially recognised) need. I think therefore Marx wanted to
>restrict the region of commodity production in the productive sector to the
>realm of "material production", i.e. activities involved a material
>(physical) transformation of the natural world, generating material wealth.
>But there is a slippage here between the "production of value" to the
>"production of material wealth". And almost any labour will involve some
>"material transformation", even if it is only transferring a file to a
>floppy disc. So "material production" is a bit of a fuzzy concept.
>You may want to argue for instance that getting a haircut involves
>commodity production, but it is not clear that an exchange-value is
>produced, since the haircut - the result or product - which you buy is not
>itself a tradeable object (an exchange-value) in the normal situation; when
>you buy the haircut, the haircutting labour does not exchange against
>capital, but against revenue (to borrow Marx's terminology). It is more an
>instance of social consumption. The only other way out, is to argue that
>the service of cutting hair is itself the commodity (which is what e.g.
>Michael Williams does). In that case, the use-value is not the styled hair,
>but the specific (concrete) labour of haircutting itself, and it is the
>haircutting activity itself which has exchange-value. All of this may seem
>like a lot of "hairsplitting" (to coin a phrase) but it points up the fact
>that the boundaries of the region of commodity production are not really
>clearly and consistently defined by Marx.
>I imagine that Marx would have excluded cases where the production and
>consumption of a commodity coincide from the realm of commodity production,
>since commodity production involves precisely the separation of a use-value
>from the producer (physically and in terms of ownership) for the purpose of
>exchanging that use-value on the market. That is, the production of
>commodities as exchange-values, implies precisely that their production and
>consumption do not coincide, in other words that producers and consumers
>are separate in time and space.
>The argument that armaments etc. cannot be commodities because they are
>"wasteful goods" or a "waste of social labour" or "harmful" from some
>moral, biological or economic point of view does not really wash. Many
>commodities are produced which cater to social needs, the satisfaction of
>which may be regarded as harmful, wasteful or perverse (drugs, arms,
>pollutants, bizarre luxuries etc.). To show that they are not commodities,
>would require showing that they are not produced  as use-values with an
>exchange-value, and sold for profit. But the fact is that they are so
>produced for the market, and used. The socialist critique is rather that
>capitalist society permits and indeed promotes the production of these
>commodities, i.e. alleviates the quest for profit above considerations of
>human health and welfare.
>"Surplus-value" does not refer to any "physical surplus" (as the
>neo-ricardians interpret it) but rather to surplus-labour. But the volume
>of surplus-labour performed is difficult to measure statistically or in
>money units, as are most of Marx's economic concepts.
>In the modern epoch, the world division of labour, which has developed to
>the advantage of the advanced capitalist countries, means that a lot of
>higher "intellectual functions" are concentrated in those countries,
>whereas a lot of the more "material" functions are located in developing
>countries. If therefore you apply a very comprehensive concept of
>productive labour, you might end up arguing that a lot of the labour in the
>advanced countries isn't productive, doesn't add to wealth etc.
>Jurriaan (I did not forward this to the list, but you can if you want).

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