the vexed issue of productive labour in a modern setting

Greg Schofield gschofield at
Fri Jun 8 01:12:34 MDT 2001

Jurriaan an excellent post and a lovely rendition of classic theory (and
number of "recent" debates I was very cloudy on). By the way I hope
everyone noted the line:

"It is rather trivial if unproductive labour amounts to only 5 percent of
the labour force, but it is a different story if it is 50 percent or more."

You repeated it for effect I would shout it from the rooftops. The question
of non-productive labour is no longer trivial!!!

There are contradictions here so many, so pregnant with possibilities, that
it needs to be underscored a dozen times. Non-productive labour,
capitalistically employed (I mean no other sort) is not only huge but
hugely concentrated in the First World.

Personally I have no theoretical objections, or practical for that matter,
acknowledging this form capital cost coming out of the surplus value
generated elsewhere - it does not turn these workers into capitalists as
apparently Murray worries about. Well the way I would put it comes out of
capital itself where the surplus resides.

The major contradiction is that so much labour is expended in circulation
(or as I would put it in realising profit from the surplus value created).
It is amazing, recent, almost beyond belief that we could have 50% or more
of a workforce occupied in such a way - how productive we have become and
how we waste that productivity, the contradiction between the relations of
production and the power to produce is massive.

I said before that it is a political question I am most interested in,
moreover, the workers caught up in non-productive labour, many of them in
factory like conditions, may not be strictly speaking exploited at all but
are doubly alienated. They find themselves doing meaningless work, work
which provides not even the small satisfaction of knowing that it resides
in something beyond themselves, they excrete pure money - it is an odd
position for so many to find themselves in.

When they go home, they find themselves in the same position as productive
workers, a society which is anything but human, a social life that could
benefit by labour but does not, not at least, in a way that is of interest
to them. The contradiction they face co-jointly with their productive
co-workers is the unforgivable waste of it all, waste in so many
dimensions, waste that is daily rubbed in their faces. Unconsciously,
sometimes consciously, there is an implicit critique, a desire to have a
more human reality in which to live and work. The non-productive worker
stands within a desolate landscape, jogging on the spot - while the
productive worker in the same landscape busily pulls huge burdens along - a
least that is my picture of it.

The contradiction, the one which is so bursting with potential, is that the
only level where these two groups of workers can come together is at the
political, they share the same desolate landscape, that is their common lot
- the jogger has to stop and lend a hand, the busy puller has to look up
and deposit the burden where it may do some good, on this both workers have
their common purpose and share the same interest. In everything human, that
is social and therefore political, their interests coincide, economically
(the immediate first movements to break free) they do not conflict, what
benefits one is something for the other to aspire.

In this immediate economic struggle is also joint struggle if for no other
reason than it creates the aspiration to live in better circumstances. The
reverse is true, succumbing to what is imposed, becoming resigned to how
things are simply maintains the absurdity, the sweated labour will continue
to sweat and ever more joggers will be brought into the landscape.

  Jurriaan forgive my silly analogies and getting so far off-topic, my
point is:

"It is rather trivial if unproductive labour amounts to only 5 percent of
the labour force, but it is a different story if it is 50 percent or more."

Not trivial and the clearest possible illustration of the productive forces
being in conflict with the relations of production. The massive,
unprecedented growth of profit realising non-productive labour is so wildly
anti-capitalist (that is in the tradition of the idealised capitalist of
Capital), so beyond good economic sense (that is in the sense of a working
Mode of Production), that its reason can only be found deeply imbedded in
this history of the relations of production and the development of property.

  Jurriaan I am not saying anything to disagree with you, though you may
not agree or like my elaborations. On one matter only I do take a very
different approach and that is on the information technology.

At 10:50  7/06/01 +0200, you wrote:
>A commodity, says Marx, has both a use-value and an exchange-value. Marx
>explicitly defines the use-value of a commodity in terms of the physical
>attributes of a tradeable object which is capable of satisfying human
>needs or wants. He wants to say this object is not an object in thought,
>but in tangible material reality. If we were to say that a use-value is
>the "useful effect" of a tradeable object, then it would seem that at some
>point we must leave the materialist terrain and enter the terrain of
>subjective (marginal utility) theory. Because whether or not a commodity
>has a "useful effect" can be a purely subjective matter.

There is no disagreement here, except to add some other dimensions to the
commodity. In the example of a plentiful supply of a material in one place
and its scarcity in another. To make this into a commodity, one need only
pick it up and take it to the place where it is scarce. Some labour accrues
to the object, if only the labour of picking it up and transporting it.
Scarcity may set its relative value in exchange well beyond the labour
involved. However, could it be a commodity where no actual labour is
exerted? Obviously not.

What then is the origin in labour theory of the exchange value? If the
labour exchanges be roughly equivalent, then it is a pure economic exchange
and poses no problem. Now if the same local resources is protected
militarily and traded very modestly at the highest price the market will
bear then the amount of actual labour may well be inconsequential as
compared to the amount of labour gained in return. We have here a tributory
relationship which depends and is defined by extra-economic forces.

When we look at information as a form of commodity one aspect is just how
much economics is involved and how much is a by product of force? That is
one question.

The next is the labour expended in gaining the information, is this accrued
to the object being sold?

Next, is it the information which becomes the commodity, or the form in
which the information is kept which is the commodity?

Is the information itself commodised, or only the form, presumable if it is
the later, wrong information would spoil the commodity, while correct
information would not. But if the latter is correct then what matters is
not the information so much as just the form. For instance is the use-value
in the information itself or in the form which the information comes in?

Like Alice it becomes stranger and stranger. The information is a
componant, the labour needed to create the information is there, then there
is the form, the contract if you like and the material means of conveying
the information.

Lets forget the means of conveying as unimportant and we are left with 1)
the "productive" labour which creates the information. 2) the information
itself. 3) the form in which the information is sold - the contract. 4) the
"non-productive labour" which realises point 3.

Now for information to become a commodity it would have to be traded like
any other, that is regardless of the form (the contract of sale). However,
the form is what is being bought and sold, rather some the exclusiveness of
the form, without extra-economic force the information could not be sold,
just the means of conveyance.

Old fashion copyright served a social purpose to promote spiritual
production by ensuring the producer gained, it is useful and I defend it as
a very practical solution to a problem, but nothing gets away from the fact
that it is an extra-economic tributory relationship, it is just one that I
happen to approve of the social purpose (in general) and thus sanction

Social life is full of tributory relationships which ensure that
commodities are available to where they are socially necessary (in an ideal
world that is).

But let us now return to the question:

>Can information be a commodity ? Of course, provided it is in a form so
>that it is a tradeable object, preferably a form in which you can
>mass-produce it for a mass of consumers.

Like a book, then that is fine, but what you are buying is the book (costs
of production plus surplus of book production), before copyright this may
or may not include the information producer. With copyright, ideally, it
must under various proviso's all of which are extra-economic but not
without economic effect.

>You have to be able to separate it from the producer, and attach private
>property rights to it (be able to monopolise it). For this, it may have to
>have some material substratum.

Obviously not only applicable to books but also the new medium as well, I
am in total agreement. Could I add, that if our social purpose is that the
new medium becomes richer then the are many ways this could be achieved
(all of which would have particular economic effects). Ideally I would like
authors to receive some payment (minute fractions of a cent per minute paid
out of the service providers revenue - it will not happen in this social
formation however). However, again this is within the idea that it is an
extra-economic force being applied for a social purpose.

>The political economy of information (the mode of exploitation of
>information) hasn't really been well analysed by Marxists, which is one
>reason Marxism is no longer so popular in educated circles. One of the
>first people who explicitly analysed information as a commodity was
>Kenneth Boulding, but he wasn't a Marxist.

I am in agreement but also ignorant so I have to leave this point.

>Potentially information exchange provides a boundless source of
>exploitation and profits, within all sorts of subtle exchange
>transactions, but this potential may not be realised, because of the
>nature of information itself, and the nature of human beings, which may be
>difficult to adjust to this fully. Some may adjust to it because they have
>to, others may not. It is an open question, information economics as a
>specialised science is only just starting to get going, it's a relatively
>new field of enquiry.

I think this is where the politics of political-economy really enters in
full historical force. Trying to pin down this emergent feature by reducing
it to the labour theory of value is not productive, trying to pin aspects
down as to the latter developments of the property form (that part
explicitly maintained by the state apparatus) is in my view the productive
way to proceed.

>The reason why I think information can be an "unstable commodity" is (1)
>because it may be difficult to monopolise it (e.g. Napster),  (2)  it may
>be difficult to extract it from the producer, within the framework of
>conventional bourgeois law (personal rights, privacy rights, intellectual
>property rights etc.), and (3) its use-value may vary to extremes or
>reduce to zero, in the space of less than minute, so that its exchange
>value is lost or suddenly jumps to a fantastically high level (e.g. the
>stock exchange).  As soon as somebody "lets out the secret" as it were,
>the information ceases to be monopolised, it ceases of be the private
>property of an owner, and what is worse it may lose its use-value altogether.

Now these particulars of the form of information exchange do cut to the
heart of the problem and again drive us to the property form itself and I
would argue the much bigger more political facets of modern tributory

>Personally I do not think all of Marx's ideas of productive labour in
>capitalist society can be sustained at the same time, they are not
>consistent. I think the only acceptable solution is to say that all labour
>is "productive" from a capitalist point of view simply if it generates
>profits for the employer engaged in the exploitation of that labour,
>regardless of whether transfers of surplus-value occur or not, and
>regardless of the form that profit takes (rent, interest or whatever).
>Such is the economic valuation of labour from a capitalist point of view.
 >From a socialist point of view the definition may be quite different, of
>course, because a different scheme of valuation is applied. A socialist
>might question, does this activity really contribute to material or human
>wealth, or reduce it, and so on.

Now on this solution I strongly disagree, grant you I can see the logic of
the position, I am not arguing that this is some huge error but it is to my
mind wrong.

The error is misplacing the abstract logic of Capital, forcing it to absorb
concrete realities directly without going through the spiralling process of
concretising in order to abstract in order to concretise. To this end it is
beyond my personal capabilities to do so, but the general route lies in
exploring the development of the property form, explicitly the rule and
nature of modern bourgeois rule. I would emphasize the tributory
relationship in terms of property relations. On classic Marx, on the labour
theory of value, we need it where it is in order to trace the transference
of value which holds the system together, if we expand it past its point of
essential logic then we will lose all possibility of this insight and end
up with just some truisms.

To my mind what all this underscores is the tremendous productivity our
society (world society) has reached, that even sweated labour added to
increased productivity of the means of production blows out an enormous
amount of commodities, while the use of sweated labour reduces the variable
component and artificially heightens the rate of profit. But in terms of
potential labour the whole thing sits on a pin head of those producing
material commodities which we consume for I agree so much with the
contradictions found in your statement:

"It is rather trivial if unproductive labour amounts to only 5 percent of
the labour force, but it is a different story if it is 50 percent or more."

If we fail to grasp that we fail to see the Mode of Production as it has
evolved and the potential of new relations of production contained within.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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