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Thursday, April 15, 2010

if the service worker is a servant, the service economy is the servant economy

In the Library of Babel, no doubt, one can find all the books that drifted through the projects of the great writers – Nietzsche’s book on the Eternal Return of the Same, for instance. Among these books, the one I’d love to read is Marx’s book on Balzac – which, Engels told some correspondent after the Old Moor’s death, was among the projects that were to come after the works on the political economy. How well we know the utopia of "after", the project that is coming up next!

I think the so called “fourth” book of Capital, which Kautsky edited from the notebooks – otherwise known as Theories of Surplus Value – may be Marx at his most Balzacian. For instance, in considering unproductive labor, the example that comes to mind is the mistress – a most Balzacian figure. Whose labor is classically unproductive, in Adam Smith’s sense – it is labor paid entirely out of revenue, or the excess [Ueberschuss] deriving from productive labor.

I’ve been building a case – as my readers may have noticed – that the category of productive/unproductive labor operates inconsistently in Marx – but that once one frees that category from its uniform determination by value, we can see how useful it is in mapping class positions. Although my commentors think I am screwing the pooch, here, and that value theory is aligned with the p/u distinction, I can’t see how this can accommodate the entirety of what Marx says about productive labor. For instance, I can’t see how the policeman – and indeed, all state employees – engage in unproductive labor – that is, their work does not enter into the valorization process of capitalism – while teachers do engage in productive labor. Let me quote a little bit here from a section about the class origins of the revenue upon which unproductive labor lives:

“If according to A. Smith, labor is productive that is directly exchanged against capital, so there comes into question, apart from the form, the material elements of capital which is exchanged against labor. These are dissolved in the necessary means of life; thus mostly in commodities, material things. Whatever the laborer has to pay from his wages to the state and church forms a deduction for services that are forced upon him; what he pays for education is damned little; when he does it, it has a productive effect, because it produces labor power; whatever he spends for doctors, lawyers, priests is paid to misfortune; there remains very few unproductive labors or services wherein the wage of the laborer is dissolved, since he of course cares himself for his own consumption costs (cooking, cleaning the house, and most of the time, even repairs).”

Now, Marx's goal, here, I think, is to show that revenue can be traced to money spent by the laborer and money spent by the capitalist - both have 'extra' money. But the money spent by the capitalist far outweighs that spent by the laborer - the servant occupations will naturally cluster around those at the top of the capitalist food chain. These useful remarks, however, contain an internal echo, a sort of muddying of the categories. For it seems that cooking or cleaning or the work of lawyers and doctors is considered unproductive not simply due to their location in terms of simple circulation, but rather, in contrast to a hierarchy that exists in the ‘necessary means of life’. Hence, education suddenly surges out as an exception to the rule defining the unproductive by the form of the exchange value it lives on. Instead, we find the category wobbling between systematic determinations, responding to the two semantic pulls I mentioned above – one pull being the definition of productive labor in terms of its valorization within capitalism, the other pull being the definition of productive labor in terms of the production of a value for social reproduction. Of course one must remember that Marx’s purpose hangs over this entire discussion, which is to destroy the system that produces value from the bourgeois point of view in the first place.

Yet CK and Nicole’s objections to my interpretation of the productive/unproductive category have made me delve more deeply into what Marx has to say in the TSV, especially with regards to social reproduction – that descendent of what Herder called Bildung. Marx has some surprisingly astute things to say about the origin of the service economy – or, as Marx might call it with more truth, the servant economy. It is, after all, the servant who is disguised in the modern service worker. And his consideration of a society which consists of a plurality of unproductive workers is strikingly prescient of the direction in which capitalism has gone. Here, I think, we might do well to think about Marx in terms of his relation to Balzac – which is very unexplored, especially in comparison to his relation to Hegel. Balzac’s sense of the very grain of servant class’s life – as in Cesar Birotteau – is, I think, a very big influence on Marx’s observations here.


Luke said...

"An actor for example, or even a clown, is according to this a productive laborer when he works in the service of a capitalist, of an entrepreneur, to whom he returns more labor than he takes in the form of his working wage; while a freelance tailor who comes to the capitalists home and makes him a pair of pants and creates for him sheer use-value is an unproductive worker. The labor of the first is exchanged against capital, and the second out of revenue. The first creates a surplus value, when in the second, revenue is consumed."

At the risk of coming across like someone who would prefer Bentley's Milton to Kautsky's Marx, the paragraph above reads like a precis of someone else's theory that Marx does not approve.

First, the clause "is according to this" seems a fairly insipid conclusion to Marx's economics, and a strange way to conclude a theory that is often understood as a practical intervention in theoretical practice, or some such. It would be strange for Marx to revert to a kind of liberal relativism at this point.

Secondly, the term "revenue" in the paragraph is used in the sense of profit, i.e. Marx's surplus value, which is a strange innovation for Marx, and a strange use of the word revenue. Also, Marx is a pedantic writer, and is prone to say things like "the clown is remunerated from the money capital, but does not receive his wage in the form of capital. The form of the the capital has changed from money capital, to a debt to the clown, to return again to money capital, the proceeds of the performance" etc rather than "The labor of the first is exchanged against capital", which is oddly imprecise.

More importantly, according to the theory, the genesis of the capital, i.e. its initial production, would have to be the result of non-capitalist, i.e. unproductive labour, which is absurd.

I was under the impression that unproductive labour was something more akin to pickpocketing than work in the service economy.

I haven't had a chance to read the other commenters' comments yet, so I don't know if I'm saying the same thing.

I didn't know about Marx's Balzac. It would have been a good one.

roger said...

Luke, but we must begin at the beginning. Revenue might be the result of surplus labor, but it is not identical with surplus labor - that is, it is that part of capital that is not reinvested. This is true for the capitalist and for the worker. And as for relativism, this is the entire method of Capital - to relate terms to their place in the system. That's the heart of dialectics - otherwise, you simply have a model, which is the idol of the neo-classical economists - but not of Marx.
But I do agree with you about Marx's Balzac.

Anonymous said...

It's almost quitting time for this week, so I'm going to squeeze out/in a hasty comment. Adressed to two connected points, the servant economy and, at root, Marx alleged superstition regarding mass-production of objects.

Marx very point is that the service economy is *not* a servant economy. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but the essential distinction between the historical and social specificities of the two relations is whether or not the physical work produces surplus value for a capitalist.

The servant economy is effectively the feudal economy. As I argued in the discussion on 'Wages,' the entire discussion of wages aims to disabuse workers of this very confusion.

In "The Process of Capitalist production" a.k.a. vol 1, Marx exemplifies the definition of 'commodities' with the tanglible products familiar to his intended audience. But his discussion, just like his discussion in 'Wages,' actually concerns itself with the one preeminent commodity in capitalism, the commodity without which there can be no capitalism - labor-power.
Labor-power never exists as an object. It cannot exist as an object. All three volumes expand on the ramified consequences of the sale of labor-power for the purpose of appropriating surplus value.
Labor-power provides the conceptual point of departure, just as the working masses provide the practical point of departure.

The argument that a thing no longer functions as thing in capitalism serves as the tangible analogy for the revolutionized role of the worker in capitalism. Workers no longer produce useful goods and services, they produce surplus value. Marx wants them to grasp the difference.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Mr. C.K., I made an intemperate reply, but then I thought there's no need for that.

I don't think you address the issue at all, though. You don't address the passage in Marx, consistent with many,many other passages in Marx, nor do you bother to tell me what it could mean that education - of all government services - is productive.

Your argument that Marx makes productive labor synonymous with value creating labor I have no problem with. In fact, I say it myself. My contention is that Marx is inconsistent. You simply haven't addressed that at all. The idea that I will explain Marx by saying what Marx "wants" to say to the worker, and that settles that, is precisely the style of interpretation I have been trying to take down. For exactly the reason that it simply doesn't deal with the text, it doesn't deal with inconsistencies, and it doesn't deal with why those inconsistencies can be interesting. Marx speaks of the difference between the factory laborer - the factory girl and - her sister - the maid - or brother, the policeman - and the latter are definitely of the servant class. And - as per my argument - this leads him to speak of their class habits and routines

"Das Verhältnis der produktiven und unproduktiven Klassen hänge nicht von dem Verhältnis von Kapital und Revenue ab oder vielmehr von dem Verhältnis der Masse der vorhandenen Waren die in der Form von Kapital oder Revenue verausgabt werden sondern von den Sitten und Gewohnheiten des Volkes von dem Stande seiner Industrie."

So, to contradict you, the service economy is the servant economy. My post has the right title. It reflects exactly what Marx is talking about. The idea that I can find this moment in Marx where now it is all summed up, and this is what he wants to tell the worker is, I think, simply wrong.

duncan said...

Well Roger! It took me long enough to find the passage that you quote in the post [it's in section 8 of chapter 4 of volume I of ToSV]. Chuckie K is right, imo. This passage (which is really a fragment; I don't know why you quote this rather than the much expanded discussions of the same themes that occupy earlier sections of the chapter) is recapitulating, in the sentences that bother you, content that can also be found in section 4 of the same chapter, among other places. The point is very different from the one you attribute to Marx. Very briefly, because I can't get sucked back into this dispute for a few days at least: Marx (in this whole long segment of the book) is discussing an incoherence he's located in Adam Smith. On the one hand, Smith (rightly) considers the productive / unproductive distinction to be one of social role: Marx agrees with this - what counts is whether the labour in question is contributing to the valorisation of capital (producing surplus value - or at least intended to do so). Smith errs, however, in then aligning this question of social role with the distinction between producing physical commodities for direct consumption, and being a commodity for direct consumption (or one's activity being a use-value for direct consumption) - i.e. having a service role. Marx rightly points out that this latter distinction doesn't in fact map on to the productive / unproductive distinction at all. It can, however, appear to map, if you're not thinking things through properly, because service jobs are not productive labour from the point of view of consumers. (If I get a massage, the labour of the masseur is not valorising my money for me - I've spent my money, it's gone (from my point of view), and I've received a use-value in return. From the point of view of the capitalist who owns the massage parlour, however, the very same labour of the masseur is valorising the firm's capital, because the wages spent on the masseur's labour are bringing in revenue (my money).) Two different senses of 'unproductive labour' are being conflated, by Smith, for reasons that can be explained by our everyday perceptions of different kinds of work, but that are nonetheless enormously unhelpful for the analysis of capitalism.


duncan said...

Marx's point: the right distinction is the first one - the one that Chuckie K has been drawing. Political economists like Smith, however, are inclined to view certain forms of labour as unproductive because they don't appear to 'make' anything - they don't appear to spit out any valuable commodity: service jobs seemingly just swallow up your money and generate no value in return - and via this perception the real distinction gets clouded and muddled. As always, Marx is interested in showing the limited 'social validity' of political-economic discourse - explaining why certain errors are plausible and even, in a bounded sense, accurate, given capitalist social dynamics. Smith's 'unproductive labour = service jobs' error (which he by no means always falls into, Marx emphasises), can be shown to be correct in a certain limited sense, but Marx is also demonstrating the ways in which it's wrong.

That's the context in which Marx aligns service industries with unproductive labour (and singles out education as something that can from one perspective be more obviously productive, because it increases the skills of the consumer (a worker), and enables them better to valorise capital in their job). There's no inconsistency here except Smith's, which Marx is very characteristically redeploying for his own purposes.

Another point: it's worth noting that in these sections Marx is also drawing the distinction between service industries - where firms or individuals invest in labour to provide services, so that consumers will spend their revenue on those services, and this revenue will generate profit for the firm [a hotel is an example] - and servant relationships, where the servant is hired directly, and paid directly out of the hirer's revenue, and where this payment therefore does not contribute to a circuit of valorisation that includes the servant's labour. This servant labour is therefore unproductive in both of Smith's senses.

This is far from meaning that, for Marx, "the service economy is the servant economy", however.

duncan said...

[Should add that I'm not meaning to speak for Chuckie K above - our reads may differ. I'd never worked through these bits of Marx before, so it's nice to be prompted to.]

roger said...

Well, duncan and Mr. CK, I think you are wrong in your reading of Marx and even wrong in your reading of this argument. The argument is not that Marx aligns the definitions of productive and unproductive labor with the labor theory of value. The argument is that this alignment is inconsistent.

I've noticed that Mr. CK does not mention education, which of course is part of my post. It is rather incovenient to mount a defense of my position when the evidence for it is totally ignored.

Nevertheless, Marx, over and over again, speaks of the feudal retinue of the bourgeoisie, and by this he means the servant class, n which he puts the politeman, the maid and perfumer. To read him otherwise is to read him through the gauze of a mystifying hermeneutic in which one "knows" what Marx "wants" - such a delightful communion of spirits!

I'll write more about this in another post - but to sum up: there is no fragmentation here - Marx, rather brilliantly, speaks of dividing the population between the productive laborers and those who work in unproductive laborer, imagining a future in which the latter outnumber the former by 3 to 1. Now, this makes no sense on your accunt - how would it even be possible for unproductive labor, defined wholly by way of direct exchange out of what Smith calls revenue, to exist? Unless, of course, there are two definitions of productive/unproductive at work here.

Again, this is not an argument, and never was an argument, that Marx does not define productive labor as the equivalent of labor that if fully valorized in the Capitalist system - that is, defined by all the characteristics that make for surplus value. Rather, the argument is that try as he will, he can't quite make that alignment work.

And the further argument is that this inconsistency is Marx's way of bumping up against the difference between social reproduction and the reproduction process of capital.

So: yes, the service economy is the servant economy according to Mars. No, Marx is not consistent on theis point. And finally, it is a little thick to accuse me of 'fragmenting' texts when my opponents in argument have dispensed with quoting any texts at all.

roger said...

I'll do a post about gathering ye fragments where ye may, beginning with what Marx clearly says about value in Capital, Book 2 - although I know that, because it violates what Marx "wants" to say, he hardly wrote it at all - and going through the "fragments" in the section on productive and unproductive labor in Theories of Surplus Value, where he says - not, of course, meaning to say this, this must be an alter-Marx - that education is productive labor because of its material content - and we will then go through Marx's definition of productive and unproductive labor as derived from his reinterpretation of Smith's revenue/capital distinction.

It will be fragmentomania!

duncan said...

Well I was responding to the text you quoted - placing it in what, on my read of this section of ToSV, is its context. My comments are basically meant to be a synopsis of the argument of the early sections of chapter 4 of that work. I realise I didn't quote the sections of text I'm aiming to paraphrase and compress - that's largely because the comment boxes are small and life is short. I think I could, if you really want me to?

I should add that I don't really have much investment in whether or not Marx is consistent on productive / unproductive labour - or indeed in my read of this chapter, which I only just arrived at prompted by your post. Personally I have no love for these categories, and wouldn't be at all surprised if Marx does balls them up somehow. I was surprised how coherent the ToSV discussion is, however.

duncan said...

this makes no sense on your accunt - how would it even be possible for unproductive labor, defined wholly by way of direct exchange out of what Smith calls revenue, to exist?

I don't see why you see this as an issue for my interpretation?

Unless, of course, there are two definitions of productive/unproductive at work here.

Yes - there are two definitions of productive / unproductive at work here. That's what the much of chapter 4 of ToSV is about - the fact that Smith, and various political economists following him, have two different definitions of the productive / unproductive distinction operating, that the definitions don't map onto each other, and that the political economists are therefore confused. I realise you think that Marx also messes this up, and I'm in principle willing to be convinced, but I don't see it in the text we're discussing - at least not yet. Marx seems consistent to me.

I can, however, see how he'd look inconsistent if one mistakes his tracking of the changes of definition in the texts he's examining for shifts in his own position.

duncan said...

(I should probably say, also, that I'm not myself making any claims about Adam Smith, whose work I don't know well enough to judge whether Marx is right. I'm just aiming to paraphrase Marx's analysis in this segment of text.)

duncan said...

Unless, of course, there are two definitions of productive/unproductive at work here.

Marx (start of ch. 4):

In Adam Smith’s definition of what he calls productive labour as distinguished from unproductive labour, we find the same two-sided approach as we have found on every question up to now. Jumbled together in his presentation we find two definitions of what he calls productive labour

duncan said...

My comment about 'fragment' wasn't meant to prevent discussion of the text you quote, by the way. I was just meaning that this is a freestanding paragraph, and I think it's easier to unpack its contents by referring to other sections of the text where Marx says the same thing at greater length. That's what I was aiming to do in my comments.

I have no objection to quoting any section of Marx one wishes, and no desire to sweep awkward passages under the carpet (there's plenty of stuff I disagree with Marx about, or consider him to have messed up) - but the interpretation of any section needs to take account of the context of the larger work. I felt that this was missing in your discussion of this passage.

roger said...

Sorry, Duncan, for the testiness of my tone - I felt you were simply dismissing me in a way that I thought was unfair, but... this may have more to do with not getting enough sleep yesterday!

Today, I have.
That is gotten some sleep.
Anyway - this whole discussion has made me change certain first impressions about this issue. At first I was wondering what the point of the whole distinction is. Why was it necessary to save Smith, here, from his attackers?
But the more I've thought about Marx's formulations of the productive/unproductive category, the more I think that we can see, here, how Marx works - how a category that he seems to define becomes dialecticized. In my post yesterday, I lay out what I see as the three formulations of the category. This is sort of an exemplary instance of what I mean by revolution as a truth procedure: one begins with a nice 'feeling' about productive labor, and a feeling that 'unproductive' labor is somehow parasitic. This is really Smith's standpoint.
But then, for Marx, the point - the point of changing this world - is to destroy the very machinery that makes for productive labor, as defined by Smith - as defined by the capitalist viewpoint.

This allows us to develop dialectically (but not deduce) another formulation of the distinction. This does have to do with social reproduction. Although I haven't gotten to this point yet, it is here that we have the inklinngs of a way of looking at the politics of class that is more sophisticated than the capitalist idea that it is in the economic interest of any class to 'make more'. This kind of liberal-left analysis is always bemoaning the fact that working class people vote wrongly because they are deceived by 'cultural issues'.

If however we have a different, and more detailed map of class based upon where, in the capitalist system, the labor is being sold - then we can analyse politics and culture with a sense of how the worker's location is sensitive to that position.

On the one hand, you have the proletarization of all labor in the capitalist system, and on the other hand, you have shifts in the concentration of labor that you can see with the productive/unproductive distinction.