Thursday, April 08, 2010

metaphysical subtleties

I’m most dissatisfied with the fact that, in the interesting comments in my post on circulation work, I squirted a darkness as of squid ink over the issue at hand.

Since the point is important – the place (or not) of productive and unproductive labor in Marx – I’m going to make a brief post that will only make sense to those who’ve read the comments thread.

I think the question is mired, a bit, in another issue. Undoubtedly, capitalism contains a heterogenous mix of incompletely capitalist economic forms. A woman who works as a maid, or a groom in the stable on a rich man’s estate, are not much different than a craftsman who runs his own shop. What Marx calls simple circulation locates a stage in the development of capitalism, in which the valorization process is, as it were, immature. The maid’s service in the house is paid for immediately. If she is exploited, it is not because the people who pay her are using her to create capital – at least directly. As a self employed person, she may use some of her earnings to buy some of her own supplies. Or she may buy a lottery ticket. The thing is, from the point of view of the bourgeois economy, she does not produce value in the full sense of the term.

But what if this maid finds the backing to hire other maids, and starts a maid service?

Here I think is where the controversy starts.

The maids are performing the same service –cleaning. The maid company contracts with customers and pays the maids. At this point, I think, we have three points of view.

1. The maid’s service itself, cleaning, produces no value, because cleaning itself is not a productive activity. It is a non-productive service. Although the maids have commodified their time, this has no bearing on the question at hand. The maid service – that is, the company – produces no value. This seems, at least, to be hinted at in the Grundrisse.
2. The maid service, cleaning, does produce value, and thus we have capitalism with all the trimmings. Productive and unproductive labor refers, then, to stages in the development of capitalist enterprise, not to the output of any particular enterprise. The maid’s service company produces value. In the full sense of the word.
3. The maid service does produce value for the cleaning service, but – this is my position – Marx sometimes uses the category of productive and unproductive value in such a way that he artificially separates the maid’s cleaning service from, say, the toy manufacturer. But, I contend, he is inconsistent about this. In the end, he doesn’t come down with a clear distinction between a maid service company and a toy manufacturer.

My view, of course, is 3. Unproductive versus productive labor – which, as Marx says in the Grundrisse, is, from the bourgeois point of view, correctly separated by Adam Smith – seems to me to unhelpfully intrude on the story of the genesis of the commodity. In the back of my mind, I am thinking of the fetish for industrialism of the communist economies – my suspicion being that they picked up on this distinction, and it became one of the drivers in the process of trying to produce a certain kind of proletariat, one concentrated in heavy industry.

But for all that, there is still something at the bottom of the productive/non-productive distinction which has some hold not only in the economy, but in our social practices. Take Maricopa, Arizona. I’ve mentioned Maricopa before – this NYT article about the place was burned into my brain cells. Most of the economic activity in Maricopa was building houses for other people to buy – from outside Maricopa. In a sense, the only reason to live in Maricopa was to sell other people on living in Maricopa. This reflexivity, and the lack of endogenous “industry”, seems to cry out for the word, unproductive. Just as circulation work seems to valorize valorization, so, too, certain forms of labor seem ‘parasitic’ on other forms of labor, so that one wants to organize one’s analysis around a hierarchy, going from the productive to the unproductive.

Yet I think, ultimately, this is a reversion to superstition. One must resolutely remember that one’s point of view about the usefulness of a product or service has no bearing on its use-value, which is an objective matter. Thus, one only wants to find mature valorization – not just the exchange of money, but the full circuit that entails surplus value and the reproduction of capital – and say, this is productive labor in a fully developed capitalist system.


N. Pepperell said...

Hey roger - back again and even groggier than this morning :-) But for what it's worth, on this:

What Marx calls simple circulation locates a stage in the development of capitalism, in which the valorization process is, as it were, immature.

Simple circulation is not a stage for Marx; it's a moment of a more complicated process. All of the things described in Capital, unless specifically brought in as historical retrospectives, are understood to happen within fully-developed capitalism, and to be essential, in some way, to the continued reproduction of capital as a whole.

The issue is that the reproduction process as a whole is quite complex, and its various moments - if looked at in isolation - imply very different things about how society operates.

Simple circulation is, for Marx, a particular moment within a more complex process of expansion. It's not that you have simple circulation, and then a more complex process of circulation develops. It's that the things Marx's describes as simple circulation occur - within capitalism - as moments of an already more complex whole.

Certain forms of theory, and certain forms of everyday consciousness, don't recognise this. They look on simple circulation as something self-contained - or, if this comes to seem untenable, they look on it as a historical remnant - as something that used to be self-sufficient, and that has remained, in remnant form, in capitalism today.

This is not Marx's own position, although it's a position he explores in Capital in order to criticise it. His position is that the things currently associated with "simple circulation" are specifically capitalist, even if they are taken not to be: they are already inexorably contaminated with elements that index them to capitalist production. He takes some pains to point this out explicitly in chapters 2 and 3 of Capital.

Again, this isn't to say there isn't something problematic about the productive/unproductive labour distinction - just to say that I don't think Marx is trying to pick out a historical distinction between capitalist and pre-capitalist forms by using these terms. I should probably say more, but groggy... :-)

Anonymous said...

The maid service does not seem so ambiguous to me. Two of the features that define capital are employing a relatively large number of workers and employing a capital large enough to allow its self-reproduction. Both quantities change with time and circumstance, but it is the form of the work and not its substance that results in the production of 'value.'

Chuckie K