Reply to critics - three formulations of productive labor

I have been following what I take to be an inconsistency in Marx’s application of the notion of productive and unproductive labor – for which I’ve received rather puzzling feedback by two commentors, Duncan and Chuckie K., in my next to last post. I find it puzzling because the response doesn’t address the argument at all – that is, doesn’t deny the inconsistency – but simply insists, in spite of numerous textual instances in Marx that I’ve included (from Capital 2 and from the Theories of Surplus Value) that Marx only and always identifies productive labor as follows:

(A) “Where all labor is partially recompensed by itself as is the agricultural labor of sharecroppers [Fronbauern] for example, and is partly exchanged against revenue as the manufacturing work of cities in Asia, no Capital exists and no wage labor in the sense of the bourgeois economy. These determinations, thus, do not derive from the material routine [Leistung] of work nor from the nature of their products nor the routines of work as concrete work, but instead from the particular social forms of the social relations of production in which they are realized [sich verwirklichen]

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.” [259]

But of course Marx does, as I’ve shown, define productive and unproductive labor from the material routine of work. Here he derives it from a material routine, even granting that the laborer is not simply exchanging labor powr for ‘revenue’:

(B) In order to simplify the matter (since we shall not discuss the merchant as a capitalist and merchant’s capital until later) we shall assume that this buying and selling agent is a man who sells his labour. He expends his labour-power and labour-time in the operations C — M and M — C. And he makes his living that way, just as another does by spinning or making pills. He performs a necessary function, because the process of reproduction itself include unproductive functions. He works as well as the next man, but intrinsically his labour creates neither value nor product. He belongs himself to the faux frais of production. His usefulness does not consist in transforming an unproductive function into a productive one, nor unproductive into productive labour. It would be a miracle if such transformation could be accomplished by the mere transfer of a function. His usefulness consists rather in the fact that a smaller part of society’s labour-power and labour-time is tied up in this unproductive function. More. We shall assume that he is a mere wage-labourer, even one of the better paid, for all the difference it makes. Whatever his pay, as a wage-labourer he works part of his time for nothing. He may receive daily the value of the product of eight working-hours, yet functions ten. But the two hours of surplus-labour he performs do not produce value anymore than his eight hours of necessary labour, although by means of the latter a part of the social product is transferred to him. In the first place, looking at it from the standpoint of society, labour-power is used up now as before for ten hours in a mere function of circulation. It cannot be used for anything else, not for productive labour. In the second place however society does not pay for those two hours of surplus-labour, although they are spent by the individual who performs this labour. Society does not appropriate any extra product or value thereby. But the costs of circulation, which he represents, are reduced by one-fifth, from ten hours to eight. Society does not pay any equivalent for one-fifth of this active time of circulation, of which he is the agent. But if this man is employed by a capitalist, then the non-payment of these two hours reduces the cost of circulation of his capital, which constitute a deduction from his income. For the capitalist this is a positive gain, because the negative limit for the self-expansion of his capital-value is thereby reduced. So long as small independent producers of commodities spend a part of their own time in buying and selling, this represents nothing but time spent during the intervals between their productive function or diminution of their time of production. [Capital, Book 2, chapter 6 -]

And here productive labor is defined not by its capitalization, but by its supplying a necessary product:

[C] “… what he [the laborer] pays for education is damned little; when he does it, it has a productive effect, because it produces labor power.”

C creates no surplus value – or, if we stretch the idea of creating surplus value that far, anybody could be said to – the tailor making pants in Marx’s A example could be producing necessary “labor equipment”, i.e. pants, for the laborer, and so on. [B] I have already discussed. In sum, there is no way to reconcile this category under one heading. To try to do requires either torturing the meaning out of these texts, or requires pretending that they don’t exist, because we know what Marx really wants, even though, babbling fool, he left these unsightly and fragmentary quotations.

This is foolish. Marx did not retain Smith’s idea of the productive and unproductive labor simply to define it in terms of A – that would make the distinction not only trivial, but would mire Capital in the bourgeois point of view which, as Marx says, gives the distinction its sense.

What is interesting here is not the coherence of the distinction, but the incongruities between A, B, and C. It was out of the wobble between definitions that Marx built up a picture of what today’s servant economy looks like. Marx could actually imagine tailors or maids being employees of services in which they would be paid by the service – in which case they would be productive workers, according to A:

“On the other side, assume that capital has taken over production completely – that thus commodities (in distinction from simple use value) is no longer produced by some worker who possesses himself the means of production to the production of this commodity – that thus only the capitalist remains as the producer of commodities ( only the single commodity of labor power excepted), so must revenue be exchanged either against commodities, that capital alone produces and sells, or against labor, that is bought just like these commodities, in order to be consumed, thus simply according to the material determination [stoffliche Bestimmtheit], for the sake of their use value, for the sake of the service, that they produce in their material determination for their buyer and consumer. They have a determinate use value (imaginary or real) and a determinate exchange value. But for the buyer these services are mere use values, objects, with which he consumes his revenue. It is not for nothing that these unproductive workers [my italics] keep their share of the revenue (of wages and profits), their share of the commodities produced by productive labor; they must buy it, but they have nothing to do with its production.” [my translation, compare here, page 304]

We will keep going with this. I’ve been sort of anxious to find an entry for talking more about the determinants of class. I’ve wanted to bring up Balzac. I can blindly feel there is some connection, here, but I can’t say it yet.

On the other hand, I am confident that Marx, here, does perhaps what we don’t “want” him to do, and preserves a distinction between productive and unproductive workers that is clearly in defiance of A. Although Nicole will perhaps disagree with me, here we are surely faced with the way in which Marx plays with distinctions so that they are posited historically – with A being posited as being from the capitalist perspective. There are other perspectives – on the ground, grass roots perspectives – that Marx did not disdain.


Anonymous said…
hi Roger,

I wrote a comment here but the comment box told me it was too long. Sorry about that...! In case you're interested, it's here -

I also want to piggyback re: Nicole's comment on simple circulation as stage. I can't speak to whether or not Marx talks about that as a stage of economic development, but I thought I'd point out that simple circulation C-M-C is also the ongoing form of working class subsistence: C(laborpower) sold for M(wages) in exchange for C means of subsistence). I think there's a connection here to the issue of productive/unproductive, but I'm not sure quite what it is, some link between productive/unproductive labor and productive/unproductive consumption.

take care,
roger said…
Nate, great, I'll go look at it. I highly approve of speading Marx discussion across the blogs, which lately have been, I think, in the dog days.
duncan said…
I wrote a long reply to this - short version: I don't like (B) either; I stand by my interpretation of (C). The long version offered several different interpretations of (B), and of the function it and similar content is meant to serve in Volume II. I don't have a settled opinion on this as yet, so the thing became clotted with involuted counterfactuals. Therefore: short version.
roger said…
I have rather shifted my idea about "liking" B. At first, I found it wrongheaded - but I have moved to another position, in which I find its inconsistency with A much more dialectically worthy than I thought at first.
N. Pepperell said…
Hey roger - I'm still in recovery mode at the moment (my manuscript went off to the press for review, and in to the uni for examination, earlier in the week, and so a year's accumulated tiredness is asserting itself for my attention at the moment... So read this as if written by someone who has seen your post through a very small dot punched into a cardboard card - my brain has contracted from having had to hold too large an argument inside itself for much too long, so this is what you get... :-) ).

But just a couple of comments. First, I've become deeply cautious about the issue of inconsistency in Marx - not because he's particularly any less likely to be inconsistent than any other reasonably skillful theorist, but because he trades in the analysis of inconsistency and contradiction, and I've just found so many cases over the last several years where I started off thinking he was probably tripping over his own shoelaces, only to realise - often many chapters later - that he was setting up some overly elaborate and arcane joke that didn't become visible for 35,000 words... As a result of this, I've been in principle willing to attribute inconsistency unless I have a read of the entire work in question - and, personally, I don't have a read of volume II in that way.

I'm also unsure I'll ever get a reading of volume II in that way: when I read the text, it's just visibly spliced? I can feel the fabric of Engels' edits in the weave of the text. I can tell that passages have been spliced in out of order. (Engels is also known to have used material, for example, from earlier manuscripts, and also to have altered specific content in ways not marked out in the text.) I might at some point feel up to piecing the thing together and seeing if I think I could get a read similar to what I've tried to get for the first volume, but I'm not sure it's going to be possible...

But all of this isn't to try to punt entirely on the question - just to mark out a terrain of uncertainty beyond which I'm not currently willing to draw a verdict, and to explain why, in the absence of a very careful study, I'm inclined to give Marx a very strong benefit of the doubt... More in a sec...
N. Pepperell said…
Okay... on the more substantive point...

The issue with distinctions in Marx is that sometimes the same terms serve different purposes, which can become clear in context, but which are not contradictions per se. In the first volume, for example, Marx becomes much more consistent about distinguishing "value" and "exchange value" from the second edition - but the conceptual distinction is there already, and not tacit in Marx's discussing if you're familiar with Hegel's Force/Expression of Force discussion (which also uses the "same" term "Force" to talk about two different moments in an overarching relation). Marx will sometimes come up with separate terminology for these different moments in his rewrites; sometimes he won't bother or won't realise that it would be clearer if he did...

All of which is by way of saying that I hear the strategic intention of the passages you're quoting to be different - and different in ways that are themselves fairly "consistent" in Marx's late work.

The first passage you've obviously selected to be compatible with the relational definition that people like myself have been putting forward. It's concern is to contribute to an analysis of capitalism gets reproduced - and why the means of capitalism's reproduction are often obscure to social actors (where this obscurity is understood to relate to the fact that the very same sorts of activities can produce very different consequences "downstream", depending on what sorts of tandem contributions they are able to make to other social practices)

The second passage is addressing the question (in an overarching sense) of what sorts of activity would need to be carried over into a communist society: i.e., it's trying to tease out what aspects of capitalist production are things we'd probably need to continue to reproduce, because they contribute something we'd probably continue to want in a post-capitalist society.

These are related, but not identical, points, and so the sorts of concrete activities that get picked out when Marx has one in mind rather than the other will be different. You can call this "inconsistency" if you want - and certainly it leads to inconsistency in theoretical literature that acts as though Marx is working with static definitions, rather than trying to rotate around a complex phenomenon and examine it from as many angles as possible, to work out how we are creating, and how we might disassemble, that complex thing.

Personally, though, I don't react to these sorts of passages as inconsistent - they are consistent with various specific analytical goals that Marx pursues quite consistently across his later work, and it's generally possible to tease out what he's after - not by disentangling his confusion, but by exploring what he says about these passages in the text (although he admittedly has a frustratingly subtle way of flagging what he's doing).

So I don't really find it productive to see these particular passages as evidence of "inconsistency" - although I do see it as being very very dangerous to assume that Marx always means the same thing when he uses the same word: he's not that kind of theorist, and "inconsistencies" are going to result when people try to apply him in that way.

Apologies for leaving out C here - the passage occurs within an analysis of another theorist, and that's a ground where it's necessary to tread very carefully, as Marx is generally trying to explain, as sympathetically as someone so sarcastic knows how, why it can be socially plausible for that theorist to put forward their own categories. Marx may then take that social plausibility to apply to only the narrowest slice of social context - and this often won't be clear until much later in his discussion. I don't know the passage enough to say anything about it, but know enough about his style to want to be very cautious...
roger said…
Actually, I'm closer to your reading method than I may appear, Nicole. I started out these posts looking at this category as an inconsistency, but as I have tried to get what Marx is doing, I have taken my cue from your way of trying to see the definitions and shifts as part of a strategic illumination in which now this, now that aspect of capitalism is lighted up. I do believe, however, that (C) does not so much paraphrase Smith as tell us why Marx is defending Smith in the first place. Because he uses C so much in this section - and what he has to say is really quite prophetic of a certain tendency in Capitalism - I think it is a mistake to throw it out.

I can see how these three 'strategic' definitions are related to each other, actually. And you are right that they are inconsistent only if one wants them to be inter-deducible. Otherwise, though, they are dialectically related - it would even be simple to come up with a thesis antithesis synthesis model for that relation, but I think that is too simplifying.
Luke said…
if I may be permitted a further comment -

the distinction in (C) is between the production of means of production, and production that does not furnish further production. Education is only unusual insofar as it is a service that augments production, according to Marx. If it were accepted that only production of means of production were true production, then realised profits would be zero, and the rate of realised profits on capital would be zero (although profit could be reinvested as capital). This is not Marx's view.

(B) is Marx's statement of the distinction between productive and unproductive labour

(A) is Adam Smith's "improvement" of Quesnay

I must say, I was puzzled by what "the service economy is a servant economy" meant, but after reading it again, I think it's correct: the service economy really is an economy of servants, nevertheless it remains a productive economy.