“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

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. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/realestate/keymagazine/406ariz-t.html?pagewanted=all 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.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Commodities and Reality, or Balzac and a peach

I found a reference to a conversation recorded by Leon Gozlan between Vidocq and Balzac in Robb’s biography of the latter. I went to Gozlan (o, the things you can do on the Internet!) to read it myself. I am not sure what to make of Gozlan, who may well have been heavily fictionalizing himself. In any case, he sets this story about the time that Balzac was trying to cut Les Paysans for its serialization. Readers of LI will remember that Marx chose to illustrate the force of the capitalist system, as it borders older, archaic modes of production, with the story of Les Paysans.

According to Gozlan, the process left Balzac tired and discouraged. Vidocq, who was among the company who had gathered at Balzac’s place one night, saw this, and said:

“I say that you give yourself a lot of pain, Monsieur de Balzac, to create stories of the other world when reality is before your eyes, near your ear, under your hand.”

“Ah, how charming, you believe in reality! I would never have supposed that you were so naïve. Reality! Tell me about it: you have returned from that beautiful land. But go on – it is we who create reality.”

“No, monsieur de Balzac.”

‘Yes, monsieur Vidocq; you see the true reality, it is this beautiful Montreuil peach. The one which you call real, it grows naturally in the forest wild. Very well! That one is worth nothing. It is little, sharp, bitter, impossible to eat. But this one here that I am holding has been cultivated over one hundred year, obtained by trimming it to the left or the right, by transplantation to drier or looser soil, by certain grafts – this one at last, which one eats and which perfumes the mouth and the heart. This exquisite peach, it is we who have made it the only real one. The same procedure occurs with me. I obtain reality in my novels the way Montreuil obtains reality in its peaches. I am a gardener in the realm of books.”

Reality and value – such will be our text, following up my post concerning circulation work. LI’s occasional critic and reader, Mr. Chuckie K., advanced the thesis that I misunderstood Marx, here. Let me recommend the comments thread. And let me advance to an example – a piece of reality that was incorporated in 1820, in Paris, under the title, l'assurance des succès dramatiques. This agency, run by a former wigmaker named Porchon and his partner, a M. Sauton, would hire people to make a play or an opera a success. These claqueurs would be sure to applaud, laugh loudly at the jokes, cry copiously at the sad parts, and in other ways make sure that a playwright’s opening night went well. Porchon would even loan money out to the writer – Alexander Dumas was one of his grateful clients.

We possess a ‘Memoir of a Claqueur” (1828) by one Louis Castel Robert. Robert’s story was of a reality that, like Balzac’s peach, required the intense cultivation of history – the history of France in the 1820s. Having inherited some money, and being of a tender, philosophical disposition, Robert, a young man in Paris, naturally pissed his funds away on drink, women, books and idleness. At the end of this process he confronted an unpleasantness that many of his type encountered, viz, debtors prison. In Sainte Pelagie, he had the good fortune to fall in with a man named Mouchival. Mouchival was a common looking fellow – yet Robert soon learned he was not so common after all. He was only in Sainte Pelagie due to a misunderstanding, practically - having co-signed on a loan for a friend – for Moucival, like Porchon, was always a friend in deed – he found himself being charged with it. The man, however, was quite equal to the situation. As an entrepreneur in the claqueur field, he had simply written to a rich client who fancied himself a dramatist and expressed the need for some cash, for which he would, in the future, supply such services as may be required, yours truly. Thus, he was utterly confident of rescue. Rescue, in the form of francs, eventually did appear, but sent by an actress – through which he, in turn, rescued his promising young acquaintance, Robert. Which is how Robert found a place to fill in the world as a claqueur.

The claqueur was a character type in Paris. The yellow gloves of the claqueur were particularly distinctive, and became a nickname for the claque crowd. – les gants jaunes. Robert writes that Mouchival gave him ‘elementary instructions in the science of cabales, and treated, as an experienced master, all the articles of the tactics proper to making plays succeed or fail.” Robert learned the “circumstances in which it was necessary to applaud or whistle, cry or laugh, be silent or scream, yawn or blow your nose.”

The romantics, particularly Schiller, had invested a utopian hope in the division between work and play; but for the capitalist, for whom every boundary is a living thing, that division promises not the sweetness of life, but an unexploited margin of profit.

As Mouchival soon teaches the young man he has inexplicably taken under his wing, the surface work of the claqueur is just one link in the chain of profit. A more noticeable link is in the work of selling tickets. A certain number of tickets are allotted, free, to the claqueur. He can sell the superfluity himself. But the claqueur is not the only one to scalp tickets. Indeed, a good part of the theater world, from the actor to the usher to the critic, supplements their income on such sales.

Well, more on this subject in the next post.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Haunted by the circulation worker

I was talking to a friend the other day about Marx… do I talk about anything else, lately… and I explained that Marx just can’t be right when he writes that that “circulation” work does not produce value. In fact, as I have discovered, the secondary sources, those offshore oracles, are generally silent about circulation work. David Laibman has a good run down on the topic, concluding: “Of the three significant definitions of unproductive labor – socioeconomic, evaluative and analytic – the first is operational but uninteresting; the second operational but unanchored in value-theoretic categories; the third ambition in the value-theoretic sense, but unoperational, and therefore invalid.” In other words, let’s smack our hands together and say, enough of this nonsense!

Unfortunately, mine is a life of few experiences, and simple pleasures. Wordsworth, a man of independent means who wanted a life of few experiences and simple pleasures, had the rentier income that allowed him to go tromping through hill and dale until he came upon a waterfall in the wild, and later to make a poem about how the sound of it haunted him. Myself, I bike through gas fume haunted streets to libraries, grocery stores and coffee shops, listening to mp3 music that blots out the aural chaos around me, and so I am haunted by more inward tending concerns – for instance, circulation work. Like Laibman, I find Marx’s notion that it creates no value to be puzzlingly wrong; and because Marx starts his analysis this way, the category has been rather thrown away. But if one considers that the entire solution to the problem posed by the reserve army of the unemployed since the Great Depression has been to absorb it either into work for the state or circulation work, surely there are characteristics proper to it that have impressed themselves mightily on the wax tablets of our collective unconsciousness (along with archetypes of caves and the fear of hot hairy mouth of some predator eating your ass).

For, although Marx makes a distinction here that is overridden by the general bias of labor theory of value – that makes a surprisingly regressive turn back to the material object, as though we had never escaped the artisan’s artifice, and the tailors of the Federation of the Just had finally gotten the better of him – at the same time, Marx’s conclusion fits with a certain social emotion that ‘things are better.’ A large subsection of modern literature is devoted, in one way or another, to the melancholy of circulation work, the perception that, day after day, what one does is “shuffle paper around”. In Studs Terkel’s Working, he sets his interview with a stone mason in the very preface of the work – which makes a lot of aesthetic sense. “Stone’s my life. I daydream all the time, most of the time it’s on stone. Oh, I’m gonna build me a stone cabin down on Green River. I’m gonna build stone cabinets in the kitchen. That stone door’s gonna be awful heavy and I don’t know how to attach the hinges.” This is the pure poetry of life. So that one feels a distinct comedown when the man says: “One of my sons is an accountant and the other two are bankers.”

All of these things, in a manner of speaking, passed before my eyes when my friend said that she was teaching Bartleby the Scrivener to her class next week. For Bartleby’s archetypal power has only increased as the circulation worker has become the dominant prole in the Western world.

Hmm, I want to add more to this, but I will have to do that later.