Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Productive vs. Unproductive Labor

Labor for capital is labor which produces a commodity, an exchange-value.  A self-employed clown produces no value, but a clown who works for a boss clown produces value because they are producing an exchange value and engaging in wage-labor.

A soldier, like a butler, does not produce exchange-value despite being employed because their output is directly consumed, not a commodity to be sold.  So unlike the clown who is selling his labor for a boss and who’s service is a commodity purchased and then consumed, the directly employed butler (not a butler hired out by a company) and the soldier produce nothing of the sort.

The difference is not in the materiality or immateriality of the commodity.  That is a crude matter-ism, not a Marxian materialism.  IT software developers who write code produce a commodity, in fact they often produce crucial means of production.  Someone working at McDonald’s produces a commodity with value because they act as a wage-laborer for a boss who is not directly consuming their product but selling it to someone else.

The question however is more complicated if we look to military expenditures, arguably since they are paid with taxes.  There is no difference nominally between Boeing producing a commercial airliner for American Airlines than Lockheed-Martin-Marietta producing fighter jets for the Pentagon, at the level of the labor process and the chain of relations within the company.  Both produce a commodity.  That the Pentagon will consume it is not per se a problem, any more than the fact that Toyota produces cars which will be bought by someone who is not a business.

Two objections arise here:
1.       The source of the income is tax money, money not part of renewing dept. 1 or 2.
2.       The buyer is not engaged in productive labor, is neither a capital nor a wage-laborer.

According to the logic of #2, if a lawyer or a bank teller buys a car from Toyota, that sale does not count as productive labor because the consumer is not part of the total circuit of capital, they are just a faux frais, a cost of doing business that is excreted out of the system.  Therefore, every commodity consumed by someone not engaged in “productive” labor is not valorized.

The logic of #1 is not far off.  Since the government gets its revenue stream by skimming a part of wage-labor and capital’s wages and profits and interest, it does not acquire its money by participating in the labor process.  It is also a faux frais of total social reproduction.  Money spent by the government which is not engaged in production of commodities (where the government owns the means of production and sets them to work, employs wage-labor, sells the product as a commodity, etc. is different, by the way), such as military spending or transfer payments, is therefore seen as “unproductive”. 

However, if the income comes from skimming wages, interest, and profits, and it is used to buy commodities produced by capital, is it not merely a detour to make its way through the state?

Now, the argument appears that military goods, for example, cannot be productively consumed, that is, their consumption does not contribute to the reproduction of the total social capital, unlike items produced for workers.

This is where we are again dealing with the Toyota bought by the lawyer.  Both the state and the lawyer provide a service necessary to the overall maintenance of capital, but neither engages in the direct production of new services or values.  Frequently, the law firm is much like the directly employed butler and the soldier.  Their labor is not value-producing as such.  However, the money spent on their services from wages, profits, or interest becomes the income by means of which they purchase other commodities.  The lawyer and the state thus put this income stream back into the total cycle of reproduction unless they hoard the income.

There is no more need for the tank to be productively consumed in some immediate sense than for me to use my car to get to work or buy groceries. 

Otherwise, what we are saying is that if a worker buys a boat or a weekend car purely for enjoyment, either that expenditure does not valorize value because the worker is not engaged in “productive labor” or it does, but only because the buyer is a wage-laborer engaged in “productive labor”.  We have entered the arena of vicious circularity.

What I am suggesting is not that all labor produces value.  Not all labor does.  Artists who produce a unique work of art do not produce a value.  And there are income streams derived from faux frais activities necessary for capital’s functioning, but outside the production process, such as banking or government employees who do not produce a commodity (the soldier is a non-productive person in this sense.)  However, the leap that is a problem is the one which suggests that as a result, the income stream from taxes and the commodities purchased with that tax money is inherently unproductive either because
1.       The income stream is not from wages, interest, or profits of productive activities, or
2.       The commodity is not productively consumed, and is therefore akin to capitalist luxury consumption since consumption which does not reproduce capital or the laborer is unproductive.
Never mind that we now enter the arena of whether or not household labor is “productive”.  This red herring was always a non-question since it is not wage-labor, but remains critical to the reproduction of labor power as a whole.  However, we now have companies engaged in the cycle of reproduction which are supposedly not producing value because the end consumer is neither a capitalist nor a worker, just like our lawyer, and their income stream is a faux frais deduction, even though a part of that income will return to capital and the total social reproduction by purchasing commodities.

My suggestion is thus that in this case, we are talking about a detour, but not about an entire line of production being unproductive, any more than every car sold to an attorney or judge or insurance agent or bank teller is value which is not valorized and therefore represents a large chunk of Toyota’s capital being fictitious.

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