"Productive" Versus "Unproductive" workers

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Lazy Riser's picture
Lazy Riser
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May 16 2007 21:29

Yeah but catch, it's not a question of it having an effect, of that there is no doubt. The question is what effect? If it didn't work in1926, what makes you think it'll work now?

Mike Harman
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May 16 2007 21:30

If what didn't work?

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Lazy Riser
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May 16 2007 21:33

The distribution workers' strike was broken with troops. 8/5/1926. London Docks.

Mike Harman
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May 16 2007 21:35

Yes I know the 1926 general strike was a disaster, what makes you think every major strike in the UK ever again would go the same way for ever?

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Lazy Riser
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May 16 2007 21:37

Oh I don't know. Watching people try the same thing over and over again, year after year, and expecting a different result. Same input, same process, same output.

posi
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May 16 2007 23:28
Lazy Riser wrote:
Well comrade, I call it like I see it. Your mileage may vary, but I was in Belfast recently too, same story there I think you’ll find. And Birmingham, whilst I’m at it. That Bullring must have cost a pretty penny. I mean, I’ve clearly rubbed you up the wrong way here, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that new retail jobs are financed by business loans marshalled by quangos, and local government for that matter, to pump the economy.

Of course some retail jobs are supported centrally in such a way... but really, it aint got anything on how subsidised jobs are in arms manufacturing, pharmaceuticals or farming. Or probably even standard easily offshorable jobs, like manufacturing and call-centres (I'm thinking of Sofidel in Port Talbot and Hutcheson 3 in Glasgow as examples). Regional development grants typically go to companies which could, if they wished, go to other countries, or at least in other regions - which hardly applies to most retail, which is necessarily local. A huge proportion of retail jobs are in massively profitable brand/chain stores, and a relative minority of those are in developments like the Bullring (probably largely private money). Rarely any subsidy for all those supermarket jobs (unless, I guess, you want to count the indirect subsidy via agriculture).

So true that there is some subsidy of retail jobs, I just think you were seriously exagerating the extent of it!

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Joseph Kay
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May 17 2007 08:30
Demogorgon303 wrote:
RedHughs wrote:
Consider a clerk in a high-end clothing store. Basically, while this clerk is indeed making sure that the circuit of capital is completed, she/he is also modifying the good in question - they are putting in a bag, folding it nicely, giving the customer fashion and so-forth. Now, such treatment is quite idiotically unnecessary as far as socially-neutral or objective just of usefulness would go. However, the "service" by the clerk, in the sense of providing pampering, a proper image (provided by consultation with the clerk) and so forth does provide socially conditioned good helping to maintain a certain level of worker - a salesman or a managers require both a certain image and certain pampered ego to continue their activity. Now, one could argue that this is providing support for activity which itself merely involves circulation and "real production".

It's a process of exchange, it doesn't modify the goods at all, so I don't follow your argument at all here.

i don't think it's that simple. a material commodity isn't just material; a sony hi fi is not the same commodity as a physically identical generic one. we're social beings, semiotic beings - and signs can be sold, commodified. in other words, to misquote to draw out a truth, commodities "abound in metaphysical subtleties."

i mean i think negri and hardt overplay this, and i think baudrillard flies off into bourgeois nihlism, but neither do i think a materialist analysis can close its eyes to the semiotic social world we inhabit.

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May 17 2007 12:04
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Regional development grants typically go to companies which could, if they wished, go to other countries, or at least in other regions - which hardly applies to most retail

As you say, it was used to keep a few car manufacturers and call centres on-shore. Your point about it being “private money” is well made too, government tends to match funding at best. However, it’s the localised nature of retail which makes it a good way of generating menial jobs to keep the “difficult to employ” off the streets. The strategic investment plans for the regions, outside of the major industrial and commercial centres show that government stimulated expansion and support for the retail sector is key, I’d imagine as a way of moving people out of benefits and into “jobs” that pay about the same. I suppose I’m over extrapolating my own experience, but my own town is about to have its retail land doubled over about 10 years, all on land owned (in some cases by compulsory purchase) by local government. It’s been sold on the cheap to a national developer, I popped along to the “Town Centre Management Committee” AGM the other day to see their plans. As for highly profitable retail chains, well, the Post Office, Debenhams, WH Smith’s and M&S have all had their share of woe. I mean, what happened to John Menzies? As for the pure-play music trade, ho ho, Our Price has disappeared from the high street, Music Zone came and went, and both the independent record shops have closed down in the last year. Replaced by an O2 outlet in one case, the unit remains unoccupied in the other. Jesus, even the tanning salon went to the wall a few weeks back, and it’s not as if you can get one of those online. And still they’re building more shops and staffing them in the expectation of customer footfall which I expect will never materialise, such is the blind optimism of the retail entrepreneur.

Anyway, back to the point. All these jobs are generated as a sort of favour to the local lumpens, if they don’t want ‘em, as long as they don’t expect to eat or pay the rent, no-one gives a toss whether they turn up or not. If 80% (that’s a sort of Pareto style guesstimate before all you pedants start asking for stats) of us didn’t bother turning up for work tomorrow, your average petit-bourgeois would just shrug their shoulders and take early retirement or continue to get paid for their job (in medicine or law, say) regardless, off to their gated estates and pay-cops. But – even if we had the physical capacity to “stop the country”, it would leave the problems of the 1926 General Strike, not to mention the German Revolution and even modern Argentina unresolved, beyond conjuring up “theories” of decadence which are essential to maintain communism’s theoretical coherence. Having said that, it’s a coherence that non-communist syndicalism lacks, its only way forward without internationalist communism is Argentinean style import replacement which leaves it sort of stumped by these “unproductive workers”.

fort-da game
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May 18 2007 16:04

I think Red is referring to my comments about teachers on the anti-politics thread (‘professionals and responsibility’) so I will restate my ideas on this specifically but there are more general points ot be made.

It seems to me that the established self-interest of teachers is not essentially antagonistic to the capitalist social relation in the way that the proletariat’s is and therefore the actions teachers undertake in pursuit of their interest tend in the long run to improve conditions within the present social relation by provoking reforms rather than, say, increasing the level of antagonism.

Objectively, the teacher’s function is not primarily defined in terms of ratio between productivity and wage (and only becomes so ideologically through governmental application of assessment criteria). Education is seen as a necessary precondition, and organic cost of (but also is dependent on), the continuation of production and is therefore located at a different level than the productive relation itself.

Even those teachers who achieve a consciousness in favour of the abolition of education become effective in realising the decommissioning of schools only to the extent that they are able to feed this idea back into the crisis of the productive relation which would have to be ongoing within the essential sectors of the economy, and from which the idea of the critique of reproduction/education would be determined.

It would be more useful if teachers, and other managers within the reproductive scheme, who hold some form of communist consciousness recognised their true position rather than try and argue that ‘we’ are all ‘proletarianised’ – of course, it is true that everyone is reduced to varying degrees but this is not the main content of the class struggle.

The usefulness of understanding actual position (rather than trying to constitute some form of politically based agency) within the structure of positions and the process that occurs between them takes the form of an insight into the limits objectively placed upon all of us and which we have no capacity to alter.

Communist consciousness does not necessarily translate into agency which is distributed sparingly within the structure. If this were not so then democracy would work according to its own claims.

It seems that consciousness is distributed amongst those without capacity – precisely because consciousness indicates a position marked by the absence of capacity and the reverse is also true, capacity precludes consciouness.

It is a function of the capitalist system that the proletariat cannot become conscious of its situation because it has the capacity to consciously impose a change of conditions – therefore it will not become conscious until it is objectively forced to do so, that is when the relation itself has passed into a condition of crisis and can no longer control the distribution of consciousness – the absence of consciousness within the proletariat explains the role of the reproductive apparatus and of teachers specifically.

It is no accident that there are more contributors to this forum who are educated to degree standard and above than there are proletarians – such a distribution is simply an expression of how the social relation works. Even those of us who began our working lives in factories have been rapidly ‘promoted’ out of situations where we could do most harm. The barrack room lawyer, the autodidact, are characters of the past who are now adsorbed from the production line and into the offices.

P.

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May 19 2007 07:20

This discussion is very confused. Of course capitalism doesn't produce for human need, it produces to make a profit. But producing for a profit isn't independent of human needs. In order for simple commodity exchange to occur, someone's commodity has to represent a use-value for someone else. This has to be kept in mind when discussing full fledged capitalist commodity production. Productive labor is labor that is employed to create surplus value, by creating or modifying commodities in a labor process that both creates or changes use value and adds value to the commodity.

A worker in a factory worker creates a commodity out of raw materials and the process is simple and obvious. Bringing in the strange category of the "service sector" only confuses things. A truck driver is also straighforwardly a productive worker. He starts with a commodity with the particular use value of being in one place and changes that commodity's use value ( say by driving the avocados from california to canada) and in the process adds value to the commodity. A nurse who's labor is exploited by a hospital's investors does work that has a use value and adds value to the service (i.e. the commodity) that the hospital sells.

Unproductive labor, on the other hand, only deals with the capitalist side of things. It is definitely necessary, but is only a drag on profitability of the whole system. People like cashiers, accountants and bank tellers are wage workers with an antagonistic relationship towards their bosses, but they do not create value. The distinction between productive and unproductive labor is functional not about individual people or jobs, and as Marx says, the production process and the circulation process interpenetrate each other. So a waiter, my perform some productive labor (such as creating the restaurant atmosphere that customers buy, or very short distance transportation of food, and some unproductive labor such as running people's credit cards). And that's not even to bring in non-waged proletarians such as housewives or the unemployed.

The interesting thing that the discussion of productive and unproductive labor brings up is not so much which workers are in a better place to rebel--although it is obviously related to the question. It is in pointing to an important internal dynamic in capitalist economies. Although profit is based in surplus value, capitalists seek profit, not surplus value directly. Businesses that are necessary to compete in modern capitalist society but do not create surplus value (such as advertising) still compete with productive enterprises. In this way they tend to participate in the formation of a general rate of profit, even though they are not productive. Unproductive labor is a drag on productive labor, which has all sorts of implications for capitalist development and crisis.

Really though, I think Negri and the social factory types are strangely moralist, in their wanting to say that everything is productive labor. The discussion of productive and unproductive labor doesn't have much to do with our side of the class war. It's about how capital accumulates and develops. You have to do a much closer, less abstract analysis to see which workers are likely to fight back collectively and be successful. I would say that this is less about the question of productivity of labor and more to do with questions like, whether or not the workers are spread out or geographically concentrated, whether the job is dirty, loud, stressful, looked down on, what the prospects for advancement in the job are, how long hours and wages are, whether or not the boss is an asshole, what kinds of technology is available to management and the workers, what kinds of incentives such as tips, piecework, stock options exist, whether or not workers are divided along race, age, ethnic, and gender boundaries and in what ways, how strong a hold religious or sectarian identities have a hold on the workers, what are the responsibilities and pressures on workers and management, whether or not the work process allows workers to talk to each other, the history and immediate social context the workers are in, etc...

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May 19 2007 09:41
quint wrote:
Really though, I think Negri and the social factory types are strangely moralist, in their wanting to say that everything is productive labor.

i agree, hey started in reaction to orthodox productivist marxism that only recognised white male factory workers as proletarian, and ended up expanding the production fetish to society at large (as opposed to say Dauvé who stresses the proletariat as negative, as cut off, alienated as opposed to in positive productivist terms)

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May 20 2007 00:11

ahh if only i ddn't have exams to do I'd post on this thread. Its one of the many places that Marx falls down in my opinion is the productive unproductive distinction because he merges a few distinctions into one. But i dont have time to get into this debate. Stupid fucking exams.

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May 20 2007 03:05
Joseph K. wrote:
i agree, hey started in reaction to orthodox productivist marxism that only recognised white male factory workers as proletarian, and ended up expanding the production fetish to society at large

yeah. both sides are wrong there. any categorization that lumps nursing with dancing is inadequate.

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May 20 2007 18:27
Demogorgon303 wrote:
In this sense, the production of a Tornado jet is productive labour for Panavia Aircraft because it makes them a profit. But what value can the purchaser gain from such a product? It cannot enter into the productive process at all, either as means of production or consumption.

A Tornado jet is clearly a consumption product, at least in the same way that a television set is a consumption product: it facilitates the elimination of value, which is essential for a market saturated with products. I mean, isn't that the same reason why wars are so essential to capitalism? In that sense, a weapon is just as productive as disposable cutlery, no more, no less.

RedHughs
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May 20 2007 22:21

Hmm,

My impression of Quint and similar posters is that they are calling discussion "confused" because it confuses them - they don't have any real answer for the problem of people like store clerks providing something like use value while being involved in exchange. Having attempted to exorcise this problem, they restate chapter and verse of the distinction between productive and unproductive. Yes, I know that arguments, my point answered it and you haven't answer my point.

I have no trouble with the point that the logic of Capital requires a distinction between productive and unproductive labour. My point is that the operations of capital tend to dissolve this very distinction - capital tends to destroy the conditions that its logic requires - here I agree with Demogorgon (when he say "that is exactly the point" - yes, I know that it is the point, that's why I said it).

If you read closely, you'll notice that I'm not putting forward a Negri-ist position at all - rather I'm attacking the moralism that the productive category generates on the other side of the discussion.

I agree with George Stapleton that there are number of distinctions at work here that folks lump into the "productive/unproductive" distinction. I see all of these distinctions as becoming fuzzy with the advance of capitalist production so I don't feel the obligation to tease-out what part each of these will play in struggle.

Another problem approach I see in the discussion is arguments about which workers can strike most effectively in isolation. This kind of reasoning is basically workerist/syndicalist in its atomized perspective. We communists have to concerned with the whole of struggle and not take some moronic "factory by factory" perspective (catch/LR's discussion is a hoot and think Dr Cous Cous kind-of falls into this trap as well). Certainly, some groups of workers are going to be more important than others in a given era/situation (and under current conditions, it is hard to trace even this influence to simply whether the group is productive/unproductive). Communists intervene in an entire struggle rather restricting themselves to a particular factory - and in this day and age, many average working class folks have whatever influence they have spread through all of society rather having their entire existence concentrated on their workplace (Oh, perhaps there is huge reserve of "real" workers out there who still follow the dynamics of 1905 but you would have to show them to me).

Best To All,

Red

mikus
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May 21 2007 20:41
RedHughs wrote:
My impression of Quint and similar posters is that they are calling discussion "confused" because it confuses them - they don't have any real answer for the problem of people like store clerks providing something like use value while being involved in exchange. Having attempted to exorcise this problem, they restate chapter and verse of the distinction between productive and unproductive. Yes, I know that arguments, my point answered it and you haven't answer my point.

Pray tell, which points of yours have already anticipated Quint? I can't find them.

It seems that we have another case of the pot calling the kettle black, or rather of Red Hughs calling other people confused.

You know, a disproof of a theory should... disprove it. The facts should be shown to contradict the theory. Quint's response shows that the facts you pointed to don't at all contradict the theory. For example, the fact that workers may engage in both productive and unproductive labor does not need to obliterate the distinction between the two, since the theory does not claim that the two acts will always be performed by different workers, nor even that they must be performed at different moments. (Not to mention that your critique comes as quite a laugh given how much you've said before that while it is impossible to group any particular person into a class category this does not obliterate the class distinction.) You have not responded to this other than to say that Quint has done no more than "restate chapter and verse of the distinction between productive and unproductive labour". The fact that you think that this is any argument at all is mindblowing. The whole point of the debate is to see whether or not a given theory (in this case, the distinction between productive and unproductive labor) is contradicted by the facts. So when defending the theory, obviously one will be forced to "restate chapter and verse of the distinction between productive and unproductive labour" in order to show what this theory is and to defend it. To try to use this against someone's defense is as inane as it would be to argue against the theory of evolution by appealing to the facts, and then getting upset when someone elaborates the theory of evolution to show that it is not contradicted by the facts. (Obviously it would be incorrect to argue that a theory is correct by "restat[ing] chapter and verse." But since Quint was defending the theory by showing that it is not contradicted by the facts, his response was quite appropriate.)

Anyway, I'm not going to answer your (pseudo)points in full here; rather, I have just stopped by to point out that your debating tactics are absurd. I've already answered your (pseudo)points many times over the last year or two, and you have never had any real defense of your positions other than to basically say that you like them or that they are self evident. Which is okay. Think what you want to think. If you would like to use your own vague feelings about things rather than seriously confront other theories, I'm not going to bother you about it. I could care less. But why try to act as if you've done something different? Why try to advance vague feelings as real arguments (I can't help but be reminded of the Bush administration and Colbert's mockery of it)?

(As an example of the simultaneously tremendous and undeserved self-satisfaction of Red Hughs, see his second post on this thread, on the first page, in which he claims that he "pretty much" disproved the distinction between productive and unproductive labor by means of "a reductio ad absurdum". Basically in the post Red says that if the distinction between productive and unproductive labor is maintained, then it is implied that a very large amount of labor is unproductive -- and this is apparently the "reduction ad absurdum"! Weak reduction ab absurdums, such as this one, can be rejected by accepting the supposedly absurd conclusion. If Red had any familiarity with the theory of productive and unproductive labor, he would know that this supposedly absurd conclusion is in fact accepted by everyone who supports the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Personally I find his own theory to be absurd. But unlike him, I would not use my opinion that his theory is absurd as the basis of my argument; rather, I would try to use arguments to support my opinion.)

If only Kant had written: " 'Have the courage to use your own vague impressions!' -- that is the motto of enlightenment."

Chau,
Mike

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May 24 2007 20:26

There are workers, and there are the unproductive.

There are no unproductive workers, they can be high performing or low performing, but work is by its nature productive. Whether the product is a chair and a cog, or a design and advice, employment is necesarily productive.

The only way one might deem it unproductive is if it is not productive enough to cope in a market economy.

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May 25 2007 05:59

To Invictus_88: Well that's precisely what we're talking about: unproductive labor under capitalism. The activity of sales (which is 95% of the job of a cashier, for example) is absolutely necessary for the capitalist, but not productive. It does not create or change the use value of something, and at the same time add value to it. The job is only there to deal with the transfer of the title of the thing. Capital does not grow and expand simply by transferring titles to things back and forth. It extracts surplus value... The salesman, like the policeman, is unproductive and yet necessary to capital.

To Red: Perhaps my statement was obvious, but I am trying to be precise about what we mean by productive and unproductive. It seemed to me that you (and others) were arguing with a "Marxist" strawman. Truck drivers are clearly productive (keeping in mind that their job includes some unproductive labor such as filling out forms that are only necessary for the transfer of titles). At least the activity of transport is productive. The activity of sales is not. The distinction is not between productive and reproductive labor. There are productive wage laborers, unproductive wage laborers, and non-waged proletarians. And further there are people like low level managers, and some small-time bosses, who actually do a lot of productive labor at the same time as not being proletarian. The distinctions are functional, and have to be defined more crisply.

I agree with your general point that the development of capitalism has tended to obscure and intermingle productive and unproductive work. But that doesn't mean that they are less important distinctions to make.

Let me make an analogy: Capitalists tend not to care if they're investing in productive or unproductive labor. They invest in what brings them a profit, which means that productive industries have to compete with things like security and advertising etc... An average rate of profit is created in a market economy, by spreading out the surplus value (created only by productive labor) to the different branches of industry. The fact that profits SEEM to come out of capital naturally, or out of buying and selling, cannot change the fact that profit is a cut of surplus value--profit comes from exploitation. Capitalism's development tends to obscure it's own workings. We need to do better than to ask "why don't investors get the surplus value they put in? Does this disprove everything that's been said about surplus value being based in exploitation?" Only if you don't understand the theory. That's why I was restating the theory.