Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, Addenda - Part 22

[(D) The Specific Use-value of Productive Labour for Capital]

The direct producer of commodities produces use values for their direct consumption or to be exchanged for money, which can be exchanged for other commodities required for their consumption. But, the capitalist produces for neither of these reasons. The purpose of their production is not to produce a use value that they can consume, nor to produce a commodity, which they can sell in order to consume. It is only to produce in order to create profit, and thereby to transform money into capital.

The means of achieving this is via the employment of labour-power. The result of the production process is that a greater quantity of labour is absorbed than was paid for. More labour is contained in the materialised product of this process than was contained in the means of production and labour-power that went into it.

The use value of the labour-power bought by capital, therefore, is not its specific use value, as a particular kind of concrete labour, but as the source of abstract labour, of labour as the essence of value. Capital exchanges with labour-power because this labour-power creates new value and thereby the potential for surplus value and an expansion of capital.

“Labour which is to produce commodities must be useful labour; it must produce a use-value, it must manifest itself in a use-value. And consequently only labour which manifests itself in commodities, that is, in use-values, is labour for which capital is exchanged. This is a self-evident premise. But it is not this concrete character of labour, its use-value as such—that it is for example tailoring labour, cobbling, spinning, weaving, etc.—which forms its specific use-value for capital and consequently stamps it as productive labour in the system of capitalist production. What forms its specific use-value for capital is not its specific useful character, any more than it is the particular useful properties of the product in which it is materialised.” (p 400)

In other words, capital is not exchanged with abstract labour. Abstract labour does not and cannot exist, as a form of labour-power that is sold as a commodity, precisely because it is abstract and not concrete labour. A capitalist does not go into the labour market and say “I'd like £100 of abstract labour please.” They go into the labour market wanting to employ £100 of dock labour, £100 of weaving labour and so on.

This must be the case, for the reason Marx sets out here, that although capital's objective is the production of surplus value, this surplus value is always embodied in some concrete use value, a particular type of commodity, which is produced by some specific, concrete labour. Concrete labour is the source of value, whilst abstract labour is the essence of value. As I have described previously, a candle or the Sun are both sources of light, but neither are the essence of light, which is comprised of the photons, which stream out from these different sources.

“For it [capital], the use-value of labour-power is precisely the excess of the quantity of labour which it performs over the quantity of labour which is materialised in the labour-power itself and hence is required to reproduce it. Naturally, it supplies this quantity of labour in the determinate form inherent in it as labour which has a particular utility, such as spinning labour; weaving labour, etc. But this concrete character, which is what enables it to take the form of a commodity, is not its specific use-value for capital. Its specific use-value for capital consists in its quantity as labour in general, and in the difference, the excess, of the quantity of labour which it performs over the quantity of labour which it costs.” (p 400)

Any concrete labour may be useful, in that it produces use values, but that does not make it productive. If I employ a cook, to provide my meals, the cook's labour is useful, it is embodied in my meals, and thereby has created new value. But, it is not productive. The money wages I pay the cook may appear to be in form exactly the same as the wages I pay to my productive workers, but they are not.

The wages I pay to my cook are not intended to act as variable-capital, to produce a profit. They are only intended to produce my dinner. At the end of this process, I have spent a certain amount of money buying commodities – food, energy for the cooker, - and employing a cook who supplies a certain amount of labour, and at the end of this process I have a product – my dinner – which has the same amount of value. No surplus value is produced. The cook's labour was useful, it created new value, but it was not productive, it created no surplus value, it did not exchange with capital.

“It follows from what has been said that the designation of labour as productive labour has absolutely nothing to do with the determinate content of the labour, its special utility, or the particular use-value in which it manifests itself.” (p 401)

Marx uses the example of Milton, who produced Paradise Lost and sold it for £5. His work, Marx says, was like the activity of the silk worm, simply a manifestation of his nature. It was not intended to produce a profit, and was not, therefore, 'productive'. Yet, the words churned out by writers employed by various publishing houses were productive because they were employed with the express intention of creating a profit.

“A singer who sells her song for her own account is an unproductive labourer. But the same singer commissioned by an entrepreneur to sing in order to make money for him is a productive labourer; for she produces capital.” (p 401) 

Marx also returns to this question in the next volume, in again examining Smith's two different theories of value. In particular, Marx sets out in relation to the prices paid for pebbles sold by poor Scottish pebble collectors to stone cutters, that Smith should have considered whether the pebbles were sold at or below their value. In effect, if the pebbles were sold below their value, the poor collectors were simply acting as wage labourers in a disguised form, and thereby providing a surplus value for the stone-cutters. It is rather like a worker paid on piece rates, where the price paid per piece is determined not on the basis of its value, but on the basis of a division of a day's wage. The same thing applies today with the supposedly self-employed Uber drivers, or other workers in the “gig economy”.

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