Classes and Class Struggle

Short Answer to a Question on Productive and Non-Productive Labor

Dock Workers
A comrade (A.M.) in an online forum asked:

Do transportation and retail labor add value to a commodity? If so, why?

My inclination is to say yes, but I can’t really explain why.

We need to understand that “productive” in terms of the abstracted model of Capital is not a moralistic or political proposition. It is a mathematical one. Productive labor is the one that according to the formulas in Capital, adds quantitatively to value. Retail is unproductive in these formulas because it doesn’t quantitatively add anything to the variables for value. It is beyond the scope of this short answer to go into a long discussion and exegesis of Capital (although the comments are open) but let’s try to briefly discuss assuming a reading of Capital.

The social relation to the commodity in retail work has no capacity to add value as understood in Capital. More so, it also speaks to the levels of alienation from production, something that is subjective and not easily expressed mathematically, but does affect the necessary description of value as a mathematical formula.

An autoworker cannot wake up the next day and build furniture. A car salesman can sell furniture the next day no problem, and in fact both businesses have huge employee exchange and similar commissions based compensation and financed consumption. A miner can mine different ores, but cannot overnight turn into a lumberjack. A jeweler can sell fine wood, and in fact, do so at all levels from the commodity exchange abstraction to the retail showrooms.

Transport can create value, but only insofar as it is transport as part of a logistical chain tied to the point of production or as an extended part of the point of production.

Capital actually recognizes this in terms of how it organizes its labor force, and the trade union organization reflects this. Generally a teamster can go either way, as does a rail worker or airport worker. A stevedore does create value always. A delivery dude generally doesn’t as he is in essence a cashier tied to commercial capital and whose relation to the commodity being delivered is fully alienated from its production. And this process repeats itself: the relation to value production is not defined by the particular task a worker performs but hir relation to the commodity being produced.

For example, many commodities need to be transported large distances to be finalized. You have airplanes that are built from parts from several countries. The transportation links of these points of production are points of production themselves. Production is impossible without their inputs and their inputs are specialized – moving containers all day.

Does non-productive labor mean this labor is irrelevant? No it doesn’t. Does it mean the revolutionary subject is solely the productive labor? No. And this has been part of our criticism of “third worldism”, a dogmatic adherence to a moralistic view on value creation.

The issue is one of strategic political-economy: you can have all the unproductive workers on the side of the revolution, and it wont matter a single iota. You need to have productive workers. And if you have all or the majority or a steeled minority (a vanguard, to be precise) of the productive workers, the adherence of the rest of the workers has historically followed. Yet without non-productive workers, and even without petty bourgeois support, proletarian revolution for socialism is doomed. This has been the historical lesson.

Hate the game, not the player.

So the issue I address is that it seems to me that the way A.M. is formulating the question has historically been used as a way to try to claim a basic unity between the non-productive workers and the productive workers based on turning the non-productive workers into productive workers rhetorically, equations be damned. I suspect this is not their intent, but that is not what am addressing: I am addressing a general empirical debate – that goes back to anarchist criticism of Capital in the late 19th century – that moralizes the question of productivity.

This question is much better answered by saying that politically the working class produces profits and surplus that enriches rather than society as a whole a tiny minority of owners of the means of production, And they produce these profits and surpluses regardless if they produce value or not. Capitalism is after all not simply a mode of production of value, and production is not simply the production of value, but its social distribution.

Simply put, in strict Capital definitions, the cashier does exploit the factory worker, but doesn’t get to enjoy the bulk of this exploitation, and is completely alienated from it, having no political input into this relation in any meaningful way. This is exploitation without oppression, exploitation simply in cold, abstracted, mathematical economics. More so, the labor of this cashier is in itself a commodity exchanged in a labor market, and its belonging at a given moment to a non-productive enterprise is not an issue of class, but of individual condition – an accident of history, geography, inheritance, etc. Similarly, the “First World” worker does derive at least part of hir wage from “Third World” exploitation, but as immigration shows, this is an accident of geography, not class being. The non-productive worker, as yet another commodity, might engage in competition in the labor marketplace with other workers, but neither created nor directs this marketplace. Hate the game, not the player.

For the purpose of class, the waged workers – regardless of where they stand in the productive process – are part of the same global working class. The global proletariat is located in there and we must accept that in the present ordering of capitalism the borders are fuzzier than in the 19th century. And this is ok. It doesn’t invalidate Marx or Capital.

It does, however, require we abandon the essentially moral proposition regarding productivity, and rather examine class as a social relation to the entire political-economy, not only production.

When we do this we see reproductive labor (such as domestic labor or the building of public infrastructure and public services – State owned or private), productive labor, and non-productive labor as part of the same mode of production, capitalism. And capitalism in its higher stage, imperialism.

And in seeing this we see how gender, sexual and gender being and identity, national oppression, and colonialism all form part of class ordering, and a much more important part than one’s relation to production of value as a mathematical expression. We see these complexities emerge in which production while a central formulation of class is not the monolithic formulation of class.

Production doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and production requires non-production to be even possible. Capitalism and imperialism are in essence redistributive modes of production that take socially generated value and distribute it to society away from the producers an into the hands of the owners of the means of production – and in this process generate a marketplace whose purpose is to establish competition among these owners. This marketplace includes a labor marketplace, and the owners of the means of production compete in these marketplaces for labor, both against each other, and for the generated class of bourgeois financial and commercial capital, which in the abstract for a separate strata of the bourgeois, but in practice dual ownership of productive and non-productive enterprises is the norm. It is in this competition that the owners of capital must then give up some of their surplus to their waged workers, productive or non-productive, an investment like any other in the hopes of accumulating more of that juicy surplus value.

Neither class essentialism nor class eclecticism: for proletarian revolution!

The break Marxism-Leninism-Maoism makes with all hitherto existing forms of historical materialism and dialectical materialism is thus a break with the view of the centrality of production. We answer the question of non-productive labor by, to paraphrase Marx, changing the question into the answer: the proletariat is not solely a value productive class, but the class that can turn production of value to the benefit of all of society, regardless of its own individuals’ relation to value production. To be honest, this idea is not solely MLM, but it is in MLM were it has been elevated not only the level of practice, but to the level of victory.

Retail workers being productive or non-productive becomes a scholastic question at best in the present period in this background, but it can at worse lead to either the error of class essentialism or the error of class eclecticism. We must avoid either by putting politics in command and understanding that class is formed in a complex way that includes but is not limited to the relation to value production (as the essentialists do), without falling into the pitfall of ignoring the important centrality of the industrial proletariat in the capitalist mode of production (as the ecclectics do).

The question, thus, should be: “Are retail workers capable of revolution on the basis of their social being in the same way the industrial workers are?”

And the answer is a resounding yes.

The class essentialists and the class eclectics, however, must be confronted and struggled with to win them over to the correct perspective of uniting all those that can be united against capitalism, for socialism and for communism.


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