I got into a disagreement recently about “service work” recently, which opens onto conversations about productive vs unproductive labor, something I’ve been meaning for a long time to dig into in a sustained way. Not today, just some notes from that conversation. Something tells me this is related to the post about socially necessary labor time.

It suddenly struck me that “service industry” and “service sector” are not as clear as I sometimes think they are, particularly as distinct from “production” industries. I get that that’s just what people call them and so that’s what they’re called, but it seems to me they produce.

As I read Marx, there are two related meanings to production. Marx in v1 of Capital distinguish use value production from value production. Facts about use values generally tell us very little about value. He ties this into a distinction between the labor process and the valorization process. They’re analytically seperable but in reality workplaces in capitalism are both at once.

Use value production for Marx is basically any action that makes some thing that people can use in some fashion (“use” just means “do stuff with it”, a use value is the ability to satisfy any need “of the fancy or of the belly” [something like that] as Marx puts it in the beginning of v1 of Capital). Use value production is when workers labor upon objects to transform them. Seems to me almost all workers work on objects that other workers have already worked on – with the very limited exception of some agricultural and extractive workers (who still work with tools and machines and many of them work in areas that have long been shaped by human cultivation). People whose job it is to produce use values in a commodified form produce use values and simultaneously produce value. Generally “productive worker” in marxist parlance refers to producing value for a capitalist, not use value production.

Marx in v2 of Capital calls workers who transport goods productive workers. Someplace, I believe in the Theories of Surplus Value, Marx also says that under certain conditions clowns and writers can be productive workers because they can produce value for an employer.

It seems to me that what with the division of labor, much of the time productivity is a quality of a whole supply chain as much or more as a quality of any given point in a supply chain. Marx describes capitalism as the advance of money to purchase a range of commodities the most important of which is labor power, that labor power is set to work on objects (usually the product
of others’ labor) in order to produce new objects that are sold. The amount that the selling price is above the capitalist’s initial outlay is where profit comes from and profit is re-invested in order to do all this on a larger scale. That’s capitalism. The whole series is what is or is not productive, though there may be activities or individuals in the series who can be cut without a loss, they too are not productive. The point is that productivity happens at the level of the whole series.

There may be people in the series who are not productive. Those are people who can be eliminated from the series without any real impact on the surplus generated. People who are truly unproductive don’t add to the recovery of value advanced plus a surplus, which means the company ought to be able to cut those functions at no loss at all. Services in this sense, as not productive, are people who produce items consumed in simple circulation. Capitalists may choose to hire people to do such tasks for the capitalists’ own enjoyment, as a personal expenditure. Hiring people to do such tasks in a capitalist enterprise, however, is a mistake, from a capitalist perspective.