Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Non-manual labour

Letters to the Editors from the June 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I am writing in the hope that you can enlighten me on a point concerning non-manual labour. Unless I have completely misunderstood the dynamics of capitalism, the exploitation of the workers rests on the extraction of surplus value, and the wages system is the mechanism by which this robbery takes place. This is easily observable in, say, mining or steel production. Physical wealth is produced, expropriated and sold. However with unproductive work such as, for example, a typist or a bank clerk, what wealth is being produced? How can someone who is producing no wealth be exploited through the extraction of surplus value? What wealth is being expropriated?

I understand that much non-manual labour is an essential part of production (nursing, planning etc) and that this labour, indirectly, produces wealth. However, doesn't this suggest perhaps the existence of two different types of exploitation? (1) the ‘real’ economy—physical wealth production on which we all depend, and (2) non-manual labour, some of which (like the occupations mentioned above) is essential and some of which (bank clerks, etc) is completely wasted labour. The exploitation of someone in the 'real' economy is easily analysed—the owner's outlay (wages, rent, repairs, etc) can be said to cost x, commodities are sold for y. the difference between x and y being profits.

Can the exploitation of a typist be quantified in this way? A miner pays his own wages, he has produced wealth over and above the value of his wages, does a typist do the same? Who pays for a bank clerk's wages if they don't actually produce any wealth? Is it enough to say that employers are happy to pay unproductive workers because within the context of the money system they do serve a purpose? Are unproductive workers a sort of subsidised workforce, paid for with wealth accumulated through physical wealth production? If so, doesn't that imply a rather more sophisticated understanding of the system amongst employers than blind obedience to the God of profit—if they are prepared to forsake immediate gain by employing workers whom they can’t actually physically exploit for profit, or is it a situation that developed naturally?

Production is the transformation of materials that originally came from nature into something that serves some human purpose. This necessarily involves both physical (manual) and mental (non-manual) work. Mining is not just a question of digging. It also involves surveying, planning how to extract the mineral and how bring it to the surface, and the like. This work is just as necessary to production as the physical side. Originally the same person would have done both but, as the division of labour has grown, the manual and mental aspects have come to be performed by different groups of workers. All of them are equally engaged in productive labour, including, we might add. the typists who type out the plans.

Under capitalism it is not just use-values that are produced but commodities, or items produced for sale. This means that a whole series of other operations become necessary which wouldn't exist if production were carried on simply for use: buying, selling, accounting, banking, insurance. Necessary though these activities are under capitalism, they are not productive as they do not enhance the usefulness of the product. This does not mean that the workers involved in them are not exploited. As Marx explained in Chapter 6 of Volume 2 of Capital on "The Costs of Circulation", such workers, just as much as productive workers, are paid less in terms of labour-time than the time they actually work and so perform unpaid labour for their employer. It is this unpaid labour which transfers a part of the surplus value produced in the productive sector to their employer. So an employer of unproductive labour has not abandoned the pursuit of profit. Quite the contrary.

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