Chris Harman


Note of Qualification

Addendum to Marxist Economics ...

(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1975, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I HAVE simplified Kidron’s argument in a number of ways. Firstly, his definition of waste does not just include arms, but all those resources which capitalists use up without leading to further expansion of production – advertising, the police, the consumption of the capitalists themselves, etc. as well as arms.

But I have also made more substantive changes in his argument. He not only refers to arms etc. production as waste production: he also wants to argue that the labour involved in them is ‘non-productive’. He does so by taking up Marx’s argument that for capitalism only that labour is productive that serves to increase capital. Arms, etc, argues Kidron, do not aid in the expansion of the system and therefore the labour expended in their production cannot be ‘productive’.

I think that Kidron makes an important mistake in this argument. Capitalism is not just a global entity; it is also, by its very nature competing, rival capitals. What matters to capitalism about commodities is not just whether they contribute to the expansion of the total amount of wealth produced; but also the extent to which they give individual capitalists a claim to a portion of that wealth. That is why Marx makes the distinction between use-value (the ultimate physical utility of goods, whether for consumption or for further production) and exchange value (which goods only have insofar as they can be exchanged for some other goods – i.e. insofar as they represent to one individual, not to capitalism as a whole, a claim on the products of others).

Now arms may not have any use when it comes to expanding the total production of the whole system. But they do have a use to the individual capitalist state which wants to claim a certain proportion of the total product of the system for its own capitalist class. It can use them to enforce its claim for a share of the wealth belonging to someone else, or to prevent others enforcing such claims on it. That is why an economy dominated by arms competition is still subject to the law of value, relating its internal processes to the world system. Effectively it produces ‘exchange-values’ as well as self-destructive use values.

With other forms of waste production, like luxury goods, the case is even clearer. A Mercedes Benz may not contribute to the expansion of the total system. But it represents to its owner a very palpable exchange value, something he can use to exchange for other, productive resources.

It is the fact that it can be so exchanged that makes the labour that went into it ‘socially necessary’; and the rate at which it is exchanged tells how much of the ‘average labour time of society’ that labour is equivalent to.

That enables one to calculate the difference between the value which goes to the workers who produce the car and the value of the finished product: in other words, the amount of surplus value contained in it. That is why the Mercedes Benz workers can, quite rightly, claim that they are exploited. They produce an object which the capitalist can use to claim a certain chunk of value from society, while they themselves get wages of a considerably lower value.

Kidron, with his identification of labour spent on waste production and unproductive labour ends up by denying the fact of exploitation in such industries. He should also, end up by drawing the conclusion that you cannot talk of ‘socially necessary labour time’ in them. But once that is done, it is difficult to see how they could be subject to the laws of capitalism at all: in that case two thirds of American capitalism is not capitalist!

But Marx himself pointed out:

‘Other economists say that the difference between productive and unproductive applies not to production but to consumption. Quite the contrary. The producer of tobacco is productive, although the consumption of tobacco is unproductive. Production for unproductive consumption is quite as productive as that for productive consumption; always assuming that it produces or reproduces capital.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, p.306)

Clearly, Marx means productive in so far as it gives the individual capitalist an exchange value that he can use for reproducing or expanding his particular capital – even though its consumption is not productive from the point of view of the total output of the system as a whole. For, Marx, unlike Kidron, does not confuse total use values produced with individual exchange values.

However, Kidron’s mistaken definition of waste production as necessarily non-productive does not affect any of the fundamental points he wants to make. The vast amount of waste remains a vast amount of waste. And its effects on the system as a whole remain as described by Kidron.

Waste goods by definition do not enter into production either directly, as means of production, or indirectly, by reproducing labour power. So capital invested in waste industries uses up some of the total surplus value of society, without adding to it in any way.

It necessarily lowers the pressures on accumulation and (assuming waste production is less labour intensive than average production) the tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise. And the organic composition of capital in the waste goods sector cannot alter the average rate of profit throughout the system, since waste goods only give their producers a claim to surplus already produced elsewhere.

The real point Kidron wants to make is that under conditions of late capitalism, the waste sector and its peculiar effects on the rest of the system are central to the dynamic of the system as a whole. It is possible to make that point, and to draw the conclusions which Kidron wants to, without defining waste production as ‘non-productive’ and drawing the other, absurd, conclusions that such a definition entails.

Last updated on 16 November 2009