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The Militant, 14 September 1946

Warren Creel

Wages, Prices and Profits

Productive and Unproductive Labor

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 37, 14 September 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Not all labor is productive. Capitalism in the present stage turns more and more labor to waste in unproductive channels, which is one of the things wrong with capitalism. To see clearly what really happened in war production and in the post-war period we have to clear up this difference between productive and unproductive labor.

Productive labor produces goods, and also distributes them in the real sense of moving the goods to consumers. By making and delivering all our food, clothing, and so on, productive labor creates the total output of commodities.

There is another kind of labor that is necessary only to the capitalist because he is selling goods in the commodity form. He hires workers for advertising and selling. Now selling contains two kinds of labor, which we can call real distribution and commodity selling. The first kind, real distribution, is necessary and would be necessary under any economic system; it is shipping and warehousing goods, and handing them over the counter to customers, etc. The other kind, commodity selling, is wasted labor, used up by the capitalists in getting business away from each other. Most selling and commercial work belongs to this type of unproductive labor.

The Brown Corporation spends money and hires workers just to move merchandise by getting customers away from Black, Incorporated. And Black, Incorporated, spends money and hires workers to get the customers back again. They can use up an enormous amount of labor in outdoing each other this way.

Waste of labor in commodity selling takes many forms. A common example is three filling stations on a corner where the business only calls for one. We know the extra filling station attendants represent workers wasted in competitive selling effort. They are not necessary to serve the public. They only serve their different corporations, each of which wants part of the business on that corner. They sell gasoline which costs five cents a gallon from the producer. They sell it for about 20 cents a gallon, leaving a fifteen cent margin. We know part of that margin is used up in paying the extra expenses of this wasteful competition. The margin, in general, as we have seen, is surplus value. So some of the surplus value in the hands of the employer does not remain as profit. He has to spend it on wasteful sales effort, to collect his profit.

Much of what is commonly called production is commodity selling. For instance, we think of construction workers as productive. But how about the carpenters and bricklayers who built the surplus-filling, stations, and the workers who made the bricks? Their work didn’t add to society’s wealth, it only helped certain corporations go after business, and keep it away from competitors.

We can buy a fifteen cent package of breakfast food, puffed by a cheap steaming process which takes almost no labor. It contains four ounces, or three-fourths of a cent’s worth of wheat. The manufacturer dresses it up with a colorful cardboard box that costs far more than the food. A mountain of labor in fancy packaging in maintaining unnecessary outlets, and in other lines of work too numerous to list here, is wasted in commodity selling.

Such labor makes no goods and does society no good. It creates no labor-value and hence no surplus-value. The capitalist, as Marx pointed out, must spend part of his surplus value to collect , the rest.

This is where part of the surplus value goes. As efficiency rises, waste rises also.

Next week: Capitalist Waste of Human Labor

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