How Capitalism Works (3): Work and Waste

To stick to the word’s original meaning only work which plays a direct part in producing wealth can be described as “productive”. Any other work would be “non-productive”. This is not to make a judgement as to its usefulness, but merely to record the fact that it does not result in any wealth being produced.

The productive non-productive distinction is not the same as that often made between manual and non-manual work. (The latter is an unreal distinction anyway, since all human work involves a person using both brain and hands). A craftsman working on his own must himself do all the work connected with production, planning and organising his work as well as fashioning the raw materials. In the modern workplace these productive tasks are divided among specialist workers, some of whom may wear white collars, work in offices and never see or handle the raw materials. This work — planning, organising, and design — is just as much productive as that done at the coal face or the factory bench. Similarly, an architect’s office is as much a productive workplace as an engineering factory. The distinction here is between productive and non-productive work rather than between productive and non-productive workers, since in practice many jobs involve both kinds of work.

Since work is the expending of energy it includes a whole range of human activities which, though very necessary, do not result in wealth being produced. Eating, drinking. washing, walking, playing and other activities a person must do in order to stay alive do not produce wealth. Nor does the work involved in education, health and entertainment which is equally vital to human survival. These non-productive activities are all personal or communal services which are necessary to keep people alive and healthy. Insofar as they also keep people in a fit state to work they do, it is true, make a very real contribution to production. But this is only an indirect contribution, since the act of carrying out these services does not in itself result in any wealth being produced. To call these services “non-productive” is a useful reminder that those who perform them, and the equipment and materials they use, have to be supplied out of the surplus wealth created by productive work.

The non-productive work just discussed is essential whatever form human society takes. But there is other non-productive work which only arises in certain kinds of human society. In class-divided societies, for instance, the ruling minority has to maintain an apparatus of coercion. The armed men who perform this coercive function do work, but they do not produce wealth. And in societies where wealth must be exchanged before it can be used part of the workforce has to be engaged in activities connected with the exchange, as opposed to the production, of wealth. The extra work of an exclusively exchange or profit-making character which has to be performed today is really quite extensive.

Each enterprise employs, in addition to its productive workforce, people to buy the raw materials, people to hire and fire workers, people to sell the end-products and people to record and check all these exchange transactions. Certain enterprises have come to specialise in exchange activities. Shops are the obvious example. But so do banks, building societies, insurance companies, pension schemes, estate agents, accountants, employment agencies and so on.

A large proportion of the employees of the State, at local as well as national level, are engaged directly in exchange activities, from those who collect taxes, pay benefits and allocate government money to those who advise on the government’s finance, tax, trade and economic policies. Also, the State itself functions as an exchange institution when it takes part in the competitive struggle for profits. So the members of the diplomatic services and of the armed forces can also be regarded as doing exchange work (to the extent that the armed forces are involved in maintaining law and order at home, their non-productive work is a coercive rather than an exchange activity).

Exchange workers, like those who perform essential services, have to be maintained out of the surplus which productive work creates. So do the buildings, materials and equipment they use, from bank premises to military airfields, from notepaper to uniforms, and from cash registers to nuclear missiles. All this plant and equipment is wealth in the sense of being the result of human beings applying energy to change Nature. The workers who produce it are, therefore, engaged in productive work. It may seem contrary to common sense to describe the work of those who make guns and bombs and tanks as “productive” but remember that the productive /non-productive distinction is not meant to be a judgement of social usefulness.

Exchange work is essential in an exchange economy and does contribute indirectly to production since without it wealth could not be produced. But it is not absolutely essential to human society in the sense that education is, and it would be superfluous in a society whose wealth was allocated directly for use without first having to be exchanged.

But if bank employees are non-productive and are maintained out of surplus wealth, where do the profits of banks (and other exchange enterprises) come from? Enterprises are best thought of as competing to draw profits from a pool formed by converting into money all the surplus wealth produced. Exchange enterprises (and, for that matter, other “non-productive” enterprises such as profit-making schools and hospitals) take part alongside “productive” enterprises in this struggle for profits and also tend to obtain the average rate of profit on their capital which, in their case, will be the money-value of the buildings and equipment they use together with their cash and their fund for paying wages. The profits they make are a kind of payment from the productive enterprises for arranging for wealth to be exchanged (or for workers to be trained or kept healthy, as the case may be). Productive enterprises are forced to share their profits with non-productive enterprises as an alternative to having to employ more non-productive staff themselves to do the work. This hiving-off of non-productive tasks to specialist enterprises has proved to be the cheapest way of getting them done.

This suggests an alternative definition of “productive” which might have some relevance in analysing the way the world exchange economy works: productive-of-profit as opposed to productive-of-wealth. On this definition any workers whose work helps to produce profits for the enterprise which employs them would be productive, whether or not they actually produce any material wealth. This means that services would under some circumstances be regarded as productive. Non-productive work would be work which does not result in profits being made, as for instance the work of domestic servants and of some State officials.

This definition did have some relevance in the struggle waged by the individual employers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries against the “waste” of the aristocrat-controlled State machine. They wanted what they regarded as non-productive work reduced to a minimum so that they could retain a larger share of the surplus wealth for investment as capital. Reducing non-productive-of-profit work to a minimum so as to increase the pool of profits is still favoured by the enterprises who have now taken over from the individual owners as the main employers.

Earlier, we classified arms production as productive (of wealth) even though this seemed to conflict with common sense. This classification, though quite justified, seems odd because arms clearly do not serve to increase human welfare. This suggests the need for another distinction besides the productive, non-productive one, between work which furthers human welfare and work which does not. This would be a distinction between “useful” work and non-useful or “wasteful” work.

How would the various kinds of productive and non-productive work discussed above fit into this classification? Obviously, the productive work of producing the food, clothing and shelter and the other things human beings need to live and enjoy life is useful. So is the non-productive work involved in carrying out essential services like health and education, and the productive work associated with it. Obviously too, the non-productive work of the armed forces and the productive work of manufacturing arms for them is wasteful.

But what about non-productive exchange work? This is a more difficult question. This work is not absolutely essential to human life as it would be superfluous in a society where wealth was not produced for exchange but was directly allocated for use. So the question can be re-phrased: is an exchange economy in the interest of mankind? This is an easier question because, as we have shown, wars, pollution, social unrest, anarchy in production, restricted output, destruction of wealth, and recurring mass unemployment are the inevitable consequences of the world exchange economy. Further, the kind of world commonwealth which alone could provide the framework for abolishing material want while at the same time conserving world resources would of necessity also be a non-exchange and direct-allocation society.

For, in a society in which the resources of the Earth, natural and man-made, had become the common heritage of all humanity there would be no place for the transfer of property between property-owners, which is essentially what exchange is. Exchange work, then, must be classified as wasteful and with it the work of producing the equipment and materials exchange workers use.

This shows a considerable proportion of the workforce to be wastefully employed and a smaller, but still significant, proportion of the gross social product waste. So another major charge against the world exchange economy must be that it misuses the resources of the world. It means also that the diversion of labour and materials from wasteful to useful work could play a major part in abolishing material want throughout the world.


Leave a Reply