Cooking the Books: Who is Exploited?

If you work in an office how can you be economically exploited if you don’t produce anything that your employer appropriates? That was a question touched on in the Morning Star (12 November) in an article on ‘What is “surplus value?”’ prepared by the Marx Memorial Library. Their answer was that all workers create surplus value. Among the work and workers that the article said produce value and surplus value were those in sales, accountancy and marketing. Marx would have disagreed.

He held that value (and so surplus value) was created only in the process of producing commodities as use-values for sale. He defined production as the fashioning of new use-values out of materials that originally came from nature. This included not just the work of handling the materials but also that of planning their production, so it did include office workers such as designers, draughtspeople and architects. It also included transport as transporting a commodity from where it was produced to where it was to be consumed did make it more useful.

In Marx’s view, if work did not add to the use-value of a commodity then it could not add to its value. The work of selling a commodity, essential as it is under capitalism, does not add to the commodity’s use-value. So those performing such work do not produce surplus value. The capital invested in such activities does return a profit, but its source is a share of the surplus value created in the value-producing sector of the economy. It is not created by its employees.

This does not mean that such workers are not exploited. They do perform surplus labour for which they are not paid over and above the labour equivalent of their wages. It is just that this surplus labour does not create surplus value; what it does is reduce the costs to the employer of running their business.

As one exponent of Marxian economics put it:

‘The merchant has invested a certain amount of money-capital in a store, equipment, and wage laborers (clerks, salesmen, etc.). These wage workers are unproductive like the merchant himself although they work for him a longer time than he pays for. But their surplus-labour is as unproductive as the capital of the merchant. They merely realize the surplus-value for the merchant, which was produced in the sphere of production, and make profits for him so much quicker, the more their unproductive surplus-labor is extended and their necessary labor shortened (Ernest Unterman, Marxian Economics, 1903, Ch. XVI).

The same applies to workers in banking, insurance, and other money handling activities.

There is a second category of work and workers that Marx didn’t consider produced surplus value. In a comment in Volume 1 of Capital on the 1861 Census Marx pointed out that there were as many people employed as domestic servants (1,208,648) as in textile factories and mines together (1,208, 442) (ch. 16, section 6). Although he described them as ’modern domestic slaves’ he did not consider that they created surplus value; they were an expense paid out of income. This applies also to those called, appropriately enough, civil servants. They are the servants of the capitalist class as a whole employed by their state and paid for out of their income (via taxes). They too perform more work than they are paid for, which economises on the cost of government, national and local.

The fact that commercial and financial workers and civil servants don’t produce surplus value does not make them any less, or lesser, members of the working class. They, too, are victims of the wages system and have an interest in working for its abolition.