Home > political-economy, shorter work time > Burn your book, Michael Lebowitz…

Burn your book, Michael Lebowitz…

Michael replies:


I don’t agree with your basic premise. I asked you for your data on necessary labour, and you replied by offering information about ‘productive’ jobs compared to ‘unproductive’ ones. By productive, you mean jobs that produce ‘real goods’ as opposed to services, which produce nothing, add no value to the economy and do nothing for the standard of living of people.

By your definition, a job producing snowmobiles is productive, presumably necessary and must be valued whereas the activity of a teacher, nurse, doctor, community worker is useless and unproductive. These are categories warped by capitalism, and we need to break out this ideological straitjacket [which they didn’t do in the USSR— and your distinction is precisely the one that was used in Soviet income accounting]. Speaking as a Marxist and socialist, we need to start from an entirely different premise than capitalism— the premise of human development, the need to create conditions by which ‘rich human beings’ and ‘rich individuality’ can be fostered. From that premise, the activity that you are assigning to the garbage can must be especially valued.


Okay, Michael – we won’t call you Mr. Lebowitz. But, if you keep up this line of argument, we might also stop calling you a socialist, as well. We are trying to assign education and medical care to the garbage can? What nonsense!

The most astonishing thing about your response was its similarity to the response sent to us by John De Graaf, author of Affluenza, and documentary film maker, who wrote:

The idea that service jobs produce nothing is not only absurd, it’s a huge insult to the Americans who work in them.    The fact is that for the sake of the environment if we are to grow at all it will need to be in the service, not “productive” area.  The suggestion that those who produce cars make something of value while those who teach children or take care of the sick do not is not an alternative to our current way of thinking but rather a celebration of stuff and materialism.  What a way to win friends and influence people.  Where in the world do you come up with these ideas?????

It’s fair to say that many service jobs are make-work and probably superfluous, but who needs more wide screen TVs either or more cars, when we are drowning in pollution and heating up the climate.  This should not be seen as an argument between goods producing and service producing jobs but between those which increase human welfare and those which do not.

Productive versus non-productive work

We were rather taken aback by John’s response, since it was clear we were referring to economic value, and not human value. We chalked up his response to ignorance regarding the economic category, value. But, when you, an avowed “Marxist and socialist”, come up with the same silly pap it simply staggers the imagination.

To use one of your and John’s examples, we did not call teaching “useless” nor “unproductive”, we stated that it was non-productive. We meant by that, that teaching children, although of great human importance, does not itself produce anything of economic value – i.e., a commodity. It does, however, consume things of economic value – books, buildings, heat, electricity etc.; and, teachers also consume the value of their salaries. However, all the things consumed in the course of teaching are the product of the goods producing sector of the economy and not the service sector.

Since you are the Marxist and socialist (and we are neither) we remind you of what importance this distinction has in Marxist and socialist thought, by quoting Henryk Grossman. The non-productive strata of society is a particular category:

They do not enlarge the mass of actual products but, on the contrary, reduce it by their consumption, even if they perform various valuable and necessary services by way of repayment. The income of these people is not obtained by virtue of their control of capital, so it is not an income got without work. However important these services may be they are not embodied in products or values. In so far as the performers of these services consume commodities they depend on those persons who participate in material production. From the standpoint of material production their incomes are derivative.

Grossman goes on to state:

What significance does the existence of these people have for the reproduction and accumulation of capital? In so far as their material incomes are dependent incomes — that is, drawn from the capitalists — we are dealing with groups which are, from the standpoint of production, pure consumers. As long as this consumption by third persons is not sustained directly at the cost of the working class, surplus value or the fund for accumulation is reduced. Of course these groups perform various services in return, but the non-material character of such services makes it impossible for them to be used for the accumulation of capital. The physical nature of the commodity is a necessary precondition of its accumulation. Values enter the circulation of commodities, and thereby represent an accumulation of capital, only insofar as they acquire a materialised form.

To put it simply, the value contained in a snowmobile, or a book, or a school building is a product of the necessary labor expended during the production of each. This labor is necessary if these things are to be later consumed by the teacher at work (books, and school buildings) and in her own time (in the case of the snowmobile).

Further, while teaching the next generation is absolutely important, and of great human value, the profession, teacher, is only important if the parents are working such long hours, and with such poor opportunity to develop their intellectual capacity, that they cannot pass on the great wealth of human civilization to their kids. Some parents must become teachers, so that all parents can be worked to the point of intellectual and physical exhaustion.

Necessary versus productive work

The data we gave you was indeed that of goods producing jobs in the society, and this is also roughly the data on necessary labor time in our society, if you take those jobs and multiply them times the average hours of work in industry. Of course, it should be clear that not all necessary work is productive – for instance, transportation, warehouse work, or IT departments. It should also be clear that not all work that ends with a good is necessary – Boeing, General Dynamic, and Lockheed produce many goods for the Defense Department that have absolutely no economic value nor any human value.

That said, how would you explain the addition of 79 million service jobs to the economy over the last fifty years? If our explanation is suspect – that the creation of superfluous non-productive jobs serves only to support unsustainably long hours of work in industry –  what one do you offer in its place? Is it that Washington, which even now is trying to spin off public education into another profit center, values teachers, children and education?

You cannot side-step this problem, Michael.

Since the defeat of Connery-Black by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression, almost all jobs creation has occurred in work that does not create any value, but that consumes existing values, as we showed in the chart previously published.

There has been an increasing number of service jobs for each productive job

The role of debt in the expansion of non-productive work

Further, since the non-productive sector of the economy produces nothing of material value, its growth depends entirely on the promise to provide real economic output in the future, i.e., it depends on debt. It is a promise which cannot be fulfilled, and which, therefore, must be rolled forward into more debt. This has led to an unprecedented expansion of debt in the society, as capital attempts to bridge the gap between total employment in the economy and necessary employment in the economy, by promising future productive work to maintain non-productive consumption in the present:

Michael, this is what a ponzi scheme looks like. It can only end in the way all ponzi schemes end. (Source: St. Louis Fed)

It is a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme on a scale that is entirely unthinkable to us – simply defying the ability of the imagination to embrace its apocalyptic implications. It is not just the astonishing levels of debt thus far accrued that pose the biggest problem. To this we must add the material necessity for this debt to grow at an increasing rate just to keep the entire scheme from collapsing. To maintain its present rate of increase, the debt would have to double in the next eight or ten years to about fifty trillion dollars.

The slowdown in the rate of expansion of non-productive work

While nearly all of the growth in employment over the last fifty years has come from non-productive employment, even the slightest slowdown in growth from this source results in massive losses of productive employment. Since, debt (chart above) and non-productive labor (chart below) has failed to continue along their parabolic rises in this crisis, this has had the converse effect of causing a severe contraction in domestic productive output. Since 2008, productive output has fallen by $882 billion, nearly twice the value of non-productive expenditures at $467 billion – even though productive employment only provides one job in 7.

In this crisis, the fall in productive expenditures has been twice that of non-productive expenditures. (Source: BEA)

What the above chart suggests is that the real material living standards of working people – which can only be measured as the value of the commodities they consume – is falling precipitously, because the expansion of superfluous hours of work cannot keep pace with the growth in the productivity of labor. If you think there is no difference between labor that produces a commodity, and non-productive, superfluous, labor, then tell us where the millions of unemployed working families – already in the pipeline – are supposed to live?

Rethinking work

Based on the above, we believe that it is important not simply to address control of work place conditions and the hierarchical relations within the structure of daily work – it is necessary to rethink work itself, and to question a mode of production under which the survival of billions rests on the constant expansion of non-productive hours of work. Indeed, we believe that control over our conditions of work fundamentally rests on control over our hours of work.

For you and John De Graaf to turn this around and assert that we demean working families forced to perform unnecessary labor as a condition for their mere survival is not simply insulting – it is the scholarly equivalent to libel. We demand proof!

Go back and burn your book – start over, Michael. And, stop calling yourself a socialist until you figure out what the term means.

  1. michael
    April 16, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Funny that you [confessed non-socialist and non-Marxist] should quote Grossman to make your non-Marx position [Marx himself well-knew that services are commodities as long as they are products of human activity which are exchanged for money]. As I indicated, yours is the precise position of the Soviets [which Grossman shared in this respect] and, for that matter one of Adam Smith’s contradictory positions. Just shows that there’s little difference between vulgar Marxism and vulgar liberalism. Let’s hear it for snowmobile production and other parts of the productive sector! Time to get rid of all those ‘superfluous non-productive jobs which serve only to support unsustainably long hours of work in [good] industry’! Everything else you say is tautological [and supposedly demonstrate with data] as long as you buy into your idee fixe. Hey, don’t burn the book— give it to someone who might be able to understand it.

    • charley2u
      April 17, 2010 at 10:18 am


      First, you need to document your opinion on Marx and “services as a commodity”. As Marx pointed out, even the services of prostitutes and economics professors can be exchanged for money. This is what money does: its universal quality as a universal commodity makes it immediately exchangeable for anything, from baby food to Apache helicopters. Does this make an Apache helicopter a commodity?

      Second, does it not occur to you that the removal of money from gold, during the Great Depression, was an event designed to prevent money from curtailing unnecessary labor? Does it not occur to you that war, before this debasement, was often funded precisely by printing fiat – i.e., currency that was not backed by gold? If money is the embodiment of value – i.e., socially necessary labor time – by virtue of its quality as the universal commodity, what does the debasement of money (its decommodification) imply? Simply that labor that is not socially necessary can expand; that wages slavery should have no limit.

      Socialism and Marxism are truly dead when such nonsense can be passed off with the name. Dead, and better for it. Meaningless regurgitation of patent stupidities!

      • michael
        April 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm

        Ah, now gold-fetishism, too! An example of not being able to distinguish between the essence of money and a particular historical form. No time to teach you some Marxian economics because happily there are more important things these days; however, you might try checking Theories of Surplus Value for comments on services on commodities— I’d give you some page references but I don’t carry all my books and lecture notes to Caracas. As for Marxism and socialism being dead, it would be nice if the vulgar Marxism that you echo was. Of course, I don’t know what you have to offer in place of socialism other than utopian capitalism.

      • charley2u
        April 18, 2010 at 11:35 am

        I can wait until you return, Michael. At your convenience.

        And, please be sure to explain how, changing “money but in such a way. that it should no longer have the properties of money” in order to “retain the division between the product and its exchangeability … in such a way that it expresses identity” (Marx) is simply a change of historical form, and not of content.

  1. March 26, 2010 at 9:17 pm

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