Marx defined productive labor as that which produces surplus value. Under these conditions, laborers whose work does not produce surplus value for a capitalist are not exploited in any technical sense.
Not so much Marx’s error, but that of whose who claim his legacy, is to conflate the realization of value with the production of value. Whereas Marx was analyzing conditions of ‘classical capitalism’ in which the two categories often overlapped (and hence the error was easy to make), under imperialism the dislocation of production of surplus through wage labor and the realization of surplus as profit is increasingly accentuated. Thus, it becomes imperative to include this distinction in any analysis of modern political economy.
In order to demonstrate this distinction between productive and unproductive labor as it relates to the production and realization of value (and to provide a historical materialist sketch of the commodification and democratization of bourgeois privilege), imagine the following situations:
I) Imagine a situation in which a capitalist hires a maid and pays her a wage directly. Because surplus is not being accumulated by a third-party capitalist through the maid’s labor, Marx would describe this situation as one in which the maid, even in the case in which she is paid a wage consistent with the value of labor power and that typical of the proletariat at large, is performing unproductive labor and is not exploited for surplus.
But, the above analysis misses another important factor. The money which the capitalist pays the maid has to come from somewhere. In this case, the maid’s wage is draw from the surplus value the capitalist has realized from his exploitation of workers engaged in productive activity. The wages which the capitalist pays the maid do not grow his capital, but he nonetheless pays her because (being as he is a capitalist) he can afford the service.
II) Imagine a situation in which a capitalist hires a maid through an agency. The capitalist pays the agency a fee, a portion of which supplies the wage of the maid and another portion which is realized as surplus by the owners and managers of the agency.
Under this situation, Marx would have considered the maid’s labor both productive and exploited because her labor realizes surplus for the owner of the agency. However, Marx missed the mark somewhat.
The above situation still implies that the money the capitalist paid to secured the service of the maid (i.e., that paid by the capitalist to the agency) was produced and accumulated through the exploitation of productive labor by the capitalist. All that has changed is that an intermediary, i.e. an agency and its owners, have stepped in to secure for themselves a portion of this surplus. This difference between the expanded realization of value in relation to its production (i.e., between situation I and II), is reflected in the commodification of services associated with bourgeois privilege.
III) Imagine a situation in which some workers (associated with and herein formulated as the ‘middle class’), due to advantages via various forms of oppression, receive incomes which are above both the value of labor power (the cost of reproducing the class of productive laborers) and labor (the average price at which the product of labor is exchanged within the world-economy). In this situation, which Marx never considered, these workers receive a portion of surplus within their incomes which enables a fairly comfortable existence relative to the global proletariat at large.
Imagine that a middle class family uses a portion of their income to hire a family friend as a maid and pays her a wage directly. In this situation (as in situation I), it is safe to say that the maid produces no surplus value and hence is not exploited. But, the questions still arises: from where comes the money which constitutes her wage?
In this case, the middle class family, while not directly engaged in the exploitation of productive labor (such as a capitalist is), is invested with enough surplus in their own income to expend a portion of it towards hiring the unproductive labor of a maid. This reflects the democratization of bourgeois privilege to include the ‘middle classes.’ Whereas before (in situation I and II) the capitalist, which was engaged directly in the exploitation of labor, was able to devote a portion of his exploited wealth towards purchasing the unproductive labor of a maid, now, because their wages also include a portion of surplus generated out of the productive labor of others, the ‘middle class’ family is able to do the same.
IV) Finally, imagine a situation in which a ‘middle class’ under similar conditions hires a maid through an agency. Again, surplus included in the middle class family’s income enables them to spend a portion on the services of a maid. However, in this case the money is supplied to an agency, which takes a cut of surplus above what is paid to the maid itself. As in example II, it may appear that the maid is engaged in productive labor because her work secures for her employing agency a portion of surplus. Again however, we must consider the distinction between the production of value and its realization.
In the case that the middle class family’s income includes a portion of surplus which is used to pay the agency for the services of the maid, this is still an occurrence of realization of surplus, not its production. The maid’s services, which are hardly necessary for the literal reproduction of the middle class family, are in no manner accessible to the proletariat at large. Instead, the maid’s services are an expression of the commodification and democratization of bourgeois privilege within the context of imperialism.
Expansion of bourgeois privilege in history
The above situations, presented rigidly to highlight the distinctions and similarities between classically-described unproductive labor and that which serves to realize surplus, traces the historical expansion of bourgeois privilege under imperialism. The service of a maid, once the exclusive privilege of the ruling classes, is now accessible to the propertyless-petty bourgeois. The propertyless petty bourgeoise owes its existence to imperialism. They receive income which includes both the full value of their own labor and the surplus labor of others. The facilitation of such bourgeois privilege for this class has been expanded as a distinct parasitic sector of the capitalist-imperialist world-economy.
Moreover, it is not simply an amorphous middle class which is consigned to the conceptual and functional distinction of propertyless-petty bourgeois. In the above situational sketch, the maid may well belong to this category as well. Her wage, after all, is sourced from the capitalist’s exploitation of others in situation I and II and from the surplus invested in the middle class family’s income in situation III and IV . The only question left to ask is whether her wage is the above or below value of labor.
This expansion of bourgeois privilege under capitalist-imperialism is not only represented by the services of maids. Paying someone else for a haircut, paying someone else to prepare one’s meal, paying for a massage, giving someone a dollar for holding a door or handing you a towel, and having someone else drive you places were all original domains of the bourgeoisie and other ruling classes. All of these services are now available to the propertyless petty-bourgeoisie. These services, not normally available to the proletariat at large, do not produce value. Rather, under conditions of monopoly capitalism in which wealth is exploited from the Third World and realized in the First, such services are a means of value realization by individual enterprises in imperialist countries.
Consider for example a yard of grass. Yards have not always been an eternal fact of life for everyone but they are prevalent throughout the United States and other First World countries. Their original purpose being aesthetic and to provide a comfortable surface on which to carry out leisure, they too were originally the domain of the classical bourgeoisie. In the 20th century and especially in the U.S. yards became a regular characteristic of the propertyless petty-bourgoisie. In this latter case, the yards main purpose is not to reproduce labor (such that might be accomplished by a garden in place of the yard) but to demonstrate status. Moreover, a wide range of products and services catering to this middle class privilege of grass yards have been created with the aim of realizing value. The increasing devotion of labor and capital toward fulfilling frivolous privileges (such as yards, etc) occurs at the expense of the general well being of the proletariat (i.e., private landscaping does little advance the satisfaction of general wants) is an indicator of the growing irrationality associated with monopoly capitalism (imperialism) and the massive propertyless petty-bourgeoisie it spawns.
Expanded bourgeois privilege v the socialization of use values
There is a tendency, especially among First Worldists, to think of socialism as simply a further democractic expansion of bourgeois privilege to a broader middle class. According to this line’s implication, everyone should be able to live even better than a middle-class Amerikan and everyone should have even greater access to the bourgeois privilege known today. Not only is this conception of socialism impossible in ecological terms (i.e., if everyone on the planet consumed at the level Amerikans do now, humanity would need over four Earth’s worth of resources), but it it highly utopian and opportunistic.
Socialism is both democratic control over production and the increasing egalitarian expansion of use-values. In contradistinction to modern bourgeois privilege in consumption, which occurs at the expense and exclusion of the proletariat at large and is a hallmark of the growing irrationality of capitalist-imperialism, the socialization of use-values aims to efficiently raise the standard of living of the proletariat at large while altering the very nature of production and distribution. Rather than the petty-bourgeoisie and other net-exploiter classes having access to the individual consumption of things that are presently bourgeois privileges, the socialization of use-values is part of the economic revolution away from a capitalist society to a communist one. Instead of the private consumption and use of cars and passenger vehicles, there would be an expansion of infrastructure associated with public and alternative transportation as well as changes in patterns of commuting. Meals, rather than prepared through unpaid labor or purchased as a commodity, would be prepared and distributed socially in a rational and egalitarian manner. Labor and resources once dedicated to maintaining plush yards would be spent in part on restoring much of the damage caused under capitalism to biospheres and the Earth’s natural metabolic processes.
Imperialism has led to the democratization and commodification of bourgeois privilege and to the creation of a parasitic economic sector geared towards to the facilitation of such privilege. Such bourgeois privilege is largely inaccessible to the proletariat at large. Instead, a largely First World propertyless petty-bourgeoisie whose wages are invested with surplus, through partaking in such privilege in commodity form, recirculates this surplus as realized profit for largely First World firms. Hence not only is this First World propertyless petty-bourgeoisie the social based of First Worldism and modern social chauvinism, it also plays a fundamental component in the concentration of capital within imperialist countries.
First Worldism, which is ignorant or evasive on the issue of class and class struggle under imperialism, and Third Worldism, which opposes such opportunism and social-chauvinism, offer two very different visions of socialism. First Worldism is a reformist program which merely represents an idealized further expansion of bourgeois privilege whilst ignoring the manner in which this necessarily comes at the expense of the proletariat at large. Third Worldism promotes a revolution in the relations and means of production and distribution and aims for an expansion of use-value such that radically transforms the everyday lives of humanity at large.