The Political Economy of Waste (1): History

Kevin Carson wrote an excellent study on how much of our economy is actually unproductive and non-contributive.

You can read the full text here. And here is our wiki entry.

Now we present a brief introduction and history:

A recurring theme, from the Enlightenment on, has been the radically reduced work week that would be necessary to support the average person if production were organized efficiently and the producing classes didn’t have to work to support the idle in addition to themselves.

Although I can’t track it down I recall reading, as a child, an essay in my father’s anthology of Poor Richard’s Almanack in which Franklin described how the work day could be shortened to four or five hours by eliminating waste and irrationality.

In 1913 Pyotr Kropotkin estimated the labor time necessary to produce the actual food, clothing and housing that the average working family consumed at around 150 half-days’ labor a year. The average worker’s additional labor-time went either to waste or directly harmful production, or to supporting parasitic consumption by the privileged classes.5

Bob Black’s widely reproduced 1985 essay “The Abolition of Work” covered similar ground, arguing both for the elimination of waste production and for the combination of work wherever possible with play.

Only a small and diminishing fraction of work serves any useful purpose independent of the defense and reproduction of the work-system and its political and legal appendages. Twenty years ago, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just five percent of the work then being done—presumably the figure, if accurate, is lower now—would satisfy our minimal needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Theirs was only an educated guess but the main point is quite clear: directly or indirectly, most work serves the unproductive purposes of commerce or social control. Right off the bat we can liberate tens of millions of salesmen, soldiers, managers, cops, stockbrokers, clergymen, bankers, lawyers, teachers, landlords, security guards, ad-men and everyone who works for them. There is a snowball effect since every time you idle some bigshot you liberate his flunkeys and underlings also. Thus the economy implodes.6

A number of scholarly writers have dealt with the scale of waste production in the economy in recent years. Edward Wolff, in Growth, Accumulation and Unproductive Activity, classifies economic activity as either productive or unproductive. Waste output includes the portion of the economic surplus which is absorbed by the unproductive “surplus class” (essentially the rents on artificial property I write about below), and unproductive activities (activities which “use labor power but produce no directly usable output….”).7 Wolff’s main shortcoming is that his entire survey of waste production is sector by sector, with entire sectors being assigned either to the “productive” or “unproductive” category. It is almost completely silent on waste in the form of suboptimal allocation of resources or waste of inputs within an industry. Many production inputs are necessary, in some quantity, for production, but are used wastefully. Wolff classifies an entire industry as “productive” if its output has use value, no matter how wastefully production is organized.