Productive and Unproductive Labour - Marx's Critique

Marx's Critique

Karl Marx regarded land and labour as the source of all wealth, and distinguished between material wealth and human wealth. Human wealth was a wealth in social relations, and the expansion of market trade created ever more of those. However, wealth and economic value were not the same thing in his view; value was a purely social category, a social attribution.

Both in Das Kapital and in Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx devoted a considerable amount of attention to the concept of "productive and unproductive labour". He sought to establish what economic and commercial ideas about productive labour would mean for the lives of the working class, and he wanted to criticise apologetic ideas about the "productive" nature of particular activities. This was part of an argument about the source of surplus value in unpaid surplus labour. His view can be summarised in the following 10 points.

  • work is not "naturally productive", both in the sense that it takes work to make work productive, and that productive work depends on tools and techniques to be productive.
  • generally speaking, a worker is economically productive and a source of additional wealth to the extent that s/he can produce more than is required for his/her own subsistence (i.e., is capable of performing surplus-labour) and adding to a surplus product.
  • the definition of productive and unproductive labour is specific to each specific type of society (for example, feudal society, capitalist society, socialist society etc.) and depends on the given relations of production.
  • there exists no neutral definition of productive and unproductive labour; what is productive from the point of view of one social class may not be productive from the point of view of another.
  • the only objective definition of productive labour is in terms of what is as a matter of fact productive within the conditions of a given mode of production.
  • from the point of view of the capitalist class, labour is productive, if it increases the value of (private) capital or results in (private) capital accumulation.
  • Capitalistically productive labour is therefore labour which adds to the mass of surplus value, primarily through profitably producing goods and services for market sale.
  • no new value is created through acts of exchange only; therefore, although labour which just facilitates exchange is "productive" from the employer's point of view (because he derives profit from it), it is unproductive from the social point of view because it accomplishes only a transfer of wealth. This "unproductive" labour is accepted however because it reduces the costs of capital accumulation, or facilitates it, or secures it.
  • the definition of productive and unproductive labour is not static, but evolving; in the course of capitalist development, the division of labour is increasingly modified, to make more and more labour productive in the capitalistic sense, for example through marketisation and privatisation, value-based management, and Taylorism.
  • whether work has been productive can really be known only "after the fact" in capitalist society, because commodity-producing living labour is in most cases definitely valued by the market only after it has been performed, when its product (a good or service) is exchanged and paid for.

Marx accordingly made, explicitly or implicitly 10 distinctions relevant to defining productive labour in a capitalist mode of production:

  • commodity production, versus other production
  • capitalist production versus non-capitalist production
  • production versus circulation (exchange)
  • production for profit, versus non-profit production
  • productive consumption versus unproductive consumption
  • material (tangible) production, versus non-material production
  • production of use values, versus production of exchange-values
  • production of value, versus appropriation of revenue
  • production of income, versus distribution of income
  • production versus destruction

In most cases, using these distinctions, it would be obvious whether the labour was capitalistically productive or not, but in a minority of cases it would be not altogether clear or controversial. In part, that is because the division of labour is not static but constantly evolving. The general criterion which Marx suggests is that:

"If we have a function which, although in and for itself unproductive, is nevertheless a necessary moment of reproduction, then when this is transformed, through a division of labour, from the secondary activity of many into the exclusive activity of a few, into their special business, this does not change the character of the function itself" (Capital Vol. 2, Penguin ed., p. 209).

Obviously, functions falling outside capitalist production altogether would not be capitalistically productive.

Generally, Marx seems to have regarded labour as mainly unproductive from the point of view of capitalist society as a whole, if it involved functions which have to do purely with:

  • the maintenance of a class-based social order as such (legal system, police, military, government administration).
  • the maintenance and securing of private property relations (police, security, legal system, banking, accounting, licensing authorities etc.).
  • operating financial transactions (in banking, financing, commercial trade, financial administration)
  • insurance and safety.
  • criminal activity.

Such activities were an inevitable cost to capitalist society which had to be met from reserves and from current income. This didn't necessarily mean that unproductive functions are not socially useful or economically useful in some sense; they might well be, but they normally did not directly add net new value to the total social product, that was the point, they were a (necessary) financial cost to society, paid for by a transfer of value created by the productive sector. Thus, they represented an appropriation or deduction from the surplus product, and not a net addition to it. Obviously, unproductive activities could stimulate productive activities however (for example, the production of security installations). Many unproductive costs are accepted by business, either because they involve activities which lower total business costs, and thereby indirectly contribute to income, or because they are unavoidable in doing business.

In the division of labour of modern advanced societies, unproductive functions in this Marxian sense occupy a very large part of the labour force; the wealthier a society is, the more "unproductive" functions it can afford. In the USA for example, one can calculate from labour force data that facilitating exchange processes and processing financial claims alone is the main activity of more than 20 million workers. Legal staff, police, security personnel and military employees number almost 5 million workers.

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