Productive and Unproductive Labour

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Sun, 18 Jan 1998 00:29:27 +0000

The question of how this distinction can be validly sustained has
come up again in the 'Quantifying Values' thread. And I'm still
puzzled. I will try and characterise productive labour, starting
with what I guess will be the least uncontroversial moments. Note
that for me, some of the moments I explicate are redundant, as they
follow from others already listed. Since this may not be obvious, or
even agreed, by everyone, I leave the redundancy.

1. Productive labour creates surplus value

2. It does so under capitalist relations of production (this rules
out, at least, labour employed by the State, except in the case where
the state is merely the [dominant] shareholder of a capitalist
enterprise, domestic labour, voluntary/not for profit sector
workers, and so on.

3. It produces commodities, ie products that necessarily have
use-value and value. IMO, that the product is a service does not, per
se, mean that it is not a commodity, nor, therefore, does it preclude
the labour that creates it from being productive.

4. Whether labour is productive or not does not depend upon to whom
the commodity it produces is sold: workers, capitalists, the state or
the man on the moon.

5. That labour is productive does not make the use-value of the
commodity it produces humanly desirable in any sense. In fact, that
that usefulness is forced into the form of use-value, necessarily
unified with value in a commodity, mitigates against its human

6. Similarly, that, labour is unproductive has nothing whatsoever to
do with whether the human usefulness of its product, except insofar
as it escapes the alienating effect of being crammed into the
use-value, and so the commodity form.

Now, can anyone explain to me why the labour of a security guard
employed by Secricor is not productive? Or the labour of workers in
the financial sector (producing financial services, as commodities)?
Or the commercial sector? To repeat, I can see why such labour,
either all or in part, is wasteful from the point of view of some
hypothetical society rationally and democratically organised to
allocate resources so as to meet human wants and needs. The use-value
of the commodities it produces are humanly undesirable (at least in
excess) - but then so are the use-values of junk food, cars unsafe at
any speed, products that cause the death of 50% of their consumers
when used as recmommended (tobacco products), etc. But the labour
that produces these commodities is not, thereby, unproductive.

btw, I think I take Alan's point that if a security guard employed by
Securicor is productive, then, in principle, so is one employed 'in
house' by some other capital - although more concretely control of
the labour process - real subordination - may be less efficient in
the latter case. However, I think Alan doesn't stick to his nostrum
(with which I agree) that the 'type' of labour (ie the nature of the
use-value of the commodity it produces) is *not* relevant to whether
that labour is productive or not.

I realise all this seems rather primitive in comparison, say, to
discussions about whether labour 'exchanges against' 'capital' or
'revenue' . But I beleive it raises prior questions.

I also realise that Marx's discussion of the distinction needs to be
revisited. But prior to that, I would like to try and get clear what
differentia specifica of productive labour are sustainable.

And for my money, all labour that produces (successful) commodities
(including services) under capitalist direct production relations is

I doubt anyone agrees with this - so why am I wrong?

"Books are Weapons"
Dr Michael Williams
Department of Economics Home:
Faculty of Humnities and Social Sciences 26 Glenwood Avenue
De Montfort University Southampton
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