Re: Productive and Unproductive Labour

Duncan K. Foley (
Mon, 19 Jan 1998 23:11:04 -0500

On Alan and Michael's discussion of the productive character of a security

I don't think the definition of the commodity can resolve this. Within
capitalist relations of production security guards (and supermarket
cashiers) provide a use-value in the form of exchange value to their
employers. If you go down this road, then there isn't going to be any
distinction between productive and unproductive labor (which is the view of
the mainstream economists, who maintain that the willingness of someone to
pay for an activity is prima facie evidence of its productivity).

I think Marx distinguishes use-values that arise in and are conditional on
the commodity form of production, basically those activities having to do
with securing of property rights and their transfer, as unproductive. I
think this is a coherent distinction, but its economic and political
economic significance is not made very clear.

One subtext of Marxist discussions of unproductive labor is to underline
that the "real" productivity of labor is higher than it looks, so we may be
closer to overcoming scarcity than the social relations of production allow
us to see. If we could socialize the whole surplus labor time we wouldn't
have to sork very many hours a day or lifetime to reproduce ourselves, and
could spend the rest of the time on science, art, and philosophy.


Duncan K. Foley
Department of Economics
Barnard College
New York, NY 10027
fax: (212)-854-8947