Productive and Unproductive Labor

David Laibman (
Mon, 19 Jan 98 18:05:00 EST

Michael Williams anticipates being utterly isolated in his view of the
productive/unproductive distinction -- that all waged labor is productive.
(His last sentence sounds like the old refrain: "Dance a little dance, and
sing a little song, prosperity's coming, it won't be long! That is my
opinion and it's VERY STRONG! (So I guess it must be wrong!)".)
I would like to chime in in support of his view. The details are in
several places, but most recently in my forthcoming reply to Simon Mohun in
the RRPE. Defenders of the distinction have never answered the challenge: to
propose a way of giving content to the concept that productive (waged) labor
creates surplus value, while unproductive (waged) labor does not, without
slipping surreptitiously into one of two presumably discarded alternative
definitions of the distinction: one that attributes productiveness to
socially desirable production activity, and one that attributes it to
activity resulting in the production of physical (tangible) commodities.
Marx, by the way, in various places, allocated unproductive labor income
to: surplus value, constant capital, *and* -- variable capital (citation on
request). So reference to texts will not resolve the "allocation problem"
(as it has come to be called since my original use of the term; see *Value,
Technical Change and Crisis,* chapter 4). There is no doubt that Marx
himself intended and propounded the distinction between productive and
unproductive (waged) labor, although the distinction is variously defined
throughout his work.


David Laibman