Re: Productive and Unproductive Labour - response to Chris

jurriaan bendien (
Tue, 27 Jan 1998 11:54:38 +0100

Chris Arthur writes:

> The prior question is what do we want the [unproductive/productive]
distinction for! What problem is
> it supposed to address?

I think Marx is concerned with understanding "additions to wealth" like
Adam Smith, but I think his inquiry goes further. Marx is trying to work
out (1) how the generalisation of commodity production modifies the
social/technical division of labour, (2) what is "productive" labour from
the standpoint of capitalism as a historically specific mode of production,
(3) what is the specifically capitalist form of wealth, and (4) to what
extent the bourgeois political economists present labour as "productive" or
"unproductive" according to ideological prejudices (a critique of political
The guiding thread in Marx's thinking is that capitalism tends to
transform forms of labour both "intrinsically" and "institutionally" into
activities which allow capitalists to privately appropriate surplus-value
from the labour, i.e. labour as a source of surplus-value (surplus-labour).
This assumes the labour is commodity-producing labour, combining concrete
and abstract labour (combining the production of use-values and
exchange-values) as a necessary mediation between society and nature.
In relation to (1), the dominant theme is that capitalism modifies the
division of labour such that the production of mass-reproducible
commodities becomes possible on an increasingly wider scale, the
substitution of mass-reproducible commodities for services, handicrafts
etc. as world-historical tendency or law of motion. This is the story of
the formal and real subsumption of labour by capital. As Michael pointed
out, there are varying degrees of subsumption, and as I pointed out, some
categories of labour are difficult to subsume by capital given the current
state of technology.
In relation to (2) Marx seeks to work out what labour adds to the
aggregate mass of surplus-value (sometimes implicitly the "materialised
surplus product"), and what labour - although technically indispensable for
the appropriation of surplus-value or for the reproduction of capitalism -
does not, and represents a cost to capital as a whole (a deduction from
surplus-value, realised or potential) which must be minimised. Capitalists
are prepared to pay for this cost only to the extent that it is necessary
to realise (an additional amount of) surplus-value.
In relation to (3), the specifically capitalist form of (material) wealth
is the ownership of, or claim to, commodities (in contrast to, say, "human
wealth" which Marx suggests in the Grundrisse is "wealth in human
relations" - recall the opening sentence of Capital Volume 1).
In relation to (4), Marx criticises the bourgeois political economists
because they "fetishize" the productivity of labour, present activities or
objects as "productive" when they really aren't, or adding to material
wealth when they really don't, or obscure the capital-relation (the ability
of owners of capital, in virtue of that ownership, to extract
As regards advertising, this can be either a service or a commodity in its
own right, produced like any other commodity, and if it is produced as a
commodity, then it is productive labour just like any other, irrespective
of whether it is harmful to people or whether it assists the realisation of
sales or not. What Marx is looking at is the social relations under which
it is produced, and whether a product results which is separable from the
owner and exchangeable on the market.


Jurriaan Bendien.