[OPE-L:6743] [OPE-L:216] Re: Report from the Trenches: Productive Labor

Ajit Sinha (ecas@cc.newcastle.edu.au)
Mon, 26 Oct 1998 12:39:21 +1100

At 15:44 24/10/98 -0500, Duncan Foley wrote:
>I'm about 3/4 of the way through grading 55 papers from my Theoretical
>Foundations of Political Economy class, which starts with Smith. About 3/4
>of these papers choose to deal with the productive/unproductive labor
>distinction, and I thought you might be interested in what they generally
>have to say.
>First, very few students tumble to the fact that Smith's definition is
>ambiguous because it contains both the element of labor producing a
>tangible commodity that can be added to the social capital and the element
>of labor producing value and profit.

I have a paper out in the journal of History of Economic Thought Society of
Australia called *History of Economics Review* entitled
'Productive/Unproductive Labour: Marx's Critique of Adam Smith' 1997, No:26
(125-130). In this paper I have argued that Marx did not read Adam Smith's
so-called conflation between labor productive of profit and labor that
produces material goods as two distinct definitions, as is generally
understood within Marxist intellectual circles. Rather these two conditions
were seen by Marx as "add[ing] other points of difference...". Marx's
critique of Adam Smith on this point is about the confusion in Smith
between labor within the M-C-M' circuit and the labor within C-M-C circuit.
If you don't get this journal in your library, then please let me know.
I'll immediately send you a copy.
>Second, nobody pretty much thinks the distinction is viable for the
>contemporary economy, because so much value is generated in the service
>sector, and they simply can't accept that it isn't productive.

One of the referees of my paper made a similar remark which forced me to
add a footnote saying "Given the preponderance of 'immaterial' production
in the modern capitalist world, one may question the relevance of Marx's
position on this point. This is not a place the discuss the issue, however.
For a counter argument, see Mandel's 'Introduction' to *Capital* vol. II."
>Third, a lot of them want to argue that domestic labor can be indirectly
>productive by saving the time of the productive laborers it's working for.
>As far as I can see this line of thinking makes the distinction completely

I wish I had your students! This is an intriquing point. Of course, when
Adam Smith and Marx ruled out domestic labor, they were mainly thinking of
domestic labor employed by the capitalist and the landlord classes. Workers
could employ domestic labor was not even considered a possibility. Here it
seems the students are thinking more in terms of child care labor etc. What
is your basic objection to their point? Cheers, ajit sinha
>Fourth, almost nobody sees that productive/unproductive labor is Smith's
>way of trying to talk about the investment/consumption allocation decision.
>While most of them argue that the productive/unproductive labor distinction
>is completely irrelevant to the contemporary economy, almost none carry
>this through to argue that the consumption/investment decision is
>Duncan K. Foley
>Department of Economics
>Barnard College
>New York, NY 10027
>fax: (212)-854-8947
>e-mail: dkf2@columbia.edu