Productive and Unproductive Labor

daviesj at WABASH.EDU daviesj at WABASH.EDU
Fri Aug 4 09:56:46 MDT 1995

I apologize for coming into this thread in the middle, as I may have
missed the answers to the questions that I have.  First, though, I have
always had a problem with the concept "unproductive labor."  Isn't labor
*by definition* productive activity?

On Thu, 3 Aug 1995 glevy at wrote:

>   Perhaps examples would be useful
> > here, Jerry.  I gave the example of automobiles versus tanks; can you
> > offer your interpretation of whether tank production consists of
> > productive or unproductive labor?
> OK, let's talk about this.  Tanks, unlike automobiles, are sold
> exclusively to the state.  While most tanks are produced by capitalist
> firms who employ wage labor, they produce a product rather than a
> commodity in the sense that this product is not marketed but is purchased
> directly by the state with monies that come from state revenues, as per a
> special arrangement between the state and the firms. For the above
> reasons, I would say that wage labor employed by tank producers is
> unproductive.

Why are the goods consumed by the state not commodities?  Even in a
monopsony, there is a market.

> > Defining unproductive labor in a meaningful way has dramatic implications
> > for estimates of the magnitude of the rate of surplus value .... (snip)
> I'm sure this is true. Since you go on to say that this kind of empirical
> work is needed, we should go on with this thread so that we can define
> unproductive labor in a more meaningful way.
> Jerry
I can see where this is important, but isn't the distinction between
productive and unproductive labor more of a political distinction, rather
than an economic one?  I mean:  who can be organized as an industrial
proletariat versus who's labor ties them ideologically to the ruling
class (e.g., bankers).

One last question:  what is the analytical relation between productive
and unproductive labor, and mental and manual labor (my less informed
opinion is that the latter distinction has more to tell us, as it is
based in actual labor processes and in the social division of labor).


Matt Davies

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