Productive and Unproductive Labour

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Mon Oct 30 15:40:42 MST 2000

Lou Paulsen writes:

(Big snip about all the cases where, he argues, there is no evidence that
the productive/unproductive labour distinction is important)

>Now, if someone wants to save me from my heresy by coming up with SOME case
>in which the production/circulation distinction has actually been USEFUL to
>any Marxist agitator, revolutionary strategist, economist, historian, etc.,
>ANYWHERE, at any time, PLEASE let me know of its existence.

Well, the distinction is actually a crucial part of Marx's work.

David Welch referred to Vol 2 where Marx talks about the distinction in
terms of certain workers engaged in circulation, and that some of this
labour is productive and some not.  But the main place Marx analyses
productive and unproductive labour is in 'Theories of Surplus Value' (the
three-volume 'fourth volume' of 'Capital').

Some people, in casting doubt on the validity of the distinction (because,
for instance, it doesn't take women's domestic labour into account) have
missed the point.  Marx's analysis is not a moral one - it is an analysis
based on who *produces surplus-value* in capitalist society.

Moreover, in a society organised around the production of surplus-value, it
is rather essential to know exactly who produces surplus-value.

Non-productive workers (ie workers who do not produce surplus-value) may do
work which is much more socially useful than a whole chunk of productive
workers.  For instance, firefighters who save your house from burning down
are doing more socially useful work than workers in an armaments factory.
But only the latter are producing surplus-value.

The distinction is important for a number of reasons.  But here's one,
which covers some of the areas where Lou Paulsen sees no importance.

When the rate of profit falls, the ruling class has to cut down on the
amount of surplus-value which goes to paying the wages of non-productive
workers and which is being spent on areas which do not produce
surplus-value.  Thus understanding the difference is important for
predicting the scale of attacks on workers who do not produce

Whereas in the sphere of surplus-value production, the attacks will be
aimed at increasing the rate of exploitation, the attacks on non-productive
workers may aim at eliminating as many of the non-productive workers as
possible.  At a practical level, it's important for Marxist agitators to be
aware of what is coming for non-productive workers.

Another particular area which interests me, as someone in academia, is that
there are sections on non-productive workers - for instance, in academia
(in NZ we don't have private/profit-making universities; they are all
substantially underwritten by the state) - who look down on industrial
workers and don't see they have any common interests.  Explaining to the
more snobbish elements that their salaries are actually paid out of the
surplus-value extracted from 'mere' factory workers, who never get near a
university, can be quite important in raising their consciousness and
fostering class unity.

There are a number of other reasons why the distinction is important, which
hopefully other people will post on, as my time is very limited right now.

Philip Ferguson

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