Productive and unproductive work and Karl Marx's class theory

Albany Wiseman, French engine, 1972


The fundamental Marxian concept for understanding service workers and commercial wage labor is “exploitation”.

The twentieth-century expansion of white-collar work has spurred a renewed interest among Marxist intellectuals in Marxian concepts of productive and non-productive work.[I]. Many Marxists have hoped that Marx's long-neglected discussion of these concepts would provide them with the analytical tools with which they could identify the class nature of white-collar workers.

For example, Nicos Poulantzas claimed that the concepts of productive and non-productive work, as discussed by Marx, must be considered as essential components of a Marxist analysis of social structure (Poulantzas, 1974, p. 213). Many others (though not all) have expressed similar positions. Indeed, several Marxists have accepted Poulantzas's notion that the distinction between productive and non-productive labor represents, in effect, a class distinction.[ii]. However, there is very little consensus among these authors.

Marxist thinkers do not agree on what Marx meant by productive and non-productive labor and have not been able to reach a consensus on how these concepts can be used to analyze the class structure of contemporary capitalism. Nevertheless, the various authors who have tried to use such concepts have produced several important hypotheses that any Marxist theory must take into account. Even if one disagrees with the conclusions, or even the method, of authors such as Poulantzas, one must deal with the Marxian discussion of productive and non-productive work.

English-speaking readers of Marx are fortunate to have at their disposal Ian Gough's lucid and accurate exposition of Marx's views on productive and non-productive work (Gough, 1972). Yet subsequent writers have disagreed with Gough on several points of his interpretation. In my view, they tend to confuse Marx's concepts and weaken his analysis. On the face of it, it seems both useful and necessary to revisit this territory again, this time to explicitly confront certain arguments that challenge important aspects of Gough's analysis. The first two sections of this article briefly recap Marx's definitions of productive and non-productive work and provide a more detailed analysis of the problem of services and commercial wage labor.

In the third section, I will consider a problem with which Gough dealt only briefly and inconclusively – the place of these concepts in Marx's theoretical system. It is my contention that certain Marxist thinkers did not consider this question and, as a result, ended up mistaking the distinction between productive and non-productive labor for a class distinction. Finally, in a brief conclusion, I will suggest an alternative analytical method for employing the Marxian critique of political economy in an analysis of contemporary capitalist class structure. The concepts of productive and non-productive work have a place in this analysis, but not the place attributed to them by authors such as Poulantzas.


Classical political economy and productive work

Any discussion of Marx's views on productive and non-productive labor must begin by placing them in the context of classical political economy. As is well known, much of what Marx had to say about these concepts took the form of a critical discussion of the theories of Adam Smith, the Physiocrats and various minor political economists. The question of the nature of productive and non-productive labor was of extreme importance to classical political economy because, as Malthus noted, it was closely related to the definition of wealth. Therefore, an extensive debate began about how these concepts were related. This debate focused mainly on Adam Smith's notes on The Wealth of Nations (1937 [1776]).

Smith borrowed from the Physiocrats his notion that it is productive labor that produces a surplus, but he rejected their exclusive emphasis on agriculture. Smith defined productive work this way:

There is a kind of work that adds to the value of the object on which it works; there is another type of work that does not produce such an effect. The first, as it produces a value, can be called productive; the latter, non-productive work. Thus the labor of a manufacturer adds, to the materials in which he works, his own subsistence and his master's profit. The work of a servant, on the other hand, does not add to the value of anything.

He continues:

A manufacturer's labor is fixed and realized in a particular object or a salable commodity, which lasts for some time after the labor is past... salable merchandise. Their services usually end at the exact moment their performance ends, and they rarely leave behind any trace of value for which the same amount of service could later be redeemed. (Smith, 1937 [1776] :314-315)

Thus, the creation of additional value that takes the form of a material commodity was Smith's basic criterion for productive labor. In making this argument he explicitly classified as unproductive, "respectable" activities such as sovereigns, bureaucrats, doctors and lawyers. (Smith, 1937: 315)

Smith's definitions became the subject of a heated controversy involving several of the "less prominent" political economists. We need not examine this debate in any detail; Marx had a few choice words for these "gods of lesser tribes" who were of no importance in the history of political economy (Marx, 1975b: 174-76). It is of some interest that Smith's critics did not attempt to challenge the notion that productive labor was that which produced a surplus – indeed, they avoided this definition altogether. Instead, they attacked his view that productive labor should result in a material commodity. In so doing, they sought to demonstrate how and why Smith's "respectable" but "unproductive" workers were, in reality, eminently productive. This debate focused on the nature and origins of wealth. Smith argued that the nation's wealth would be greater the greater the resources devoted to employing productive workers (as he defined them) while his opponents sought to establish that the various types of work excluded from Smith's definition could, directly or indirectly, enrich the nation. In this matter Ricardo was on Smith's side.


Definitions of Marx

What then was the nature of Marx's criticisms of Smith and classical political economy? Most of Marx's notes on productive and non-productive labor were brief and fragmentary (with the exception of the extended discussion in Surplus Value Theories). Nevertheless, we can present a consistent set of Marx's views on these fragments. Let's start with the finished work in which Marx discussed this subject - Volume 1 of The capital. (The following analysis deals only with the sphere of production. Circulation will be considered later in this article).

At the beginning of Part III of Volume 1, Marx made the following statement:

In the work process, therefore, man's activity, with the help of work instruments, performs a transformation on the work object, determined at the beginning of the process. This disappears in the product; the result is use value. Natural material adapted by changing shape to meet man's needs. The work has incorporated itself into its object: the former is materialized, the latter transformed. What in the worker appeared as movement, now appears in the product as a fixed quality without movement...

If we look at the whole process from the point of view of the result, the product, it becomes clear that both the instruments and the objects of work are means of production and work itself is productive work (Marx, Vol. 1, 1975 : 180-181)

There is no mention of surplus here and there is no mention of producing a commodity. It seems, then, that Marx defined productive work in an entirely different way than Adam Smith did. However, as indicated by Marx himself in a footnote to this passage, to define productive work in this way is to define it from the point of view of the labor process – and not necessarily applicable to production. capitalist. (Marx, Vol. 1, 1975, p.181, note 2). In other words, it is the definition of productive work in general, abstracted of the particular form of production in which it takes place. Once the latter is taken into account, productive work can (and is) defined very differently.

Later in Volume I of The capital and in virtually all of his other statements on this subject, Marx defined productive labor exclusively from the point of view of capitalist production:

The individual worker is the productive one who produces surplus value for the capitalist and thus works for the self-expansion of Capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of the production of material objects, a teacher is a productive worker when, in addition to molding the heads of his students, he works like a horse to enrich the school owner. That the latter has poured his capital into a teaching factory instead of a sausage factory does not alter the relationship. Thus, the notion of productive work is not merely the relationship between work and a useful effect, between work and the product of work, but also a specific social relationship of production, a historically determined relationship that marks the worker as a direct means of producing surplus value. .(Marx, Vol. 1, 1975 : 509)[iii]

Clearly, this definition differs radically from the definition of productive work in general. It is no longer a matter of simple labor expenditure in a labor process. Nor, by saying this, did Marx mean to imply that productive labor is only that which results in a socially useful effect (ie without waste) – did he explicitly assert that the production of the most futile commodity can be productive from the point of view of Capital (Marx, 1975b: 158, 401)[iv]. Rather, since the production of surplus value is the basis of capitalist production, only labor that produces surplus value can be considered productive from the point of view of that mode of production. Indeed, Marx considered that Smith's argument that the production of a surplus is the defining characteristic of productive labor was essentially correct from the point of view of Capital (Marx, 1975b : 152; Marx, 1973 : 273) (I I leave aside, for the moment, the question of materiality of the product of productive labor).

For Capital, productive work is not simply conducted by isolated individuals. Marx stated:

As in the natural body, the head and the hands wait for each other, so the work process unites the work of the hand with the work of the head. Later they separate and even become mortal enemies. The product ceases to be the direct product of an individual and becomes a social product, produced in common by a collective worker, ie, by the combination of workers, each one taking only a part, greater or less, in the manipulation of the object of their works. As the cooperative feature of the work process becomes more prominent, as a necessary consequence, so too does our notion of productive work and its agent, the productive worker, expand. In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do all the manual labor yourself; just enough if you are an organ of the collective worker and perform one of your subordinate functions. (Marx, Vol. 1, 1975: 508-509)

As the capitalist production process grows and becomes more complex, a highly developed division of labor, with many workers performing different activities, becomes necessary for the production of a single commodity. There are unskilled workers who do not work directly on raw materials; foremen who supervise work on inputs; engineers who work intellectually most of the time, etc. These workers produce varying amounts of value, and no individual worker produces a finished commodity. But the totality of these workers, the collective worker, produces a commodity (Marx, 1975b : 411; Marx, 1976 : 134-35). Consequently, the worker, the technician and even the foreman can be considered productive workers, despite the fact that they do not produce anything. as individuals. To summarize: Marx argued that, for capitalist production, productive labor is that which, individually or collectively, produces surplus value and thus Capital.[v]

In contrast to this, Marx defined non-productive work, from the capitalist point of view, as work that is exchanged for income (Marx, 1975b : 157). He elaborated on what he wanted to say about it in Theories about Surplus Value:

What is the special feature of this exchange? How is it different from exchanging money for productive labor? On the one hand, in it money is spent as money, as an independent form of exchange value that is transformed into a use value, into a means of subsistence, into an object for personal consumption. Money, therefore, does not become capital, but, on the contrary, loses its existence as exchange value in order to be consumed and spent as use value (Marx, 1975b : 403)

Non-productive labor, therefore, is labor that is consumed not to produce surplus value, but simply in order to satisfy a concrete need – eg, the need for a pair of trousers, in the case of a private tailor's job. This is a completely different relationship from that between capital and productive labor. As Marx noted, this exchange constitutes the MDM cycle, not DMD; it is not the expenditure of money to produce more money. (Marx, 1976: 135-136)

Of course, this tells us absolutely nothing about the concrete content of non-productive work. Indeed, Marx repeatedly argued that the same job it can be either productive or non-productive, depending on how it is employed. Your labor was bought by the owner so that he could produce a commodity (a meal) which is then sold to the consumer at a profit. In other words, he produces added value for his employer. On the other hand, if a capitalist pays the cook to prepare a meal for him, he does not pay him to accumulate capital, but only to enjoy the product of his labor. Here, the cook is paid from resources obtained by the capitalist elsewhere and which are neither reproduced nor augmented by the production of a meal (Marx, 1975b : 165). The actual work done is identical in each case; but relationship within which it takes place is quite different.


The service problem

These, then, are Marx's basic definitions of productive and unproductive labor from the point of view of capitalist production. Insofar as they are quite clear and straightforward, there has been little disagreement about what they mean. However, consensus ends when we go beyond basic definitions. In particular, Marxists have disagreed over the question of whether work that does not result in a material commodity can be productive. Nicos Poulantzas, for example, seems to think not (1974: 216-19). In this he is in line with a non-structuralist Marxist like Ernest Mandel (1978: 404-5). On the other hand, Erik Olin Wright (1978 : 46), as well as a variety of French commentators (Bidet 1976 : 54-55; Berthoud 1974 : 56; Colliot-Thelene 1976 : 40), argue that this work can lead to the production of surplus value. This confusion and disagreement is not accidental, as Marx's observations on this subject often seem contradictory. However, I think it is possible to resolve the issue in a way that is consistent with Marx's basic definitions of productive and unproductive labor from the point of view of capital.

To do this, we need to look more closely at Marx's critique of Adam Smith. As will be remembered, Smith had two criteria for defining productive labor – the production of a surplus and the creation of a material commodity. Marx considered these as two separate and incompatible definitions that were confused in Smith's theory (Marx, 1975b : 137). As we have seen, Marx's analysis of productive labor is quite compatible with Smith's first criterion, the production of a surplus. However, Marx found the second criterion unacceptable. He argued that, in using it, Smith abandoned his definition of productive labor for the social form; that is, he no longer defined it in relation to the specifically capitalist mode of production, as he did in the “first definition” (Marx, 1975b: 162).[vi]. In fact, infloorplans, he stressed that surplus value must express itself in a material product as “gross” (perhaps in the sense that it is not capitalist) and went on to argue that actors, who do not produce material commodities, are in fact productive workers insofar as that enrich their employers. (Marx, 1973: 328-29). Here, as in several other passages, Marx clearly stated that the production of a material product is irrelevant to the capitalist definition of productive labor.[vii]. So there would seem to be no reason to doubt that he felt that work in the sphere of immaterial production could be productive.

How, then, do Poulantzas and Mandel reach the opposite conclusion? Poulantzas argues that service workers are unproductive because “they are consumed directly as use values ​​and are not exchanged for capital, but rather for income or income”. (Poulantzas 1974: 216). It is of course true that, from the point of view of the consumer of a service, the labor he acquires is not productive – no surplus value can be produced in such a relationship. However, what about the case of a capitalist-organized service company in which a capitalist employs wage labor to provide services to third parties? Is it not true that, from this capitalist's point of view, his employees are productive workers? It seems to me that this is the meaning of the example of the actors already mentioned. Indeed, Marx very clearly recognized the possibility of capitalist organization in the sphere of immaterial production in a section of Surplus Value Theories entitled “Manifestations of Capitalism in the Sphere of Immaterial Production” (Marx, 1975b : 410-11). It is true that he argued that the applicability of capitalism to this sphere is extremely limited; but this is very different from the argument that Poulantzas seems to be making, that any work that does not result in a material product is by definition unproductive.[viii]

Mandel's argument is basically similar. So, in Late Capitalism, he argues that any work that does not produce a material commodity cannot be productive. But, he goes further and argues that even capitalistly organized service companies do not employ productive labor:

Even in Surplus Value Theories, Marx distinguished in the transport industry between the dispatch of people – which involves the unproductive exchange between a personal service and income – and the dispatch of goods, which increases their exchange value and is therefore productive. If even capitalistically organized traffic in human transport is unproductive, then, presumably, capitalistically organized laundries, shows, circuses, and medical and legal aid societies are even less so. (Mandel, 1978: 404-405).

Once again, it seems to me that Mandel, like Poulantzas, confused the relationship between the consumer and the service he consumes with the relationship between the capitalist and the service provider he employs. In the passage he cites about transport, the transport of people was in fact described as a consumer service in itself that does not produce surplus value. However, Marx went on to say that this relationship between buyer and seller has nothing to do with the relationship between productive labor and capital. (Marx, 1975b: 412). This seems to me to suggest clearly that the relationship between capitalists and workers in the sphere of transporting people is in fact a relationship between capital and productive labor. This conclusion is supported by a passage in volume 2 of The capital, where Marx once again discussed transportation. In this passage, Marx clearly stated that workers employed by capital in the sphere of transport can, and do, produce surplus value, irrespective of whether they transport people or goods (Marx, 1975: 54-55). Mandel's proposal is therefore not convincing – this example cannot be used to support his argument that productive labor must produce a material commodity.[ix].

More recently, Mandel cited another passage from Marx in support of his argument. He claims that Marx contradicts himself in Surplus Value Theories with regard to the question of whether the actors employed by a capitalist entrepreneur are productive. We have already discussed a passage where Marx claimed they are; Mandel found a second passage in which it seems that Marx reaches the opposite conclusion:

As for workers being productive for their buyers or for the employer himself – as for example the work of the actor for the theater entrepreneur – the fact that their buyer cannot sell them to the public in the form of commodities, but only in the form of action in itself would show that they are unproductive workers (Marx, 1975b, p.172).

Mandel concludes that the apparent contradiction here is evidence of confusion over the definition of productive work in Marx's discussion inSurplus Value Theories. He goes on to argue that Marx refined this definition in later works in such a way that he classifies all labor that does not produce a material commodity as unproductive (Mandel, 1978b: 40-43). We'll return to this last question momentarily, but let's first take a closer look at the passage Mandel cites.

The passage in question occurs at the end of Marx's long discussion of Smith's "second definition". In this discussion, as in many in the Surplus Value Theories, Marx's views were mixed with passages where he was simply working out the implications (correct or incorrect) of his "subjects' arguments". It is not clear which category the passage Mandel cites falls under. This, of course, does not refute Mandel's argument; it only points out the danger of quoting passages from this work without examining their context. And the general sense of the discussion in which this passage takes place seems to indicate that Mandel's interpretation is incorrect. Thus, Marx referred to Smith's second definition (the materiality of the product) as "an aberration"; he reiterated that the external form of the product does not determine whether the labor that produces it is productive or unproductive; he argues that the production of services can be subsumed under capital; and he accuses Smith of falling back into a mercantilist definition of wealth by introducing the question of the materiality of the product (Marx, 1975b, : 162, 165-167, 173-74). Moreover, immediately after the passage in question, Marx noted that the definition of productive labor as that which produces material “commodities” is more elementary than that which defines it as labor that produces capital. He goes on to note that Smith's second definition gives rise to “contradictions and inconsistencies” that provided easy prey for his opponents (Marx, 1975b : 73). In this way, therefore, Marx's argument seems to be that the materiality of the product is irrelevant to the definition of productive labor. Perhaps the passage Mandel cites actually represents Marx's exposition of Smith's view (although this remains unclear). In any case, the general argument in this section of the Surplus Value Theories contradicts Mandel's interpretation of Marx's point of view.

I do not mean to suggest that Marx was entirely consistent on this point. On the contrary, there are several passages in various works that are extremely ambiguous and could be interpreted as saying the opposite of what I have argued here. (Marx, 1977: 136-38). However, it seems to me that Marx's critique of Smith's second definition definitely indicates that the materiality of the product is irrelevant to capital's definition of productive labor. He was careful to point out that to use this criterion is to abandon a specifically capitalist definition of productive work. Furthermore, Marx recognized the possibility of capitalist production in the immaterial sphere, and gave a number of examples. In view of this evidence, it seems to me that the only conclusion consistent with Marx's "capitalist" definition of productive and unproductive labor means that work in this sphere can be productive.[X].


Work in the sphere of circulation

Mandel makes another controversial point in his brief discussion of productive and unproductive work. He argues that there is a discrepancy between the way Marx defines productive work in Surplus Value Theories and in the section on circulation in volume 2 of The capital. Therefore, Mandel points out that in the previous work (Surplus Value Theories) Marx hesitated between defining productive labor as that which produces surplus value and defining it as that which is exchanged for Capital (not income). On the other hand, in volume 2 of The capital, Marx defined productive work as that which produces surplus value and pointed out that not all work that exchanges with Capital is productive – this is the case of commercial work. Mandel seems to point out that the latter formulation is clearer and more useful, but he makes no attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction (Mandel 1978 : 403-404; 1978b : 40-43). If Mandel is correct, he has raised a serious problem of interpretation for students of the question we are considering. So let's examine Marx's remarks about the sphere of circulation – perhaps the contradiction that Mandel pursued can be resolved.

Marx was quite explicit in stating his views on the relationship between circulation and value production:

The general law is that all circulation costs arising from changes in the forms of commodities do not add to their value. They are just expenses incurred in realizing the value or converting it from one form to another. (Marx, 1975: 149).

Marx was excluding here from “circulation costs”; processes taking place in the sphere of circulation that can be considered as part of the production process (eg transport and possible storage). Since these are, in a sense, part of the production process, they are spheres in which value and surplus value are produced (Marx, Vol. 1. 1975: 136-52). But, Marx argued, these processes do not help us to understand nature. specific of commercial capital and the circulation process and therefore must be left out of consideration here (Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 267-68). Having noted this, we now need to look at what it means to say that circulation is concerned with changes in crafts of the goods.

Marx's vision, as presented in volumes 2 and 3 of The capital, in which no value is produced in the sphere of circulation, rests on his argument that, in order to be reproduced and increased, the value that the capitalist holds in the commodity form must be realised. That is, the goods that the worker produced for him must be sold so that the capitalist can buy more raw materials, machines and labor power and set the production process in motion again. If the products are not sold, they begin to lose value and the capitalist's ability to accumulate is thus reduced. The sphere of circulation, then, is the one in which the transformation of commodities into money takes place. No new use value is created. Nor is any value added to existing commodities – they are simply sold, transformed into their universal equivalent: money.[xi]. So the circulation is necessary, but it is an unproductive moment in the circuit of capital. Any expenses that are incurred in the buying and selling process are, from the point of view of capital, a necessary loss of value which might otherwise have been productively employed.

As long as production is on a relatively small scale, industrial capitalists themselves can perform marketing and sales functions. But as the scale of production and the market increases, it becomes more efficient to have a separate branch of capital to handle the large and complex business of commerce. Marx summarizes this separation as follows:

Merchant capital is … nothing but the commodity capital of the producer which undergoes the process of conversion into money – to fulfill its function as commodity capital in the market – the only difference being that instead of representing an incidental function of the producer, it is now the exclusive operation of a special kind of capitalist, the merchant, and is set apart as the business of a special investment of capital. (Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 270).

What makes the existence of a separate commercial branch of Capital efficient is its ability to speed up the process of selling the products themselves and to avoid delays in converting the producer's commodity capital into cash. Thus, the trader, because he is able to dedicate all his time to selling and because he can perform this function for many individual producers, reduces the amount of society's time and money devoted to this operation (compared to what it would have been if each individual producer were obliged to market his own goods) ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : 275). On the other hand, the merchant, by buying the producer's goods before they are actually sold, avoids delays in the production of the latter's goods That is, the productive capitalist does not have to wait for the final sale of his products to start the production process again: once the merchant has bought them, the producer can reinvest the money he receives in labor, raw materials and machinery. The merchant must sell the goods to the consumers so that the cycle is completed from the point of view of the goods themselves. But the producer can proceed without waiting for this final sale ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : 274). To summarize, then, Marx's view of the role of commercial capital in relation to productive capital:

Merchant capital … also does not create value or surplus value, at least not directly. To the extent that it contributes to shortening circulation time, it can indirectly help to increase the surplus value produced by capitalists. Insofar as it helps to expand the market and effects the division of labor among capitals, thus enabling capital to operate on a larger scale, its function promotes the productivity of industrial capital, and its accumulation. As it shortens the time of accumulation, it increases the proportion of surplus value to advanced capital, hence the rate of profit. And insofar as it confines a smaller portion of capital to the sphere of circulation in the form of money capital, it increases the portion of capital that is directly involved in production ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 280).

To fully understand the argument that commercial capital is unproductive, we must take note of Marx's explanation of the source of profit in the sphere of circulation. Of course, Marx was aware that the merchant makes a profit; indeed, he argued that the merchant, like any other capitalist, should receive the average annual rate of profit, calculated on the capital he advances ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : 282)[xii]. The question is: what is the source of this profit? We have already seen that no value is produced in the sphere of circulation, so this cannot be the source. Nor, according to Marx, does the merchant's profit derive from his selling commodities above their value. Rather, his profit derives from the fact that he buys the producer's goods at a price lower than his actual price of production (that is, his cost of production plus the average rate of profit). That is, the source of profit in the sphere of circulation is the value that is already embodied in the commodity, but which has not been fully realized through its sale to the merchant at a lower price than the industrial capitalist would obtain if he sold it himself (( Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 285) In a sense, this is the price the productive capitalist must pay for the advantages of having a commercial branch separate from capital.

Marx extended his analysis to deal with the problem of wage labor employed by commercial capital. He recognizes that commercial capitalists employ wage workers. Indeed, he argues that in many respects the latter are comparable to industrial wage workers. For example, the price of your labor power (your wage) is determined by the cost of its reproduction. However, to the extent that the commercial capitalist, as an agent of circulation, does not produce value or surplus value, neither do his employees. Thus, the clerks, accountants and other office workers demanded by the commercial capitalist must be classified as unproductive workers from the point of view of capital. This does not alter the fact that, since the wages of these workers represent advanced capital, the merchant receives the average rate of profit on them ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 296-98).

However, wage workers in commerce perform surplus labor, according to Marx. This is important in two respects. Firstly, from the trader's point of view, the fact that he can increase his capital quickly at no extra cost as a result of this unpaid work means that the mass of his profits will be greater, i.e. he can complete more purchases and sales ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : p.293). On the other hand, from the point of view of industrial capital, the costs of realization of surplus value are reduced by this unpaid work ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : 295) However, the reduction of these circulation costs is in the interest of the industrial capitalist, from his point of view they remain unproductive expenditures ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975 : 299-300). This complex nature of commercial wage labor allowed Marx to observe, perhaps somewhat misleadingly, that it is productive from the point of view of the merchant, unproductive from the point of view of the productive capitalist ((Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 301).

This raises the question of whether these unproductive workers are, in fact, comparable to those we discussed earlier. It is interesting to note that, in concluding one of the sections on productive and unproductive work in Surplus Value Theories, Marx made an observation that seems to suggest that commercial workers are different: “Here we are dealing only with productive capital, that is, capital employed in the direct production process. We arrived later in the capital at circulation process. And only after that, when considering the special form assumed by capital as commercial capital, may the question be answered whether the workers employed by him are productive or unproductive”. (Marx, 1976: 413).

This, of course, proves nothing – but let's take a look at what we just said about the characteristics of commercial salaried work. Commercial workers have two important characteristics that differentiate them from workers who are unproductive in the production process: their labor is exchanged for capital, not income; and their labor allows the commercial capitalist to appropriate surplus value even if they produce none themselves. Clearly, a tailor I employ to make a pair of trousers for my own use has none of these characteristics. He does not allow me to appropriate surplus value, and I pay him with my income, not with capital. Both types of labor are unproductive, but in different ways, and for very different reasons – one because it is employed by an unproductive moment of capital, the other because it does not exchange with capital at all.

Therefore, it seems to me that Mandel's two definitions can be easily reconciled. When Marx, in Surplus Value Theories, seems to oscillate between defining productive work as that which produces surplus value and as that which exchanges with capital, there is, in fact, no oscillation. Marx is speaking here only of the direct process of production, in which Qualquer labor that exchanges with capital will produce surplus value. On the other hand, in volume 2 of The capital, where Marx is dealing with the circulation process, this is no longer the case. As we have seen, the workers employed by capital in this sphere only work to change the form of commodities; they cannot add value to these commodities, therefore they cannot be productive. In short, it is obvious that Marx was discussing two different cases, where the unproductive nature of various kinds of work is the result of different causes. The “two definitions”, therefore, are simply products of the different contexts in which they occur. They don't contradict each other.


The role of distinction in Marx's thought

In the first part of this article, I tried to clarify what Marx meant by productive and unproductive work. Next, I will try to establish the role of these concepts in Marx's critique of political economy. As previously indicated, several Marxist authors have argued that the distinction between productive and unproductive labor is something like a class distinction. Thus, for example, Nicos Poulantzas argues that, for Marx, the working class is more or less synonymous with productive labor (Poulantzas 1974: 213). (However, Poulantzas's analysis of contemporary class structure cannot be reduced to this single observation.) Similarly, Paul Sweezy sees something akin to a class distinction between the unproductive "new middle class" who are paid out of the revenue produced by the working class (Sweezy 1970: 284). These are clearly important arguments because, if they are correct, they provide an answer to the difficult question of the class position of large numbers of white-collar workers. But before we can accept Sweezy and Poulantzas' hypotheses, we need to examine more closely whether the concepts of productive and unproductive labor can be legitimately applied in this way.

Several passages in Marx's writings seem to refer to unproductive labor as a class. For example, in volume 2 of Surplus Value Theories, Marx remarked sarcastically:

For the worker, it is equally consoling that, with the growth of the net product, more spheres open up for unproductive workers, who live off their product and whose interest in its exploitation coincides more or less with that of the direct exploiting classes. (Marx, 1975c : 571)

Later in the same discussion, Marx referred to the “middle classes” that stand between the capitalist and the worker and are maintained without income (Marx, 1975c: 573). Thus it seems that Marx himself tended to treat unproductive workers as a class distinct from the working class and, in a sense, opposed to it. Or, at least, one would seem compelled to agree with Ian Gough's more qualified observation that Marx sometimes, as in these passages, argued in this way (Gough 1972: 69-71).

However, let's take a closer look at what Marx was saying here. In these passages, Marx was commenting on Ricardo's views on the effects of machinery on the worker. Ricardo admitted that the introduction of machinery can be harmful to the worker, as it can reduce the demand for work. He qualified this judgment, however, noting that the lower price of commodities resulting from mechanization will allow capitalists and landowners to spend more of their income on hiring personal servants. Thus, workers laid off by machinery would find employment as personal servants (Ricardo, 1971: 381-84). We need not go into Marx's critique of this argument, but it is clear that when he referred to unproductive workers in this context, he was thinking primarily of personal servants.[xiii] Now, as we have seen, these are not the only types of unproductive workers – in fact, there is a whole category of unproductive workers (commercial workers) who are in a very different position from the capitalist class. Likewise, even within the category of unproductive workers that Marx described as being paid by revenue, there are occupations as diverse as servants, doctors, clowns, civil servants, clergymen, etc. In short, the category of unproductive work is very heterogeneous. This does not prove that it is not a class. However, it is dangerous to argue, based on a passage where Marx referred to a productive and unproductive type of work as a class distinction.[xiv]

Various other arguments can be adduced against the view that unproductive work constitutes a class. We have already seen that the same work can be productive or unproductive, depending on the context. As one observer asked, would anyone want to argue that a janitor employed in a factory (productive work) and a janitor employed in a commercial enterprise (unproductive work) are members of different classes? (Wright, 1978 :50n). Moreover, Marx even referred to the capitalist as a productive worker in the sense that, as the “guide” of the work process, his work is embodied in the product of the collective worker. (Marx, 1976: 142). In view of this, if we consider productive work as contiguous to the working class, we will place ourselves in the absurd position of having to call the capitalist a member of that class. Finally, as we have seen, Marx clearly suggested that certain types of unproductive labor (e.g. commercial workers) are explored in the sense that they perform surplus work. If so, it becomes difficult to support Sweezy's view of these workers as "outcasts" who have a direct interest in the exploitation of the working class.

In short, then, it would be a mistake to equate the distinction between productive and unproductive labor with a class distinction. It is not possible to classify various workers clearly and unambiguously using these categories and it is not possible to exclude certain obviously non-proletarian elements (eg the capitalist himself) from the category of productive work. Furthermore, as will become clear in a moment, Marx did not distinguish between productive and unproductive labor in order to provide himself with a classificatory scheme to be used in class analysis. Rather, I think it can be shown that Marx, in making this distinction, was trying to address an issue raised by political economists. bourgeois to indicate its shortcomings e point to the very important problem they failed to address – exploitation.

As will be remembered, the definition of productive labor was important to classical political economy because it was related to the question of the nature and origin of wealth. It seems to me that almost the same thing can be said of Marx. In fact, he made this very clear in one of his descriptions of productive work:

As all capitalist production rests on the direct purchase of labor in order to appropriate a part of it without purchase in the production process; what part, however, is sold in the product – since this is the basis of capital's existence, its very essence – is not the distinction between labor that produces capital and that which does not produce it the basis for an understanding of the process of production capitalist. (Marx, 1975b: 293).

In other words, the definition of productive labor is important because it is the exchange of capital with productive labor that is the source of bourgeois wealth. It is not exchange or consumption that produces wealth – in the course of his remarks on productive labor, Marx explicitly attacked Smith's critics because they saw consumption as a necessary stimulus to the production, therefore equally "productive" of wealth. (Marx, 1975b : 281). Rather, it is the production process, and the production process alone, that produces wealth. In this, Marx was basically in agreement with Smith, Ricardo and the other “giants” of classical political economy.

However, Marx went further than Smith and Ricardo in two important respects. First, he explicitly stated that the definitions of productive work and wealth, which he found in classical political economy, are not universal; they are applicable and appropriate only to society capitalist. In another form of society, they would be defined differently. This is something that political economy, which universalized bourgeois forms, did not understand. Furthermore, Marx argued that, to understand capitalist society, it is not enough to establish what productive labor is:

Ricardo is never concerned with the source of surplus value. He treats it as something inherent to the capitalist mode of production, which, in his eyes, is the natural form of social production. Whenever he discusses the productivity of labor, he seeks in it, not the cause of surplus value, but the cause that determines the magnitude of that value. On the other hand, his school openly proclaimed that the productivity of labor is the root cause of profit (read: surplus value). In any case, this is progress in relation to the mercantilists who, in turn, extracted from the act of exchange the surplus of price over the cost of production, from the sale of the product above its value. However, Ricardo's school simply avoided the problem, they didn't solve it. Indeed, these bourgeois economists instinctively saw, and rightly so, that it is very dangerous to raise the burning question of the origin of surplus value. (Marx, Vol. 1, 1975: 515-516).

In other words, a correct “capitalist” definition of productive labor only poses the problem of how that labor produces a surplus.

So we can now see the very specific role played by the distinction between productive and unproductive labor in Marx's theory. Marx removed this distinction from bourgeois political economy and found it essentially correct – as far as it went. Classical political economy established that the relationship that produced wealth was that between productive labor and capital. Marx recognized this and then asked the “obvious” question – why does this exchange produce wealth? The answer to that question, of course, lies in the nature of capitalist exploitation and it is an analysis of exploitation that The capital is dedicated. Thus, the distinction between productive and unproductive labor only introduced the most crucial aspect of capitalist social relations, without really providing an adequate analysis of it.



All of this underscores a critical problem that Poulantzas and others tend to overlook. That is, Marxist theory holds that the class structure of capitalism is determined not by capitalists' views (however correct they may be) about whether a category of worker is productive or not of surplus value, but by the exploitation of labor by capital. . The concepts of productive and unproductive labor, as we have seen, do not provide us with an adequate analysis of exploitation. Indeed, it could even be argued that they tend to cloud the analysis. Thus, we should never assume that productive labor is exploited (eg, the capitalist as “guide” of the labor process) or that unproductive labor is not exploited (eg, commercial wage labor). Consequently, if we are to understand the nature of capitalist exploitation and the class structure it engenders, we must develop a deeper analysis of capitalism than the concepts of productive and unproductive labor alone allow us to do.

Capitalist exploitation is, of course, a complex series of relationships. The analysis of the appropriation of surplus value by capital that Marx provides in volume 1 of The capital it only gives us a starting point for understanding these complexities. It is already quite obvious, as it was for Marx, that capitalism is not simply a process of production, but comprises also a wide variety of institutions of commerce, government, education, administration, etc. And it is precisely these types of institutions that concentrate the mass of white-collar workers. Therefore, if we are to understand these workers in class terms, we need to know much more about the nature of the institutions in which they work. We need to know, first of all, what functions these institutions play in capitalist society – that is, how they relate to capital. In addition, we need to know whether your employees are exploited and, if so, how. Marx already made this analysis for commerce and commerce workers. We need (and can) do this for a number of other institutions and workers, using Marx's hints and tips as well as historical and sociological information.

The concepts of productive and unproductive work (and of productive and unproductive consumption) may be of some use here. Although Marx was careful to emphasize the fact that a “correct” understanding of what productive labor is for capital does not constitute a complete analysis of capitalism, he clearly does not reject these concepts outright. After all, capitalism is a mode of production based on the production of surplus value. An excessive amount of unproductive spending can interfere with the accumulation process, taking too much capital out of the productive sphere. If such an imbalance develops, the unproductive sphere will be under considerable pressure to rationalize, perhaps intensifying the exploitation of its workers.

Marx recognized this possibility when he observed that salaried work in the commercial sphere, being unproductive, is subject to a process of rationalization (to reduce its cost) similar to that experienced by productive workers. Furthermore, Marx suggested that the number of commercial workers tends to expand when capital has more value and profits to realize (ie when it is prospering) (Marx, Vol. 3, 1975: 300-301). It follows that when capital falls on hard times, this sector encounters pressures to optimize itself, remove redundancies and the like, all of which tend to intensify the rationalization of commercial wage labor. (Things may play out differently in other industries that Gough (1975: 82-83) described as “indirectly productive” – that is, unproductive but contributing to productivity in other parts of the economy. Thus, an understanding of the concepts of productive and unproductive work can help us understand the dynamics of relationships between various types of capital and labor, and perhaps even the timing of certain changes in these relationships.

However, we must be aware of the limits of usefulness of the concepts of productive and unproductive work. For we do not learn much about a group of workers by identifying them as productive or unproductive unless we also establish whether and how they are exploited. The case of public service employees illustrates this point very well. The concepts of productive and unproductive work were applied to the State by several analysts. A controversy has arisen over whether the State and/or its constituent parts can be considered productive. This important question cannot be resolved here. However, to understand the class nature of state officials, we must deal with the question of exploitation. Thus, if we argue that state workers are exploited, productive workers, we must conclude that they are probably similar to productive workers in the private sphere. If, on the other hand, we argue that they are exploited, unproductive workers, we need to examine the nature of this exploitation and verify whether it is, in fact, similar to that experienced by productive workers. However, if we discover that state officials are unproductive workers who are not exploited, we may be compelled to regard them as “parasites” on productive workers and intrinsically opposed to the latter's struggles against capitalist exploitation. Clearly, the concepts of productive and unproductive work tell us only part of what we need to know.

It is my opinion, therefore, that Marxist theory must go beyond the concepts of productive and unproductive labor and analyze in detail the complex process of capitalist exploitation. Furthermore, in focusing Marxist class analysis on exploitation, we must be careful not to reproduce the error that has characterized Marxist theory – namely, the tendency to treat classes as static conceptual “boxes” into which the social scientist can sort. the individuals. We must not be content with an attempt to “classify” individuals as “exploited” or “non-exploited”. Instead, we should focus on the real antagonisms engendered by the exploitative social relations that are, in my view, the basis of class formation. Much work still needs to be done before we understand the complexities of capitalist exploitation and class formation in capitalist society.[xv] However, if we are to avoid taxonomic approaches to class and re-establish the basic Marxist view that class and class conflict are dynamic relations that structure the movements of capitalist society, we must begin with an analysis of the fundamental antagonism that constitutes this society-capitalist exploitation.

* Peter Meiksins is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York-Geneseo.

Translation: Carine Botelho Previatti, Sofia Guilhem Basilio e Pedro Ramos de Toledo.

Originally published on Review of Radical Political Economics, 1981.


Berthoud, Arnaud. Work Productif et Productivité du Work Chez Marx. Paris: Francois Maspero, 1974.

______. Marx et A. Smith à Propos de Travail Productif et de l'Economie Politique. in Marx et L'Economie Politique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble et François Maspero, 1977.

Bidet, Jacques. Labor Productif et Classes Sociales.Paris: Les Cahiers du Center d'Etudes et de Recherches Marxistes, 1976.

Colliot-Thélène, Catherine. “Remarques Sur le Statut du TravailProductif dans la Théorie Marxiste.” Critiques de l'Economie Politique 10(Jan-Mar 1973).

______. “Contribution to Une Analyze des Classes Sociales.” Critiques de l'Economie Politique 19 (1976)

Draper, Hal. Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, vol. THE: State and Bureaucracy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

Gough, Ian. “Productive and Unproductive Labor in Marx.” New Left Review 76 (November-December 1972).

______. “State Expenditures in Advanced Capitalism.” New Left Review 92 (July-August 1975).

Mandel, Ernest. Late Capitalism. London: Verse Books, 1978.

______. Introduction to Capital vol II, by Karl Marx. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978b.

Malthus, Thomas R. Principles of Political Economy. London. The International Economic Circle, 1936.

Marx, Karl A. Capital, 13 vols. New York: International Publishers, 1975a.

______. floorplans. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.

MARX, Carl. Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 1. Moscow: ProgressPublishers, 1975 b.

MARX, Karl. Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 2. Moscow: ProgressPublishers, 1975 c.

MARX, Karl. Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 3. Moscow: ProgressPublishers, 1975 d.

______. “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” in Value Studies by Marx, ed. Albert Dragstedt. London: New Park Publications, 1976.

Meiksins, Peter. “The Social Origins of White Collar Work.” Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1980.

Morris, Jacob. “Unemployment and Productive Employment.”Science and Society 22 (1958).

Poulantzas, Nicos. Les Classes Sociales dans le Capitalisme Aujourd'hui. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1974.

Richard, David. Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1971.

Rosdolsky, Roman. The Making of Marx's “Capital”. London: PlutoPress, 1977.

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Smith, Adam.The wealth of nations. New York: Modern Library, 1937.

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Wright, Enk Olin.Class, Crisis and the State. London: New Left Books, 1978


[I]An earlier version of this article was submitted in June 1979 to the Canadian association entitled: Sociology and Anthropology Association in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I am grateful to my audience, as well as to Stephen Hellman, John Fox, Ellen Wood, Joyce Mastboom, and Istvan Meszaros for their helpful comments.

[ii][ii]ViewBidet, 1976 for another example of this approach.

[iii]Similar definitions can be found in Marx's other writings. For example: (Marx, 1975b : 393; Marx, 1976 :133).

[iv]It is important to take note of this point, as failure to do so has led to considerable confusion in certain discussions of productive and unproductive work. Several authors have tried to argue that the labor expended in the production of luxury goods or military equipment is unproductive because it is “waste”. This, however, is to completely misunderstand Marx's definition of productive labor for capital. For an example of this spurious argument, see Morris, 1958.

[v]Marx put it this way in Grundrisse, 1973, 305n. In many ways, this is a more revealing way of expressing the relationship.

[vi]This point is discussed in detail in Berthoud, 1977: 90-92.

[vii]I have already quoted a passage from Capital in which Marx described a teacher as a productive worker.

[viii]This criticism of Poulantzas is also made in Colliot-Thelene, 1977: 126-27.

[ix]Mandel's discussion of services also deals with the issue of productive and unproductive consumption – that is, with the role of various sectors of the economy in the reproduction of capital. I do not intend to consider this thorny issue here. However, it should be pointed out that Marx saw this as a completely different issue from that of productive and unproductive labor. (Marx, 1976: 139-40; Marx, 1973: 306n).

[X] The category of “service workers” is extremely vague, as Mandel himself pointed out, many so-called service workers actually produce a material commodity – like, say, a MacDonald's employee. (Mandel 1978b: 44-45). Failure to recognize this fact can further confuse the issue of whether “services” can be productive.

[xi]The respective note was not published in the original text (NT)

[xii]The respective note was not published in the original text (NT)

[xiii]The respective note was not published in the original text (NT)

[xiv]The respective note was not published in the original text (NT)

[xv]The respective note was not published in the original text (NT)

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