Reader Mike Treen—who is a trade union leader in New Zealand—has some questions regarding what is and what is not productive labor. He gives specific examples, and asks whether the labor in question is productive or unproductive labor. I will examine his questions below.
First, I will begin with some general remarks.
The classical economists, Marx, and productive versus unproductive labor
The classical bourgeois political economists made a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Marx’s greatly improved theory of value and surplus value brings into crystal-clear focus what is meant by unproductive and productive labor under the capitalist mode of production.
What is the aim of capitalist production? It is the production of an ever greater mass of profit. But profit is only the money form of surplus value. Therefore, as far as the capitalist system is concerned, labor is only productive if it creates a surplus value. It is not enough that labor creates value—that is, abstract labor embodied in a material commodity or service—but rather in addition it must create a surplus value.
Marx’s criticism of Adam Smith
The classical economists considered the labor of personal servants to be unproductive in the capitalist sense—the only sense they were interested in. They were quite correct in this. But this caused Adam Smith, in Marx’s view, to make an incorrect generalization. Smith held that only labor that makes material commodities, as opposed to services, is productive labor.
Suppose that I am a rich man—it doesn’t matter whether I am a capitalist or a landlord—who decides to hire workers to produce a piece of furniture that I will use only as an article of personal consumption. In this case, even though the workers who I hire produce a material use value and perform surplus labor (labor over and above the value of their labor power), their labor will not take the form of value because the furniture will not be exchanged. It will never be sold on the market. Since no value is produced, no surplus value can be produced either. Therefore, the fact that the labor of the workers produces a tangible material use value does not make their labor productive in the capitalist sense of the word.
But what about the opposite situation? What happens if I as a theatre owner who runs my theatre as a profit-making enterprise hire an opera singer with the intention of her giving live performances that I allow only money-paying customers to attend? Is the labor of the opera singer productive in the capitalist sense? Does it produce surplus value?