More on Productive and Unproductive Labor

Reader Mike Treen was not convinced by my argument that “immaterial production” such as the labor of actors or singers giving live performances is labor that is productive of surplus value if they are employed by a for-profit business. Mike indicates that he supports the contrary view of Ernest Mandel.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Volume II of “Capital,” Mandel produced two quotes from Marx. Taken at face value, these quotes would seem to indicate that Marx himself expressed contradictory views on the question of the productive character of labor involved in “immaterial production” and in general was evolving towards the view that only workers who produce material objects can be considered productive of surplus value.

Productive workers produce capital

This question is an important one in Marxist value theory, because the workers who produce surplus value also produce capital itself. With few exceptions, new capital is created out of surplus value. A portion of the very product that the productive workers produce is turned against them in the form of the capital that exploits them on an ever-expanding scale.

I unfortunately do not have a copy of Mandel’s introduction to Volume II of “Capital” on hand, nor was I able to find it on the Internet. It appears still to be under copyright. However, from Mike’s quotes and my own personal recollection, I believe that Mandel more or less argued that non-material production—for example, the labor of a singer whose labor power is purchased at its value by a capitalist employer to give live performances—can never produce surplus value.

Mandel’s views on this question—I remember that it also was my opinion many years ago when I first read Mandel’s introduction to Volume II of “Capital”—seemed closer to the views of Adam Smith than those of Marx. According to Adam Smith, only workers who produce material commodities of some durability—material objects—can be considered productive workers

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