I confess that if Tom and Richard hadn’t mentioned it, I would not probably have given any further thought on the issue of productive vs. unproductive labor in Marx.

Robert and I discussed about it. I made some research, and I found out that “productive and unproductive labor” is a contentious issue among Marxists and Marx’s scholars.

It occurred to me that there are two ways to tackle the issue: the first is sticking to Marx’s own terms in Capital; the second is apply that logic to contemporary reality.

Now, “productive labour” is, generally speaking, any labor aimed at producing use-values of any kind. This general meaning of “productive labor” can be grasped at the beginning of Chapter 7, when Marx talks about labor as a “process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”

Things are however different under capitalism, where the final goal of production is not producing “use-values” (UV) (whose production is necessary but not sufficient condition for capitalist production), but “values” in the sense of “exchange-values” (EV) and, more precisely, from the point of view of the capitalist, “surplus-values”. In other words, the capitalist engages in production only for the purpose of increasing his or her own capital, as he or she moves in the circuit of M-C-M’.

Therefore, in Capital, Marx makes it clear that productive labor—in a society were the capitalist mode of production prevails—is necessarily labor that directly produces “surplus-value” (SV). This is not so much an ontological as a logical consequence. As production in a capitalist society is always the production of commodities as bearer of EV, and hence SV, so productive labor in a capitalist society is tantamount of wage labor insofar as wage labor is that part of the productive process able to produce SV as a result of what Marx argued in Ch. 8 and 9, that is that SV is produced by surplus labor, that is, the Variable Capital (VC) able to transfer the value of Constant Capital (CC) and create SV.

In other words, since in the productive process under capitalism—aimed at producing SV for the capitalist moving in a M-C-M’ circuit—wage laborers, as labor-power constitutive of VC, produce the only productive labor.

By default, then, it seems that all labor performed outside capitalist modes of production (i.e., independent artisans, self-employed laborers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, etc.) and all labor that is not directly employed in production (managers, overseers, employees in the financial sectors, in retail, accountants, etc.) is unproductive labor.

This does not mean that “unproductive laborers” do not produce anything or are not subject to exploitation: Marx defined their labor as non-productive from the point of view of capital, because that labor does not produce surplus-value.

This conclusion in itself is highly contestable. But I do not think that Marx intended to propose a conclusive and complete classification of occupations into productive and unproductive categories. On the contrary, “productive” and “unproductive” are two properties of labor that depends on the form and condition of employment of laborers. When Marx was writing Kapital, the capitalist mode of production did not include all kinds of professions. Artisanal workshops still existed, as did exist direct cultivators or professionals whose labor was not disciplined into the capitalist mode of production.

To put it more concretely, a doctor was an unproductive laborer because he exercised his profession as self-employed seller of use-values in the form of medical services. So were teachers, lawyers, accountants, and so on. However, a lawyer or a doctor hired in a professional private enterprise, like a private law firm or a private clinic, does not just sell use-values; rather, their legal or medical services are commodities that certainly have, like all commodities, a use-value (necessary but not sufficient condition in a capitalist mode of production), but that have also an exchange-value—as they compete with other law firms and clinics—that includes a surplus-value for the owner (a person or a board) of that law-firm or clinic.

Productive or unproductive labor—that is, a labor that does or does not produce surplus values—are properties related to the form of employment of a laborer in a capitalist mode of production—and not, therefore, in a general, ahistorical sense as it is posed in Ch. 7. We can push this line of reasoning even further, I think, and conclude that if, on the one hand, retailers, managers, accountants, and overseers are literally unproductive laborers—insofar as they are not directly engaged in the production of surplus value—on the other their activities are indispensable to ensure that productive labor can take place in the best socially necessary condition. Marx himself recognized it in Ch. 16, when he writes: “In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary for the individual himself to put his hand to the object; it is sufficient for him to be an organ of the collective laborer, and to perform any one of its subordinate functions” (643-644).

The capitalist is not engaged in productive labor not because he doesn’t do anything, but because it would be a tautology, being productive labor, by definition, the production of surplus value. It cannot perform productive labor is another sense, that is, that production does not require a capitalist—it can be otherwise organized—but the capitalist exploits production for its capacity of producing surplus-value.

Does it make sense?