Rethinking (un)productive and necessary labour

Justin Paulson


The distinctions made by Marx in Capital between "productive" and "unproductive" labour have laid the groundwork for a century and a half of arguments, gripes, (mis)characterizations, and misunderstandings, from the productivism of 20th-century Communism to the dual-systems debates of the 1970s and 1980s.

As we approach the anniversary of Capital, this paper offers a close political reading of the concept of productivity, and asks what the categories of 'productive,' 'unproductive’, and 'necessary’ reveal and what they conceal. What does the category of 'productive labour’ — rooted in a critique of Smith, the mercantilists, and classical political economy (as volumes 2, 3, and TSV make clear) — actually do for us? Can labour be both necessary and unproductive at the same time? (What does that mean for the power of labour?) How does an understanding of unproductive labour contribute to our analysis of the roles played by paid or unpaid domestic and reproductive labour, or the labour of the service industry in either the public or private sector? How might the same labour, performed by the same worker, appear productive or unproductive depending on one’s standpoint within a circuit, or depending on whether one is looking at a circuit of one capital or capitalism as a whole?

This paper seeks to clarify such questions. I argue that what’s most useful about Marx's distinction between productive and unproductive labour is not what it contributes to the determination of value or the average rate of profit, nor what it thus putatively (and unconvincingly) predicts about crisis, but the way in which it insists on productivity as a relation, rather than a characteristic attached to any particular task. Getting this right is far more important analytically and politically than the Marxological and crisis-theory debates would suggest, for it leads us toward a more complete understanding of labour’s agency and power not only at the site of material production, and not displaced by “immaterial labour”, but in all the possible choke-points in the circulation and realization of value.

labour, - labour - abstract labour - productive labour - unproductive labour - necessary labour - capital - circulation - political and economic power - political economy