Unproductive labour and exploitation

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This topic contains 86 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  alanjjohnstone 21 hours, 25 minutes ago.

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    robbo203 wrote: “LBird, the political purpose of saying that some workers do not produce surplus value but are financed out of surplus value is to show that there are structural limits to what reformism can achieve.” [my bold]

    Thank you for an answer to my question, robbo.

    But you’ll already know that I’ve said a number of times on this thread that I agree with youthat there are structural limits to what reformism can achieve‘.

    My point is that this political purpose can be achieved much more simply and closer to ‘ordinary sense’ by simply using the analogy of the operation of a pair of lungs, with which every worker is already physically familiar.

    That is, simply say ‘Keynesian reformism can’t work because capitalism always contracts, and so reforms are removed‘. That is, the ‘structural limit’ is the working of capitalism.

    Neither you nor any other poster has explained why this simple explanation needs to be replaced with a far more complex ‘explanation’ involving, not just unfamiliar terminology, but downright contradictory, non-intuitive, complex terms like ‘unproductive labour’ (which even youse here say is productive – but which just isn’t productive for yet another concept which is not commonly used). Plus, ‘unproductive’ is morally-loaded, no matter what your protestations are.

    My other main question, which also hasn’t been answered, is: ‘Who is the audience for which this concept of ‘unproductive labour’ is aimed?‘.

    If you simply answer ‘academics’, that’s fine by me.

    But then, I’ll just ask ‘Why?’.

    ‘Why academics and not workers, who are supposed to be who socialists are interested in influencing?’


    Young Master Smeet

    To go back to Charlie’s original concept: when a direct producer was going to market, or doing their accounts, they weren’t making anything, that was sunken time away from production of wealth.

    Now, part of that may have been an attempt on Marx’ part to demonstrate that the capitalist class itself was not productive, and did not add value, so even where agents/employees do the work of the capitalist, going to market and doing accounts, they must remain unproductive.

    This is attractive to those who want to talk of a ‘middle class’ and thus exclude those who do not directly produce surplus value from the working class.

    Perhaps by way of analogy we can clarify the situation: chattel slavery is built on the extraction of surplus, not surplus value, that surplus gets transformed into value in the market later.  The slaves in the fields produced the crop that would be sold, the house slaves most certainly did not, indeed, they did not produce any surplus.  they were still essential to the slave holders operations, and they could not have run the plantation without the house slaves.

    Nonetheless, the house slaves were still slaves, and still exploited by the slave system.



    Thanks for your reply, YMS.

    YMS wrote: “To go back to Charlie’s original concept…Now, part of that may have been an attempt on Marx’ part to demonstrate…“.

    As I suggested earlier, one form of reply to my question would be to argue from authority. And I’ve already given my reply.

    LBird wrote: “My reply would be … If he did, Marx was mistaken…

    I think Marx is very useful, but in the 21st century, nearly 137 years after his death, and with us socialists having had no success whatsoever in building socialism amongst the proletariat, I think it is necessary to critically engage with Marx’s ideas. Sometimes he is plain wrong, sometimes he expresses himself very unclearly, sometimes he contradicts himself, and sometimes he is right, but needs re-writing for a modern audience. I’m sure you can think of other reasons to do this.

    YMS wrote: “This is attractive to those who want to talk of a ‘middle class’…“.

    So, are you saying that the political purpose of employing the term ‘unproductive labour’ is to persuade academics, who regard themselves as ‘middle class’, to change their political and ideological views?

    That is, the audience for the concept ‘unproductive labour’ is not workers? If so, again, that’s fine by me.

    But… why would robbo, and anyone else employing this term, spend their valuable time arguing with academics who aren’t going to agree with democratic socialists, whose main categories are ‘proletariat’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘petit-bourgeoisie’ (non-property owners, big property owners and small property owners), about our views of a ‘middle class’ (a Weberian, not a Marxist, category, which Weber intended to obscure ‘class’ as an exploitative relationship)?

    Why wouldn’t robbo just challenge Cope’s categories (and underlying, often unconscious, political assumptions, theories, methods, philosophy, ideology)?

    I still don’t see the political purpose of the category ‘unproductive labour’. It’s usage can only damage our political efforts.


    Young Master Smeet

    Clipping out the bits where I actually go back to the basic concept to explain that to then claim I’m arguing by authority is hardly friendly discussion, especially when that is the exact opposite of what I was doing.

    As for:

    “So, are you saying that the political purpose of employing the term ‘unproductive labour’ is to persuade academics, who regard themselves as ‘middle class’, to change their political and ideological views?”

    No, I’m saying the swans fly over Vienna at midnight, I thought that was plain enough.

    Productive and unproductive are useful concepts when discussing useful work versus useless toil, and especially when we can show that productive labour is useless,



    Ahhh, I thought you’d struggle to keep it civil, YMS – nice to be proved right, once again!

    Anyway, as you simply echo what’s already been said:

    YMS wrote: “Productive and unproductive are useful concepts when discussing useful work versus useless toil, and especially when we can show that productive labour is useless,” [my bold]

    I’ll simply ask once again, who defines ‘unproductive’ as ‘useless toil’?

    Surely even thinkers with your ideological views can see that calling any worker’s work ‘useless toil’ is making a moral judgement about their labour, which can only alienate them from socialist politics?

    I was going to write ‘from our politics’, but I’m not convinced that you are a democratic communist. You never mention either ‘democracy’ or ‘communism’ in your discussions. I’m inclined to think that you see yourself as some sort of ‘expert academic’, who has an access to ‘reality’ (like supposedly ‘unproductive labour’) which can’t be done by an ordinary worker.

    If you are one of these ‘experts’ (sic), no wonder my questioning annoys you!

    • This reply was modified 1 week ago by  LBird.


    This is a good read :


    Great title too.



    He certainly puts the doctors of his time in their place.


    Young Master Smeet

    To briefly expose my ideology, I am a Jethroist Tullist Flautist, and the main tennets of Jethroism Tullism Flautism are famous and need no further elaboration.

    I think the obvious answer of who finds the work unproductive and useless is the people doing that work, and as for alienating workers who do useless work, Shirley, the useless work itself should be a motivation for socialism and we should help clarify that there is a means to end that toil?  Demonstrating that although a type of work might be profitable for capitalists it might not contribute to neither the happiness of the worker nor anyone they know’s also adds grist to the scrocialist mill.


    Young Master Smeet

    Just to underline the importance of understanding and contesting notions of “productivity”, I’m just ploughing through a history of the Holocaust which notes that notions of “overpopulation” and productive population predominated in the Nazi ideology regarding moving (and reducing the population of Europe: essentially for what we would call primary accumulation).  They even managed to classify informal and household labour as unproductive mouths to feed, because it didn’t contribute to capital accumulation and savings.  And, of course, this notion of “overpopulation” and optimum productivity was itself a means of masking the real underlying cause of poverty in capitalistic production relations (they did, however, look to Stalin’s forced collectivisation as a model of how to resolve the ‘rural crisis’).

    Of course, this is the apogee of alienation, of seeing people made to fulfil the abstract ecojnomic model, rather than looking to human need.

    As to productivity and surplus value, it is worth noting that as capitalist relations of production develop, so prices diverge more and more from value, and a given firm will be realising surplus value produced at an entirely different firm, as production, productivity and division of labour become more pronounced it becomes impossible to say who contributed what to the economic output, and this gives grist to our mill of abolishing the need for money and pricing altogether, replacing it with co-operative production for needs.

    Finally, I’d just like to mention democracy and communism.

    • This reply was modified 2 days, 5 hours ago by  Young Master Smeet. Reason: Foolish negative


    Eugenic social engineering was implemented far wider than just Nazi Germany


    Young Master Smeet

    Indeed, that’s just the book I’m reading, and it specifically mentions the demographic economics the Nazis pioneered.

    This all has contemporary resonances:


    Patel claims there are 8.5 economically inactive potential workers in the UK, but if the Tories are determined to restrict immigration and compel British citizens to come out of retirement, then an Aufheben style ‘refusal of work’ campaign becomes a sensible strategy.

    Finally, I’d just like to mention democracy and communism.




    The  gunman who shot dead at least 10 people  was a far-right eugenicist

    The justification for killing entire populations was made in “explicitly eugenicist terms”


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