A Feminist Perspective on Productive and Unproductive Labor

The debate between ‘Marxologists’ on the distinction between productive and unproductive labor has always seemed frustratingly confusing to me and yielded blindingly counter-intuitive results — truck drivers are productive while taxi drivers are unproductive laborers, for example. The situation is not helped by the fact that Marx himself explained the distinction in slightly different ways in different texts and seemed to change his mind at least to some extent between volumes one and two of Capital.

The distinction is nevertheless significant for some of the key issues at stake in Marxist-feminist debates. We cannot therefore completely bypass it if we want to critically assess the usefulness of the Marxist framework for feminist theory.

In volume two of Capital, in which Marx moves from the study of the production process to a broader investigation of capital including the circulation process, he argues that the labor that takes place in the sphere of circulation is unproductive labor. This labor is necessary for the appropriation of surplus value — there will be no profits for the capitalists unless the commodities are sold, for example — but it does not produce any new surplus value. It merely realizes it and helps to distribute it among the individual capitalists. Marx’s examples of unproductive laborers include accountants and people working in warehouses. Their work is necessary for the circulation of capital, but it does not add any new value to the commodities produced. In short, in the capitalist mode of production, only labor that produces surplus value directly by adding value to commodities is productive labor.

While the distinction between productive and unproductive labor continues to be debated, everybody seems to agree on at least one point: it is not a moral distinction reflective of any kind of judgment on the social usefulness of particular labor. Productive labor is purely a technical term denoting labor that is productive of surplus value and it can therefore include the manufacturing of such socially useless products as racing cars, as well as products that are outright harmful such as landmines. It is precisely one of the absurdities of capitalisms that as long as there are markets for landmines, manufacturing them is productive labor. In contrast, a lot of labor that is indispensable for the survival of any human society, such as caring for the sick or feeding children, is unproductive labor from the capitalist viewpoint because it does not add value to any commodities that could be sold. In other words, whether or not a particular product is “really” useful for society does not play any role in determining its role as a commodity.

Hence, we can accept that women’s care work at home is unproductive labor in a capitalist mode of production and that it falls outside of the framework of surplus value production and exploitation, but that does not mean that it is socially useless or morally inferior to factory work.

The distinction between productive and unproductive labor remains nevertheless problematic for feminist theory for at least two key reasons. First, it is unclear what the role of women’s domestic labor is in determining the value of labor-power. We will return to this issue in more detail in our discussion of the domestic labor debates in a couple of weeks, but I want to already flag the importance of this distinction for those debates here.

Second, if we follow those Marxists who understand productive labor to be labor that appropriates and transforms physical objects and therefore produces commodities understood strictly as material products, this excludes all service work from the category of productive labor. Such privileging of manufacturing and industrial labor is obviously problematic from a feminist perspective because this is work traditionally done by men. Moreover, it is also a form of work that is rapidly disappearing from most Western countries. The composition of the workforce has dramatically changed in the last decades due to the globalization and/or neoliberalization of our economies. The industrial working class has been shrinking in all Western countries at a rapid rate, and has been largely replaced by post-industrial, service-sector workers, who are often in part-time or precarious employment. This development is clearly gendered: service sector jobs are female jobs. The “feminization of labor” has become a sociological catch phrase.

If we want to analyze this important development from a feminist perspective, classifying all service sector work as unproductive labor, and therefore as falling outside of the framework of surplus value production and exploitation, seems to render the Marxist framework more or less useless for our purposes. Furthermore, it seems to also pit the interests of male and female sectors of the workforce as starkly opposed. If only productive labor produces surplus value (as well as reproducing the equivalent of its own wages), this means that ultimately the wages of all unproductive laborers too are paid out of the surplus value produced by productive laborers. In other words, the unproductive female laborers working in a nail salon, for example, would be syphoning off value produced by the men working in a car factory. This means that while the productive laborers, men in our example, seek to diminish the surplus value portion of the total value produced, the unproductive laborers, together with the capitalists, have an interest in increasing it. The political upshot of such an analysis is obviously not very encouraging for Marxist-feminists political projects.

Rendering Marx’s framework useful for feminist analyses of contemporary laboring practices therefore means that we have to rely on those passages in which Marx includes commodified immaterial labor in the category of productive labor and emphasizes that labor with exactly the same content can be either productive or unproductive depending on the social conditions, in which it expended. He discusses the examples of a singer and a schoolmaster:

A singer who sings like a bird is an unproductive worker…But if the same singer is engaged by an entrepreneur who makes her sing to make money, then she becomes a productive worker, since she produces capital directly. A schoolmaster who instructs others is not a productive worker. But a schoolmaster, who works for wages in an institution along with others, using his own labor to increase the money of the entrepreneur who owns the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker (Marx 1976, 1044).

Marx ends the paragraph ominously by noting: “for the most part, work of this sort has scarcely reached the stage of being subsumed even formally under capital”. If we were able to communicate with Marx, I think we should tell him that that we have reached that stage now.

In sum, from the standpoint of capitalist production process only labor that produces surplus value is productive labor. However, whether a specific type of labor expenditure is productive labor in the capitalist sense does not depend upon the character of the labor, but upon the economic situation in which it occurs. Services should be understood as commodities too as long as they have both use value as well as exchange value. According to this reading, the women working in a nail salon or a private nursing home are just as much productive laborers as steelworkers are. They are exploited by capital because their labor produces surplus value for the enterprises in which they work.