Jim D'Arcy

The Productive and the Unproductive Worker

Source: Socialist Standard, September 1976.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: D. Whitehead
Copyleft: Creative Commons (Attribute & No Derivatives) 2007 conference "Be it resolved that all material created and published by the Party shall be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs copyright licence".

The descriptions “productive” and “unproductive” worker have nothing to do with the specific functions of labour power in the creation of use value; that is, the production of goods and services which satisfy human needs, and in which the worker has deposited the energy of his brain, muscle and nerve. All wealth is a combination of nature, which supplies the necessary materials, and men’s energy. This simple relation of man and nature forms the basis of all human activity, and we will see this clearly in a socialist world when our aim will be the production of wealth, and not the production of capital.

The terms ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ have a very narrow definition which only holds good for capitalist society. The proper meaning of the word would convey that productive work was creative and that unproductive work was wasteful. This is not the case in capitalist society, and workers need not be affronted by being called “unproductive”. The perpetually unproductive class in society (the capitalists) are held in the highest esteem.

From a capitalist standpoint the productive worker is one who produces capital; that is, in addition to reproducing the value of his labour power (his wages) he produces a surplus value. Out of this surplus value the capitalist derives his profit, and this, less overheads and expenses, provides further capital for repetitive transactions for the exploitation of the labourer. The expansion of capital is based on this principle, and the greater the accumulation, the greater the pressures on the capitalist to extend the avenues of investment; more markets, more machinery, and greater intensification of the exploitation of the worker. The productive worker is one employed by capital who produces capital, in the form of the commodity. Capital on the surface exists in the monetary form, but this money represents a sum of commodities of equal value, which when brought into the productive process produces a greater sum through the agency of human labour alone, when an additional value is created.

The unproductive worker, from the point of view of the capitalist, is one who consumes more than he reproduces. One who is paid out of revenue, wages and profits, and whose services are exchanged directly against revenue. Most domestic servants who provide personal services for their employer come into the category of unproductive worker, as do most civil servants, all High Court judges, the whole of the armed forces, priests, parsons and bishops, etc. A capitalist may employ a chef, or a gardener, for his own personal needs, and pay them out of his property income. The chef or gardener does not reproduce the value of his labour power, as he is merely concerned with the production of use-value, i.e. meals or herbaceous borders and lawns for the private consumption and amenity of a man who incidentally is a capitalist. He is not employing them in his capacity as a capitalist, and they are not producing capital, but use-value. If, on the other hand, the capitalist is a director in Hilton Hotels or Holiday Inns, he employs the chef and gardener in a wage-labour-and-capital relation, and in this respect they produce a surplus value over and above the wages they receive. The meals prepared by the chef are sold at a profit, and the floral arrangements, cultivation of grounds or vegetable garden, the work of the gardener, are likewise sold at a profit to the hotel guests. The use- value of the labour performed in both cases has not altered at all, but the economic relation under which the labour was performed has changed, and it is this economic relation which determines whether work is productive or unproductive, irrespective of the useful character of the work. The number of such workers who can occupy the position of being productive and unproductive under different conditions of employment is very restricted.

Useful or Not ?

All politicians, the legal profession, government officials, judges, generals are unproductive — in fact the entire State machine is an unproductive institution. Not only are they not productive, they are essentially destructive, yet they manage to appropriate a substantial portion of material wealth. The state is a consumer of revenue which it compulsorily levies through taxation by the political parties who control it.

There is obviously a distinction between useful labour in the real sense and productive labour. A doctor maintains the health of labour-power, keeps it in a reasonable state of repair; but a doctor is not a productive worker any more than is a musician or an artist. The absurdity of this is apparent when, for example, a writer producing books of fiction, or a journalist, is a productive worker. One enriches the publisher, the other the newspaper proprietor. What they write may be absolute bilge, but that is not the criterion, which is: do they add value to the original sum advanced in payment for their work?

The definition of “useful” labour in capitalist society is a different matter. Useful means that the product of labour must be socially necessary. That which is socially necessary is useful; that which is socially unnecessary is useless. Socially necessary means that useful labour has gone into the manufacture of a commodity or service; socially unnecessary means that “useless” labour has gone into the product. The test within capitalism which determines whether a thing is useful or useless is when you try to sell it. If it cannot be sold it is useless. An armoury full of firearms, shells and ammunition is considered useful, as is a nuclear submarine. The whole range of the killing instruments come into the “useful” category. Present-day society has a need for killing instruments. On the other hand, a scheme to remove slums, irrigate the Sahara desert, or the extension of education into the proper study of history, sociology, anthropology and political economy, would be considered useless, although the capitalists would always pay lip-service to the idea. In effect, socially useful means that there is a profit, socially useless means loss. The merits or desirability of the way in which man’s energy and natural resources ought to be deployed have no place in this economic and social arrangement.

What is Wealth ?

Wealth comes into existence at the point of production and only through the application of human labour. The industrial capitalist may appear to be the direct appropriator of surplus value, but there is a whole background of interwoven ruling-class interests struggling for their share of the surplus product. The banker seeks his interest, and the landlord his rent — both are consumers not producers. The landlord does not produce, nor does the banker produce interest. Wealth is not made by Stock Exchange transactions, financial transactions, or any other form of dealing on the commercial markets. It is not made by buying and selling either, although it may be transferred between individuals. Money does not make money. Only labour-power can do that, in the sense that it creates the things which money can buy.

It is precisely the essential circulatory nature of capital, and the great division of surplus value into rent, interest and profit, that leads to the mystery behind the relations of production and the artificial distinction between productive and unproductive labour. With the development of labour-saving machinery and other advances in technology, there is a relative decrease in the number of workers engaged directly in the productive process. On the other hand, there is an increase in civil servants, local government officials, and other types of clerical workers. One of the problems facing the capitalist is how to control this expensive and unproductive bureaucracy which he has created and which he has to pay for. But without the unproductive worker, certainly at local government and national levels, no revenue through rate taxes, etc. could be collected, and no public services could be provided. The whole system would be in a state of chaos, and every capitalist representative knows this. These “necessary evils” are built in to the system and form part of the superstructure.

The extraction of surplus value is a social process, and all workers, whether their work is productive or unproductive, play a part in this process. To that extent all workers are exploited, because they are under the domination of capital and have to sell their labour-power to whoever will buy it. Capitalist society cannot exist without its social bureaucracy, notwithstanding that this is becoming top-heavy. The problems faced by capitalists in trying to keep society on an even keel are nothing compared to the personal and social problems of the workers who have to live and work with it.

Capitalist production has stood the world on its head in every way. The most respected members of the community are a class of rich indolent parasites — the most revered institutions of law and learning are anti-social in that they exist to maintain the class of parasites to the detriment of the majority.