Letter writing: productive or unproductive labour?

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2016 by kmflett

Is letter writing productive and unproductive labour?


Do you remember the 1970s? In that decade there were considerable debates about the Marxist categories of productive and unproductive labour and which areas of industry and the like might be in either one.

Of course unproductive labour did not mean that the worker concerned did nothing. Rather that what they did created no surplus value for the capitalist.

Fast forward 5 decades or so and The Guardian this week has run some brief letters (of suitable length for the social media age) about letter writing and productivity. It was sparked by an article by the economist Duncan Weldon who pondered the continuing productivity crisis of British industry.

I offered to help by writing slightly longer letters and in response a reader suggested that in fact shorter ones (or perhaps none at all) would be more productive. A further correspondent noted that letters produced no profit anyway (i.e they are unproductive labour).

Some answers to this, possibly more than one answer (see those 1970s debates) are to be found in Volume One, Chapter 4 of Capital.

Marx suggests that the fewer workers who produce the same amount of goods (say widgets) the more surplus value the capitalist can extract from each one. On that basis if my letters were indeed a bit longer, fewer letters would be required to fill the letters page and productivity would have increased.

There is however a problem.

Neither letter writing or letters pages as such produce a profit. Could they be a site of unproductive labour, kept going only by such advertising money is the paper in general can attract?

Perhaps, but actually the paper does sell copies and some papers (not all) do make a profit. So surplus value is being extracted somewhere in the process to which the letter writer might well be adding.

So letter writing: productive or unproductive labour?





One Response to “Letter writing: productive or unproductive labour?”

  1. Nick Michaels
    April 29, 2016 at 6:37 am | Reply edit

    Longer letters would be more productive if the newspaper was only interested in filling space; if the function of a letters page is to allow people to express a view publicly, not merely filling a page with ink by using unpaid-writers words, then longer letters are less productive.

    Marx also acknowledged the existence of a third class of labour, beyond the categories of ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’; he accepted these lay outside the capitalist mode of production. So perhaps the argument over what is productive is closer to philology than philosophy since Marx appropriates the meaning of words to mean just what he chooses them to mean, as per Humpty Dumpty.

    Marx of course wrote many years before the explosion of the services sector, and surely if he were writing today he would want his analysis of the political economy to be more relevant to the service sector, to scientists and teachers and care workers and cooks.

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