In 1790, 75 percent of the working population of Austria was involved with agriculture (David Good); this was true of 73 percent of the population of the U.S. at the time, and approximately the same percentage in Prussia as well (Cambridge Economic History). In Europe as a whole, at the time of the French Revolution, when we look not only at the population that directly labored in the fields, but include those who depended directly on them, we get even more elevated figures: 90 percent, for instance, for France. The exceptions are Britain and Holland, with the percentage being as low it is estimated as 40 percent in Britain. These were the first economies to enduringly get past what the growth economists call “Malthusian limits” – that is, an agricultural sector that shrinks in population size while growing in productivity such that it can support a much larger non-agricultural population. The post-Malthusian world is the world of the artificial paradise, in which I, and everybody I know, has lived all our lives – except when escaping in little pockets of fantasy, sleep, digestion, sex, the third life, and phobias. It is hard to measure these pockets. But we can confidently say that in other places, the Malthusian world lingered on – in Galicia, or in Russia, or in China and India. And the breaking of the Malthusian limits was in many ways a huge trauma, involving starvation, the total breakdown of cultural constants, emigration, loneliness, and changes in the internal signaling structure of our bodies and emotions that we are still grappling with on a world wide scale.
In the post-Malthusian world, the productive and the unproductive took on different characteristics. It was no longer of a small merchant class, nobility, and an overwhelming peasantry. It was no longer Robin Hood’s world. Marx’s world was that of the nation on the forefront of industrialization – England – but even in Marx’s time, the elements that would subordinate the sphere of production to the sphere of circulation were in evidence.
As Murray Smith (1993) has pointed out, Marx’s comments about productive and unproductive labor in the second book of Capital don’t cohere, completely, with his comments in the Grundrisse. Smith usefully defines four forms of unproductive labor: Smith’s form, in which labor is paid for out of personal revenue, such as household labor; labor of the self-employed commodity producer; labor of the circulation worker; and what he calls “social-maintenance” labor.
Smith’s definitions are all derived from the social position of the laborer with regard to capital. Productive labor, then, is not about producing a material thing, but about producing surplus value. The salesman and the teacher can both be exploited, in this reading, when we look at their labor from the point of view of the total social product, but they are not exploited as productive labor is exploited. What is important is not to see these forms as fixed elements in the social picture, but rather as frontiers always susceptible to be changed in their location in the social whole. If we put the sphere of circulation at one end, as a constant parameter of non-productive labor, we cannot really make the same claim about other non-productive workers.
Edward Wolff puts it like this: “Unproductive activity affects the disposition of commodities
but creates neither use value nor exchange value. Productive labor creates surplus value; unproductive labor absorbs surplus value.” (1987)
It is in the cruel intersection of these two sentences that I locate that lonely beast, the modern writer.