Adam Smith: Productive and Unproductive Labor and the Cultural Worker, Part One



Over the past several decades, many left intellectuals have treated the appearance of forms of work that deviate from the paradigm of the Fordist factory routine as prima facie evidence of a mutation of the capitalist mode of production. As George Caffentzis notes, this has frequently taken the form of the diagnosis of a shift from “mass-industrial” to “cognitive” capitalism, (or to cognates like “the informatization of production,” “the knowledge economy,” and “informational capitalism”).[1]


“Cognitive capitalism” seems to work better as an ambient descriptor (on the order of “the Gilded Age” or the “Lost Generation”) than as an economically precise term of art. As scholars of digital labor have amply demonstrated, new forms of mental and affective work in the high-tech sector are often extremely physically demanding. The bodies of Silicon Valley coders, for example, are routinely subjected to great stress and deprived of sleep. If Google and Facebook hire skilled computer workers for their brains, they seem also intent on capturing and controlling the movements of their bodies. Marxist scholars have also long insisted that the information revolution continues to rest on the massive exploitation of manual workers around the world of a very traditional sort. And careful reflection on Fordism itself reveals that industrial labor in its classical form often required extensive intellectual toil, even after decades of managerial efforts to de-skill and routinize the labor process (perhaps the best illustration is the calculative ratiocination required in order to efficiently unload and reload a commercial maritime vessel).


Historically speaking, arguments for the novelty of “cognitive capitalism” rest on equally weak foundations. The research of Michael Zakim illustrates, for example, that the emergence of the nineteenth century clerk—apotheosized in American literature in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener––generated many of the same anxieties and hopes that we see in the more recent literature on the cognitariat.[2]


Shifting from social to intellectual history, we observe that debates about the nature and character of “mental labor” stretch back to the nineteenth century (and perhaps earlier, if certain texts are properly scrutinized). Perhaps most notably, prefigurations of “cognitive capitalism” can be found throughout Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations––we will linger with these passages, because they provide a great deal of help in situating the development of the idea of cultural worker in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Of particular interest to us is Book II, Chapter III (“Of the Accumulation of Capital, Or, Of Productive and Unproductive Labour”).[3] Smith’s concern in this text is to differentiate one sort of labor (that “which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed”) from another (that “which has no such effect”). “The former,” Smith writes, “as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labor.”

As students of the history of the cultural worker, we cannot help but listen attentively to Smith as he dedicates himself to cracking the economic mystery of “some of the most frivolous professions”: “players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While such figures are, for Smith, “unproductive laborers” we should not take this description as implying that entertainers and actors are non-workers, or un-workers, or fake workers. Clearly, Smith sees such participants in the economy as, precisely, “cultural workers” (though he does not use this term).

Smith takes pains to underline the commonality that cultural workers share with “some of the gravest and most important professions”: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; sovereigns, the officers of justice and war, and the army and navy. These “unproductive laborers,” from the buffoon to the king, may well produce honorable, useful, or necessary services. In structural terms, however, such figures are “servants of the public, and “maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people.”

In contrast, the labor of the “manufacturer” is worked up in commodities and contributes to the capitalist entrepreneur’s final profit. Smith’s key metaphors here are those of “fixation” and “realization.” Productivity, for Smith, enjoys an intimate relation to the world of objects and things. Productive work is measured by the permanence, durability, and non-perishability of the things produced. To the degree that the productive worker is productive, then, this productivity is reflected in the concretization of labor in the material world: “It is, as it were, a certain quantity of labor stocked and stored up to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion.” If productive labor contributes to the creation of a vendible commodity, unproductive laborer tends to “perish” in the very instant of its performance. The latter seldom leaves “any trace or value behind…”

Smith’s emphasis on ephemerality is especially pronounced in the case of cultural work: “the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician, the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.” Here, we observe the ratification of a key distinction that would shape the subsequent history of the cultural worker. Smith does not address the question of “authorship” in this section, but as a man of letters writing in amid great legal controversies concerning the ownership of ideas, it might fairly be assumed that authorial rights were on his mind. Smith was surely sensitive to the fact that while ephemerality was a common feature of the performing arts, one variety of cultural worker––“authors”––created works that did not perish at the instant of their production: literary and artistic texts.

At the same time, the materiality of such texts has always been complex, contradictory, and contested (a fact that tends to become obvious when the law confronts new technologies of reproduction). Why should the invisible and imaginary substance of “texts” be treated as real and tangible objects, while similarly immaterial products created by other cultural workers were deemed evanescent and temporary?


In order to make sense of these questions, it is vital to turn to Catherine Fisk’s project of mapping the labor history of copyright law.

Fisk begins by reminding us of the long history, stretching back to Antiquity, of wealthy men and women paying less wealthy others to produce things that seem to us substantially similar to the aesthetic and literary objects covered by copyright law. To the degree that we have internalized and naturalized the common sense of Intellectual Property law, the various logics governing these pre-capitalist transactions, however, appear quite exotic. Until very recently, the apprehension of aesthetic and literary objects was rooted in an understanding of the collective and collaborative nature of their production. Various human, animal, material, and divine actors contributed to the final product of the text. Much of the book trade maintained the character of the monastic scriptatoria, the great “bachelor machines” of the Middle Ages. Copying, recopying, binding, and selling: these were the essential tasks associated with the conjuring of texts into being. Authorship was merely one node within this complex division of labor, rarely treated as uniquely valuable prior to the advent of capitalist relations of production and its concomitant revolution in popular understandings of property, possession, ownership, and value; sovereignty, the state, “national culture,” and linear progress.

Fisk locates the treatment of authorship in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England as a critical turning point in this process: “When a man by the exertion of his rational powers has produced an original work, he has clearly a right to dispose of that identical work as he pleases, and any attempt to take it from him, or vary the disposition he has made of it, is an invasion of his right of property.” Here, Blackstone articulates what later theorists would call the “labor-deserts” argument for authorial property rights in texts. Along strict Lockean lines, the mixture of human labor with nature yields the result of a new and valuable object, charged by the law with the special power to repel unwanted intruders, trespassers, and poachers. The influence of Locke on the unfolding of Intellectual Property law is sometimes overstated—the “labor-deserts” theory had many other sources, and it did not remain static in the decades after the Glorious Revolution. But it is important to foreground the fundamental shift it inaugurated: from the decentered “flat ontology” of earlier conceptions of the manner in which books and other aesthetic objects materialize in a given place and time to the re-centered vision of the creation of the text as an event set in motion by the actions of the author.

Conceptual innovations do not always rest on conspiratorial foundations. The charge often leveled, quite unfairly, at Marxist historians, that its theory of historical change presupposes cabals and elite machinations. In fact, as Kenneth Burke and Hayden White, among others, point out, Marxist historiography is frequently as invested in ironic readings of the unintended consequences of the power struggles among ruling groups as it is devoted to stories of the continuing perfection of the means of domination. The best explanations of the rise of the modern notion of “authorship” take this approach. Fisk summarizes this line of interpretation. British publishers in the early eighteenth century created the persona of the modern “author”–conceived of as an “individual creator of text ex nihilo“––as a political and legal strategy meant to “galvanize legislative and judicial support for monopoly rights over books.” Citing Mark Rose’s key text Authors and Owners, Fisk recalls that in the seventeenth century, the very concept of “author” was only “incompletely developed.” Not only was the modern notion of the author as an “autonomous creator, the producer  and  first proprietor of original works, not yet formed,” Rose observes, “but even the Renaissance notion of the author as an individuated  authority was often problematic.” As modern Intellectual Property law began to take shape in the eighteenth century, authorship and ownership became inextricably linked. Without anyone having consciously sat down and plotted to bring into being the modern “author,” publishers and celebrity writers from Defoe to Dickens were increasingly drawn to lobby for copyright rules that protected proprietary rights in literary creations. Along the way, certain features of aesthetic labor were stressed–foremost among them, originality and concrete fixation of ideas in stable forms––while others were de-emphasized. In turn, this process of emphasis and de-emphasis informed the development of more complex division of labor within the national political economy and the international world-system.

Thus, when we encounter Smith’s arguments regarding the cultural worker, we are entering the scene many decades into an epochal transformation of both the culture of capitalism and of capitalist culture…


These were the dilemmas with which later generations of economists were to grapple. We will argue, in the next section, that it was the American pragmatist economist John Bates Clark who discovered the most successful solution to the problem of cultural workers and the weird world of tangible and intangible objects, in his writings in the 1880s and 1890s. We will further suggest that Clark’s innovations, which relied upon a broader pragmatist intellectual culture as a facilitating pre-condition, might be a relevant factor in the uniquely forceful rise of the demotic arts and show business in the Progressive Era United States.


What needs to be underlined here, however, is that whatever conceptual innovations emerged in the century after the publication of Wealth of Nations that prepared the ground for the explosion of cultural work in the twentieth century, the idea of cultural worker itself was not one of them: it was already firmly established in Smith’s writing. Smith went further than merely identifying the cultural worker as a legitimate tradesperson within the framework of modern political economy, and contributed more to the emerging idea of cultural work than his introduction of a negative distinction separating cultural work and service from other forms of useful toil. Smith also took a stab at providing a measure of the value of cultural work. He emphasized that—with the exception of rare circumstances––the arts did not create new value (with the model of the creation of value ex nihilo here understood on the model of the pieceworkers in Smith’s infamous pin factory). Smith cautions that appearances are often deceiving: while the wages paid to the cultural worker and to the pin factory employee might seem to the untrained eye as identical forms of payment for services, nothing could be further from the truth. The worker in the pin factory generated new value for his employer—value that did not exist prior to the commencement of pin-making operations. Under favorable conditions, the wages paid to such a worker were more than offset by the labor process’s aggrandizement of value. In contrast, the cultural worker’s salary, like that of the servant, was simply expenditure, thrown-away money: “A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers: he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants.”


If the labor of the cultural worker created no new value, it did, nevertheless, possess some value—it could be properly judged as “valuable” to society, and recommended by the political economist as worthy of protection. This value was redistributive. For example, if a mechanic paid for a ticket to “a play of a puppet-show,” he thereby contributed to the survival of the puppeteers. In formal terms, this was no different than the payment of taxes by the mechanic’s wealthy counterpart, which helped “to maintain another set, more honorable and useful, indeed, but equally unproductive.” Cultural work deserved “its reward as well as that of the (productive laborer).



From Adam Smith, we turn to Karl Marx—perhaps the most articulate and forceful of Smith’s posthumous literary antagonists. Somewhat ironically, the Karl Marx in whom we are here interested writes as a strict Smithian. In the Grundrisse (1857-58), Karl Marx famously argued that while a worker in a piano factory might be called “productive,” the same could not be said about the piano player. [4] The argument echoes, in many places, Book II, Chapter III of The Wealth of Nations.


As he composed his paragraphs on the piano player’s non-productivity, Marx was likely thinking of Nassau Senior’s treatment of the question of the profitability of the arts in Political Economy.[5] Like Smith, Senior treated “service” as an expansive category, encompassing lawyers and housecleaners, as well as clowns and musicians. Unlike Smith, Senior highlighted the contextual variability of value. For example: “The power of telling long stories is a source of profit in Asia, but valueless in Europe.” Similarly, if an actress “should embrace a religious sect of which the tenets should be incompatible with the stage, her vocal and dramatic talents would no longer be exchangeable, she would no longer be able to let them out by the evening.”


Directly addressing The Wealth of Nations, Senior laments the limitations of “Adam Smith’s well known division of labor into productive and unproductive.” While many of Smith’s legatees in the field of political economy found this distinction “convenient,” the Smith’s treatment of the topic was judged incomplete. Senior’s intervention is to shift focus from objects––from “the things themselves”––to “the modes in which they attract our attention.” By foregrounding the attentional situation of the consumer, Senior suggests a reframing of “productive” and “unproductive” labor. In cases where our attention is drawn to the alteration of a thing, we retroactively conclude that the process that brought about the alteration was “productive.” “Where, on the other hand, our attention is principally called not to the thing altered, but to the act of occasioning that alteration,” Senior writes, economists “have termed the person occasioning that alteration an unproductive laborer, and his exertions, services, or immaterial products.” As an illustration, Senior contrasts the shoemaker (“productive” laborer), who “alters leather, and thread, and wax” with the final result of a pair of shoes, with the shoeblack (“unproductive” laborer), who “alters a dirty pair of shoes into a clean pair.”

In each case there is, of course, an act and a result; but in the one case our attention is called principally to the act, in the other to the result.

Senior considers the productivity of the cook who dresses a side of beef as compared to the cook who brings a dish into being; the tailor who transforms cloth into a coat as compared to the dyer who adds color to the garment. Here, Senior points out that whether or not a new name is generated to go along with the new product is an important index to productivity: thus, there is a word for “coat” but not a separate word for “dyed coat”: “the dyer has not produced a new name, nor, consequently, in our minds, a new thing.” In turn, Senior then reviews the cases of the wigmaker, the pharmacist, the haircutter, and the physician, and concludes that the labor of altering a thing might well qualify as a commodity of sorts. In all cases, what is produced is the “alteration in the condition of the existing particles of matter.”

Having worked through these various cases, Senior arrives at the cultural worker. “The ultimate object both of painting and of acting” Senior writes, “is the pleasure derived from imitation.” The means adopted by the painter and by the actor are identical: “Each exercises his bodily organs, but the painter exercises them to distribute colors over a canvass, the actor to put himself into certain attitudes, and to utter certain sounds.” The actor sells “his exertions themselves,” while the painter “sells not his exertions, but the picture on which those exertions have been employed.”

On a superficial level, Senior’s analysis has a certain logical appeal. Considered closely, its coherence falls apart. It only takes Senior a few pages before he turns to other, seemingly unrelated aspects of the opposition between “productive” and “unproductive” labor (for example, the typical mode of payment for goods and services). It was this failure to maintain any systematicity, as much as Senior’s propensity for appallingly naked expressions of class supremacy, that induced Marx to critique Senior’s writings so harshly.

Marx situates his critique of Senior, however, as a defense of the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” worker. “The piano maker reproduces capital,” Marx argues, while “the pianist only exchanges his labor for revenue.” What of the fact that the pianist produces music in order to satisfy the musical ear? The pianist’s labor, Marx concedes, produces “something.” But mere effort was not enough to render a given gesture “productive labor in the economic sense.” Otherwise, the undeniably energetic exertions of the “madman who produces delusions” would have to also be judged to be “productive.”[6]


Many careful readers of Marx, Raymond Williams foremost among them, have treated Marx’s differentiation of piano maker and piano player in the Grundrisse as a misstep. Marx himself seemed to have grasped the inadequacy of his musical interlude. There is, after all, no mention of the piano maker and the piano player in the three volumes of Capital, written in the 1860s. Marx’s confusion on the question of the pianist’s productivity points to underlying tensions rooted in Marx’s simultaneous dedication to the critique of political economy and his political commitments to a certain kind of productivism linked to classical political economy’s “labor theory of value.”[7]




Jumping a generation forward in time and leaping over an ocean, we might compare Marx’s writing on the productivity of the piano player with some paragraphs on the piano player that we find in John Bates Clark’s The Philosophy of Wealth, published in 1887. Clark (1847-1938) is not well known today, but he was once quite famous, having risen to prominence in the 1880s as the dean of the younger generation of American economists. Clark helped to found the American Economic Association in 1885, and he was one of the first American economists to contribute to the developing theory of marginal utility. As Martin Sklar emphasizes, Clark’s political orientation was also unusual. Although he would drift rightward over the course of his career, Clark began his career as a moderate Christian Socialist––which put him well to the left of most professional economists. He was sharply critical, Joseph Dorfman notes, of the current regime of business regnant in the 1870s and 1880s.

In The Philosophy of Wealth, Clark complains of the narrowness of the “conception of wealth” embraced by his fellow economists. Echoing Senior, Clark insists upon the “pernicious” character of the “classification of labor as productive and unproductive,” Clark challenges the exclusion from the ranks of “productive labor” of such persons as “the actor, the musical performer, the public declaimer or reciter, and the showman.”


Clark argues with particular force that the piano player is a productive worker. Playing music, Clark observes, is a “service,” and every “service” consists of an “effort” and a “gratification.” To produce this “service,” Clark continues, “someone must labor, and someone’s want must be satisfied.” Pure effort, as such, gratifies no one. Thus, the “artisan’s effort” gives pleasure to the viewer or listener. This spectatorial pleasure can only be transmitted via some vessel or medium, however abstract. There was no good reason not to treat this instrument of transmission a capitalist commodity.


In a striking passage, Clark writes:


Let an accomplished pianist advertise a concert on one of Mr. Petersilea’s mute piano-fortes, and promise to display a large amount of effort; how many tickets, at a dollar each, would he probably sell? Let a voiceless speaker attempt to entertain an audience by a similar display of effort; how long would the assembly remain together? Yet, in either case, absolutely nothing would be wanting but the tenuous outward product, — sound. The objective element inseparable from service is wealth; the totality of it is the sum total of social products. This material element is the result of effort and the cause of gratification, and furnishes, therefore, the necessary connection between the elements of service. It has invariably the four essential attributes of wealth; it is objective to the producer and the utilizer; it is material, useful and appropriable. It is distinguishable in every action that can be termed a service; but it is not always tangible, visible and durable. It is a mark of progressing civilization when the products of labor, the objective elements in service, take as their basis the more tenuous materials given in nature. It marks a certain supremacy over natural forces when man hews stone and fashions timber; it marks an intellectual sovereignty when the thought of man impresses itself on vibrating air or makes electricity its messenger to remote regions. It is the more ethereal products of human effort that are the characteristic wealth of a highly organized society.


Here, Clark deploys the allegorical image of a recent technological innovation––a certain gizmo that damped the strings of the piano so that musicians could practice at home without disturbing their neighbors––to illustrate that valuable “something” produced by the pianist, the existence of which Marx reluctantly concedes in the Grundrisse.


[1] George Caffentzis, In Letters of Blood and Fire Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Chicago: PM Press, 2013.


[2] Michael Zakim and Gary John Kornblith. Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.


[3] Adam Smith and Andrew S. Skinner. The Wealth of Nations. Books I-III Books I-III. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.


[4] See Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review I/82, November-December 1973. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1973, 305. George Caffentzis writes: “There are passages in the Grundrisse that genuinely pose the question: are we dealing with the dialectical contradictions of capital (typical of any would-be infinite totality) or the plain (finite) logical contradictions of Karl Marx?” George Caffenzis, “From the Grundrisse to Capital and beyond: Then and now.” Workplace, 15, 60.


[5] Nassau William Senior, Political Economy. London: J.J. Griffin, 1850.


[6] It is hard to resists the temptation to point out that the “delusions of the madman” and “productivity” are not as distinct from one another as might first seem to be the case. This is particularly true in regard to speculative finance. Consider the anecdote about the comment made by Ivan Boesky’s son Billy to a reporter at the height of the merger mania of the 1980s: “Seriously understand about my father,” Billy said in a somber tone. “He is stark raving mad.” James B. Stewart, Den of Thieves. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, 48.


[7]Roman Rosdolsky reminds us of the context in which Marx wrote the Grundrisse. “Characteristically, it was the outbreak of the economic crisis of 1857 which was responsible both for the immediate decision to write the Rough Draft (Grundrisse), and the feverish hurry with which this was done. (The entire work, almost 50 proof-sheets, was completed in nine months, between July 1857 and March 1858). The economic crisis filled the ‘Two-man Party’––as Engels’s biographer, Mayer, named the two friends––with high hopes, and it was therefore only natural that Marx wanted to commit at least the fundamentals of his economic theory to paper ‘before the deluge,’ that is, before the beginning of the expected European revolution. Of course, his revolutionary prognosis was based on an illusion…” Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital, London: Pluto Press, 1977, 7.

NB: 554

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: