D'Avenant (An Essay upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Ballance of Trade, London, 1699, p. 50) put forward a Mercantilist view of productive and unproductive labour. For the Mercantilists, it was activity that created a surplus of trade which was productive. This trade surplus, thereby provided the gold and silver as a surplus value, which could then be used to finance the employment of labour in all other activities.
In this regard, D'Avenant quotes the work of Gregory King (Scheme of the Income and Expense of the Several Families of England, calculated for the year 1688) who divided the nation into two classes, the first who were productive of wealth and the second who were destructive of wealth, and dependent on the first.
In the first class, King places “Lords, Baronets, Knights, Esquires, Gentlemen, Persons in Office and Places, merchants in oversea trade, Persons in the Law, Clergymen, freeholders, farmers, persons in liberal arts and sciences, shopkeepers and tradesmen, artisans and handicrafts, Naval Officers, Military Officers. As against these, the “unproductive” class consists of: common seamen, labouring people and out servants (these are agricultural labourers and day wage-labourers in manufacture), cottagers (who in D’Avenant’s time were still a fifth of the total English population), common soldiers, paupers, gipsies, thieves, beggars and vagrants generally.” (p 178)
D'Avenant's justification for this position was that those in the first class not only obtained an income sufficient for their consumption, but also obtained a surplus, which could be used to employ others. By such employment, D'Avenant suggested they were consumptive of the wealth created by the first class.
In fact, what was paid out as wages, and thereby added to domestic consumption was directly seen as destructive of wealth by D'Avenant and other Mercantilists, because what was consumed at home was not exported, and thereby reduced the trade surplus, which reduced the flow of gold into the country.
However, Marx says,
“Incidentally, it must not be thought that these Mercantilists were as stupid as they were made out to be by the later Vulgar-Freetraders.” (p 179)
Marx quotes D'Avenant (Discourses on the Publick Revenues, and on the Trade of England, etc., London, 1698) where he indicates that he clearly understood that the real wealth consisted not simply in the store of precious metal, but in the productive capacity of the economy.
““Gold and Silver are indeed the Measure of Trade, but the Spring and Original of it, in all Nations, is the Natural, or Artificial Product of the Country, that is to say, what their Land, or what their labour and Industry produces. And this is so true, that a Nation may be suppos’d, by some Accident, quite without the Species of Money, and yet, if the People are numerous, industrious, vers’d in Traffick, skill’d in Sea-Affairs, and if they have good Ports, and a Soil fertile in variety of Commodities, such a people will have Trade, […] and, they shall quickly get among ‘em, a plenty of Gold and Silver so that the real and effective Riches of a Country, is its Native Product” (p.45)” (p 179)