The means of production refers, in Marxist economics and its modern derivatives, to infrastructural capital and natural capital, the classical factors of production deliberately minus financial capital (according to Marx a delusion) and minus human capital or labor. When used in modern terms it usually applies to land or commons being converted to natural resources, and to that infrastructural capital which is not owned strictly in common but is applied to make "goods". The Marxist analysis does not distinguish between infrastructural and natural means of production, and seems to assume natural capital to be limitless.
Karl Marx focused on labor questions: He considered it immoral to treat labor as just another "factor" in production, and in his analysis he chose the word "means" apparently to emphasize that labor actually acquires and applies the instructions and skills, and directly uses the tools and infrastructure - as the "proletariat". Raw human capital without these skills he termed the "lumpen proletariat".
There are parallels in analysis by modern feminist economists, notably Marilyn Waring who argues that women's work has been systematically devalued and undervalued, while education and training sufficient to use the "means" deemed most valuable by society have traditionally gone to men. She sarcastically parallels two very different ideas of "value" by focusing on village women in a developing nation whose day is defined by the search for clean water and dry firewood, and a man in a U.S. missile silo, whose day is defined waiting for orders to destroy the Soviet Union. She argues, in general, that woman is to man as lumpen is to proletariat, but does not use those terms herself, evidently to avoid offending the Marxists:
Marx's terms are still employed in "left" economic analysis by socialist parties who advocate extending public ownership of such "means". The affinity between labor movement causes and this advocacy is very strong - and often shared by Social democrats, socialists, communists and greens. Marx's analysis in particular helped to make clear the key differences between human capital and "labor" or "human resources" - which earlier political economy favoring labor value had not done, e.g. that of David Ricardo.
Some green economists, notably Brian Milani, analogize Marx's treatment of labor to natural capital, accepting Marx's view that land is a means, but not a simple factor, of production. Others go further to argue that land, more fully regarded as natural capital must be seen as a sort of "lumpen proletariat" performing ecological work.
Still others, including many following neoclassical economics, argue that nothing that is alive (land, labor) and therefore negentropic can be counted as a "means" for anything else that is alive and negentropic - and reject the Marxist terms of reference entirely. There is thus a dispute on convergence between the idea of "means of production" and the modern general notion of capital; Marx's analysis has been important in refining the factors of production wherein individual and natural (alive, natural, creative) actors are kept separate from instructional, social, infrastructural and financial (unliving, entropic, imitative "means") "factors", at least to some degree... notably in the analyses of Natural Capitalism and some macro-economics which study the choice (by people) to do work, or take recreation:
In the analysis of Baldassari and Acquisti, any living actor may choose to use or not use a "means", but an unliving "factor" can only take orders from above, robotically, without any capacity to question. Or, indeed, any capacity to take or choose to do harm. There is thus a clear distinction between a "means", including autonomous intellectual capital, and a "factor" whose detailed choices are defined by passive instructional capital and limits of infrastructural capital. This analysis avoids however the problem of individual capital or "enterprise" or "ingenuity", and how choices to act or not act work in the large to define roles or rules.
This type of analysis derived from Marx seems most applicable to highly automated production exploiting robotics and just in time learning. Marx's "lumpen proletariat" thus continues to exist in at least three newly recognized forms: women especially in developing nations, the living natural capital of Earth's ecoregions, and the robotic behavior of low-skilled service workers doing "McJobs". Those capable or permitted to make at least the choice not to work, rise to Marx's "proletariat" level, and can rightly be said to be employing other factors as a "means" - including as "means" potentially the more passive unskilled worker and the land itself.
Some theorists emphasize the "driving down" of decision-making power "closer to the customer" as making the role of bourgeois (detailed decision maker absorbing blame and financial risk for owners) and proletariat more alike. This would not affect however the basic idea of means of production, rather: It would simply render it ambiguous where means began and factors end. In particular, the role of those who employ only financial capital and do not directly use the other factors of production remains distinct, and the most significant feature of capitalism, in the Marxist analyses - in effect the ruling class monopolize the means of protection, thus of property law enforcement, which keeps the financial capital valuable and convertible into the means of production: all other forms of capital.
The central tenant of distributism is that of a market society where the majority are possessed of the means of production.