"When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals, that is, one has in mind the direction in which their specific professional activity is weighted, whether towards intellectual elaboration or towards muscular-nervous effort. This means that although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist. ...There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens." - Antonio Gramsci 
Mental labor refers to work that is socially understood to be a product of the human brain, rather than of the body. As Gramsci points out, this division may sometimes reflect the way society privileges certain forms of thought (such as "art" or "science") over others (such as the thought a craftsperson or worker must put into his or her work) rather than a genuine difference in the work itself.
"This society values mental labor more highly than manual labor." ~ Ruth Hubbard
This claim by Ruth Hubbard is straightforward in meaning -- it implies that the Western culture values mental labor more than manual labor. This is especially true in Western culture, where positions which require the completion of higher education rank these positions much higher in status. Coupled with this respect gained in the societal hierarchy comes monetary rewards -- far more than those which are earned by physical workers.
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Appearances in the class reading
- In the short story "The Machine Stops" by E.M Forster, we see a degradation of physical labour and activity to give rise to 'mental labour'. The story focuses on 'lectures' and 'lecturers' who talk about past events and history. Most physical activity has seemingly ceased to exits, and the human population are restricted to coming up with 'ideas'. While these 'ideas' are never described in full, it can be interpreted that the 'ideas' are thoughts that would ultimately better "The Machine" in which the human population exists. Even so, the humans are discouraged to think up too many radical ideas, and have even been taught to believe that (as one lecturer states), 'First hand ideas do not really exist'. 
- In Frankenstein, Viktor in his youth (due to his families' status) experiences solely mental labor in the form of his studies. Later on his his mental work transitions into physical labor as he creates the monster.
- In The Dispossessed, men are the only ones capable to do mental labor on the planet Urras while it is socially acceptable for both sex to do mental labor in Annares. Urras's workforce is separated into people who do physical and mental labor based on education level and social status while on Annares every person is socially expected to do physical labor, even the intelligent minds like Shevek. Annares is known for its rough physical labor. 
Appearances in other media
Intersections with other Tropes
- When authors depict the replacement of Mental Labor by Machine Labor as a threatening crisis, it's Oh No! The AI is Takin' all our Jobs!