Service Work and Servitude

This is the extended abstract for the paper I’d prepared some months back for a conference, and a clip from the occupation of Sussex University I’d planned to show

— when I was wondering how to parse Contract & Contagion for a somewhat orthodox marxist audience. The conference, as it happens, was rather more concerned with defending ‘the tradition’ than I’d thought when I agreed to do a panel on the book and speak on another session. The paper attached to this abstract, though, is thankfully destined for elsewhere, as perhaps I should have realised was best in hindsight.

“Service Work & Servitude: Beyond the Commonplace Socialism of Visible Work and Barely Perceptible Struggles”

Categories such as social work, affective labour, emotional labour and service work disrupt neat analytical distinctions between productive and reproductive labour. If production and reproduction did indeed correspond to naturally distinct spheres of life, then these categories of work would not exist. But they clearly do, as poorly paid and precarious as they often are. They are an increasing part of calculable economic activity in many parts of the world, as well as the object of various attempts to measure performance, model risk and price value.

Service work has been notoriously difficult to measure and resistant to productivity gains. It is often low paid, performatively gendered if not always feminised, sometimes raced and certainly racialising, situated somewhere between paid and unpaid work, and – in the substantialist vernacular of the labour theory of value – often rebuked for not making real things, having real value, signal therefore of imminent capitalist decline, and so on.

These dilemmas and narratives have accompanied the expansion of service work since the 1960s but, until very recently and as far as overt political movements and theories have been concerned, they have been played out well behind the more visible ‘free trade’ debates over the ‘relocation’ of manufacturing to countries such as China and the increasing proportion of ‘McJobs’ in the US. That particularly nationalist and gendered approach, as with any kind of protectionism, enabled short-term advantage by calling upon state subsidy, but it also allowed labour movements to delay coming to grips with the particular issues raised by organising in service industries. If parts of the labour movement are now grappling with the question not only of service work, but also the long-standing precariousness of its conditions (not only in, say, the hospitality industry but also in the universities), the question of how to theorise service work in broader questions of both surplus value and paradigms of work and labour, have barely gone beyond the assertion that the concepts of gender and reproductive labour might be added, but it is rarely a question of what this ‘addition’ means for the relevance of Marx’s writings to the critique of capitalism.

In Contract and Contagion I argued that service work illustrates one of the more significant limits in Marx’s critique of rights, and his critique of the wage contract and wage labour in particular. But I also suggested that this limit—which he repeats at times by ascribing the specific qualities of service and care work to Nature—is nevertheless exceeded through his concept of surplus value as pivotal to the critique of capitalism, and in his understanding of the dynamics of crisis, expansion and restoration that is apparent in his writings on the so-called tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

It’s really simple. We’re not gonna take it. We’re not having our services privatized, this campus isn’t going to be disintegrated and dismantled into consumer and providers, where we treat our lecturers like shit because they’re providing a service, where we treat the people who feed us or the people who take care of our residences like shit, again because they’re some kind of labour provider and we’re some type of consumer. This is education, this is an educational community. – Hannah Elsisi, speaking on the Occupy Sussex: Sussex Against Privatisation – Day 1 video.*

*Note: I should possibly add here, though it is in the essay, that I don’t entirely agree with arguments which counter the fact that the university is part of the service industry with an insistence that it’s an “educational community.” On the one hand, there remain crucial distinctions of power, money and status between those on renewable or permanent contracts and casualised academics, as well as between these, students, administrative, cleaning and catering staff. Or, those differences shouldn’t be glossed over with invocations of community, but rather might offer a crucial challenge. On the other hand, the expansion of the university (and indeed its privatisation) might become a spark, as I think it did at Sussex, precisely because at times the distinction between students and catering staff can be blurred, whether because students often work in the food service industry either in or outside universities, or because of inter-generational links between those who work in fast food industries and students and faculty, for whom the university was (prior to its increasing privatisation perhaps) regarded as a route out of service work. Given all of this, grasping that the university is in fact part of the service industry (and not really a factory) seems like an important step.

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