Debt servitude, service work, oikos

Below is the bare-bones of the paper I did for the recent ASA conference on debt, oikos and service. The argument in that is drawn from C&C, but it’s an argument that I’ve become more sure of since, particularly with the recent wave of occupations at Sussex University against the privatisation of catering, and more recently the COSAS strike at the University of London.

From the University of Sussex occupation
From the University of Sussex occupation

All too often, however, it seems to me that we speak of debt, austerity and privatisation as if it were not specifically about the work of social reproduction, the shifting line between paid and unpaid work, the restriction of care, education, health and so on to familial lines, and therefore the re-imposition and expansion of inter-generational, inherited wealth. In any case, here is the ASA paper, or the outline of it in any case:


Oikos and Infrastructure: Servicing Infinite Debts, Service Work, and Fugitive Slaves,” for the “Forgotten Histories, Continuing Pasts: Unaccounted Modes of Life” panel.

I would like to begin by marking out a debate that I think has been persistent but which can only be resolved in practice. There can be no question, I think, of eschewing or denying debt, as such. The mythical individuation of selves is itself the result of debts reckoned in financial terms, and it operates in denial of the very conditions that make that individuation, or the individuation of some, possible. In other words, denunciations of ‘debt servitude’ can so often express the discomfort of those who have never known servitude, and for whom the taint of association with its history and its present unfolding is far more important than a consideration of the ways in which so-called ‘globalization’ and precariousness marks the entry of colonial policy into metropolitan spaces and begins to affect, to put it bluntly, middle class white men. Indeed, even in the midst of the various campaigns against debt—not least those of Occupy—there was always a tension between those who insisted on disavowing debt so that, in the making of this gesture, a subject ostensibly unencumbered by debt to others could emerge, or be said to re-emerge, and those who, by contrast, regarded the occupations and campaigns as sites in which to elaborate a different kind of indebtedness, of the bonds of care and infrastructures that went beyond the increasingly heteronormative conditions of social and economic policy. The politics here, of course, were as gendered and racialized as they were about class, and as marked by the long and complex history in which the labour movements predicated on the continuing but shifting interactions between the wage contract and those forms of work that were never paid but nevertheless regarded as obligatory.

The question it seems to me is not whether our debts can be erased, but what the lines of indebtedness are, how debt is defined, whether it takes the form of a financial obligation or some other consideration of relational inter-dependence, of the forms of life that the routine accounting of debts lets flourish or those that it obscures behind propositions of a seemingly more natural order of individuation, dependence, and obligation—which is to say, the kind of debt that, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Best, amounts to a debt of slavery or one that, in its fugitive escape to another place, is predicated on the creation of debts of another kind.

As for the very concept of ‘debt servitude,’ it is remarkable I think that, just as debt became a prominent social and political issue in the US and elsewhere—most notably: the fiscal debt of government spending, student debt, and the debts of the private housing market—the question of how to account for work in the service industry, and specifically the extremely low pay rates and conditions of those in the food industry, had begun to appear as a key issue for some parts of the labour movement.

In the abstract for this panel, Neferti turned around the question of “life-making and creative survival,” of “unaccounted modes of life” that go “beyond the dominant protocols of organizing life for the accumulation of capital.”

For economists—particularly those influenced by the New Household Economics of the Chicago School’s Gary Becker—the question of service work has explicitly been one of whether accounting for the work of service (as service work undertaken outside households) is a more efficient way to feed and care for, to restore, those other forms of labour that he and others assumed were – by contrast, naturally and without question – to be paid. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Becker referred to household work as “non-work time,” contrasting it with the measurable time of work, the clock-time, in a food industry that—at that time—was not only considered resistant to productivity gains but the scene of anti-segregation campaigns. The emblematic instance of the latter is, of course, the sit-ins by students at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro; the sit-ins that were occurring at the very same time as the Chicago School economists were pondering the question of whether it was best to account for service work or return it, in the name of ‘efficiency,’ to the unpaid domain of the household.

There are questions here, that I’ve discussed elsewhere, about affective labour, about the increasing proportion of economic activity that comes under the heading of service work relative to that of manufacturing or agriculture, and not least about more recent issues about whether and how it is possible to automate service work. But what I wanted to underline here is the way in which all of these questions have been a long time in the making, and how they have always sat alongside and within the politics of debt, even if they have often been obscured by gestures that would seek to disavow the persistence of the debts of inter-dependency without which no one would eat let alone flourish.

Part of the reason for this disavowal is in the understandings of the wage contract itself, the history through which free labour was distinguished from slavery, and forms of slavery returned or continued in the guise of that labour which is said to be a natural obligation. However much I would revise Marx’s understanding of surplus value (which is to say, his understanding of capital), I think that the concept of surplus value, and of surplus labour, is indispensable to a critical understanding of how capitalism works. For Marx, by contrast to liberal and many political economic definitions, the wage contract is not identical or commensurate in the sense that the labour it ‘represents’ is or can be identical to the exchange it governs. It is an asymmetrical contract, or else there would be no gain for the employer, no profit, no capital. The specific elements of this contract’s taxonomic machinery (its categories, what is accounted for and what is not) have always been a terrain of conflict, have changed, and will continue to do so—hence, among other things, the developing metrics and expanding definitions of value of service work, affective labour and zero-hour contracts.

But at the centre of each of these is a conflict over whether or not the labour of service work—the making of, feeding and caring for people rather than things—is accounted for in the form of a wage or considered to be a debt that is owed by ‘nature,’ by anatomy, by the colour of one’s skin, eyes, by the ascription of biology with the affective valences of deference, compliance and service.

I would like to end by reading something from an article by Shay Enxuga, titled “Queer Struggles are Class Struggles: Halifax Queer and Trans workers at forefront of service worker and barista movement.” Writing in the wake of campaigns by service workers in Canada at Just Us on Spring Garden, Second Cup on Quinpool, and the emergence of the Baristas Rise Up campaign to improve the wages and conditions of those working in precarious and low-waged café jobs,” Shay puts the connections between debt, class, race, sexuality and precarious work more precisely than I think most theorists have managed to do, so allow me to quote them:

Nova Scotian students graduate with an average of $35, 642 of debt (plus interest), and are struggling to pay that off while working minimum wage jobs that, at full-time hours, have an annual gross income of just over $20,000 (before taxes) – that is, if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. As young students we are finding ourselves caught in the double bind of over- and under- qualified – a bind which leaves us trapped in cycles of mounting debt that does not assure us of a good job but instead keeps us locked in poverty as we try to pay off our student loans while working part-time, non-union jobs in retail and food service. Food-service positions are no longer “transient jobs” or a step on the ladder up to something better. We are living through the midst of an economic crisis that, for the first time in decades, has an entire generation hitting their heads on the glass ceiling of class mobility.

There is very little to add to this, I think, except to repeat that: behind and alongside the issue of financial debt is the question of service work and the infrastructures of care, solidarity and, not least, the generation of forms of life that are also debts, though they are debts of another kind. Without grasping these connections between debt and the struggles in the service industry, it seems to me that we are fated to play out the dynamics of competition and austerity without ever going beyond them.

December 5, FastFoodStrike in the US. Since the mid-20th C, the welfare system has increasingly subsidized the profits of employers who pay below-subsistence wages.
December 5, FastFoodStrike in the US. Since the mid-20th C, the welfare system has increasingly subsidized the profits of employers who pay below-subsistence wages.

One thought on “Debt servitude, service work, oikos”

  1. Thank you, Angela, for this post and your entire work on the speculative nature of things.

    RootsAction along with some others are launching a campaign in the US to have all student debts cancelled. Something in the 3rd paragraph from the the Nation Magazine’s email message for the campaign scratches the ear, however:

    “We know that we’re thinking big here, but the issue is dire and it affects all of us. Students burdened by debt struggle to make large purchases like homes or cars, dragging down the economy. And debt makes it virtually impossible for many students to pursue indispensable careers that offer only modest paychecks, such as teaching.”

    This is the foremost argument. The state of fees in the 70s and how it has been marked up 1000 percent since, come up as supplementary arguments. Feasible lives matter! Or, political action must be feasible in order to matter.


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