Re: Response to Williams

jurriaan bendien (
Sat, 17 Jan 1998 18:53:07 +0100

Michael Williams writes:

Juriaan (and others) have
> categorically asserted, without being queried, that 'services' cannot
> be commodified.

I said the historic tendency of capitalism, despite countertendencies, is
to convert, or more often displace, services into "vendible commodities".
I'm arguing that a service is not a commodity but the useful effect of a
use-value, the production and consumption of which coincide. I am
suggesting buying a ticket to an opera by Verdi or a rock concert by the
Stones is not buying a commodity, but buying a CD featuring the Opera by
Verdi or "Bridges to Babylon" is a commodity, and that from the capitalist
point of view there is more money overall in producing Verdi CD's and
Stones records than in live performances, although live performances will
(thankfully) continue.
In practice of course it is not really feasible to turn many services into
commodities, given the intrinsic nature of the activity and the specific
need it happens to
Hairdressing is a case in point. (You can buy hairdressing kits these days
to do your own hair, but most people in civil society seem to continue to
prefer the service of a hairdresser).
Likewise certain forms of information are difficult to commodify, because
e.g. the private ownership of it is intrinsically difficult to assure. A
"formal" subordination by capital of the production may place in that case,
but not a real

Michael writes:

>When I buy a coiffed head (ie get my hair cut, styled, whatever)...

What exactly is the commodity you buy, and which the hairdresser produces,
when you pay a hairdresser to cut your hair ? That is what I want to know.
You argue that the commodity is the "coiffed head" which you yourself wear
with pride. I am saying you have already assumed this to be the commodity
that you are buying, but that in reality no transfer of ownership occurs. I
wouldn't deny that hairdressing labour may be alienated labour, but for
this is is not necessary that the labour produces a commodity. The same
sort of argument can be made for schools, hospitals, repair services and
the like.
Of course you could argue that if a surgeon inserts
a plastic hipbone into your body, or a dentist fills your tooth with a gold
filling, they are "producing a commodity" (an object with a use-value and
an exchange-value), or that schools produce "human capital", but to me
seems a topsy-turvy way of looking at the activities.
Modern management, obsessed with specifying "outcomes", often calls a
service a "product" but I don't think Marxists ought to infer from that,
that a commodity is being produced.
Nor do I propose to infer from the difficulty there is at present of
achieving the real subsumption by capital of an increasing mass of
available labour-power, that capitalism will collapse as a result. I am
only suggesting it is part of the historic crisis of the system, the crisis
of capitalist social relations. I am very skeptical about theories
suggesting that capitalism will collapse of its own accord.