Re: Commodities and Services

Michael Williams (Michael@MWILLIAM.U-NET.COM)
Sat, 17 Jan 1998 21:16:16 +0000

[I have changed the subject line, because 'Response to Williams' is
not a very revealing thread name ...}

I had written

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

To which Juriaan replied
> To the contrary. I said the long-run tendency of capitalism 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 had obviously not made myself clear. I was questioning the position
that services *in themselves* are not commodities. I have no quarrel
with Juriaan's identification of an historical tendency for services
to be transformed into, or substituted by, a physical commodity. But
the far more fundamental tendency is for (personal) services to be
sucked out of the domestic sphere and commodified (and this whether
or not they are then embodied in a physical product). Clothes washing
is commodified (albeit to different degrees) whether by being done at
home with a washing machine, in the launderette (with a petty
capitalist's washing machine) or at a laundry.

In a recent post, Alan Freeman cited a passage from TSV where Marx
offers a critique of Smith's focus on a physical product as a
specificum differentiam of 'productive' labour, arguing that services
could be commodities

> I am
> suggesting buying a ticket to an opera by Verdi or a rock concert by the
> Stones is not buying a commodity,

Why not?

> 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.

Maybe, maybe not - there is presumably some kind of empirical answer
to this question.

> 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).

Depending on the direct relations of production, I would argue that
hairdressing as a service *is* a commodity.

>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 may place in that
>case, but not a real subsumption.

I'm afraid I don't think I grasp what you are getting at here

Later, I had written:

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

To which Juriaan responded:
>What exactly is the commodity you buy, and which the hairdresser
>produces, when you pay a hairdresser to cut your hair ?

The service of hairdressing is the commodity - the productive labour
that performed it is embodied in my new hairstyle, along with the
labour transferred from the buildings, plant and machinery during the
labour process of styling my hair.

Juriaan again:
> You argue that the commodity is the "coiffed head" which you yourself wear
> with pride. But didn't you own your head already ?

Yes - but uncoiffed.

> 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.

This example was intended to dramatize the fact that hairdressing
wage-labour's product (which is a service, not a physical object) is
as alienated as the steel worker's. The hairdressing capitalist owns
the labour-power of the hairdressing wage-labourer, and so also the
service that it performs - as I would no doubt find out if I tried to
scarper without paying for my haircut.

>I am suggesting that the idea that the hairdresser produces a
>commodity is a type of "commodity fetishism",

Quite - but commodity fetishism is a ubiquitous aspect of capitalist
commodity production, not confined to those commodities that are

> I wouldn't deny that hairdressing labour may be alienated labour, but I
> would say that is a result of the social relations of production under
> which the labour is performed, rather than blame it on the client.

My argument doesn't involve 'blaming' anyone, let alone the client.

>The same sort of argument can be made for schools, hospitals,
>repair services and the like.

And I would make it - based only on the social relations of
production of these different services.

> Of course you could argue that if a surgeon inserts
> a plastic hipbone into your body, or a dentist fills your teeth 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, fetishized way of looking at activities.

Exactly - and capitalist commodity production is 'a topsy-turvy,
fetishized way' of allocating social resources to the production of
useful goods and services.

>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.

Modern management, tacitly at least, knows a thing or two about
capitalist commodity production. But this is not the basis of my
argument that a service produced under capitalist relations of
production is *thereby* a commodity. On the contrary - the difficulty
of specifying, quantifying and valuing some kinds of service
outputs provides an obstacle to them becoming commodities - hence
state support for health, education and welfare services. And the
struggle to (re)-commodify these services does not typically take the
form of trying to substitute a physical output for a service.

>Nor do I propose to infer from the difficulty there is these days
>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, and that the
>generalisation of a "service economy" presupposes there are buyers
>for the services, which remains to be seen. A national economy may
>perhaps "collapse" for a while, for instance because of a totally
>debased currency, but capitalism is unlikely "collapse". It is,
>rather, "overthrown".

I don't disagree with any of this - my reference to 'collapse' was
ironic hyperbole to dramatize the point. But, unlike many 'labourist'
social democrats I do not see the shift to services per se as
contributing to *any* 'crisis' tendency. If there are no customers
for services, I am sure those services will soon cease to be
produced. You may be conflating a structural shift to services (in my
view entirely unproblematical for capitalism) with the tendential
crisis that could arise from ever-increasing productivity, for
capitalist tendential distribution *between workers* on the basis of
'to each in proportion to their contribution to production of
successful commodities'

Comradely greetings.
"Books are Weapons"
Dr Michael Williams
Department of Economics Home:
Faculty of Humnities and Social Sciences 26 Glenwood Avenue
De Montfort University Southampton
Milton Keynes SO16 3QA
tel:+1908 834876 tel/fax: +1703 768641
fax:+1908 834979