Turning the people against the workers: reflections on democracy versus socialism and the service industry

Michael Heinrich’s introduction to Capital offhandedly deals with a point popular among leftist academics:

“The difference between services and physical objects consists of a distinction of the material content; the question as to whether they are commodities pertains to their social form, and that depends upon whether objects and services are exchanged. And with that, we have sorted out the matter of the frequently stated argument that with the “transition from an industrial to a service economy” or in the left-wing variant of Hardt and Negri – the transition from “material” to “immaterial” production – Marx’s value theory has become outmoded.”

There is something interesting here going on, though perhaps not in the way Heinrich nor Hardt or Negri think. The relative increase in the amount of workers working service-type jobs – an increase most prominent in “deindustrialised” countries like the United Kingdom or United States – does not fundamentally change anything to do with how commodities are produced, how value is given by workers’ labour-power, or how this labour-power is exploited by capitalists. As such, nothing fundamental needs to change with regards to basic revolutionary socialism – the liberation of the working class will be the work of the working-class itself, as it always has been.

However, the increase in the service industry has practical effects on the way the consciousness of the working-class develops. Strikingly, the practical effects are similar to the practical effects of liberal-democracy, in a way that requires some recourse to Proudhon in order to explain fully.

In 1899, the German anarchist Max Nettlau published a brief pamphlet entitled “Responsibility and Solidarity in the Labor Struggle”. In it, he describes how the anarchist movement – then deeply engaged in the workers movement – would struggle to truly spread among the general population, unless it dealt with two major “heretical” points.

The first is that “the public”, manifested as consumers, are too rarely drawn into labour struggles; this is particularly the case with poorer consumers, who struggle to cope with the price and income fluctuations that strikes can bring. As such, they may be unsympathetic to the strikers, contributing to defeats by placing pressure on them to head back to work. By organising among the citizenry generally, militant workers have the potential to undermine a force that could serve reaction.

The second is that workers themselves should take responsibility for what they produce and what they do. Shitty accommodation, unhealthy food, low-quality clothes, and so on are all made by workers. Workers acting on the orders of capitalists, true, but workers nonetheless; Nettlau’s intention is to press home the point that a properly anarchic consciousness among workers needs to recognise that they are not mere eternal victims, but a people with the ability to resist, and to change what they do.

Nettlau’s points are not as heretical as he suggested they were, and it’s likely that some of the framing has to do with the then-pertinent dispute over syndicalism and “workerism” in anarchist circles. Workers’ struggles in the 20th and 21st centuries have answered Nettlau’s calls, if they were not already being answered in his time. Mobilisation of those not directly involved in strikes like the unemployed, housewives, children, consumers, and so on have been a feature of many successful struggles. In addition, some of the most advanced working class struggles have involved a collective understanding of what it is they have produced, which necessarily developed alongside a general confidence to resist the boss. 

The Green Ban fights of the Builders’ Labourers Federation in New South Wales are an example: workers with a collective recognition of their own power, honed by years of combative strikes for pay and conditions, had the confidence to refuse to demolish buildings that were historically or environmentally important. They were also able to work with general “concerned citizens”, who had a vested interest in preserving their heritage and protecting the environment. In the end, the assistance they received from these people was vital for their victories.

In the time since Nettlau wrote his article, the increase in service labour has led to a practical reversal of his premises. Nettlau was concerned with the way workers could – often unconsciously – harm the general population; this harm had the effect of both limiting the success of workers struggles and preventing anarchism from spreading. 

Instead, what we have now in the service industry is a situation where it is the general population who act against the workers. The increasing amount of service workers means an increasing amount of workers who are not merely subject to the whims of bosses, managers, foremen and so on, but are also subject to the whims of random consumers. Indeed, frequently, their entire work is predicated on pleasing these people. This changes the character of the struggle, and it should be considered as one of the compositional barriers that inhibits struggle in this sector – along with things like small, divided workplaces, temporary contracts, and so on. We need to be conscious of this barrier in order to overcome it practically.

In comes Proudhon: his most important contribution to social science and the workers’ movement generally is an elaboration of the alienation between the individual and the collective brought about by the modern regime of labour and the government instituted to defend it. This figures most prominently in his introduction of “collective force”: his name for the social force created by humans interacting with each other, that goes above and beyond the simple sum of its parts. I have mentioned this in an earlier article for this Bulletin, but it bears restating.

It first figures in What is Property? as an attack on the bourgeois understanding of capitalism – that it’s simply a fair exchange between an employer and employee, where the worker agrees to labour for the boss in exchange for a wage. Even supposing that this were an accurate description of capitalism – Proudhon denies that it is for many reasons, not least of all because bosses don’t pay workers to remunerate them, but only to cover the cost of their reproduction – the wage only deals with individual labour:

“A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had laboured for a million centuries.”

In another example, he talks about how two hundred men can put an obelisk on its base in two hours, but that one man could not do the same think in a hundred hours. Even if the individual debt to the worker is paid by the capitalist, there is still the collective debt that remains unpaid. In some sense, this debt is what Marx would define as surplus-value; it is the product of the workers’ exploitation. The fact of the exploitation of collective force remains obscured until the workers begin to associate with each other against the capitalists, beginning the process of untangling the distorted way they relate to each other.

Proudhon extends the analysis of collective force as manifested in the labour-process to society generally, expanding it to offer an understanding of political alienation. In the words of Pierre Ansart, for Proudhon, “political alienation is less an effect of economic alienation, than it is another aspect of global society alienated in all its forms”. 

The state does not constitute itself based on its own powers; it possesses none. In a sense, Proudhon paraphrases Hume, in his essay The First Principles of Government:

Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.

Even the soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats of a government are only there out of some kind of choice, regardless of how perverse. The state constitutes itself by monopolising existing social forces and rendering them external to society as a whole – the actual origin point of these forces. Such a state of affairs persists regardless of the specific form of government. In monarchies, the symbol of power is the king or queen, legitimised by religion; in democratic republics, the symbol of power is the president or prime minister, legitimised by the democratic vote of the citizenry. In all cases, however, power is faceless and nameless, exerting its will in defence of the disordered society, for the continuing exploitation and alienation of the working-class.

In fact, democracy as a mode of government contains disadvantages unique to it. Far from democracy being either the antithesis of capitalism or a counterweight against it, democracy in some ways represents the most advanced development of bourgeois society. Not only does it mean a society that is able to defuse working-class movements by funnelling them into parliaments, it also means the pinnacle of alienation. The state, the defender of privilege, is said to gain its power from the people it works against. In a dictatorship, the source of power resides in a clear figure, like a monarch, dictator or political party, but in democracy, the source of power is “the people” – and what are the people supposed to do to revolt against this system? Should the people fight the people?

What I want to say, is that in democracy “the people” becomes an enemy of the working-class movement. Though all power rests squarely in the hands of the managers of the state, acting on behalf of capital, the veneer of popular participation suggests the conclusion that the misery of the state is in some sense the fault of the people themselves. There is an alienation here – people produce society, then this collective force is monopolised by the state and projected back in a hollow form to the producers themselves.


A similar form of brutal alienation takes place in the service-industry. In their place of work, service-workers do not relate to the people they encounter simply as other human beings, or as fellow workers. They relate to them as consumers, or as people they are bound by their bosses to service. Whereas service workers would once be at the beck and call of the rich, whom it is easy to ignore and despise, nowadays they can be at the beck and call of workers generally. Anyone who works in hospitality, retail or sex-work – among many other industries – can tell you all about the rancid customers they have had to deal with, who expect the worker to be like their pet servant.

Companies manage the presentation of their labourers to consumers very deliberately. This is not only through direct means like implementing uniforms, or training staff to respond to consumers in a certain way, but through the presentation and sale of the products or services themselves. A packet of biscuits branded as home-style and made by a small, traditional business gives the consumer the impression of a certain kind of labour that is involved in the product’s production – a certain kind of labour-process is implied. Similarly, marketers of microwavable ready-meals quite consciously seek to give the image of a sweatless labour process, one that mainly consists of machines. In both cases, the reality – overworked, underpaid labourers standing up and doing menial tasks over and over for hours on end – is obscured.

How is all this overcome? Though we can’t overstate their importance, we can see limited breakdowns when consumer-side actions like boycotts are instituted during strikes, as a means of building solidarity with workers. More generally, the drastic increase in the number of people who have experience working in the service sector has led to pervasive sympathy with workers against customers in general popular culture. Perhaps this could lead to something more…

Just like the development of the citizen as the political figure is a practical means of integrating workers into the state, the development of the consumer as a commercial figure is a practical means of blocking working-class struggle, by presenting the working-class to itself as an enemy. However, just like Émile Pouget pointed out that the development of the combative workers’ movement meant  that “from now on, the producer looms before the existing society which recognises only the citizen”, the development of that same workers’ movement leads to the disintegration of the division between consumer and service-worker.

Already, the seeds of a new, human society – where people produce and distribute things freely – are in existence; it’s up to us to make sure they grow.