Automation Will Create More Jobs, But Most Will Be Shit

See Novara for the original.

In 2013, the academics Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne predicted that up to 47% of American jobs were at high risk of automation over the next two decades. Their paper provoked automation hysteria, reflected in pronouncements of the “second machine age”, “fourth industrial revolution” and “industry 4.0”. Seven years on, the reality appears far less dramatic.

Predictions of mass job losses as a result of automation have, it transpires, greatly overstated the job-destructive impact of new technologies, and understated their ability to augment existing jobs and create new ones. 

Critics of the so-called “automation discourse” point to the stagnant productivity and lowered labour demand. However, not only does slowing productivity and growth alone fail to explain low labour demand; they tell us virtually nothing about the actual qualitative effects of automation on work and society. Up until the coronavirus pandemic, there had not been an overall fall in labour demand. Despite the fallout from the global financial crisis, from 2010 and 2015 total employment among member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) grew by 4.9% or roughly 27 million jobs. Canada, Mexico and the United States added 12.9 million jobs; the European Union, 3.6 million. While increases in labour demand have slowed in the EU, they have risen significantly in non-EU economies.

Nor should we be surprised by the sluggishness of productivity, increases in which generally require the diffusion of new technologies, which takes time; computers took nearly 25 years to reach their plateau of 5% of non-residential equipment capital. Recent OECD analysis shows that the pace of digital transformation varies hugely between countries and sectors: firms in the real estate, hospitality and construction industries are investing in software and other information and communication technologies (ICT) much less intensively than advertising, finance and law, for example. Just as diffusion varies across sectors, there are significant differences in digitalisation among firms of different sizes. On average, large firms are more digitally intensive than their small and medium-sized counterparts, even in the same sector. For example, 28% of large firms utilise big data analysis, while only 16% of medium-sized and 9% of small firms do so. The divergence in the uptake in digital technologies corresponds to a divergence in productivity between leading and lagging firms.

If we are not facing a jobs apocalypse from overproduction or automation, what impact is technological change actually having on work? Much the same as it has always had. While computers have automated tasks since the 1950s, very few of the 271 occupations listed in the 1950 US census no longer existed in 2010 (though some were grouped differently). Labour demand in some occupations declined due to both technological obsolescence (telegraph operators to typewriter servicers) and full automation (elevator operators); yet very few occupations were destroyed. What this shows is that automation tends to be partial, changing the task composition of most jobs rather than eliminating them entirely. 

The management consultancy research that has dominated “automation discourse” tend to portray this in a positive light, assuming that routine, low-skilled tasks will be replaced by high-skilled, high-quality jobs. However, the idea that technological change favours high-skilled labour obscures a more complex relationship between technology and skill. While AI- and data-driven digital automation in advanced capitalist countries have generally created more higher-skilled and higher-income professional jobs, they have also created more in-person service jobs that require lower levels of education and training. Meanwhile, routine, rule-based, middle-income work has been automated leading to job polarisation, hollowing out the demand for middle-skilled jobs. Evangelists of the “fourth industrial revolution” tend to ignore the negative effects technological change can have on workers, particularly those at the bottom of the pile.

The transformational impact of automation on jobs has more to do with changes to the task composition of jobs and the quality of work. Most jobs are comprised of a variety of tasks with varying degrees of susceptibility to automation. Many include a significant component of non-automatable tasks; for example, while AI can outperform humans at large-scale image analysis, these technologies often fail miserably at tasks that require common sense or emotional intelligence. 

An automation discourse that focuses on a workless future is a red herring. In the long term, the crisis isn’t one job destruction – it’s job transformation, and of a kind that is detrimental to (particularly low-income) workers. It’s the incentivisation of cost-cutting approaches to labour, including deskilling, surveillance and intensification, all of which result in lower worker discretion and poorer quality of work. Low-income and lower-skilled workers will bear the brunt of such changes as they are at the highest risk of automation displacement. If they lose their jobs, they will unlikely be able to retrain, and so will move into other similarly routine jobs, which they will lose again.

The pandemic will likely only accelerate these trends. Managers have been forced to adopt platform technologies and remote working they have historically resisted. As a result, the pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of all sectors, opening up an unprecedented threat to workers from datafication, digital automation and surveillance technologies. At the same time, the labour market has been decimated both in the US and EU, with real unemployment rates nearly double the official statistics. The full effects of such technological changes will reflect how power is distributed in society and thus depend as much on the increasing sophistication of automation as on the actions of workers or policymakers. In this context, it is all the more imperative to end the proliferation of low-waged work, increase social protections, invest in social infrastructures and fight for collective ownership of the means of production, platforms and all.

Autonomy and Automation: Work in the 21st Century (Zed series)

ZED1Last year I was contacted by Kim Walker at Zed books to put together a book series in collaboration with Autonomy. I’m pleased to say that our first book  by Mark Bergfeld is nearing completion now and we have 4 more on the way.  We hope to build this momentum throughout 2020. With that in mind, the open call for proposals is below:

The labour market has been hollowed out and the future of work lies in the shadow of political crises. Many have argued that this growing social polarisation is driven by technological change. However, research has not kept up with the speed at which these changes are occurring. Social protections for workers are being eroded across the globe and technology is arguably catalysing this trend. Historically, the loss of employment in one industry has been more than offset by the expansion of employment in other industries. Yet, this employment tends to emerge under different social conditions. Research has often neglected how new technologies have catalysed exploitation, rather than helped workers overcome it.

This new series in collaboration with Zed aims to explore the rapidly changing nature of existing jobs as well as the variety of emergent occupations in new sectors. It takes technological change neither as an inherently liberatory force nor as an inherently constraining force, but rather as a function of social relations. Topics could include anything from sociological analysis of particular technical changes in industry such as the introduction of platforms and AI, to detailed ethnographies of particular experiences of workers themselves such as those of migrant carers, delivery drivers or freelance coders.

Proposals: We solicit academics and non-academics to write punchy, trade-oriented, 30-40,000 word books on the above themes. Proposals should have the weight and rigour of academic thought, yet be accessible to a general audience.

If you are interested in submitting a proposal for the series, please contact for further information.

Series editors:

Matt Cole – Post-Doctoral Fellow in Work and Employment, University of Leeds

Kendra Briken – Chancellor’s Fellow in Work and Employment, Strathclyde University

Will Stronge – Co-director of Autonomy

An update

I thought I should update the internet on my work.

I’m currently working on two journal articles – one related to labour process theory and another related to wage theft in the hospitality industry.

I’m also working on some blogs and research on AI for Autonomy (a think tank on work and its futures).

My current research is looks at the tensions between human and machine intelligence in interactive  service work, focusing on platforms specifically.

There is also a book series in the works, which has not been announced yet.

Conference Season is approaching, which means I’ll be presenting at SASE in New York, BUIRA in Newcastle, and IIPPE in Lille.

On Exploitation

I’m very happy to have my first book contribution published in the Bloomsbury Companion to Marx.

The entry introduces the Marxist conception of exploitation and summarises some key debates over the last century. I highly recommend ordering a copy for your university library or for personal reference. The text is below.


Matt Cole


The concept of exploitation has a rich history in Marxist as well as non-Marxist political, economic and social theory. These multiple, and sometimes conflicting definitions, often rely on different assumptions concerning power, labor and economics generally. Etymologically, the modern term for exploitation1 emerged in the early-nineteenth century and referred to the ‘productive working’ of something. Generally, the word had a positive connotation among those who first used it; however, it later developed negative connotations during the 1830s to 1850s due to the influence of French socialists like Saint Simon and Charles Fourier. Marx was likely influenced by this negative conception of exploitation when he began his study of classical political economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill, etc.) while he lived in Paris from 1843 to 1845. Like Marx, I will focus primarily on the economic dimensions of exploitation because these form what he understood as the material foundation for social relations. The following will explain Marx’s conception of exploitation; contextualize its development within both historical debates and the development of Capital itself; and conclude with the political implications of the concept. The final point is the most important; as without a proper understanding of exploitation, there is no possibility of truly overcoming it.

To understand Marx’s concept of exploitation, it is first necessary to understand his conception of the development of the capitalist mode of production. A mode a production is made up of forces and relations of production, which codetermine one another. Forces of production are the range of possible means, determined by knowledge, science and technology. Relations of production are determined by the prevailing patterns of property or class relations. The classical Marxian periodization of modes of production and exploitation of labor follows the pattern: slave, feudal, and then capitalist (see Banaji 2010). The slave mode of production relies on private property in people and non-labor means of production; the feudal mode of production relies on private property in land and non-labor means of production; and the capitalist mode of production relies on private property in non-labor means of production and land. In pre-capitalist modes of production, exploitation was directly mediated through the appropriation of the immediate surplus product, and labor was formally coerced. In the capitalist mode of production, by contrast, exploitation is abstracted through economic relations and labor is, formally, free, which is to say that workers can sell their labor as they see fit.


Over the course of the three volumes of Capital, Marx develops two aspects of exploitation: ‘primary exploitation’, which takes place in the production process itself and ‘secondary exploitation’, which takes places outside of the production process and requires the capitalist’s mastery and advantage, based on property ownership. The former can be productive of surplus value, which is translated into profits through the market and competition. The latter is essentially an antediluvian form of accumulation and operates through appropriation of the former’s surplus or ‘profit upon alienation’. Understanding the relation between these two types of exploitation is essential in order to grasp Marx’s critique of political economy.


<H1>Primary Exploitation</H1>



Primary exploitation is the human and social process of ‘exploitation of the workman’ by the capitalist, which relies on a classed monopoly of power over the means of industrial production. It relies on the extraction of surplus value. Value is the representation of abstract homogenized labor, which emerges in the process of exchange and is measured by money. The rate of surplus value extracted in the labor process is ‘an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labor-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist’ (Marx 1990: 326). However, this does not mean that rate of surplus value is an expression for ‘absolute magnitude’ of exploitation, because not all exploited labor produces surplus value.

For Marx, some labor is productive of value, while some is non-productive. In most Marxian economics, the distinction between productive and non-productive labor is central (see Foley 1986; Shaikh and Tonak 1994; Mohun 1996). Activities such as trade, financial services and advertising are not socially productive of value, yet firms who carry out these activities nonetheless exploit workers. The rate of primary exploitation for both productive and nonproductive workers is the ratio of necessary labor time (the average annual consumption per worker in the sector) to surplus labor time (the excess of working time over necessary labor time). It important to note that, for Marx, capitalists cannot be exploited. The work of the capitalist appears as a labor process in its own right, however it is the labor of exploitation rather than exploited labor. The wages of managers, just as the incomes of capitalists are, as Marx notes in Capital Vol. 3, ‘precisely the quantity of others’ labor that is appropriated, and depends directly upon the rate of exploitation of this labor’ (Marx 1992: 511).

Secondary Exploitation

At the most abstract level, aggregate profit is essentially the monetary expression of aggregate surplus value; however, companies can also generate profit through purely redistributive techniques, taking advantage of the dynamics of circulation between social spheres. These profits come from what Marx terms secondary exploitation, or profit upon alienation. Secondary exploitation is mediated through financial and property relations that ensure the collection of interest payments, rents or profits through unequal exchange (merchant’s capital). This aspect of exploitation extracts and redistributes a portion of the total surplus value of society. The existence of secondary exploitation allows for two things: first, it explains how capitalism can profit from non-capitalist spheres without the creation of new value; and, second, it allows Marxian economics to account for the difference between the sum of profits and the sum of surplus values that emerges as values are transformed into prices (see Shaikh and Tonak 1994).

Marx defines secondary exploitation in volume three of Capital as an essentially archaic form of accumulation. This dynamic persists in those branches of industry that have not transitioned to the modern mode of production. In this mode of exploitation, money and means of production, such as tools, software, appliances, machinery, cars and business premises, are loaned in kind. These represent a specific sum of money and the borrower must not only pay interest, but also the price for wear and tear which arises from the use-value of the items. Usury, trade and finance, exploit a given mode of production without reproducing it and thus relate to the mode of production from the outside. Usurer’s capital, for example, ‘has capital’s mode of exploitation without its mode of production’ (Marx 1992: 732). The primary distinction that should be made in terms of the form of accumulation is whether these means of production are loaned to immediate producers, which presupposes a non-capitalist mode of production, or whether they are loaned to industrial capitalists, which presupposes a capitalist mode of production. Both are forms of secondary exploitation.


Defining the precise role of exploitation in production and capitalism has been the source of considerable debate in the history of economics and political economy. From the late-ninetieth to late-twentieth century, the debates were largely between two distinct paradigms: the Marxist and the neo-classicalist (influenced by the Austrian and Lausanne Schools). Marxist thinkers asserted the centrality of value and exploitation in capitalism as a mode of production. They viewed the labor processes of capitalism, from the satanic mills to the penthouses of haute finance, as a totalizing system. Neo-classicalist thinkers, by contrast, typically denied the existence of exploitation, largely through omission of the labor process as a social phenomenon. They tended to flatten social phenomena to fit mathematical models and relied on the anomalous assumptions of Walrasian marginal equilibrium conditions, such that all market exchanges are perfectly competitive, yet reciprocal and voluntary. In sum, Marxists denied the possibility of capitalism persisting without exploitation, while neo-classicalists deny the possibility of a persistently exploitative system

During the early1980s the stark divisions between Marxist and Neoclassicalist approaches to economics and exploitation began to soften as Marxists were influenced by neo-Ricardian and Sraffian economics. Two overlapping tendencies of Marx-inspired thought emerged, which were called the neo-Ricardian Marxists and the analytical Marxists, respectively. Both tendencies shared a rejection of Marx’s labor theory of value as a foundation for the Marxian theory of exploitation. Neo-Ricardian Marxists were theoretically indebted to Cambridge economists Maurice Dobb, Piero Sraffa, and Joan Robinson, among others. Sraffa shared Ricardo’s so-called ‘corn theory of value’ or the idea that one can measure the rate of profit as a share of any particular commodity. Ian Steedman used the Sraffian approach to argue that a neo-Ricardian framework is a superior system and method compared to Marx’s when analyzing a range of issues involving prices and production under capitalism. Steedman and other neo-Ricardians claimed that, since magnitudes in terms of values tend to differ from those in terms of price, Marx’s labor theory of value must be abandoned (Steedman 1977: 205–07). This position influenced other analytical Marxists (see Roemer 1982), but also elicited strong criticisms from those who retained value-informed approach (see Himmelweit and Mohun 1981; Shaikh 1981). The latter’s main criticisms were that they conceptually flattened all labor process relations into money relations. The ideological roots of the series of concepts that neo-Ricardians relied on – equilibrium, profit as cost, and perfect competition – limited their analytical capacity to understand exploitation. Marxists claimed that Steedman and the neo-Ricardians could not accommodate social dimensions of the labor process or the relative autonomy of value and prices relations.

The analytical Marxists (or ‘rational choice’ Marxists), included scholars such as John Roemer, John Elster and G.A. Cohen. Roemer in particular argued that Marxian economics, particularly the notion of exploitation, should be able to be derived from Walrasian axioms of market equilibrium, perfect competition, full employment, etc., and should use neoclassical methodological assumptions such as the rational individual and normative preferences. This was intended to make Marx more palpable to the mainstream. This ‘simpler Marxian Argument’ claimed that, because labor is the singular human element in production that generates the commodity, and because people who own means of production and do not labor in production control some of the revenues from the sale of the commodity, people who labor are exploited by those who do not (Cohen 1979). This led them to conclude ‘the relationship between the labor theory of value and the concept of exploitation is one of mutual irrelevance’ (Cohen 1979: 338; see also Steedman 1981). Marxian political economists responded with wide-ranging criticisms of the analytical approach. For example, they argued that Roemer’s approach fails as a result of ignoring the distinction between labor and labor power (Lebowitz, 1988); that the logic of a non-dialectical approach necessarily fails to grasp Marx’s theory of exploitation (Smith 1989); that Roemer’s analysis must be rejected because it cannot account for the emergence of class consciousness (Anderson and Thompson 1988); and that it’s reliance on Walrasian foundations is idealistic and ahistorical (Dymski and Elliot 1989).


The main criticisms of Marx by neoclassical economists were primarily influenced by Böhm-Bawerk’s Karl Marx and the Close of His System (1896). Böhm-Bawerk claims Marx’s fundamental error is that the labor theory of value set out in Capital Vol. I contradicts the theory of the rate of profit and prices of production set out in volume three. Most subsequent critiques of Marx have made similar arguments. For example, Joan Robinson in An Essay on Marxian Economics, argued that there was a contradiction between Marx’s assumptions in volume one, namely that a rising labor productivity leads to a rising rate of exploitation, and those assumptions in volume three, i.e. if the rate of exploitation remains stable, rising labor productivity could lead to a rising rate of real wages and a declining rate of profit. However, a careful analysis shows that these critiques stem from the failure to recognize the fact that Capital, volumes one and volume three, are at different levels of abstraction, make different assumptions and address different questions (see Hilferding 1949; Kay 1979; Mandel 1990).

Marx does not begin Capital volume one with a ‘labor theory of value’ prior to market relations, but, rather, with an analysis of the commodity. Marx suspends all other differences in terms of production conditions, competition, interest, prices etc. in order to examine concrete heterogeneous labor in the production of commodified ‘useful’ things. He does this to make the commodification of labor power (the capacity to labor) explicit. In volume one, only the ‘law of value’ matters. Marx restricts his analysis based on the assumption that the total profit available for capitalists is purely limited to the amount of surplus value appropriated from workers, and that the average rate of profit for the entire economy is simply the ratio of total surplus value to total value. This serves to make exploitation in the labor process transparent, and designate it as the specifically capitalist type of exploitation. Unlike exploitation under feudalism, where exploitation is transparent, personal and direct, specifically capitalist (primary) exploitation is indirect and socially mediated through commodity relations in the market.

Whether an individual exploits or is exploited depends on the nature and price of the commodified object and the actual activity performed by that person. In volume one, capitalists are deemed to exploit workers collectively through the impersonal domination of the market, yet Marx’s analysis is limited to the fact that capitalists are only able to accumulate as much surplus as they are individually able to extract from their workers. Throughout volumes two and three, Marx progressively removes the assumptions of the first volume, so that industrial capitalists no longer must trade and distribute on their own behalf, rely on their own financial means, or use their own land. Trading can be undertaken by commercial capitalists and banking by money or finance capitalists, allowing a variety of types of assets to be incorporated into commodity relations. Capitalists’ capacity to accumulate is no longer restrained by their assets. This effectively transforms the means of production into the property of the capitalist class as a whole. Property-based class relations are thusly generalized to the entire social system. Marx also introduces additional variables such as cost price, fixed capital and circulating capital that effect the rate of surplus value and the rate of profit.  As a consequence of Marx’s increasingly complex analysis, the dynamics of price and profit end up obscuring the primary exploitation of surplus value. However, these different levels of abstraction are necessary because, as Marx notes, if he simply started from the calculation of the rate of profit, he would have never been able to ‘establish any specific relationship between the excess and the part of capital laid out on wages’ (1992: 138).


The political implications of using Marx’s concept of exploitation cannot be understated. Exploitation is the basis for the production of surplus value, which forms a link between labor process relations in production and money relations in the market. Labor process relations, which correspond to concrete labor and the organization of production, manifest themselves in the struggle over intensity, time and interpersonal dynamics. The politics of the labor process are what Elson calls a ‘politics of production’, which concentrates on ‘trying to improve conditions of production; shorten the working day, organize worker resistance on the shop-floor; build up workers’ co-operatives, produce an alternative plan …’ such as co-operatives and socialist organization (1979, p. 172). Money relations, which can be defined as those relations directly mediated by the universal equivalent (money), correspond to abstract labor and become manifest in the struggle over the payment or non-payment of wages. The politics of money relations are what Elson calls a ‘politics of circulation’, which concentrate on changing distribution in a way that is advantageous to workers. For example, raising money wages, controlling money prices, regulating the financial system, establishing a welfare state and so on. Marx’s theory of exploitation offers a framework that unifies labor process and money relations and, in doing so, contains within it a politics that aims to move beyond capitalism. As Ernest Mandel pointed out: ‘The growth of the proletariat, of its exploitation and of organized revolt against that exploitation, are the main levers for the overthrow of capitalism’ (1990: 83).


1 The root word ‘exploit’ comes from the late-fourteenth century French espleiten or esploiten, ‘to accomplish, achieve, fulfill’, from Old French esploitier, espleiter, ‘to carry out, perform, accomplish’ (Harper 2017).




Anderson, W.H.L. and Thompson, F.W. (1988), ‘Neoclassical Marxism.’ Science & Society 52: 191–214.

Banaji, J. (2010), Theory as History. London: Brill.

Böhm-Bawerk, E. von. (1984), Karl Marx and the Close of His System, Philadelphia: Orion Editions.

Cohen, G.A. (1979), ‘The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 8: 338–60.

Dymski, G.A. and Elliot, J.E. (1989) Roemer vs. Marx: Should “Anyone” Be Interested in Exploitation?, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15: 333.

Elson, D. (1979), Value: the Representation of Labor in Capitalism, London: CSE Books.

Foley, D.K. (1986), Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harper, D. (2017), ‘Exploit’ Online Etymology Dictionary.

Hilferding, R. (1949), ‘Böhm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx, in: Sweezy, P. (Ed.), Karl Marx and the Close of His System and Böhm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx, 121–96, New York: August M. Kelley.

Himmelweit, S. and Mohun, S. (1981), Real Abstractions and Anomalous Assumptions, in Steedman, I. (ed.), The Value Controversy, 224–265, London: New Left Books.

Kay, G. (1979), ‘Why Labour is the Starting Point of Capital’, in Elson, D. (ed.), Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism, 46–6, CSE Books, London: CSE Books.

Lebowitz, M. (1988), ‘Is “Analytical Marxism” Marxism?’ Science and Society 52: 215–28.

Mandel, E. (1990), ‘Karl Marx’, in: Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, 11–86, Harmondsworth: Penguin in association with New Left Books.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital, Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy, Harmondsworth: Penguin in association with New Left Review,

Marx, K. (1992). Capital, Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production, Harmondsworth: Penguin in association with New Left Review.

Mohun, S. (1996) ‘Productive and Unproductive Labor in the Labor Theory of Value’ Review of Radical Political Economics 28: 30–54.

Robinson, J. (1969), The Economics of Imperfect Competition, 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Roemer, J.E. (1982), A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Shaikh, A. (1981), ‘The Poverty of Algebra’, in Steedman, I. (ed.), The Value Controversy, 266–300, London: New Left Books. 266–300.

Shaikh, A. and Tonak, E.A. (1994). Measuring the Wealth of Nations: the Political Economy of National Accounts, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Smith, T. (1989), Roemer on Marx’s Theory of Exploitation: Shortcomings of a Non-Dialectical Approach. Science & Society, 53: 327–340.

Steedman, I. (1981), The Value Controversy, London: New Left Books.

Steedman, I. (1977), Marx After Sraffa, London: New Left Books.

Joint Call for Papers from the Political Economy of Work and Social Reproduction Working Groups

IIPPE 9th Annual Conference in Political Economy

Pula, Croatia

Joint Call for Papers from the Political Economy of Work and Social Reproduction Working Groups

The Political Economy of Work and Social Reproduction Working Groups invite you to submit proposals for individual papers, themed panels or streams of panels related to our lines of inquiry. These may include theoretical and empirical contributions that focus primarily on the relationship between work and social reproduction. Previous IIPPE conferences have highlighted the clear overlaps and synergies in many contributions on the Political Economy of Work and on Social Reproduction. Our aim at the Pula conference is therefore to deepen and strengthen such synergies. In this spirit, we welcome contributions on the following themes:

  • The relationship between the productive and reproductive sphere
  • Feminist political economy of work
  • Gender, labour movements and capitalism
  • Conceptualising and measuring value in productive and reproductive work
  • Domestic labour, migration and global capitalism
  • The care crisis under capitalism
  • The political economy of time and time-use in relation to work and social reproduction
  • Empirically grounded discussions of concrete, abstract, private, social and caring labour
  • Emotional labour, value, and the political economy of production and social reproduction
  • Gender and inequality in the workplace: the gender pay gap, occupational segregation and other dimensions of gender and inequality in work
  • Debating the feminization of labour

We encourage the submission of panel proposals (consisting of up to four presentations) as an opportunity to showcase the work of study groups in greater depth than is possible in single presentations.

Papers and panel proposals can be submitted on by 15 March 2018, ticking the Social Reproduction and/or Political Economy of Work Working Groups as part of your submission.

Hannah Bargawi

Matthew Cole

Sara Stevano

Experiential Commodities, Experiential Labour: Exploring the Service Labour Process in Hospitality Work

Experiential Commodities, Experiential Labour: Exploring the Service Labour Process in Hospitality Work

Experiential Commodities Experiential Labour PP

My research addresses the experiences of workers in the hospitality industry. It takes a political economic approach to studying the labour process, which entails an analysis grounded in the unity of production and valorisation. Ethnographies of work such as Diamond’s (1992) study of the industrial production of care and Sherman’s (2007) study of the industrial production of luxury attempt to incorporate a theory of service production into labour process analysis; however, they lack any conception of the capitalist labour process as one that relies on the production of surplus value. The absence of a social conception of the commodity fundamentally hinders the capacity to analyse work as the unification of money and labour relations in the process of exploitation. Without a theory grounded in a Marxist conception of value, we cannot understand the relations between the structural imperatives of accumulation and the immediate process of production. This distinctly social relation oversdetermines workers’ experiences of work. Understanding the production of experience as a commodity links the concrete labour of its production with the abstract labour that produces value in the capitalist mode of production. The research provides an empirical and theoretical approach to understanding the politics of hospitality work as specifically related to the nature of the service commodity and the tensions that arise within the valorisation process.

Economic contribution and sector composition

What is hospitality? The BHA defines it as, “the provision of accommodation, meals and drinks in venues outside of the home” to both UK residents and overseas visitors”. In the UK, the hospitality industry is the fourth largest industry by employment and has been the largest growth industry over the past decade. It employs around 3 million people in the UK (over a quarter million more than manufacturing). Since 2011, it has grown by 13%, more than double the employment growth of the economy overall. The hospitality industry also makes a significant economic contribution to the UK. The industry added an estimated £57 billion to the economy in 2014, roughly 4% of GDP. Yet in the context of this dramatic growth, working conditions remain poor. Average gross earnings for full-time workers in the hotel industry are the lowest in the UK and the industry has the highest incidence of low-paid workers at 59 per cent. Added to this is its dubious status as one of the lowest rates of unionisation, standing at 3.5 per cent today.[1] These elements make the London hospitality industry a particularly pertinent case study of the contemporary experiences of workers in the UK. Hotels are a subsector of the hospitality industry, but they are uniquely representative of the labour processes involved in hospitality work generally.


I collected data through ethnographic participant observation over three months as an agency worker in London hotels. I conducted 35 semi-structured interviews with workers, supervisors and managers, which I have transcribed and coded. These interviews were spread across 25 different companies including 5 agencies and 20 hotels, 3 of which also used the same outsourced hotel management firm.

The Value-Form

In Capital vol. 1, Marx argues that surplus value is produced through the capacity of the capitalist to extract more labour-time and hence value than is required to purchase labour power from workers. This labour-time is not that of private individuals, but rather socially necessary labour-time, which refers to the “labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society” (Marx 1976, p. 129). In a given labour process, the difference between socially necessary labour time and the concrete labour time of the working day is surplus labour time. The average ratio of socially necessary labour time to surplus labour time is what determines the rate of surplus value. Marx (1976, p. 326) defines the rate of surplus value as the “exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist”.

The commodity is a social use value represented by the materialisation of labour in the form of its exchange value i.e. money. As Marx first argued, it is an imaginary and “purely social mode of existence”, which has “nothing to do with its corporal reality” (Marx 1969 p. 171). Commodities thus have no necessary physicality. The concrete labour that produces the commodity “leaves no trace in it”. It is thus conceived as simply a “definite quantity of social labour or of money” (ibid). Marx’s analysis may appear to focus on tangible objects, but the theoretical framework clearly does not put physical limitations on the definition of a commodity. Marxist economists such as Fiona Tregenna have also argued that the physical properties of something neither qualify it as a commodity nor exclude it from the realm of commodities (Tregenna 2011: p. 287). It is the form of the organisation of the labour process that is decisive, not it’s content. Relations in the exchange of labour and capital alone determine the form. Capital’s indifference to the physicality of the product means that commodities are therefore essentially ‘amaterial’ along with the value contained within them. In other words, just as ‘production’ is not limited to the production of tangible objects, commodities are not limited to physical goods. The amateriality of the commodity-form thus allows both goods and services to be considered commodities.

The Service Commodity

The primary criteria that defines a service-commodity, as distinguished from physical commodities, is the relative simultaneity of production and consumption, independent of the material form or product of the labour. This means that for service commodities, the labour represented in the value of a service commodity remains living labour, while for the manufacturing of physical commodities, it is dead labour that can be re-circulated on secondary markets. Concrete labour may not be observable in same way for services commodities as for physical manufactured commodities. For a service commodity, the individual use-value might vanish with the cessation of the labour-power itself. The product of the labour may be an immaterial transformation, in the case of knowledge transfer, customer interaction or the production of affect. Production may have an aspect of perceptible material transformation (clean rooms) or it may have an immaterial transformation (knowledge, emotion).

The Hospitality Experience

The focus on ‘experience’ is derived directly from company literature and workers’ responses themselves. A repeated idiom, articulated over and over again by workers and managers alike was that “it’s all about the experience” (Danilo, hospitality assistant, Hilltop). Workers saw themselves as responsible for providing a “certain standard of contemporary life and service (Ammon, Operations manager, Amnesty Hotel). They viewed customers as not only paying for a place to stay, but also satisfying interactions and spaces. I take this prosaic idea and develop it in more depth, drawing directly from the experiences of workers through their own voices, as well as Hochschilds’ (1983, p. 6) insight that, “In processing people, the product is a state of mind”. However, her Weberian approach focuses on the “immediacy of the individualised commodification process”, which fails to locate her analysis in the wider context of social relations under capitalism. Emotional labour is not a “means of production” but rather a particular feature of concrete labour. Emotional labour is only labour insofar as it assumes a social form, mediated by exchange. An approach with a more rigorous engagement with Marxist theories of labour and value would make this more readily apparent and use it to present a more complete theory of the service labour process.

The Experiential Commodity

The experiential commodity is a dynamic and flexible product assembled through the reproduction of hospitable environments, the cultivation of affects, and the maintenance of supplementary services. The primary component is the provision of a room and associated services delivered with the affect of care. It is primary because it requires the largest investment of fixed and variable capital and is the main source of profit for hotel companies as room revenues generally contribute between 60 and 80 per cent of Total Revenues (Kinnard et al. 2001). Research has found that the “service encounter” between guests and workers is crucial for guest satisfaction and the profit chain (Urry, 1990; Schneider and Bowen, 1999). Accommodation is the tangible aspect of the primary component of the experiential commodity. Housekeepers and room attendants had essential roles in the production of the hospitality experience. Guests expected clean rooms, fresh bedding, unworn furniture and working facilities. The intangible aspects of the primary component of the experiential commodity are the reception services, which include catering to guests’ tastes, offering advice on the local, and generally providing attention on demand.

The secondary component includes the provision of food, beverages, and supplementary services (the quantity increases with the number of stars), which contribute 10 to 20 per cent of Total Revenues (ibid) Hotel kitchens produced the tangible aspects of this secondary component. The organisation of the kitchens and the production of food and beverage corresponded to both the size and star-rating of the hotel. Waiters, servers, and hospitality assistants (an official title for certain lower-level positions) in food and beverage-related departments produce the intangible elements of the secondary component of the guest experience. They take orders and deliver the consumable objects prepared in kitchens; however their primary role is the production of positive guest interactions, which guests expect due to the hotel’s commodification of affect. 












Service Assembly Lines

There is a progressive temporal order to the assembly of these multiple elements that corresponds to specific labour processes and departments. This temporal order or ‘service assembly line’ operates on a circuit that begins with a guest’s request, received by a member of staff in the ‘front-of-house’ [FOH] who relays this request to the ‘back-of-house’ [BOH] where the tangible and material aspects such as food ingredients or bedding are transformed as components of the commodity. Once this labour is performed, the BOH relays this information to the FOH who are expected to deliver this product to the guest with their own contribution of positive interaction in order to produce satisfaction. The FOH staff take orders and deliver the experience, while the BOH staff produce or reproduce the tangible consumables. Front and back of house thus have a symbiotic relationship mediated by both the customer and management.

The hotel’s service assembly line can be illustrated by following the path of its guests. As they enter the hotel, the doorman would greet them and the concierge would open their profile in the hotel registration system. Hotels typically keep detailed records of a customer’s purchase history and preferences. Based on this data, the receptionists would have already directed the food and beverage department to send the guests’ favourite bottle of wine up to their room. The luggage porter would bring their bags to their room in anticipation of a tip. Once settled, the guests might call reception to book them at table at the restaurant. Meanwhile, beyond the public spaces of the hotel, housekeepers, room attendants, maintenance, and porters would work to reproduce the physical spaces and articles of guests’ consumption. The laundry services would reproduce clean linen and employee uniforms while the porters cleaned the public spaces. Room attendants would scrub toilets, top up room amenities, and replace bedding. There were daily changes to room allocation and the order of cleaning demonstrating how different concrete labours must work together in relation to customer demand.

In the hotel restaurant, guests would be greeted and seated by the host. They would then place an order with their waiter who, using their capacity for emotional labour, would transform the atmosphere to appeal to the customer’s tastes in anticipation of a tip. The waiter would relay their order and special requests to the chefs who had spent most of the day preparing food for the dinner service. After the kitchen finished preparing the food and the bartender finished making their drinks, the server would deliver them to the table with a smile. Respondents’ experiences explained the difficulty of balancing the emotional labour of providing seemingly authentic positive customer interactions with the managerial imperative to turn tables and increase profits. The assembly of secondary components was in constant flux relative to the inputs of the kitchen (in terms of both ingredients and labour), the servers (in terms of capacity to manage tables and orders) and customer demand (in terms of attention).

Theoretical Implications

Braverman (1998: p. 361) was the first to note that the reproduction of clean rooms in hotels was “an assembly operation which is not different from many factory assembly operations”. However, in hotels the assembly is not linear like manufacturing, but rather a circuit in which customer feedback continually drives production as long as the service is offered. The relative simultaneity of production and consumption of services means that the customer adds a secondary element of variability to the variable capital of the labour process.

The concept of the service assembly line is important in the analysis of hotel work because it allows us to understand the production of experience as a service commodity. Approaches to service work have largely failed to recognise the production of services in terms of commodification and the progressive assembly of seemingly independent labour processes (Braverman 1998; Taylor and Bain, 2005; Korczynski, 2005; Sherman, 2011). Belanger and Edwards (2013) defined front line service as work in which the “contribution of the front-line employee to the labour process and the creation of use value appear at the same time” (p. 441). This conceptualisation is accurate in certain cases, such as those situations when the commodity produced is solely reliant on the activity of the front-line worker. However, as the case of hotels demonstrates, customers do not pay for a bed to be made separately from the service they receive by the concierge or the luggage porter. These seemingly independent elements are part of the same production process. The service assembly line is thus a dynamic circuit that operates according to a structured temporal sequence yet the specific results of that sequence can be continually altered or revised according to the customer feedback. Without descriptions of the detailed division of labour and the concrete processes at work, abstracting from those processes to examine the broader social relations of production remains ungrounded.[2]


[2] The necessity of capital’s expanded reproduction drives capital to produce new commodities, the value of which can only be realised through their consumption. Capital thus continually transforms humanity’s relation to nature and need, which is socially mediated; “Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material” (Marx 1993 [1973] p. 92). The production of a new social use-value also produces the manner of social consumption. For example, a factory produces trains for railway companies who then use them to sell transport services to other firms and individual consumers who need to travel. A hotel produces rooms and positive affects, which people need when they travel. Production thus creates both the commodity as object and the consumer as subject. The produced object becomes integrated into normal use, earlier commodities become technologically obsolete along with the knowledge of their use. Production therefore produces “the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption” (1993 [1973] p. 92). If capitalist production not only produces the object of consumption, but also the manner and motive of consumption, then hotels do not simply satisfy the expectations of customers, they produce their very needs and desires. The rating system of a hotel stratified allowed companies to differentiate between the object, manner, and motive of consumption by stratifying the market according to spending capacities and tastes. The hotels’ process of commodification and production of experience also produces the manner of its consumption.


A research agenda for Marxian conceptions of value and the political economy of ‘service’ work

A research agenda for Marxian conceptions of value and the political economy of ‘service’ work

Currently, there is resurgence in scholarship on Marxian conceptions of value. However, much of the discourse has remained within the realms of heterodox economics, political economy, and philosophy. I would like to set out a new line of inquiry, which shifts the aims of this research from the abstract and quantitative toward the concrete and qualitative. Following this line, we will investigate aspects of the Marxian conception of value in relation to the way capitalism actually functions. This entails combining detailed examinations of the real-world experiences of work with a value-[in]formed political economic critique of employment relations.

Marx’s theory of value gives us a tool for understanding the dynamic process of capitalist exploitation that overcomes the fragmentation of that experience. To quote Diane Elson:

What Marx’s theory of value does is provide a basis for showing the link between money relations and labour process relations in the process of exploitation. The process of exploitation is actually a unity; and the money relations and labour process relations which are experienced as two discretely distinct kinds of relation, are in fact onesided reflections of particular aspects of this unity. Neither money relations nor labour process relations in themselves constitute capitalist exploitation; and neither one can be changed very much without accompanying changes in the other… Marx’s theory of value is able to show this unity of money and labour process because it does not pose production and circulation as two separate, discretely distinct spheres and does not pose value and price as discretely distinct variables. (‘The Value theory of Labour’ in Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism: p. 172)

Through the use of a value-form analytic, scholars and activists alike will be able to develop novel political insights into contemporary relations of production and reproduction, as well as conceptualise emergent forms of work – from ‘services’ to creative industries.

Lines of inquiry might include:

  • accounting for productive and unproductive labour
  • the relations of concrete and abstract labour
  • differential and absolute ground rent and labour
  • the meaning of ‘services’ and ‘deindustrialisation’
  • aesthetic/affective labour and value
  • knowledge/intellectual labour and value
  • the value-form and global value chains
  • the value-form and the social construction of work
  • the value-form and the labours of reproduction
  • financialisation, value, and employment relations


The following is a working bibliography of articles and texts that I’ve found helpful in understanding Marxian conceptions of value in relation to work:



It begins again.

It begins again.


This is a blog about the contemporary state of work in the UK from the perspective of workers themselves. It aims to address issues around the growing hospitality sector and the lack of empirically grounded critical political economy of service work.

It is compiled and written by Matthew Cole, a PhD researcher in the work and employment relations division at the University of Leeds Business School.