Are nurses, teachers and analysts the wave of the future? Are their jobs, and others like them, less suitable to capitalism’s extract-and-monetize model and do they possibly prefigure post-capitalist regimes? Questions like these have transfixed macro social scientists since the mid-twentieth century. Every twenty years or so theorists hem and haw over secular shifts in employment—from farming and extraction to industry and then “services”—asking whether they portend capitalism’s end or have already brought it about. Most recently, offerings such as Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, and Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society renew this perspective, updating it for twenty-first-century realities. But like their predecessors, they refrain from specifying such claims in ways that make them measurable of actual employment data.

My research set out to do that, using a Marxian framework to understand what labor is and is not productive for capital. The key question is whether services, accurately defined, are less exploitable by capital than other jobs and, if so, whether their predominance and growth presage a new economic system – which may or may not be exploitative, even if non-capitalist. Combining insight from Marxian political economy, social reproduction theory and the sociology of service work, I concretize these ideas and assess them with US Census data.

What I found was this: fewer than one-fifth of service jobs are productive for capital while nearly half of non-service jobs are. I call this the service productivity gap, and it is neither race nor gender neutral. Women predominate in services while people of color work there disproportionately. This supports Winant’s intersectional correspondence thesis – that those historically excluded from wage labor have been reintegrated into its social reproductive and potentially post-capitalist sphere. But how did we get here?

Confusion abounds as to what activities are and aren’t services, what sectors are and aren’t capitalist and what labor produces value. The first task was to define these more clearly.

Services can be understood as all occupations that center emotional or cognitive rather than manual effort. Of course, most jobs require a mix of all three, if not in equal quantities. Assembly-line workers interpret changes in line speed and ‘deal with’ coworkers and supervisors; public relations managers cultivate relationships and also walk to meetings, give presentations and so forth; teachers create lesson plans, decipher student ability but also move themselves (and sometimes their students) from place to place. But these jobs, like most, prioritize one type of effort – manual, intellectual and emotional, respectively, and these criteria are broadly embedded in Census occupation codes, if we know how to sort them. The first two compose a more accurate conception of ‘services’ (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Modalities of Labor

The capitalist sector consists of all those enterprises that are privately owned, pursue profit, and employ wage workers. This excludes the public sector (obviously), the self-employed or petite bourgeoisie (somewhat less obviously) and, perhaps more contentiously, the sizeable non-profit sector. Many ‘non-profits’ behave in ways that mimic for-profit enterprises—aggressively growing and branding themselves, accumulating surplus, exploiting and mistreating workers, etc. But it would be a peculiar form of capital that could not distribute surplus, receives tax exemption and bases itself to a large extent on charitable donations. Although often hierarchical and exploitative, as well as deeply entangled (like the public sector) in systemic profit-making, these organizations and their employees belong outside the capitalist sector proper.

And then we ask what labor is productive. Not whether it is ‘good,’ ‘bad’ or necessary but simply whether it produces value for capital. To do so, labor must first create a useful thing or effect. Second, that labor must be alienated through a wage relationship. Third, that thing or effect must be sold by a capitalist organization. Toyota assembly workers, for example, produce the cars and trucks Toyota sells; so, to a certain extent, do Toyota engineers. Stylists at Supercuts and instructors at the for-profit University of Phoenix produce the haircuts and education sold by their employers. But accountants, secretaries, and supervisors at any of these do not. Furthermore, whole sectors such as finance and trade, distinct from transport, exist outside of productivity—they change ownership of values already (or not yet) produced.

Applying these conceptions to 2016-2020 US Census data (merged ACS) yields surprising results. Only about 26 percent of the formal US workforce is productive for capital. Three fourths of workers (as well as the self-employed) produce important use values which, though often aiding capitalist production, are not intrinsically part of it. And while nearly 47 percent of non-service employees are productive for capital, less than 19 percent of service employees are (Table 1). This is a major gap. It implies reduced suitability of services to capitalist organization.

Table 1: Calculations for Capitalist Productivity, US Workforce 2016-2020 (ACS merged)

Service Jobholders

(74.5% of US workforce, 2016-2020 ACS)

Non-Service Jobholders

(25.5% of US workforce, 2016-2020 ACS)

– non-capitalist sectors – non-capitalist sectors
public 12.7%* public 1.2%
non-profit 7.8% non-profit 0.5%
self-employed (-misclassified) (7.7-1.1) 6.6% self-employed (-misclassified) (2.2-0.4) 2.1%
– productive non-service industries – productive service industries
agriculture & extraction 0.7% information (-telecom) 0.2%
construction 1.8% prof. & business services (-exclusions) 1.3%
manufacturing 4.5% education & healthcare 1.7%
transportation & utilities 2.1% leisure & hospitality 1.8%
telecommunications 0.4% other services (-exclusions) 1.6%
waste management 0.2%
repair & maintenance 0.8%
+ architects, engineers, computer programmers & scientists in these 1.0% + building and grounds maintenance workers in leisure & hospitality 1.3%
– unproductive industries† – unproductive industries
wholesale trade 1.8% wholesale trade 0.8%
retail trade 8.5% retail trade 2.6%
finance, insurance, real estate 6.3% finance, insurance, real estate 0.3%
administrative support 4.2% administrative support 0.5%
management of companies 1.1% management of companies 0.1%
additional subsectors, prof. & business services 2.0% additional subsectors, prof. & business services 0.2%
Share of total productive = 14.0% Share of total productive = 11.9%
Share of services productive = 18.8% Share of non-services productive = 46.7%

But this is not a purely economic story, at least in the narrow sense. It is also robustly sociological, for the ranks of the burgeoning service workforce—particularly its interactive component or what some call the “emotional proletariat”—are disproportionately female and BIPOC. This is likely the result of historical constructions of race and gender throughout the history of capitalism. Black people were largely kept out of the waged workforce and instead exploited through brutal enslavement and later debt peonage and terror. Women were similarly marginalized from formal employment and restricted overwhelmingly to unpaid domestic work. It is these same groups, as well as Latinx folks, that perform most waged emotional labor today (Table 2).

Table 2: US Employment by Occupation, Gender and Race, 2015-19 (ACS merged)
Total (x1000) % Total Men Women White Black Asian Latinx
Total (x1000) 157,538 100.0 83,460 74,077 122,442 19,381 10,179 27,805
Percent of Total 100.0 53.0 47.0 77.7 12.3 6.5 17.6
Occupation   Percent within Occupations
Management, professional, related 64,276 40.8 48.2 51.7 78.9 9.6 8.7 10.1
Service occupations 26,939 17.1 42.4 57.7 72.3 17.1 6.0 25.0
Sales and office occupations 33,398 21.2 39.5 60.6 78.1 12.9 5.2 17.2
Resources, construction, maintenance 14,336 9.1 94.9* 5.2 86.3 7.7 2.2 31.8
Production, transportation, moving 18,589 11.8 77.2 23.1 74.4 16.9 5.0 23.0
  Percent within Self-Employed
Self-employed, incorporated 9,540 6.1 60.9 39.1 84.4 7.6 4.9 17.8

Though not as strong as the racialized patterns Winant finds in Pittsburgh, these results support his general argument. Most significantly, they highlight interconnections between these deep-seated forms of oppression and buttress calls for unity in struggle.

Is that struggle, or some unconscious process of further employment shifts, likely to overturn capitalism? Here we have to punt since predicting the future is a fool’s errand. What these findings suggest, however, is that growth in the shares of emotional and intellectual wage labor over manual wage labor have been coterminous with declines in capitalist-organized value production. Capitalism seems to reign over an increasingly diverse array of non- or only semi-commodified sub-modes, not unlike its early history in late feudal Europe.

How that previous transition came about and how it might inform future ones are tangled and thorny questions. Results of my study, however, point toward a non-negligible role for what Marxists call “productive forces”—infrastructure, materials and concrete labor processes—alongside social relations and social struggle. Past history shows no dominant economic regime passing quietly into the night and we shouldn’t expect this for capitalism. But the growth of services and their poorer commodity fit make them salient terrain for the rise of such challenges. Challenges, moreover, that will likely pose racial and gender equality with ever-greater urgency, since those oppressed by these structures do a disproportionate share of potentially post-capitalist labor.

Peter Ikeler is associate professor of sociology at SUNY Old Westbury and the author of Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains.

To read more, see Peter Ikeler, “Are Services Post-Capitalist? A Marxian Interrogation” in Critical Sociology 2023.

Image: firedoglakedotcom via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)