It’s important to make a distinction between workers who produce surplus value and service employees, because the entire capitalist economy rests on the surplus value generated in the production of commodities. This is the only new value produced in capitalist society, and it is generated in the labor process itself, as the worker is making physical commodities that can be bought and sold. That’s what exploitation is: taking this value produced by the worker.
Not all wage earners produce surplus value. Many are involved in the process of moving it, selling it, marketing it, re-selling it — that is all circulating what has already been produced. They provide services — use values — not the same thing as surplus value. Though profits are made in circulation, it is mercantile profit, money changing hands — no new value is being generated. The money to pay for circulation comes from the surplus value generated in the production process.
And further, speculation generates profits too, but this is still not generating new value, but value changing hands. When prices become inflated extremely out of proportion to the concrete value of the commodities being speculated on, it can become toxic (like the housing bubble). All profit in the circulation process is tied to and depends on the original surplus value produced when the commodity is manufactured. As soon as it’s produced, it embodies all the concrete surplus value it will ever have, and everything else is generated by circulation. Marx was clear on this. His speech “Value, Price and Profit” was helpful to me in grasping it.
This is not to say that the circulation of commodities isn’t necessary to realize this value: it is. But while the price may be higher down the retail chain, concrete value has not been added.
To understand service employees as members of the petit bourgeoisie, I found “Classes in Contemporary Capitalism” by Nicos Poulantzas to be extremely helpful. This was written in the 1970s, during the rise of service economies in imperialist social formations, and so is somewhat out of date, but it is still really useful.
He called service employees “the new petit bourgeoisie” at the time. That sector of the petit bourgeoisie is not really new any longer, and I don’t think that the label of petit bourgeoisie (without a different qualifier than just “new”) is very useful today. (I think it‘s accurate, but confusing). I think service employees are emerging as a distinct fraction of the petit bourgeoisie, with their own experience (impoverishment), emerging ideology (individualism paired with despair), and political practice (Occupy) and representatives (Ron Paul, Black Bloc, NGOs).
And so, in my opinion, it can be confusing to lump them together with the traditional petit bourgeoisie (like doctors and small retail owners), even though their relationship to production is still qualitatively the same: assisting in the circulation of capital.
This confusion is in fact causing them to define themselves as workers. Because in fact their experience is closer to workers than to the traditional petit bourgeoisie. And many people move between the two fairly seamlessly (it’s not a big jump in pay or training from unskilled factory work to retail service, whereas there’s a huge gulf between retail service and high-level professions, even though the latter two are technically in the same class and the first two are not).
This is all *not* to say that this class, and others, don’t have a role to play in revolutionary struggle: they absolutely do. Just like capitalism can’t function without them, the revolution can’t either. ALL dominated classes need to be aligned with the working class, for revolution to succeed. That’s the reason that revolutionaries work among them. And often they are the first to become politically active, to respond to changing conditions.
The point that is often forgotten though, and which I am insisting upon, is that productive workers, the working class, as the ones who are at the core (or foundation) of the entire capitalist economy, who produce the surplus value that allows the existence of profit and its re-investment as new capital, is the only class in fundamental antagonistic contradiction to capital. By emancipating themselves as workers, they have to destroy all the myriad social relations (in the economic, political and ideological fields) that make up capitalism. This puts them in a unique position.
Classes struggle to reproduce themselves. Service workers struggle for market equality, to sell their services for higher prices. They are dominated and crushed by entities with more market power. They can hurt capitalists by blocking the flow of capital, and that’s very positive. But their struggle, by itself, will not lead to the elimination of capitalism. Their struggle for fairness and equality will be confined to the market, where they operate. That is the boundary, the limit, of that struggle.
Workers who produce surplus value are the only ones who, by asserting their interests and following them through to their endpoint–stopping exploitation–can end the production of surplus value, and thus the reproduction of capital. Only they can follow through to the goal of overturning capitalism. No other classes will go that far (and that has been shown, historically, time and time again). This is why the working class must lead the revolutionary process, if we are to achieve the defeat of capitalism. They have to build an alliance with all the other dominated classes, who will together overturn the system. But their line must lead, or capitalism will be quickly reproduced/restored (as occurred in the Soviet Union and China).
In China, there was, like in the US, a difficulty in that the proletariat (the working class) was very small in number. They relied heavily on an alliance with the vast numbers of small peasants (who are in the petit bourgeoisie) to win power. But while this was necessary, it was a contradiction that unfortunately did not get resolved favorably for the proletariat, a loss which led to what we see in China today. Those inside the Party who took the capitalist road did so because they represented the petit bourgeoisie, and the line representing the proletariat was defeated.
This discussion may seem very esoteric to some, but to understand these things is extremely important for those who want to fundamentally transform society. When a proletarian line is not leading the revolutionary process, there are huge consequences. The world would be quite different now if the working class had not lost power in China.