Crisis as Capitalist Opportunity: new accumulation through public service commodification

Ursula Huws

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay argues that 2008 marked a turning point for international capital, with the financial crisis providing an unprecedented opportunity to embark on a new phase of accumulation based, not on what might be called ‘primary primitive accumulation’ (the generation of new commodities from natural resources or activities carried out outside the money economy) but on the commodification of public services. In this commodification process, which might be regarded as a kind of ‘secondary primitive accumulation’, activities already carried out in the paid economy for their use value (such as education, or health care) are standardized in such a way that they can be traded for profit and appropriated by capital: use value is thereby transformed into exchange value. This secondary form of accumulation is based on the expropriation, not just of nature or unalienated aspects of life, nor of unpaid domestic labour, but of the results of past struggles by workers for the redistribution of surplus value in the form of universal public services. It thus constitutes a reappropriation and, as such, its impacts on working-class life are multiple and pernicious.

For the workers actually delivering public services, new forms of alienation are introduced and there is generally a deterioration in working conditions. However, there are also larger implications for workers in other sectors, because public sector workers are, in most developed economies, the last remaining bastion of trade union strength and decent working conditions, setting the standards for other workers to aspire to. This means that the erosion of the bargaining position of public sector workers also represents a defeat for all workers in their capacities as workers. At an even more general level, past gains are snatched from the working class as a whole (including children, the elderly, the sick and the unemployed). This last effect cannot, of course, remain invisible and understandably becomes a focus of opposition. However, a political strategy based only on ‘fighting the cuts’ risks giving the impression that it is simply the scale of state expenditure that is in contest, rendering invisible the underlying logic of commodification and the new reality that public services themselves have become a site of accumulation that is crucial for the continuing expansion of international capital. The new reality is one in which large sections of capital actually have a vested interest in an enlarged public service sector, but one in which services are standardized and capable of being delivered by a compliant and interchangeable workforce, embedded in a global division of labour and subjected to the discipline of that global labour market. This raises new contradictions for the relationship between the state and capital.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-84
Number of pages20
JournalSocialist Register
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2011


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