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Cooking the Books: The Decline of Manufacturing - Good or Bad?

In June the Office for National Statistics published an analysis, entitled 170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales, of how people’s occupations have changed between the 1841 census and the latest one in 2011. One of the key points it drew attention to was:

‘Manufacturing was the most dominant industry in 1841 accounting for 36% of the workforce, followed closely by services at 33%. The expansion of services and decline in manufacturing meant that in 2011, 9% worked in manufacturing and 81% in services.’

The remaining 10 per cent was made up of agriculture 1 per cent (down from 22 per cent in 1841), energy and water (including mining) 1 per cent, and construction 8 per cent.

Services had already overtaken manufacturing as far back as 1881 but it was only from 1961 that the gap between the two began to widen. Until then each accounted for more or less 40 per cent.

Marx pointed to the results of the 1861 census to back up his statement in Capital (chapter 15, section 6) that:

‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry, accompanied as it is by both a more extensive and a more intense exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of production, allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working-class.’

After deducting the young, the old, the sick, housewives, rentiers and those he called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes, such as government officials, priests, lawyers, soldiers, &c.’, out of a total England and Wales population of 20 million he arrived at a figure of 8 million in work, of which he listed:









‘The servant class’

1, 208,648


And he commented:

‘All the persons employed in textile factories and in mines, taken together, number 1,208,442; those employed in textile factories and metal industries, taken together, number 1,039,605; in both cases less than the number of modern domestic slaves. What a splendid result of the capitalist exploitation of machinery!’

The ONS analysis confirms that ‘in 1841, almost one in five working people (18%) were employed in domestic offices and personal services, roughly half of everyone working in service industries.’

Since Marx’s day ‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry’ has still made possible an increasing proportion of the workforce in services, though more in those Marx called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes’, especially people working in national and local government rather than in ‘the servant class.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the largest service group today is ‘wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motor cycles, with 4.2 million people, 16% of the working population and about one fifth of everyone working in service industries.’

What exactly Marx meant by ‘unproductive employment’ has been widely debated. The ONS defines a ‘service industry’ as ‘where services are provided rather than a good being produced’, which implies that production involves turning out some tangible, material product. Marx himself didn’t go that far as he regarded the work of transporting and storing goods as productive.

We could argue over how much of the ONS service ‘industries’ amount to ‘unproductive employment’ in Marx’s sense, but the overall situation is clear. Increasing productivity has meant that, just as fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the food we eat so fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the material things society needs. It makes the case for production directly for use (to ‘serve’ people’s needs), which socialism will allow, even more relevant.