Startseite Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft

Robert Kurz

What is Tertiarization?

Perspectives on social change

A market-governed consciousness perceives only cyclical phenomena in all areas of life. Tomorrow the lie of today can be “truth,” but content is in any case irrelevant, since the fastest possible “sale” is what matters. This applies just as much to ideas and theories as cars or neckties. At this level the term “social change” has no more meaning. For it to mean anything it has to relate to an analytically determined development of a certain time period, to a history of social structures. The postmodern consciousness, in its market-conformity, no longer recognizes historical development—it knows only the arbitrariness of incoherent Trends. In place of critical social theory we increasingly encounter “Trend Research.”

If the difference between objective structures and subjective perception can no longer be represented, the ability to even reflect upon our own social relations is extinguished. Not even an apologetic ideology, in the narrowest sense, is possible because this too requires terms of objective development, even false ones used solely for legitimization. However, since a society torn by self-contradiction cannot sustain itself without a legitimating ideology, postmodern thought is forced to take up older economic and social theories that still contain a traditional claim to objectivity. That such an approach is inconsistent makes no difference; in postmodern thought inconsistency has been raised to a virtue.

Although postmodern theory rejects any structural determinism, these conceptually truncated trend-analyses still move in the background of sociological and structurally deterministic theories of “social change.” Explicitly or implicitly, postmodern ideological cycles set forth certain assumptions of objective social development with regard to the three fundamental sectors of social reproduction (agriculture, industry, services). This is the phantasm of the once celebrated “Tertiarization,” which continues to define sociological discourse, even though the methodological prerequisites of classical sociology that produced this theorem have been negated. The method may be criticized, but the results are pocketed and used all the same.

Society, according to this now-classical theory, advances in a series of historical transformations from primary agricultural sector, to the secondary industrial sector to the tertiary service sector. The “employment” of labour is gradually shifted accordingly. This is associated in the beginning with painful structural breaks, but in the end a new period of “full employment” and secular prosperity is the result. The socio-economic theory of tertiarization is now a few decades old and it is high time that an evaluation be carried out, an impossible task given the means provided by postmodern thought. Superficially, the thesis of tertiarization has been empirically confirmed, although in disparate and entirely different fashion than foreseen by the original, optimistic assumptions. What has not been empirically proven is the secular rise in employment and prosperity predicted by tertiarization. On the contrary; it appears that real tertiarization has been bound up with a global economic process of contraction and crisis.

The problem is also obscured by the fact that the tertiary sector, in contrast to the agricultural and industrial sectors, cannot be clearly defined. Under the category “Services” fall a variety of unrelated occupations, two large groups of which catch the eye. One comprises the especially highly-qualified fields like medicine, education, science, culture, etc. The other is made up of the especially unqualified fields of domestic servants and unskilled workers in service companies (food service, cleaning, personal services, etc.). Flipping hamburgers, bagging groceries, selling knick-knacks on the street or washing windows at stoplights belong just as much to the tertiary sector as training managers, raising children or organizing study trips. Nannies and parking lot security fall in the same category as doctors and artists.

This discrepancy seemed for a while to mark the social differences between western countries and the third world. Agriculture in the global south was mechanized to the same degree as in the west, inasmuch as it produced for the world market. But unlike the core capitalist countries the transition from primary agriculture to the secondary industrial sector was in most cases unsuccessful, or incomplete. It was the failure of this “catch-up industrialization” that produced a paradoxical situation with regards to the theory of the development of the three fundamental sectors: on one hand part of society was thrown back into primitive subsistence farming, which stagnated next to the Agro-Industry oriented towards the global market; on the other hand a massive poverty-tertiarization took place in the swelling urban agglomerations.

In the western centers, however, it at first seemed that the optimistic prognosis of tertiarization was coming true. In the 1970s social decline in the form of mass unemployment had already begun, but this negative development was to be taken up by social problem-solving: one almost believed that a social worker could be dispatched to every unemployed person. The “support industry” for the fallen appeared to be an area of economic growth. The system of medical care expanded parallel to social pedagogy, while at the same time leisure centers, social clubs, reform universities and new systems of trade qualification were brought into being. Educational offensive, leisure society and life-long learning were catchwords of western Zeitgeist well into the 1980s. To a markedly smaller degree there were similar phenomena in the third world, but there only as a sort of luxury-tertiarization for a minority, which stood opposite the poverty-tertiarization of the majority. By contrast, in the west this process seemed to be characterized as a structural shift “for everyone.”

But this type of tertiarization had a decisive flaw. It was, in capitalist terms, “unproductive” and produced no commercial growth spurt, rather it had to be financed by the state and was generally organized in the form of public services. This was not in line with the economic contraction of industrial production. This wonderful society based on leisure, education and supervision could only be kept afloat by dramatic deficit-spending until the illusion shattered and cutbacks were made in the supposedly central support sectors of the service society.

In the 1990s capitalism presented two options for dealing with the crisis of teriarization. The term “privatization” suggested the transference of not yet affordable tertiary state agencies to private enterprises. At the same time the “New Economy,” as a commercially high-tech version of the service sector (internet capitalism), was to bring growth and employment. Both options have been failures, as is well-known to all. The “New Economy” turned out to be nothing more than a financial bubble, while employment and real growth was limited to a microscopic degree. The privatized former public services proved to be similarly unsuitable for producing capitalist growth. Market-oriented medicine or education quickly reduces its focus to private clientel capable of paying, while the majority of the structures in this area were shut down. In many regions of the third world the entire social infrastructure is collapsing, while a diluted form of the same is to be seen in the west.

Nothing remains of the former promises of a progressive tertiarization towards an educated and cultured leisure society. Even tourism was gripped by the crisis. Instead, the poverty-tertiarization of the third world is now becoming the model for the centers of the world market. The western political and socio-economic discourse unapologetically pushes for the last resort of mass employment through cheap personal domestic servants, as in the days of early capitalism. Is a high-tech global society of a few finance capitalists and transnational managers on one side and house servants, chauffeurs, chambermaids and pages on the other conceivable? That would be rather poor science-fiction. In the third world there does exist a paternalistic tradition of servant-master relations, handed down from the colonial period, especially where slavery once existed. Under the conditions of the universal market, however, relations based on the personal dependency of master and servant, which in the period of early capitalism were a holdover from feudalism, cannot exist on a large scale. But domestic services, as an impersonal commercial enterprise, cannot carry economic growth any more than privatized education, medicine, etc. The demand is not high enough, since the middle class is melting away in the face of the crisis of the third industrial revolution. The billions of people worldwide that are now stranded in poverty-teriarization are actually nothing more than better beggars, drop-outs for whom there is no captialist future.

The historic disaster of tertiarization points to the tabu-problem of social form. Technically and materially, via the productivity brought about by the third industrial revolution, this would allow humanity to occupy most of its time with education, medicine, culture and social service, agricultural and industrial production comprising only a relatively small portion of its activities. The first part of this program has been fulfilled: ever fewer people are engaged in the primary and secondary sectors. But the second part has failed: the transfer of human resources to the tertiary sector is not capitalistically sustainable, for which we now have evidence.

The economic doctrine of the development of three sectors always had the problem that it was historically groundless; this development does not take place within “eternal” capitalist structures. Pre-modern agrarian society was not based on the realization of monetary capital. As a result, the shift in social reproduction from the agricultural to the industrial sector represented a break with the relations of personal dependency that had reigned until replaced by the impersonal form of monetary capital. Likewise, the transition from industrial to service society demands a break with the form of the modern commodity producing system and the emergence of a qualitatively new order.

This necessary break with the fundamental social form also has a cultural and symbolic dimension. Since the neolithic revolution agrarian society had had an organic worldview, in which the socio-cultural “process of material re-action between man and nature” (Marx) related primarily to plants and animals. This worldview was not as soft and “ecologically-friendly” as some regressive ideologies suggest today. Rather, it was a relationship of dominance that reduced humans, through slavery and feudalism, to their organic functions as “speaking animals.”

The industrial society of the modern, commodity-producing system had, by contrast, a mechanical worldview, in which the “process of material re-actions between man and nature” related primarily to dead material (machines and industrial commodities). The associated world view reduces humans to mechanical robots via the impersonal form of money.

The society of tertiarization, unknown until now, needs a social world view in which the “process of material re-action between man and nature” relates primarily to humans themselves, that is to say, this process becomes society’s metabolic exchange with itself. “The root of the human being is the human itself” (Marx); this truth is only just now emerging as a social form. With the advent of quantum physics the natural sciences have left the mechanical worldview behind, and it is no coincidence that microelectronic revolution based on quantum physics perpetuates capitalism ad absurdum. If humanity does not wish to perish it must overcome organic and mechanical reductionism and behave humanely towards itself. Only then can it act humanely towards nature.

Translation from German by John Carroll