MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Customer (or “client”) is the purchaser of a service (or a good, but where the transaction is defined as service-delivery rather than production and consumption of a good).

The category of “customer” is significant in the development of the bourgeois division of labour and the restructuring of capital, and is particularly associated with the micro-economic reform, corporatisation, and Toyotist managerial methods of the 1980s and 90s.

In a labour process, workers collaborate with one another, but in bourgeois society, where the labour process is organised as commodity production, the collaborative activity is conceived as exchange of labour, one side being cast as service-provider, the other as customer. This conception was predominant in the U.S. from the 1930s, encapsulated in the aphorism “the customer is always right”, but was developed to its modern form mainly by the Japanese. As micro-economic reform became widespread across the capitalist world the doctrine of “customer focus” penetrated capitalist enterprises everywhere.

Particularly during the period when manufacturing was predominant, particularly post-Fordism, the relations which prevailed within a capitalist firm was in a sense much more reminiscent of feudal society, i.e., everyone was assigned to particular roles and duties in a kind of hierarchy, with the board of directors at the top, as a kind of intra-firm nobility. Under this scheme, relations with those outside the firm were governed by exchange of commodities, but still the ethos of the worker dealing with the outside agent was to a great extent conditioned by the “traditional” relations pertaining within the firm. This was particularly true of very large firms and of public sector organisations, hospitals, schools, universities and so on, where a bureaucratic mentality and practice prevailed. In these organisations, there were not “customers”, but rather distributors, patients, students, and so on, roles defined as subordinate to the traditional relations prevailing within the organisation.

The action of post-modernisation and micro-economic reform was to render all these relations, both internal and external, as customer-service provider relations – the essential relation of Private Labour.

This is a step forward in many ways from the feudal or paternalistic relations of the earlier period. For example, the student who was treated by their university professor as a kind of inferior breed who had to be told what was good for them, and the patient who was never even told that, but simply subject to treatment without their opinion being sought, found the re-categorisation as “customer” empowering. Especially where these services have been privatised or commercialised, the student or patient had become a paying customer, and consequently felt able to demand “value for money": “I've paid for my education, now please give it to me.”

“Since men engaged in exchange do not relate to each other as men, things lose the significance of human, personal property. The social relationship of private property to private property is already a relationship in which private property is estranged from itself.” [Comment on James Mill]

The customer / service-provider relation thus isolates the two collaborators and sets them one against the other.

“The social relation in which I stand to you, my labour for your need, is therefore also a mere semblance, and our complementing each other is likewise a mere semblance, the basis of which is mutual plundering. The intention of plundering, of deception, is necessarily present in the background, for since our exchange is a selfish one, on your side as on mine, and since the selfishness of each seeks to get the better of that of the other, we necessarily seek to deceive each other.” [Comment on James Mill]

For a doctor to heal an ill worker, it is necessary for them to collaborate, for the doctor to properly understand the conditions which have given rise to the feeling of illness and to share her knowledge with the ill worker, so that together they can work out and implement a healing strategy.

In the former relation of doctor to patient, the doctor proceeded only from their body of expert knowledge, often misunderstanding the needs of the ill person, prescribing cures which only worsened the condition or were even never implemented by the patient, while the ill person often sought cures for conditions which were in reality quite healthy and did not understand their own role in getting well again.

In the customer-service relation, the customer demands what they want. If they have a big nose, then they will demand that the doctor cut it off, the doctor silently shakes her head while cutting the flesh; the customer later succumbing to infection on top of their low self-esteem, can gain redress by suing the doctor for malpractice, an eventuality the doctor allowed for when getting the half-drugged patient to sign a disclaimer, etc., etc..

In the real relation, doctor and patient collaborate, i.e., work together; both are producers and both are consumers.