Let’s talk a bit about my personal experience within my workplace, a restaurant/bar called Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. I don’t want to scare you away by talking about how this is a Marxist analysis, but I won’t lie, it is. I literally wrote it for a class called “Marxism for Activists”. But it’s also a reflection of my time working in the service industry, and explores how it is interesting to consider this kind of work within the realm of social science. So give it a chance, I’d love to know what you think.
A restaurant is an interesting place to conduct a Marxist analysis, because, in my opinion, the service/hospitality industry is one that in many ways reduces levels of alienation, has multiple layers of commodification/not commodification, and in which labor exploitation is rife. To work in the hospitality industry (and I am speaking about this industry as it exists in the United States) is to work primarily at the whim of the consumer, to have one’s living wage dependent on tips — money “gifted” by the consumer — in an amount which the consumer sees fit. But it is also a system of interactions, a push and pull between service providers and consumers, a delicate balance of creating and saving face, of providing both honesty and falseness. People don’t go to restaurants to eat and drink, they can and do do that for much cheaper, at home. People go to restaurants, and bars in particular, for an experience of service.
As a bartender, I both do and do not face alienation. I personally juice all of the lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits that I later use in the drinks that I both make and serve to customers with whom I interact from the moment they walk in the door of my restaurant, to the moment they leave it. For most of my shifts, I work alone; in other words, I am the only bartender in the restaurant for the duration of my paid time there. What this means is that any task involved with the preparation and service of drinks as well as the service of food to customers seated at the bar falls under my jurisdiction. I am intricately involved in the process of preparing drink ingredients, of putting these ingredients together in order to form a complete beverage, and of the entire process of interaction with and service to customers. To put it simply: I am not simply a cog on an assembly line, I am the entire assembly line itself. I feel a connection to each of the drinks I make, and each of the citruses I juice, and each of the customers I interact with.
However, I do not grow the lemons I juice, I do not cook or grow the food I serve to my customers, and I do not wash all of the dishes in which I serve the drinks that I make. These are all things that are done by, most of the time, an unnamed person with whom I do not interact. These are actions which I expect to occur time and again, without much consideration about who completes them. In this way I am a perfect example of alienation from the full labor required to create the finished product of a commodity available at my workplace. I am merely a part of the process. I could spend hours intricately examining the ways in which I am and am not alienated in any of the jobs I have held throughout my lifetime, but that would be missing the point; the biggest difference between my work in the hospitality industry and my work in other sectors is the level of interaction I have had with both the consumer and the means of production required to produce the commodity being purchased in real time.
What is commodified in my bar? Everything. Most obviously, the food and drinks being provided to the customer. But less obviously, all the things that go into what people would describe as “good service”. A way that I describe it to my friends is by explaining that as a bartender, I am whoring out my personality. Because I work for tips, it matters less the actual quality of the food and drinks I provide (though this does obviously matter as well) than does the service I provide while serving these things. I’ve rarely heard a story about a bartender that served incredible food/drinks but who was very rude, unlikeable, and unpleasant to be around, it’s just not the way you meet success in this industry. Like I mentioned before, people don’t come to bars and restaurants just to drink and to eat. They come to be served, to be treated as guests, to alienate themselves further from the process of food and beverage production and to fool themselves into a level of luxury historically reserved for a precious few (I use the term “luxury” very loosely here, there are varying levels of bars/restaurants, some being less than luxurious than others).
And yet, commodities, money, the relationship between consumer and producer is not always everything. These lines of what is economic and what is not in the service industry are often blurred, and my job is not immune to this. People come to bars to be served, but they also come to them to be human, to demonstrate and experience their humanity. I am intricately familiar with the stereotype of the bartender as sympathetic listener, with the experience of alcoholism as a method of coping with an inability to accept societal norms. People come to my bar and they spill their insecurities, they ask me obsessively about my own life — perhaps sometimes as a method of escapism — they talk with me and we find things in common, and the difference between us, the tip I am working for, becomes less relevant. I love happenings like this, I am a very social person first and foremost, but also live for the opportunity for social experimentation, for challenging norms and hegemonic structures. To make a clearly paid interaction not appear to be so clearly between a server and a consumer makes me happy.
It fascinates me to see the ways in which the service industry is being automated, the ways in which the alienation that plagues so many other sectors can permeate even an industry dedicated to social interaction between producers and consumers. Do I think my job is in immediate danger? No, but I do believe that in the coming decades my job will be changed in ways that I cannot even fathom. To think that pouring your own beer for the same price as having someone pour it for you is a luxury is a ridiculous concept to me, but perhaps I simply don’t see the allure of bartender-less beer bars; perhaps I am too old fashioned for this aspect of San Francisco service industry culture.
How am I exploited? Every time someone forgets my humanity, viewing me instead as an extension of the commodity they are purchasing, or as a small piece in the larger, more important picture of the restaurant as a whole, that is an exploitation of my social labor as a bartender. When people step over my head to ask questions of my manager, when people objectify me as a woman (which is sadly common within the industry coming both from consumers outside and industry people within), when people disrespect my position as “not a real job”. Let me be clear, there is a distinct hierarchy of the staff within a bar, and I have been on many levels of it; being a bartender is the highest I have ever been and I have no intention of going higher or lower within this power structure. But even at this level, I am still exploited, and I am forced to accept this exploitation as a fact of the industry I have chosen to put myself into. I have been asked to do extra work without extra pay, have been deprived of mandated breaks, been cheated out of tips. I won’t say that I’ve seen it all, but in the grand scheme of “it” I have seen quite a bit.
I won’t lie to you or to anyone else: I bartend for the money. I am in grad school to follow what I am interested in and passionate about. I am directly influenced by the capitalist structures I fight against but also live amongst. But just because I am in it for the money doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy it or enjoy the things I learn along the way. There’s a lot to be learned working in the service sector, anyone who tells you otherwise has never worked in it.