This piece originally published in Cosmonaut on 12/07/2019
I spend most of my days at a front desk, staring at a window with a grate over it. I watch the light change as the hours crawl. The room is an icebox, but since I am the first face anyone sees, I must be warm. My work can be summed up as an extra layer of emails that others must go through for scheduling with my superiors, processing payments, and ordering food and arranging rooms for meetings. I smooth out the tasks that others formerly had to do themselves. This role is designed to maximize the efficiency of the office functions of the organization. I have nearly perfected the process for email responses and calendar surveys, and reliably make payments on time. In down moments, I read the news or talk to people on Twitter. The 9-5 consistency and the chance to have the most pay I have ever been offered was something I knew I wanted, at least to avoid the precarity of other jobs. But between this schedule and living on the other side of town for lower rent, I’ve been kept from time with friends. The internet is often where I feel closest to anyone. I have never uploaded a picture to my work email because I am not there.
Here and there, complications come up that ruffle the smoothness expected from my performance. Sometimes there is not enough food at meetings. People might want hotel rooms booked for a large group with less than a week in advance to a popular location, and to add extra people at the actual last minute. Often I am sent payment information with incorrect routing numbers, delaying the transaction. Important people show up for meetings hidden from my calendars, asking about details not shared with me. When they sense my confusion, their brows furrow. I smile and think of something charming to say, hoping to see the tension in their facial muscles relax. When these moments happen, I do what I can to assuage concern and I keep things going.
The other day, this did not go as planned and food went pretty quickly. Someone important commented on my unsanitary handling of food. Others sat where it had been served, and getting more in the room ended up being difficult, so it was a distraction. My boss called me in for a meeting, asked what I thought went wrong, and gave me more precise directions on how to avoid this in the future. A professional development class is suggested. I am asked if I think this job is still a good fit for me. I think they are trying to see if I would quit on my own. There is a brief and quick flash of what I think is fear, as I immediately think of my rent, cost of food, other job prospects. That I am burdened with knowing these difficulties, while the present moment depends on me not betraying this, brings a lump to my throat, and I feel the pressure behind my eyes. Is this really about to make me cry? I hold it back, I smile, I assure them that I want to be successful. I take the notes down, I listen to suggestions for how I can order food better. I think about going home, and the next 5 hours until my partner gets home and I can see her again.
I realize that I am expected to perform an emotional ideal much of the time at my work. This has been true for all of my working life. This is not a unique experience in the life of the collective worker today and has given rise to a growing discourse on the subject of emotional labor. It spills out into new avenues of discussion of what exactly it comprises, and where the line between our exploitation and our personal lives exactly lies. In this discourse, it is not at all unusual to come across a wide range of positions, experiences, and reactions. Some attribute the discourse on emotional labor to an ideological basis, that this is simply a form of liberalism gone amok. There are those who see this as a symptom of the most recent, cogent reformation of capitalism’s development, neoliberalism and see it as a totality of marketizing emotional relations between social peers. This appears more accurate, yet more often than not glosses over exactly why the exploitation of labor now increasingly relies upon an assurance of the emotional presentation of the worker, and worse tends to display a tenuous grasp on what “neoliberalism” means except as a bogeyman for today’s ills.
What I seek to achieve here is a grounding of emotional labor as such within the context of Marxist political economy. We must see the discourse surrounding this phenomenon as a process in motion interrelated with the development of labor’s exploitation in an economy that has seen a dramatic rise in its consumer service sector. This acts as an arena of exploitation where the laborer’s access to the wage is increasingly under the watchful eye of every consumer and supervisor. From this, we can see what the growth of emotional labor as a discursive regime reveals to us about the state of alienation in the development of capitalism of late.
We have to begin this analysis with the understanding that, as proletarians and wage-workers in a capitalist mode of production, we have nothing to offer in order to reproduce ourselves except our capacity to sell labor-power as a commodity to the capitalist. This labor-power, as a commodity, must possess both a use-value for its buyer and an exchange-value for its seller. The use-value here is the capacity to perform a given amount of labor within a given amount of time. We must do this in order to earn our wage, the exchange-value for labor-power expressed as a price. We do this in order to use said wage to purchase our means of subsistence, sold to us in commodity form. The key here is that, for the proletariat in a society where the capitalist mode of production prevails, a basic survival and a guarantee of some quality of life depends upon the capacity to sell labor-power and to find a buyer. We must search for a master even if there exists no desire for such.
To this end, what is to be understood of the exploitation of emotional labor as pertains to the working life of wage laborers? Emotional labor is a term coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild, to give a name to the experience of the worker in managing, and through this, suppressing, their expressions and behavior in order to fulfill the emotional demands of a job. Hochschild finds three common elements to employment that require the use of emotional labor by the worker: “First, they require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public. Second, they require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person — gratitude or fear, for example. Third, they allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees.”1
These can be seen every day in almost any job that requires some form of interaction between the worker and a consumer or superior. The use-value of labor-power as a commodity in these jobs is reliant upon the capacity of the worker to both give an emotional performance and induce a specific affect in those they engage throughout. The worker is alienated not only from their labor-power, but also from their genuine emotional expression. We need not look far to find examples in gig economy jobs, work supposedly “autonomized” by a decentralized coordination of services via app, many of which impose a customer ratings system for every transaction made.
This is made even more clear when taking into account the rapid growth of employment in the service sector, encompassing a wide variety of professions and requiring constant interaction with the public as consumers. The growth of employment in service-based industries is far outpacing that of employment in direct manufacturing and production in the United States, and is expected to keep doing so over the course of the next decade.2 The stability of the wage in US capitalism of today, and thus the use-value of labor-power, is increasingly reliant on a capacity of the worker to perform an emotional labor in transactions: satisfy the boss and constantly ease the conscience of the customer, thus reifying the commodity in its exchange, transforming it into money, and allowing for capital’s reproduction to proceed accordingly. Though in Hochschild’s original research, published in the early 1980s, she found a prevalence for this type of employment in the clerical office and retail-oriented work of what then constituted the so-called middle classes, she offers a prescient observation for the future of this phenomenon:
“If jobs that call for emotional labor grow and expand with the spread of automation and the decline of unskilled labor — as some analysts believe they will — this general social track may spread much further across other social classes. If this happens, the emotional system itself — emotion work, feeling rules, and social exchange, as they come into play in a ‘personal control system’ — will grow in importance as a way through which people are persuaded and controlled both on the job and off. If, on the other hand, automation and the decline of unskilled labor leads to a decline in emotional labor, as machines replace the personal delivery of services, then this general social track may come to be replaced by another that trains people to be controlled in more impersonal ways.”3
The US economic situation of today is one of a rapidly deindustrializing imperial core. As a site of capital-intensive production that has shed living labor from its processes and automated many jobs out of existence, US development to date has given rise to a growing relative surplus population whose primary objective as a labor force is the circulation and consumption of commodities through sale and purchase. The privileged position of the US as a site to capture extracted surplus value from more labor-intensive production chains in global peripheries no longer supports the buffer from class struggle that the construction of a middle class once provided. As capital accumulation has intensified and reached new limits that pose as barriers to capital’s expanded reproduction, more avenues for circulation must be opened up. Over the past 40 years, during what can be understood as the neoliberal regime of accumulation, even the imperial core has seen the slashing and gutting of social support services from governments. This has led to increased privatization of that which used to sustain a state-supported social reproduction of the workforce and a degree of class mobility in the so-called middle classes. This onset of privatization and the accompanying deregulation of the financial industry that aided it can be seen as a period where capital accumulation outstripped the limits on profitability imposed by state-supported services towards social reproduction, as the organization of capital and labor underwent structural transformations on a global scale.4
It is important to contextualize this historically. The very reason that we see growing awareness of the exploitation of emotional labor, the fundamental coercion of this performance, is structured by the wage relation in this specific historical trajectory. This moment brings us upon convergence between, on the one hand, a stagnant, deindustrializing manufacturing sector placing the US proletariat more and more into jobs involving interpersonal social interactions, and, on the other, an era where the social reproduction of the proletariat as a workforce has increasingly failed. The expectation of emotional performance in the work environment, as well as the increased dominance of working life over personal life to accommodate for decades of suppressed wage growth to maintain profitability5, has led to an exhaustion of emotional capacity in personal life. The awareness of this has become a defining characteristic to the way that we understand alienation in capitalist society today.
At the base of all processes of capital accumulation is a separation, as in Marx’s “primitive accumulation” and Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession,” that acts to form the constitutive social relation between classes of production for exchange that is capital. In the instance of the worker’s emotional capacity as use-value of the commodity labor-power, a further separation is occurring. No longer is it simply the alienation of the worker from their labor-power, but now from emotional expression in this capacity as worker. Affect is commodified, and its appropriation as such here is with the intent to subvert the emotional capacity of the worker to the aims of capital. But as stated above, in the context of this period of capitalism’s countertendencies to declining profitability deployed with an intensifying aggression, we are approaching a severe limit to capital’s reproduction process. To this end, the commodity of labor-power, now as a commodified capacity to provide emotional labor in working life, is pushed to a limit in accordance with the demands of capital’s continued reproduction, and only moves to continually reach beyond that limit as capital stands on the verge of another crisis once again. We, as an increasingly debt-encumbered proletariat, sense this crisis every day. Every day at work is another day we must bear a false smile and perform positive emotional well-being if we are to stave off the looming threats of eviction, starvation, and immiseration that losing our job entails. The alienation of ourselves from autonomy over our emotions as the use-value of emotional labor is thus not only for the benefit of any given customer, but for the stability of the whole of capitalist society.
This brings us to Hochschild’s ominous foretelling of a “personal control system” above, as we have seen this degree of social alienation drastically restructure social life today. Susan Willis posits in discussing the political economy of domestic labor, in the example of the use-value of the married mother at home that in this instance does not fold the laundry, “it is only the failure to create use-value that can be made visible.”6 For the use-value of emotional labor, it is vital that the veneer of the laborer’s emotional state exists for the smooth realization of commodity value in exchange, and thus accumulation, to proceed uninterrupted. The failure to provide this exposes a dissatisfaction that reveals that the worker’s emotional performance is just that, a performance, and exposes all to the coercive regimes of personal control that we are all subject to under a life structured by the need to work for a wage. To this end, we find ourselves simultaneously existing at the other end of Hochschild’s prediction, where now a growing number of service-related jobs are also being automated out of existence. We need look no further than the growth of cashier-less lines at grocery stores and commodities delivered by Amazon drones. These systems themselves will never be free of human labor, though they certainly train us to internalize the fact that under the domination of the class relation of capital all human life is effectively disposable. The exploitation of living labor is merely a problem of geographic reorganization to areas where another section of the proletariat will bear the burdens of production.
We are now faced with a situation where, on the one hand, we are under the duress of an increasingly alienated and impoverished social life. This is carried out in exploitation of increasing intensity that pits us smiling, unwillingly, in front of any passing stranger that wishes to make a purchase. We are thus less emotionally reliable than any machine that may take our place. On the other hand, capital can not exist without our pliable consent to its processes and must sustain us. But this is now only possible in an environment where we are increasingly deprived of the time for the most emotionally fulfilling, deeply personal moments necessary for our own reproduction. The immobility of this immanent contradiction to capital’s expanded reproduction has driven us to a new discursive terrain for emotional labor, as we are increasingly aware of the contradiction and its effects.
There is the understanding that emotional labor, as contextualized within the working environment, is coercion of sentiment from the worker to induce a specific emotional affect in the consumer. This is fundamentally different from the role emotion plays for us in daily life, untethered to the demands of a job. To a social life amongst people outside of work, the use of our emotions is to be of authentic expression, fundamental to all communication. The labor of emotion in a context free of the wage-relation is not inherently a coerced act but part of our metabolism with ourselves and each other in social life for our own ends, for both pleasure and pain alike. To experience this as alienated labor for the drive of capital is to subvert this to the demands of the economic dictums of a mode of production that sells us back to each other in dead, objectified forms.
There is also the reaction of those who see emotional labor as coercion in life outside of the wage: the application of an awareness of the exploitation of emotional labor as a process to be mediated through an exchange where one previously did not exist. This has resulted in the notorious phrase “venmo me for my emotional labor,” a phrase that today is not always clearly situated in a space of either sincerity or irony. Phrases like “venmo me for my emotional labor” tend to draw severe ire in many online circles, and I can be sure many reading this have witnessed and participated in moments where they’ve seen this phrase used. The phenomenon to which this is a reaction to is certainly real. As seen above, it is also clearly rooted in a material situation of the prevalence of the exploitation of emotional labor. However, the application of the framework of emotional labor to interpersonal communication outside of waged work, if it aims to be a position that seeks to challenge oppression, does so by further naturalizing capitalist social relations, and thus fails.
It is certainly healthy and important to have emotional boundaries and to operate on the basis of consensual interaction in social life, but to do so by formalizing the emotional and making further transactional interpersonal experience amongst each other is to reify the customer-worker dynamic that prevails under wage labor. In the more vulgar iterations of this, we may see demands of monetary compensation for emotional labor. To seek to address emotional labor in this manner is to take up a rigidly economic line of reasoning that abandons the possibility of redeeming the social significance of the emancipatory use of our emotions for ourselves and each other while in the process merely affirming exchange-value as the basis for struggle and the measure of all value. There is no possibility here beyond a grafting of our exploited life onto the social, and falls prey to the same misgivings of those that call for the payment of labor its “full value” in the wage; a far cry from the emancipation of labor and the self-abolition of the proletariat, leading only to momentary placation until the next wage battle.
The quickness to invoke the issue of interpersonal emotional labor is, however, part of our collective rage at present — the era of human feeling being ripped from its bearers so we can buy and sell commodities more efficiently as the ship goes down once again. The displacement of this rage onto each other can appear a sound move, as such action amongst our own class is less prone to incur a retaliation that may have an immediate effect on needs such as food and shelter. It is the condition of having to sell one’s labor for a wage to purchase these means of subsistence that stands as the primary cause of our emotional exhaustion. The hegemony of work-life prevents us from critiquing these conditions deeply; from realizing that the wage is a scam for a rote labor of performative friendliness, politeness, denial of our free-time, emotionally taxing work-relations of sociability, or, at worst, dealing with the verbally abusive treatment common to the service industry. It is all incredibly draining, and it is no wonder that this current discursive trend exists. Insisting on a transaction to mediate emotional support might be the most revealing symptom of the domination of capitalist social relations. But bearing resentment towards friends needing emotional support should be recognized as a symptom of this. It obscures the origin of our dissatisfaction in the domination of our lives by the irrational demands of capital. If you’re looking for a target for the rage, take on the boss, the landlord, the capitalist, and abolish their class, for it is only through this conquest and transcendence of the capital relation that we may see the end of this exploitation of our emotional labor.
- Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
- See the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Employment by Major Industry Sector: https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/employment-by-major-industry-sector.htmThe Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City on the growth of the service sector:https://www.kansascityfed.org/en/publications/research/rme/articles/2019/rme-1q-2019
- Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
- For more on this, see: McNally, David. “From Financial Crisis to World-Slump: Accumulation, Financialisation, and the Global Slowdown.” Historical Materialism 17, no. 2 (January 2009): 35–83.
- See: Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume III. London: Penguin Books, 1981. Chapter 14 on Counteracting Factors of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall.
- “Playing House: Domestic Labor as Culture” in: Willis, Susan. A Primer for Daily Life: Studies in Culture and Communication. London: Routledge, 1991.