CapitalismO.O.P.S.The Psyche

Affective Labor in the Post-Fordist Transformation

Conversations about reproductive labor (what it means, how to map its boundaries, and especially how to understand its relation to productive labor in capitalist economies) have loomed large in our discussions of feminism and capitalism. This week, the turn to a more specific form of “female” labor both reanimates and complicates these debates. Broadly put, the idea of affective labor refers to the invisible yet intense work embedded in producing and managing our emotions (caring, listening, comforting, reassuring, smiling). This labor is gendered since it has been historically associated with female qualities and is therefore usually expected of women. An essential aspect of the shift from an industrial to a service-oriented economy is the dramatic increase in jobs that require such affective labor in exchange for money. In this piece I will analyze the all-encompassing theorization of affective labor as a general component of the post-Fordist capitalist economy (Hardt and Negri; Weeks), and the theoretical effort to be more specific about the particularity of this labor vis-à-vis other forms of labor (Hochschild; Oksala). In exploring what each of these approaches brings to light I will also integrate the discussion about commodification of affective labor in late capitalism.

Perhaps a necessary departure point is Arlie Hochschild’s theory of emotional labor, which she defines specifically as the expected production and management of emotions dictated by corporate management as part of the job. What happens to the worker when human capacities that we understand as private are put to corporate uses? Hochschild argues that an estrangement between the private self and public display is produced. Because service work demands treating the customer as a guest, the limits between house and work become blurred and the worker views the production of appropriate emotions as a moral obligation — except that it is not a reciprocated obligation.

In contrast, Michael Hardt regards affective labor as a more general, and crucial, aspect of immaterial labor: labor that produces immaterial goods such as service, information, or knowledge (1999: 94). Similar to Hochschild, Hardt defines affective labor as creation and manipulation of affects. However, he argues that the products of this labor are social networks, forms of community, and biopower: that is, the power to create society itself. Affective labor, moreover, is spread throughout the entire workforce, even the industrial processes we least tend to associate with affects. Thus, Hardt argues, there is no longer a distinction between production and reproduction.

What are the political consequences of this economic transformation? Hardt and Negri say that the production of “common forms of wealth” such as information, affects, and social relationships, is expropriated by capital to generate surplus value (2011: 139). In this sense, they align with Hochschild’s notion of a distinct form of alienation produced in post-Fordist capitalism. However, Hardt and Negri view biopolitical production by way of affective labor as a great potential for liberation, since it produces its own forms of social cooperation that may be turned against capitalist projects.

This framework is taken up by Kathi Weeks’ neo-Marxist feminist theory and her proposal that the “housework for wages” demand be reconfigured as a contemporary feminist demand for basic income. Her argument rests on the notion that there are no distinctions between productive and unproductive labor: reproduction has lost its site-specific aspect and is no longer “outside” capitalism.

Such theoretical and political understandings of both affective and immaterial labor can be problematic. Johanna Oksala’s critique (forthcoming) reminds us that making distinctions between reproductive and affective labor is crucial because it allows us to ask about the political and ethical consequences of the increasing appropriation of both types of labor by capital, which then transforms them into different forms of low-wage labor. In other words, we cannot compare a McDonald’s worker with commercial surrogacy pregnancy. As discussed in class, we need to recall the distinction between domestic labor (place-specific), social reproduction (which as function, can happen anywhere) and affective labor, which is neither a site nor a function but a particular form of labor in which we mobilize emotions towards a specific end. In this sense, even though post-Fordist capitalism does witness a growing visibility of commercialized affect, affective labor and production of life are not so readily comparable. We also noted in our session that Hardt’s idea of immaterial labor being dominant with respect to all other forms of work obscures the fact that creativity, knowledge, and information are still very much dependent on material products and labor.

While acknowledging the value of these critiques, I argue that Hardt’s and Week’s broad theorizing of affective labor as an encompassing feature of contemporary capitalism is also productive. It allows us to connect aspects of the economic order that would otherwise seem unrelated: for example, the emotional work that flight attendants or domestic workers have to perform and the personalized or customized service logics that underlie the financial sector or the entertainment industry. What I think is compelling about this view is the challenge to the distinction between productive and unproductive work in order to move away from the narrow understanding of “productive” labor as the only kind capable of directly producing capital.

It also seems important that we think critically about the concept of emotional alienation. As Kathy Weeks argues, Hochschild contradicts herself by posing an idealized private realm of feeling management and expression, against which she contrasts the appropriation of emotions by corporate interests, while simultaneously arguing that the public/private distinction is breaking down. In an insightful post in Public Seminar (2014) Cinzia Arruzza points out that “the social management of affects is not an invention of capitalism.” Like Weeks, she cautions against Hochschild’s notion of the penetration of capitalism into our private “authentic” selves, by arguing: “On the contrary, we may even think that a robust notion of the privacy of affects as characterizing what it means to be a unique individual arises with capitalism and modernity” (emphasis added).

I find this latter point an appealing site for further discussion. What, then, are the specificities of commodification of affective labor in capitalism? Are they related to corporate control of emotions and affective labor, as in Hochschild’s conceptualization? Or to historically specific conditions of exploitation of workers as producers of affective labor vis-à-vis its buyers, as Oksala seems to suggest when addressing surrogacy clinics in India? Are there specific “authentic” affective qualities that can only be exchanged without mediation of money? If so, how can we theoretically sustain this claim? Are not the very notions of authenticity and intimacy capitalist products, like Azurra suggests?

I would like to introduce the argument of distorted emancipation, made by Susanna Uhde, in order to highlight the political importance of these questions. Drawing on the case of care practices, Uhde argues that in late capitalism the commodification of areas of private life previously shielded from market relationships produces the emancipation of certain groups of women at the expense of others. The movement of care to the sphere of the market did not lead to the redefinition of the way we value reproductive labor: instead, it resulted in a “second-rate” job to be performed by women of racially and socially disadvantaged groups. “In this context the commodification of care thus comprises a paradox: by opening certain options of financial reward, it institutionalized double misrecognition of care as both non-productive work (1. layer of misrecognition) and paid work that cannot be a source of social recognition (2. layer of misrecognition)” (p. 16).

In other words, some types of affective labor (care) do not seem to afford the biopolitical power and social recognition that others (such as production of knowledge or information) do in Hardt and Negri’s framework. Thus, Uhde reminds us of the risks inherent in over-broadening the lens through which we theorize affective labor at the expense of obscuring its particular and historical configurations of race, class, gender, global capitalism, and migration patterns, among others. Making sense of the amorphous limits of production and reproduction in post-Fordist capitalism remains an unfinished project.


Cinzia Arruzza. 2014. “The Capitalism of Affects.” In Public Seminar.

Michael Hardt. 1999. “Affective Labor.” Boundary 26(2): 89-100.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. 2011. Commonwealth, pp. 131-178. The Belknap Press.

Arlie Hochschild. 1983. “Feeling Management,” in The Managed Heart. University of California Press.

Johanna Oksala. Forthcoming. “Affective Labor and Feminist Politics.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

Susanna Uhde. Unpublished. “From Women’s Struggles to Distorted Emancipation: The Interplay of Care Practices and Global Capitalism.”

Kathi Weeks. 2007. “Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics.” Ephemera, Theory & Politics in Organization 7(1): 233249.

Kathi Weeks. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Chapters 3 and 4. Duke University Press.

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