CapitalismO.O.P.S.Sex & GenderThe LeftTheory & Practice

Emotions at Work

The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save — the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour — your capital. The less you are, the more you have… (Karl Marx)

Last week’s discussion began with Arlie Hochschild’s compelling work The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, a text that paved the way for the other readings that we engaged with during last week’s class, a couple of which I will discuss in this thought-piece. Hochschild opens, in her groundbreaking work, a discussion on the labour performed with and by feelings, which she labels emotional labour. Her primary example of where and how such emotional labour is performed revolves around the work of flight attendants, whose job description includes not only the display of emotions, but authentic emotions:

[I]n flight attendant’s work, smiling is separated from its usual function, which is to express a personal feeling, and attached to another one — expressing a company feeling. The company exhorts them to smile more, and “more sincerely” …

Such emotional work is, however, as Johanna Oksala points out in class, required today within most service work, which in contemporary American society comprises 75% of all labour. The services demanded within the service sector rely upon typically feminine traits and tasks, and even though affective work has historically been performed by women (in service professions), it is today, as Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri show in Commonwealth, demanded within most sectors of work. Hardt and Negri, drawing from Hochschild, argue that we must come to terms with the current state of capitalism where the product of labour, for example within service work, is not material goods, but rather immaterial and intangible commodities such as knowledge, relationships, and feelings. According to Hardt and Negri, this change from material to immaterial commodities allows us, in fact, to create freely and spontaneously for ourselves, within the sanctity of our own spheres, a place they name the common. The problem with affective labour is thus not inherent within such labour itself, but arises afterwards when our creative endeavors are parasitically taken over by capitalism in an attempt to create profit. The solution to this problem, for them, is therefore to remove capital from the equation, which would allow our own creative and spontaneous projects to remain within the common without being expropriated as commodities. Hardt and Negri thus see radical potential in the affective labour that contemporary capitalist society renders possible. During our discussion in class, these somewhat optimistic views on the radical possibilities suggested by affective labour, as well as the claims leading up to that conclusion, were however deemed slightly shallow. Is it for example true that labour has moved from the creation of material objects to immaterial artifacts? And is not the biopolitical production of immaterial commodities always-already embedded within capitalist logic? Our discussion in class suggested that Hardt’s  and Negri’s discussion on affective labour might be built on an immanent contradiction:  they seem to be suggesting that biopolitical labour is external to capitalism, but at the same time they argue that the capitalist system does not have an outside. In her text “Affective Labor and Feminist Politics,” Johanna Oksala is critical of Hardt’s and Negri’s approach to affective labour precisely for these reasons. Oksala is in effect also critical of Kathi Weeks’ appropriation of their project as a framework for her neo-Marxist feminist program, as seen in her book The Problem with Work. It is to this project I would like to turn next, since it didn’t receive a lot of attention in our class discussion, and since I find Weeks’ path to be an interesting way of pursuing feminist critiques of contemporary capitalism.

Work and Non-Work

Kathi Weeks revisits a largely forgotten strand of Marxist feminist thought that emerged in the 1970s in Italy, a strand of feminist thought known for its campaign for wages for housework, which we discussed several weeks ago in class. Weeks argues that the feminists at the forefront of this campaign demanded not merely wages for housework, but an alternative ethics, an ethics of non-work. The importance of their demand lies thus not only in its content, but in the demand itself and its performative capacities. And it is precisely the underlying goals fueling the wages-for-housework campaign that Weeks is interested in revisiting. Weeks’ aim is to bring the wages-for-housework campaign up to date, to see how their demands might be formulated by contemporary feminist thought within contemporary capitalist society. Through revisiting this campaign, Weeks develops strategies for furthering the creation of “nonwork time,” which have the aim of reconfiguring the relationship between work and life. Weeks develops a “postwork” or an “antiwork” ethics that rejects the notion of “life made productive and the ontology of man the producer,” central within neoliberal logic. Paraphrasing the initial quote by Marx that opened this thought-piece: Weeks tries to formulate an ethics that will allow us to be, not to have. Our readings of Marx and Engels at the beginning of this semester taught us that labour power is what creates value in the capitalist system. With Marx’s theory of value in mind, the consequence of the demand posed by the movement of wages for housework is then: if we refuse work as the organizing principle, or the “supreme calling” of our life, then what happens to the capitalist system? The consequence that the advocates for the wages-for-housework campaign was hoping for was its collapse. The principle that Weeks locates as directing capitalist society is the ideal of “productive activity,” which is somewhat paradoxically also found at the center of movements trying to refute capitalism, for example in that which Weeks calls “the orthodox Marxist celebration of productive activity,” as well as within large parts of, I would like to add, mainstream contemporary feminist politics. The wages-for-housework campaign was not, however, part of that “orthodox Marxist” project; they did not try to bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools (to paraphrase Audre Lorde). Instead, they celebrated another kind of ethics, not founded in productivity and activity. An ethics that Weeks calls an antiwork-, nonwork-, or postwork ethics, an ethics that deconstructs the notion of work, productivity, and activity as the central aspects of life. Surely, as Nancy Fraser reminds us in class, we must also be specific as to what kind of work we are talking about, since there was work in pre-capitalist society and since there will be work in post-capitalist society. How we organize that work is a crucial question that I think Weeks begins to address in her reformatory suggestions on how to conceptualize and organize work within capitalist society. She argues for basic income, a reform that in itself would not overthrow capitalist society, but that would give us all the opportunity to work less and spend more time eating, drinking, reading, thinking, loving, theorizing, singing, painting, fencing, going to the theater, dance hall, and public-house, as Marx said, and hopefully, it would also give us the time to organize the collapse of the capitalist system. Having acquired and assembled, throughout the duration of this class, a great number of tools with which to analyze the relationship between feminism and capitalism, and having listened to numerous accounts of the different forms that capitalism takes, I cannot but help to cast a critical glance at my own involvement in it. For example, while writing this text, I have remained curious as to what kind of activity I am performing. If writing texts or producing intellectual artifacts is a form of affective labour, in Hardt and Negri’s terms, then how am I to think of the labour that I perform while typing these words? Discussing Hardt and Negri, we saw how affective labour occurs in what they name the common, where for example intellectual labour is created spontaneously and outside a direct relation to capital. I wonder if the seminar room can be considered in terms of the common; and, if yes, then what happens when that seminar is made public? If the seminar room — typically a space of critical discussion where spontaneous creativity arises amongst peers — is a form of the common, then isn’t the travel of that discussion into the public sphere of the Public Seminar following a similar movement as the one that Hardt and Negri describe as the expropriation of the common? If writing this can be considered as affective (unpaid) labour, then who am I working for? Or rather, who will profit from this work?

Also for you:

Angelica Stathopoulos

Previous post

Germany's Awkward Farewell to Günter Grass

Next post

Affective Labor in the Post-Fordist Transformation