More thoughts on emotional labor and capitalism

I’m reading Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back and re-reading volume one of Capital simultaneously (kinda) and just finished chapter ten in Marx. Marx insists that capital is indifferent to labor’s reproduction there, arguing that capital extends the working day to the furthest extent possible. This is a result of impersonal market forces as much as personal greed–in fact, more so, since Marx views this as the part of capital’s impersonal social domination. The argument there is predicated on a view of human life and human labor as a limited capacity; at one point, he discusses how a blacksmith has a limited number of physical movements within him which would get him to the age of fifty, but capital insists he work at such a pace that he dies at age thirty-seven.

One might view Hochschild’s discussion of emotional labor as one that examines capital’s steady draining of caring capacity. One begins in fusion and slowly moves toward “going robot.” Except that’s not what we see happening. When fusion fails, this certainly happens, and impersonal social domination makes this failure happen more often than not. Yet I think we miss something important if we treat the capacity to care as part of this energetics/hydrological metaphor. Work drains energy, true, and energy is necessary to care. That remains true. But one does not use up one’s emotional capacities in activity. They could be traumatized enough to not work, dulled through repetition, but it seems a mistake to imagine this can be “used up” like life force.

This suggests two things, one about Marx and the other about emotional labor. First, the idea in Marx of life force being consumed by capital is too linked to the understanding of capital as an ecological metabolism. That’s not because it’s NOT a metabolism, but because it uses the metabolic to analyze all relations. Everything is a result of metabolic rifts. Capital’s capture of labor, for instance, is compared to the greedy farmer’s soil depletion. When it comes to labor, we are always dealing with abstract labor time, a perspective that leads him to analyze all labor in capitalism as approximating West Indian slavery.

Again, West Indian slavery is his specific choice of comparison for the British labor market. West Indian slave markets and British labor markets are drawn into a direct equivalence: “For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland, and Wales, for Africa, Germany” (ch. 10). Marx understands slavery as an institution in the West Indies, correctly, as focused on the destruction of enslaved labor in production.

The argument is that capital will extend the working day to extract as much labor from a worker as possible, pushing the worker past the limit of physical endurance in order to extract as much surplus value as possible. We can narrate West Indian slavery using Marx’s distinction between living labor as variable capital and dead labor as constant capital. In effect, it was a system, and capital as such is a system, which treats the enslaved as almost-dead labor. Hence Marx’s continued evocation of vampires and werewolves. Its treatment of the enslaved put them on par with constant capital: they were investments meant to be destroyed in the production process, their cost amortized over an understood period of time. Yet they must also retain their ability to create more value by adding labor-power to raw materials–that is, their status as living labor/variable capital. Without that, there is no surplus-value. Workers are caught in this gap between between labor-power which is sold as a commodity and labor-power as it is lived and exploited in production. Capital lives by exploiting this gap, extracting greater lived time from its workers than the commodity bargain claimed to value.

From this perspective, capitalism can be understood as purposefully destructive or simply indifferent to labor and the environment. It certainly destroys its raw materials in production to create new values and lives by extracting labor. It will take as much as it can get and then more. But while we can point to its most aggressive proponents of destruction, it is perhaps better to understand them as extracting a surplus-code of sadism from the indifferent destruction of capitalism’s impersonal structure.

What’s the point of all this rambling, though? What does it have to do with emotional labor? The problem is whether there is anything in the production process, in terms of emotional labor, which addresses that labor’s reproduction. Marx’s analysis suggests that the production process is essentially indifferent to labor’s reproduction. The reasoning here again mirrors the British labor market with West Indian slavery: capitalism can push past the limits of what labor can do, physiologically, because it can replenish its workforce without difficulty. This is not the surplus army of the unemployed, not yet. This is not a question of wages. It is simply that workers can be easily replaced. Labor here is understood as without qualities rather than unskilled. Any laborer whatsoever can replace any other. Constant inflows of labor (or raw materials) are what makes capital so rapacious and destructive. It cares only for the production of exchange-values, and will enfold whatever is available to it as part of the production process.

Is emotional labor so easily replaced, so lacking in qualities?

Paolo Virno has approached this idea through the general intellect, arguing that general human qualities have become key instruments in the production process. Does that make it easily replaced through constant inflows?

Perhaps in some forms, e.g., retail, food service, some elder care, but not in others, especially those regulated, e.g., nursing, teaching, and child care. In unregulated areas, where labor is readily replaced, emotional labor seems to be exploited to the limit as Marx would imagine. In regulated areas, however, labor inflows are limited. Nurses, teachers, and child care workers, for instance, need training and credentials now. They cannot be easily replaced by capital through new inflows (without waivers to the credentials, of course, which is one way that capital deals with this).

The question is whether the production process shifts in some way to address reproduction when it comes to emotional labor? Marx really doesn’t have any interest in the management of reproduction. That’s ideological window-dressing to the destructiveness of capital. If we put this alongside the changes in managerial thinking during the 1980s and 1990s mapped by Boltanski and Chiapello, we would expect to see some shift in ideas about work which would gesture toward changes or ideas that workers wanted. Freedom and creativity, for instance, were the pieces most discussed by Boltanski and Chiapello, but the overarching sense was that one could use or free up one’s capacities to do something important, valuable, or meaningful. (A bad gloss, I’m sure, but it’s one I’ll use for now.)

Labor that produces emotions is one that will, invariably, experience emotions in return. Such emotions will not necessarily by specifically prescribed emotions by the workplace so much as affective experience. What matters is that the experience is regulated in the production process by the workplace through explicit codes or implicit norms, what Hochschild calls feeling rules. A set of feeling rules could make the production process of emotional labor, itself potentially traumatizing, more or less so. The regulation of feeling for worker and client operates simultaneously and is a necessary part of production, even if it means simply “keeping emotions in check” through the process.

An insistence that a kind of emotional labor bears its own compensation–through the feelings it creates in the worker–is not just ideological, I don’t think. It seems an extension of managerial ideology and of feeling rules. To love one’s work becomes part of a set of feeling rules, a form of emotional regulation demanded by the work. It also serves a useful disciplinary function by creating a position of imagined fusion between self and work which the worker must project in the doing of that work.

None of this means that loving one’s work isn’t real. Fusion is real. And here’s where it gets even harder to discuss. It may not even be bad, necessarily, as long as fusion is fusion between a process that aims toward, in Marx’s words, use-values. What am I producing that does not tend toward exchange but toward use, in other words? This is often how workers experience this labor, as the evocation of emotion in a person for their use. The problem, as Hochschild shows in The Managed Heart, is when this work speeds up or is put into a position when it cannot be done well. Fusion fails and the use or care which the worker really does create cannot be created by the worker for the client or the worker as such.