Notes on Emotional Labour & Woke Capital

There’s a great article on The Atlantic this week from Julie Beck on the current murkiness surrounding the term “emotional labour”.

In the article, Beck interviews Arlie Hochschild, who originally coined the term, and explores how its generalisation — to include forms of “emotional labour” that are, at the end of the day, just examples of good old-fashioned normal workaday labour — undermines attempts to raise consciousness about unnecessary emotional duress endured for the benefit of capital. 

At the start of the interview, Hochschild sets the record straight:

Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in [1983 book] The Managed Heart, is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it. From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this. Teachers, nursing-home attendants, and child-care workers are examples. The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.

[Today, the term] is being used to apply to a wider and wider range of experiences and acts. It’s being used, for example, to refer to the enacting of to-do lists in daily life — pick up the laundry, shop for potatoes, that kind of thing. Which I think is an overextension. It’s also being applied to perfectionism: You’ve absolutely got to do the perfect Christmas holiday. And that can be a confusion and an overextension. I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor. I would say that. But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied.

The most frequently deployed logic and understanding of emotional labour I’ve heard, unfortunately, is that it is hard to maintain interpersonal relationships sometimes… It’s not just been moved to the home from the workplace, as is argued in the article, but, in my experience, it’s a term that is used to generically refer to all kinds of social interaction that someone would just rather not do.

The main issue I have with this, as Hochschild goes on to point out for herself, is that when the term is deployed loosely like this, it is done so without any attention being paid to the specific class relations that are being twisted and often exacerbated in the process.

Hochschild highlights one particularly egregious example: 

One thing that I read said even the work of calling the maid to clean the bathtub is too much. It’s burdensome. I felt there is really, in this work, no social-class perspective. There are many more maids than there are people who find it burdensome to pick up the telephone to ask them to clean your tub.

Part of this is, perhaps, due to the term being so deeply gendered and becoming increasingly more so, which Hochschild sees, in many respects, to be a problem. She did not originally analyse emotional labour as an inherently feminine affliction and she seems to suggest that to readily associate it with women is a sort of back-handed sexism. There’s no denying that it is a term of particular use to a feminist politics under a capitalist patriarchy, of course, but any feminist politics that seeks to undermine class politics in the process of its analysis is not an adequate form of feminism at all. 

That being said, I’m aware that popular feminisms are an unfortunately easy target these days but this must be said and said more often. Identity politics, properly understood, obviously has its uses but the danger is that it is reduced to nothing more than a Woke Libertarianism which achieves nothing — boosting the bourgeoisiego and failing the classes who are actually afflicted.

At this point you might be thinking, “You’re a dude” — yeah, I know, I know, “so shut the fuck up” — but I start here mostly because this article is great and what is being described here is a symptom of a larger problem; an endemic one.

Many other strands of popular progressivism have focused intensely on the intersectional lines of race and (non-essentialist) gender politics in recent years — to their credit — but class nonetheless remains a consistent oversight — and a telling one. Whilst battles are won in the diversity wars along these other lines, class diversity remains years behind the rest, and our political thinking is also considerably less nuanced on this issue than on other issues of identity, despite all the apparent waffling that goes on about Marxism. [1] Perhaps most just assume that class is an integral ingredient in all other forms of social relations — which it is — and is therefore included by default, but this is not the case. Its persistent absence from populist discourses despite its structural centrality illuminates precisely who continues to control a lot of these debates on the left today.

The watering-down of “emotional labour” is a case in point. Properly deployed, it has the potential to be an excellent weapon in anybody’s theoretical arsenal. But not if, in generalising the forms of labour that the term is most usefully applied to, we continue to overshadow the particularities the term was coined to critique in the first place, especially when there are many companies that we could be challenging but don’t because they’re bastions of wokeness in other ways.

All of this takes me back to 2015, when I saw, first-hand, the harsh reality of my girlfriend’s experiences of working at LUSH. (I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for years because this has been a bugbear of mine for a long time… So excuse this rant-interlude.)

My girlfriend loves LUSH. Even now. With Christmas approaching, I know I’ll be popping into the hellscape that is their flagship Oxford Street store on some future lunch break to pick up some bath bombs. And their bath bombs are good. I’m partial to one myself if I’ve had a manually laborious week at work and need to decompress with a book and some multicoloured bubbles. The irony, however, is that the respite their products provide to people wholly contradicts the way they treat their staff.

Many people don’t seem to think of LUSH as being unethical in this way. They know the shop for its olfactory assaults and political activism — its corporate veganism, environmental and sustainability policies, campaigns against animal testing and for animal rights more generally, etc. etc. These are all good things to champion and the company seems to put a lot of money into raising awareness about these issues. It’s also obviously something of a marketing ploy — this 2016 article in The Guardian explores the impact of their politics on their market share explicitly — and sure, why not give people something to believe in, but if you’re going to sell your customers the illusion of ethical consumption, the very least you can do is extend it to your own shop floor.

When my girlfriend worked at LUSH she would so frequently come home in tears. She’d be emotionally exhausted after a fraught shift of adhering to the shop’s draconian regulation of staff emotions. If you’ve been to LUSH, you know this — the intensity of their staff, how they swoop down on you, beaming manically, welcoming you and positioning themselves as your own personal shadow. I think many would be forgiven for thinking you just have to be naturally wired and extrovert to work there but this is not the case. This behaviour is enforced and it blatantly and negatively impacts the mental health of those who work there. It is the direct result of workforce training and shop floor indoctrination. It is something that is actively policed.

ForAs long as LUSH continues to make its staff to work in this way, enforcing unnatural and often creepy expectations regarding their staff’s actual emotional labour, I can’t take any of their woke campaigns seriously at all. This is precisely the sort of situation that “emotional labour” — understood as Hochschild intended it — was made for but I’ve never seen anyone say a bad word against them.


On a lighter note, after working at LUSH, my girlfriend got a job at IKEA.

IKEA shifts were, I learned, manually intensive. You’d walk a lot and move a lot of stock, traipsing around your assigned department keeping things in order as customers streamed through like salmon, slapping stuff about all over the place.

People on the shop floor, despite appearances and expectations, are not employed as “shop assistants”. It’s simply their job to keep things flowing and in order. All onus to shop is left to the customer, collecting what you want and paying for it at the end.

IKEA apparently has its own draconian management problems but, because of this shop floor dynamic, being polite to customers was not enforced — at all. In fact, she’d tell me there was an employee subculture of grumpy solidarity. If someone gave you shit, as was a frequent occurrence in IKEA’s labyrinthine layouts, you didn’t have to take it. You couldn’t insult or verbally abuse, of course, but you weren’t being paid to smile so you didn’t have to. You were being paid to keep order and you could do that however you wanted. She’d come home on many occasions with stories about one particularly bolshy manager who had very little time for customers who took the piss and made their job harder than it already was.

That’s not to paint IKEA has some sort of gold standard employer, but I still laugh about these stories: how, post-LUSH, free disgruntled expression was a much-needed emotional outlet and, physical labour aside, it helped her recover.

Writing about all this, I feel a prickle on the back of my neck as I hear my own words resonating with a number of recent articles about so-called “Woke Capital”.

It is frankly embarrassing that things can get this bad; that this sort of cynical analysis, bastardising years-old leftist critiques, is seen as innovative. (It often feels like no political movement these days has any self-awareness. The left lacks any awareness of its own bastardising of right-wing self-interest and the right-wing lacks any self-awareness of its own (nonetheless inhumanist) progressivism.)

It’s notable, I think, that Woke Capital twists the same issues of “emotional labour” for its own similarly disingenuous aims. In particular, emotional labour seems analogous to the pressure of being “Made To Care” which the @WokeCapital Twitter account decried in a recent interview with Parallax Optics.

The Twitter account takes it upon itself to cynically highlight instances where corporate entities enforce progressivism on their staff for the sake of market survival. Whilst the contamination is derided from the other side of the political divide, the argument is effectively that of a libertarian “homocapitalism“. This could not be clearer than in the way the concept of “Woke Capital” is defined in the opening question as “the nexus connecting orthodox state progressivism to large ‘capitalist’ corporations.”

The interview even goes on to address “homocapitalism” for itself, seeming oblivious to the fact that it is parroting the critiques that LGBTQ communities have been making about themselves for years.

I think Shon Faye put it best, in this video from 2016 for Novara Media:

The problem with [Gay Pride’s] fixation on inclusion at all costs is that it’s something of a Faustian pact.

Some queers — most notably the white middle class gay men in the community — are offered the opportunity to partake in public life: you can get married, you can still rise to the top of your profession, and you can have various legal rights afforded to you. In return, you must not question these institutions any further and you must also shut up the more troublesome areas of your community.

(Note those dumb middle class politics again.)

As a result, the Woke Capital interview reads like an attempt to describe the other side of the bad “emotional labour” woke-coin — which is to say, it takes the side of devilish Capital’s own cynical self-interest in this Faustian pact (although @WokeCapital’s description in inevitably fed through the drunk Thanksgiving screeching of a disgruntled boomer):

Gays have no families, a ton of disposable income, and are incredibly loyal to those who validate them. This works on a few different levels. For starters, no families means they are ideal employees, since they have fewer obligations that could take them away from work. Additionally, the lack of family and stake in the future means more disposable income to spend now, making them ideal consumers of things. Finally, if there’s anything I’ve noticed about gays, it’s that they’re on average more narcissistic and insecure. As a result, anything that validates them and their feels will get them emotionally invested. Corporations have manipulated this impulse via cheap signaling, leading to greater profits and brand value.

This is no doubt offensive to many readers in its generalisations but it’s not hard to imagine that this is the way that many corporations actually think about LGBTQ demographics, strategically marketing their Pride parade floats through a homophobia-infused market analysis. As a result, it’s not a critique of Woke Capital from the outside but one from within: it’s the diatribe of a capitalist who dislikes capital’s promiscuous complicity as much as anti-capitalists do. (As if either side is going to change capital’s mind.)

In essence, the argument being made two-fold, mirroring that of the Cathedral itself: capital and its progressive bourgeois subjects are entwined in a parasitic death-spiral, each cynically using the other to ensure their own survival, but the ouroboros won’t be able to sustain itself forever.

@WokeCapital’s bleak predictions for our futures continue to echo those of a radical leftism:

Corporations are kind of in a bind where they have to play ball or be destroyed, and if they play ball they might still be destroyed anyway. In the case where a CEO doesn’t want to play ball, he can be removed from his position by an activist board. You don’t even have power over what you’ve built. So how does this all end? We will not see an end to this until we’re broke, or get a new religion, or both.

What’s the best-case scenario? According to @WokeCapital, it’s to end up with a capitalistic do-over: “Can’t we just go back to where we were about 100 years ago — politically if not technologically?”

It’s neoreaction, but a neoreaction fed on the trickle-down politics of a 2016 counter-cultural leftism. It’s evidently incapable of neoreacting fast enough.

[1] Sidenote #1: I feel like mentioning Owen Jones’ book Chavs here. A lot of people are cynical about Jones these days, having blossomed into a full-blown media pundit, but when I read his first book, very soon after it first came out during my first year at university, it blew my mind wide open. It was the best book for raising class consciousness in that moment but I remember being frequently ridiculed by middle class peers when sharing its arguments. He may have singlehandedly caused the word “chav” to fall into disrepute but the underlying sentiments remain. Little else has noticeably changed — especially in academia where, as I’ve climbed up the postgrad ladder, things have only gotten worse. People seldom talk about class anymore in the academic circles I’ve passed through and, if they do, they’re hardly ever talked about well (because, duh, academia doesn’t favour working-class people)…


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