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Socialists Need to Take Back the Term “Emotional Labor”

The concept of “emotional labor” can help us better understand work and exploitation. But when it’s used to keep score between friends and family rather than examine our relationship as workers, it doesn’t bring us any closer to liberation.

The seminal example of emotional labor that Arlie Hochschild wrote about is airline stewardesses, a highly feminized job where workers are always expected to be calm, accommodating, and friendly. (Wikimedia Commons)

The term “emotional labor” is a confusing one. It’s more than three decades old, but in the past few years, an upsurge in its usage has led to a mutation in its meaning.

These days, the term is often used to refer to women managing other people’s emotions, especially those of a boyfriend or husband, managing household chores, or even explaining concepts of patriarchy and racism to men and white people, respectively. Writing for the Toast, Jess Zimmerman sarcastically gives examples of emotional labor and their associated costs: “Pretend to find you fascinating, $100. Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150. Smile hollowly while you make a worse version of their joke, $200. Explain 101-level feminism to you like you’re five years old, $300.”

In fact, an actual “emotional labor invoice” has been circulated on social media, addressing many of the same concerns described by Zimmerman: managing the emotions of others (who are often implied to be straight white men) and explaining racism and systematic oppression.

But the term “emotional labor” came into use with a different meaning in a different context. The term was coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe the way workers must manage their emotions while on the job, and the kinds of jobs where that behavior is expected. The term has a deeply gendered character, as many of the jobs that require emotional labor are majority female, such as baristas, sex workers, and social workers. The seminal example that Hochschild wrote about in her 1979 book The Managed Heart is airline stewardesses, a highly feminized job where workers are always expected to be calm, accommodating, and friendly.

In a 2018 interview, Hochschild defines emotional labor as “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.”

This is a far cry from the charges per interaction that Zimmerman lists above. How did this conceptual drift happen? And why does it matter?

Part of the explanation lies in how individualized ideas about social change took hold as the upsurges of the 1960s and 1970s collapsed. For many on the Left in that era, revolution seemed right around the corner. But the prospects for radical change waned as time went on; movements were crushed while their leaders were killed or exiled, and economic crises helped produce reactionary backlash.

David Harvey, professor and author of A Brief History of Neoliberalism, explains that during this time, the capitalist class “reorganized its power in a desperate attempt to recover its economic wealth and its influence, which had been seriously eroded from the end of the 1960s into the 1970s.” Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the figureheads of this period and rang in a new global era of neoliberalism. Unions were crushed and social services slashed; we were told, “There is no such thing as society,” by Margaret Thatcher. The capitalist class’s new ideology, combined with exhaustion and pessimism from the losses of the 1960s and 1970s, led to a particular kind of logic that looked for solutions to societal problems in atomized, individual relationships and actions rather than collective ones.

Thus, it’s not hard to see how a concept that was initially about analyzing workers’ working conditions turned into an argument for a woman’s male friend to Venmo her $50 for supporting him through his breakup in 2019.

While the term “emotional labor” doesn’t exactly refer to the duties often hoisted on women in the home, that labor and its gendered dynamics are still important sites of analysis and struggle. Socialist feminists in the 1970s theorized and agitated around a demand of “Wages for Housework,” the idea that cooking, cleaning, and generally keeping up the home was indeed work, and that work needed to be compensated. Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici writes in her seminal 1975 piece “Wages Against Housework:

Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable, and even fulfilling activity to make us accept our unwaged work. In its turn, the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it, except in the privatised kitchen-bedroom quarrel that all society agrees to ridicule, thereby further reducing the protagonist of a struggle. We are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle.

Federici legitimized housework and domestic work as a site of class struggle for working-class women. So while it is not exactly emotional labor to do your boyfriend’s laundry, the task is a gendered one that socialists have long analyzed.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist feminists like Federici and Angela Davis debated the best way to fight against this gendered work: through demanding wages for it, or through its socialization into a communal activity. Davis argued in her classic book Women, Race and Class that women of color, particularly black women and immigrant women, had been paid for the domestic work they had done as maids, nannies, and domestic workers, and yet were no closer to their own liberation. She writes that instead of wages for housework, “What is needed, of course, are new social institutions to assume a good portion of the housewife’s old duties.”

More recently, socialist feminists like Tithi Bhattacharya have theorized the idea of social reproduction, which includes the things needed for workers to be able to work every day — to “reproduce” ourselves. We need clean clothes and food and, eventually, new workers.

The work associated with social reproduction — from the home, to birthing and parenting and teaching those who will become workers — is highly gendered and feminized. It’s often devalued, either literally by paying those who do it very little, as Davis describes, or by making it invisible, as Federici describes above.

Ideas around domestic work, gendered expectations of labor, and how to fight against women’s oppression are all valid for socialists to analyze. The issue is that none of those things are emotional labor.

Why does the distinction matter? Because we need to have an accurate analysis of our conditions as workers, who our enemies are, and where our power lies.

A framework of emotional labor might inform the labor struggles of social workers and therapists — with emotionally draining jobs, these workers deserve to be compensated fairly and have lower caseloads in order to recover from intense workdays. It could inform the fights of food service workers — if they didn’t need to rely so heavily on tips and instead had a regular, hourly wage, the amount of emotional labor they would have to expend on the job would be reduced.

Emotional labor is a powerful concept. But when it’s used to keep score between friends and family rather than examine our relationship as workers of all kinds to what’s holding us back in society, it doesn’t bring us any closer to liberation.