April 14 2021
To survive in a capitalist society, we depend not only on paid work but also on all the activities that maintain our wellbeing. Capitalism creates harm through the exploitation of workers and imbalances of power between workers and capitalists; but it also does so through working conditions that often lead to physical and emotional injury. Stress, feelings of alienation and boredom, and repetitive strain injuries are all everyday conditions of work under capitalism. Workers often struggle to meet their needs within their workplaces. It is therefore only after our shift has finished that we are able to begin to heal some of the hurt produced by work under capitalism. But meeting our needs and compensating for stress and emotional harm is itself a form of work.
In recent years, scholars and activists have paid closer attention to the work that goes into reproducing the workforce – cooking, doing the dishes, looking after children, taking care of the sick and the elderly – often through the concept of ‘social reproduction’. But there is also an important emotional component to a lot of this work. Improving the mood of others, soothing children, comforting a partner who has had a bad day, cheering up lonely relatives – these are all examples of how we try to meet the emotional needs of people around us. Family is supposedly the sphere of our most important relationships, and a lot of our emotional needs are met within the private sphere of the home. We often don’t think of domestic activity as work at all; rather it appears as a spontaneous expression of feeling. But if it doesn’t get done, we notice that something is missing.
The work of emotional reproduction
What I call ‘emotional reproduction’ is the work of producing good feeling, and healing the hurt generated by living in a capitalist society, so that people feel able to return to work, day after day. Left uncompleted, it leads to loneliness, poor mental health, and sometimes physical illness. Right now, we’re witnessing a crisis of emotional reproduction, as many traditional support systems have become increasingly threadbare – from state-provided mental health care to the safety network of the family.
Emotional reproduction can become more visible when it is turned into a commodity. Today, there are many commodified services that seek to address problems arising from our poor mental health and loneliness. The term ‘emotional labour’ is often used to describe this work of communicating feeling to make customers themselves feel a particular way. These services seek to produce a certain emotional response in the consumer; often that warm feeling of niceness, of being cared for. A cashier or airline stewardess might offer a smile and some friendly conversation to make customers feel good. This emotional labour, sociologist Arlie Hochschild argues, is a feminised skill, predominantly performed by women. Hochschild coined this term in 1983, as emotional labour was becoming increasingly commodified in the burgeoning service economies. When women’s previously unpaid labour of attending to the emotional needs of others became central to the emerging service economy, it also became more visible as work.
If emotional reproduction often only becomes visible when it isn’t done, or when it is commodified as a service, we can begin to rethink what work is. Work has often been conceptualised as the activity of transforming raw material into a product. But ‘work’ isn’t limited to the process of producing something that is external from the producer. More clearly than other types of labour, emotional labour shows how work can be focused on the production of the working subject itself – it creates a personality skilled in this particular form of labour. Emotional labour shapes the emotions and desires not only of the recipient of emotional care, but also the person who performs this work. This doesn’t mean that people can’t feel a disconnect between the emotions that they are told to perform within a particular labour relation and the emotions they experience as genuine. But people who are good at this type of work often see themselves as emotionally generous and attuned to the emotional needs of others. Work, then, has the ability to deeply shape how we experience ourselves. When workers have to develop particular skills, this impacts how they perceive their own “authentic” selves. This is particularly the case with gendered labour, where the skills necessary to perform this type of work are often developed from childhood. It is in the family that girls first learn that they are expected to be attentive to other’s feelings, and often put other people’s emotional needs ahead of their own.
Beyond the family
What I call emotional reproduction goes beyond the commercialised forms of emotional labour that Hochschild and others have studied. It’s not only the labour of creating good feeling, but a system of relationships, values, needs and aspirations necessary for this labour to take place. Emotional reproduction both produces and is produced within specific and conventional relationships of labour. It often takes place within the family or within the romantic couple. It is here that we find the most “genuine” and therefore most effective forms of emotional reproduction. We find solace in our most intimate connections, and hence seek to reproduce those very same social forms. In our society, emotional reproduction is a zero-sum game where emotional intensity depends on exclusivity. Our family relationships are experienced as emotionally charged because they are exclusive, dependent on perceiving partners and family members as a type of property. In her book Family Values, Melinda Cooper shows that while capitalism has often been seen as creating isolated individuals, it is better understood as producing small and isolated units of care. This has become increasingly apparent under neoliberalism. When Margaret Thatcher argued that there is no such thing as society, she insisted that there are not just “individual men and women” but also “families”. In practice, neoliberal individualism often means not just caring for oneself, but looking after oneself and one’s family.
The nuclear family, then, is the conventional structure of emotional reproduction, where we are expected to find deep and meaningful emotional connection with other people. But this social form also excludes many people. Queer people, for example, have historically been excluded from the nuclear family, and have either experienced loneliness and isolation, or invented other forms of caring for one another. Instead of trying to make the current family more inclusive, for example by extending the legal rights to marriage and adoption, we could challenge the very privatisation of feeling that dictates that people can only get their emotional needs met within the small unit of the family.
Emotional reproduction hence names the ways in which we depend not only on physical acts of care, such as cooking or cleaning, but also the feeling of being cared for. We are all dependent on other people, who can attend to our emotional needs. Reproduction under capitalism assumes emotional investment in this society. It is through normative forms of care that we come to form attachments to society as it is, and learn to desire the reproduction of the world as we know it. Only by inventing other types of sociality, and other forms of emotional attachment, can we therefore struggle against the current organisation of society.
Alva Gotby is a feminist theorist researching social reproduction, queer Marxism, labour and emotion. She holds a PhD from the University of West London. Her thesis ‘They Call it Love – Wages for Housework and Emotional Reproduction’ explores the writings of the Wages for Housework movement and outlines a theory of the role of emotion in capitalist social reproduction and the reproduction of gendered differences. She is currently working on a book on the same topic. Alva is also active in political struggles related to housing and prison abolition.