Michael Kinnucan

On Emotional Labor, Part 1: Seizing the Means


ISSUE 64 | REPRESENTATION IS NOT VIOLENCE | MAY 2016

What follows are extracts from a conversation between Michael Kinnucan and Caroline Lemak Brickman about emotional labor. Below is Michael's side of the story, as edited by Caroline; Caroline's, as edited by Michael, will appear shortly.


Hi Caroline,

Hm hm hm. I feel like we're catastrophizing.

First point: Marx already had a concept for women's work. He called it "reproductive labor"--the labor that goes into reproducing the labor-power that does productive labor. This isn't a footnote in his work, either: the first stage of class conflict in industrial capitalism, according to Capital, is all about reproductive labor. Industrial capitalism sucks women into the workforce and then extends the working day indefinitely, so that everyone in the family is working 14-hour days and no one has time to cook or clean or sleep or raise children, with the result that they all start to die. This is a "contradiction" within capitalism: capitalism needs a workforce but the dynamics of capitalist competition push individual capitalists to drive their workers to extinction. What happens? The workers' movement gets going, first of all, and the state becomes biopolitical, second of all--it notices that its working class is dying, and cedes to workers' demands for restrictions on work hours and especially women's and children's hours (children so they can be raised and women so they can raise children). The opening act of the capitalist class war thus brings workers and capitalists into conflict over domestic labor / housework, with the state intervening "against" capital in order to save capital from its own contradiction; the form that contradiction takes is the appropriation of women's labor-power, previously devoted to housework for their husbands. (This is a summary of "The Working Day" chapter of Capital.)

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So: does that mean we can just use the concept "reproductive labor" and be done? Mostly yes, but actually no. The Marxist framework sees women's work "from the outside," from outside the family and the subject-positions it enforces, from the perspective of the productive economy; from this perspective women's work operates as both support of capital (because someone needs to reproduce the workers) and limit of capital (because to the extent that women are performing reproductive labor and being exploited by capital they're too busy to perform productive labor and be exploited by capital).

What does this analysis miss? Well, gender, of course; from the perspective of capitalism housework could just as easily be equally shared among partners, it wouldn't matter in the least--in fact we've seen just that increasingly happen. Even better, from capitalism's perspective, no one could do housework, housework could be outsourced into the productive economy--more on this in a moment.

So what are the unanswered questions about gender? The key thing with gendered labor is that it's incredibly "mystified," the lines of exploitation are completely obscured by the cult of the hearth. Women aren't just supposed to cook for their family, wipe their baby's ass, etc., they're supposed to love doing it and be naturally suited to it. It's a guilt trip, and a guilt trip that makes it really really hard to negotiate for better conditions or even to recognize yourself as exploited. So, theses:

1) Housework is already emotional labor. It's emotional because it needs not only to be done but to be done with love, or presented as done with love.

Hence I disagree with you about "Wages for Housework"--the point isn't primarily to get paid but to get housework recognized as an exploitative wage-relation, by the women who do it as much as by anybody else. After all, housewives are already involved in a material exchange with compensation--and middle-class housewives get much more material plenty than, say, a janitor doing the same kind of work; the problem is that the whole relation is mystified. 

If I'm right about this then emotional labor is functioning exactly like wages for housework, the polemical point is still the same. Why the change? Because the demand of wages-for-housework has largely been met! That's the story of 20th-century feminism in a nutshell. Kollontai is really really correct about restaurants: the basic history of women in the last hundred years is that work that used to be done by women in the home has started to be done by waged workers outside the home. Refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, indoor plumbing, prepared food and fast-food restaurants, etc. etc. all basically take this form, and they've massively reduced the amount of domestic labor that exists by displacing it to factories and service-economy jobs.

2) The challenge of figuring out what to do with "emotional labor" is the challenge of describing a false consciousness which allows women to be exploited and which they are complicit in. No wonder we're worried it's making us sound like reactionaries. Attributing false consciousness is a delicate business.

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Luckily the impasse we're in (if women are exploited in ways that depend on their complicity in that exploitation, in their guilt, in their psychological investment in their own femininity, isn't it their own damn fault?) is not an arbitrary impasse you and I find ourselves in because we're too into BDSM, or too queer and radical--it's the ambiguous subject of femme women's own guilt. "Why am I such a pushover?" "Why did I sacrifice so much for him?" "Why do I fail at my career to take care of my kids, even as I fail my kids to take care of my career?" is a pretty characteristic position/question for women today; it's a double bind.

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Attributing false consciousness to a class requires knowing the true interest of that class. For workers, that is seizing the means of reproduction. What is it for women?

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You already made the key advance toward a resolution of this impasse, when we talked on the phone: emotional labor shouldn't be thought of as labor women do for men but as labor women do for the family. Women's emotional labor (all the listening and small concessions and little cowardices and acts of self-effacement that go into smoothing ruffled feathers) is what prevents the whole thing from going to pieces under the centripetal forces to which it is subject. If after the revolution it turns out that in our queer BDSM sex utopia women like to get spanked a little more often than men do, you know, so what, fine. That's not the problem. The problem is that the eminently contradictory and yet rigidly enforced mode of social reproduction (and the enforcement is not just or even primarily emotional, look up the stats on single mothers!) is so sad-making and crazy-making that it has to be constantly desperately knitted and reknitted, terms renegotiated, date nights planned, chores nagged for and children lied to and all the rest of it, and that work falls primarily on women (in large part because they're more exposed to the fallout when things fall apart), but it shouldn't be split evenly it should be eliminated. Women don't need to close the wage gap on housework, they need to seize the means of social reproduction. 

We need to specify that emotional labor is (not all emotional work but) emotional work devoted to reproducing the conditions of your exploitation. Socialize the care-functions of the family and dissolve it, invent less suffering and contradictory social forms, and we'll all spend all day long reconstituting alternative forms of kinship and getting spanked and even doing some dishes occasionally and it will be great. We'll have so much emotional work to do we'll think we'd better shorten the working day too.

And the dank little zero-sum resentment game of "politics" around un-"acknowledged" emotional labor is what happens when you rob a politics of the utopian air and light it needs to breathe. The political is all too personal here. 

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Let's not abolish heterosexuality just because some people whine; I think that's still protecting. And be full of hope: we've come so far on gender so quickly already, we've made femme so much more optional and therefore sexy than it used to be. Our daughters will be able to take it off or put it on with a toss of the head.