David Graeber answers the provocative title question affirmatively in a recent Guardian op-ed, Caring too much. That’s the curse of the working classes (3/26/2014). The result of this excessive caring is “that the basic logic of austerity has been accepted by almost everyone: Why has the basic logic of austerity been accepted by everyone? Because solidarity has come to be viewed as a scourge” So while others may consider solidarity to be a virtue, Graeber believes that it is “the rope from which [the working] class is currently suspended.”
This marks something of a shift from his position on caring articulated in his magisterial historical survey, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, where he observes that the “non-industrious poor spent [time] with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, [thereby] probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.” Where “caring” prefigures the new society in Debt, it seems to anchor us to an austere present in the Guardian op-ed. If Debt was about the strange alchemy transmuting love into debt, this op-ed is about how caring becomes austerity – a Gordian knot if ever there was one! Fortunately, his austerity claims fail on several levels; the op-ed’s premise, that the working class accepts austerity is a shaky, largely false one. Further, even if we accept that the working class cares, it does not mean that caring predisposes one to austerity.
Does the working class accept austerity? … //
… Caring Work = Caring Class?
Let’s think about Graeber’s claim that working people are more caring because the majority of them do caring work. “Human beings are projects of mutual creation,” Graeber writes, “Most of the work we do is on each other.” As a result, workers “care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.” Okay, it’s a bit condescending. But is it true that because we work with/on other people, we are more caring?
This is a seductive hypothesis. However, it seems to ignore the actual work process and how people encounter one another in their highly constrained capitalist work places. At a micro-sociological level, it is not clear that the interaction between a service worker and their client is a human-to-human interaction – instead it involves two highly alienated forms interacting – e.g. a fast-food worker processing a long line of lunch time orders. Here the customer appears before the worker for a few seconds to confirm an order and make payment – even this may be automated so as to radically reduce any human, “mutually creating” interaction between the two.
Over the decades, a great deal of sociological work suggesting that working with/on people may be just as alienating as working on objects – calling into question Graeber’s hypothesis about caring work. Arlie Hochschild (The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling [2012, 1983]) drew on C. Wright Mills’ insight from White Collar, that salespeople sell their personalities. Hochschild took this insight further to examine the “the active emotional labor involved in the selling.” Her findings include the observation that emotional labor involves hiding and suppressing “inappropriate” emotions. As a result, Hochschild came to recognize that, “Beneath the difference between physical and emotional labor there lies a similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self-either the body or the margins of the soul-that is used to do the work.”
In this sense, it is hard to see why the labor should make us more caring. Indeed the opposite may be true as the emotional worker experiences dissonance between the work demands and their own reactions or underlying feelings. By the end of her book, we realize that emotional labor has its costs, including “numbness,” decreased empathy and its own sense of grievance. Intervening research has revealed that the work is complex and its operation across different work situations and managerial regimes suggests many different kinds of outcomes. Just as hard physical work may build muscles, it may also be debilitating. So too may be the case for emotional labor.
A recent doctoral thesis suggests that emotional labor may provide its own rewards in some circumstances. In another work, Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service, authors Mary E. Guy, Meredith A. Newman, Sharon H. Mastracci, quote one worker, “On a lot of days there are sometimes when you when you feel like you might want to explode… but then what comes to mind is that I am a professional…” Does this emotional restraint lead to acceptance austerity? Perhaps, but Graeber’s assertion does not find ready support in the literature.
Of course, Hochschild (in another essay) also deepened our understanding about emotional labor and also about the gender and transnational dimensions to this labor process: “Just as the market value of primary produce keeps the Third World low in the community of nations, so the low market value of care keeps the status of women who do it—and ultimately, all women—low.” She went onto analyze the importation of “pre-capitalist” love (from the Global South) into post-modern caring situations in the United States. All of this suggests the complex character of emotional labor… and also provides for other questions to be asked: for example, immigrant and people-of-color workers in the caring and hospitality industries, including home care workers, have been among the most militant of workers and swelled the ranks of the service workers’ unions in the United States (see for example, the actions by home care workers). Similarly, nurses and teachers whose work, above all else, is emotional labor, have been particularly prominent in labor challenges to austerity and cutbacks across the United States. So much for caring work generating acceptance of austerity!
Graeber teases out further inferences from his caring hypothesis. In the modest space offered by the op-ed medium, he suggests that we can understand nationalism and anti-immigrant politics (“manufactured abstractions”) as a redirection of this caring impulse. These too can be subject to sociological interrogation and the results will be ambiguous at best. For example, as David Roediger long ago observed in Wages of Whiteness, hegemonic political identities, German-Americaness in his case, are defined less by positive caring for an imagined German heritage and more by anti-black sentiments. Rather than caring, these identities seem to express aggression!
Although we have shown (1) that evidence for workers’ support for austerity is hardly unambiguous and (2) that emotional labor does not necessarily lead to greater caring, there is a more fundamental problem with the inferences Graeber draws from emotional labor. As a serious thinker, he recognizes this. If, as Graeber says, caring work has always existed, why didn’t it produce the same hypothesized demobilizing results in the past? At the end of the essay, Graeber gives us the answer by introducing another argument. Here he concedes that “we are seeing the effects of a relentless war against the very idea of working-class politics or working-class community…” This is too true. But then this observation is quite a different one from his thesis that we care too much; its subject matter is found in political institutions while the caring work thesis emerges from a potted industrial psychology. The lesson? Let’s get beyond attributing political outcomes (consent to austerity) to alleged psychological predispositions (caring) and start the hard work of experimenting with and developing organizational forms equal to the tasks of the day.
Treetop asylum: Refugee vows to ‘stay up’ against the Berlin ‘colonial’ system, on Russia Today RT, April 11, 2014;
Greenwald to RT: Germany must speak to Snowden about NSA surveillance, on Russia Today RT, April 11, 2014;
Germany: From Burger Flipper to Bürgermeister? Immigrant Could Become Next Berlin Mayor, on Spiegel Online International, by Frank Hornig, April 11, 2014 (Photo Gallery): With Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit facing his political Waterloo, all eyes have turned to Raed Saleh, who could become the first mayor of a major German city with foreign roots. The German capital’s changing demographics could help him …;
U.S. Claims Country Building Its Own Network to Protect Against NSA Spying Violates Trade Laws, on Global Research.ca, by Washingtons Blog, April 11, 2014;
Engendering refugees’ livelihood strategies: the case of the Iraqi diaspora in Damascus, on MMG.MPG.de, by Giorgio Heinrich Neidhardt, Fondazione Terre des Hommes Italia Onlus, Diversities Vol. 15, No. 1, 2013 – ISSN 2079-6595, 108 pdf-pages;
Forum: Social Vision and Strategy, on ZNet.