Kathi Weeks, “Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics”
“Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics”
ephemera 2007 volume 7(1): 233-249
Feminist theorists have long been interested in immaterial and affective labor, even if
the terms themselves are a more recent invention. Their early explorations of immaterial
laboring practices and relations were part and parcel of the struggle to expand the
category of labor to include more of its gendered forms. Affective labor in particular
has been understood within certain feminist traditions as fundamental both to
contemporary models of exploitation and to the possibility of their subversion.
Contemporary discussions of the concepts of immaterial and affective labor could be
enriched by a better understanding of these lineages. Towards that end, this paper will
focus on two pioneering feminist projects: the second wave socialist feminist effort to
add a critical account of reproductive labor to a Marxist analysis of productive labor and
Arlie Hochschild’s landmark addition of the emotional labors of pink collar service
workers to the critical analyses of white collar immaterial labor exemplified by the
work of C.W. Mills. By focusing on what each of these feminist interventions
contributes, one to Marxist critique and the other to the critical sociology of service
work, one can better understand the specificity of labors in the immaterial mode and the
difficulties posed by their theorization.
The significance of these two feminist projects, however, lies not only in the quality of
their analyses but in the force of their critiques; that is, they continue to be valuable not
only for the way they map these developments theoretically but for how they confront
them politically. Thus I want to pay particular attention to their contributions to the
project of politicized critique: critical evaluations with political intent or analytics that
are attentive to possible lines of antagonism. Socialist feminists, for example, built on
Marxist political economics to conceive unwaged reproductive labor, particularly
household caring labor, both as a locus of exploitation and as a site from which resistant
subjects and alternative visions might emerge. Mills and Hochschild drew instead on
versions of the Marxist theory of estrangement to gain critical purchase on capital’s
increasing reliance on immaterial and specifically affective forms of labor.
Both of these critical strategies ultimately fail in my view; but, as it turns out, their
failures are as instructive as their achievements. Despite their many breakthroughs, each
of the approaches is limited by its recourse to a critical standpoint and notion of
political resistance grounded in an outside: in a reproductive sphere separate from
capitalist production proper or in a model of the self prior to its estrangement.
Regardless of whether or not these approaches were once adequate, such a reliance on
an outside proves increasingly untenable under the conditions of post-Fordist
production and reproduction.
The first part of this paper will briefly revisit the socialist feminist tradition and the
second will take up, in a somewhat longer discussion, the contributions of Mills and
Hochschild. In the final section I want to begin to think about the terms of an alternative
theoretical approach. Drawing on both the insights and blind spots of these earlier
projects, I want to present some very preliminary ideas about how one might approach
the development of an immanent strategy of critical/political intervention, one that
could perhaps afford another angle of vision on and frame a different kind of political
response to post-Fordist regimes of work.
Socialist Feminism and the Exploitation of Domestic Labor
In order both to get a better handle on the concept of immaterial labor and to gain a
deeper understanding of the challenges it poses, I think it is useful to return to the
Anglo-American socialist feminist tradition, and specifically the analyses that were
produced in the period from the late-1960s to the early 1980s. These were some of the
earliest attempts to grasp the specificities of immaterial labor in a period still dominated
by the paradigm of material production. As a project dedicated to mapping capitalist
economies and gender regimes from a simultaneously Marxist and feminist perspective,
the tradition was focused on understanding how various gendered laboring practices are
both put to use by and potentially disruptive of capitalist relations of production. The
literature was fairly broad and diverse; I will treat only two of the specific discourses,
one from the early part of the period and the other developed in the later years. These
are the domestic labor debates, which attended to domestic labor in relation to Marx’s
theory of exploitation, and socialist feminist standpoint theory, which was more
interested in the subjects situated within, and agents potentially poised against, the
systems of capitalism and patriarchy.1 At the highest level of generality socialist
feminism in this period can be said to have focused on the contradiction between
processes of capital accumulation and social reproduction. Although they gestured
toward a more expansive notion of reproduction as the work of creating and sustaining
social forms and relations of cooperation and sociality, they typically settled for a
narrower conception equated with unwaged housework and caring labor, confined to the
space of the household. They grappled with the questions of how to understand, assess,
and confront the relationship between capitalist production and domestic reproduction.
This recognition of the household as a site of social reproduction entailed the important
struggle to expand existing notions of work. Certainly one of socialist feminism’s major
achievements in this period was to rethink dominant conceptions of what counts as
labor and attend to its gendered relations in a time when work was typically still
equated with waged production of material goods.
But as noted earlier, the 1970s tradition of socialist feminism is instructive not only for
its successes, but for its failures as well. In particular I think it is useful to remember
how much resistance there was to this feminist expansion of the categories of work and
production. The earliest of these projects, grouped together under the heading of the
domestic labor debates, is particularly interesting for some of the specific terms of the
disagreements and their effects. Although the debates were fairly wide-ranging, over
time the arguments came to hinge on the question of whether domestic labor was best
conceived as internal or external to capitalist production proper. Was the domestic
realm part of a capitalist system or a separate mode of production? Was domestic labor
an instance of ‘unproductive’ labor which, since it does not create surplus value, is not
central or fundamental to capital? Or was it a form of ‘productive’ labor that produces
surplus value either indirectly or directly and hence must be conceived as an integral
element of capitalist production? Was it subject to or exempt from the law of value and
thus marginal or integral to the process of valorization? In short, was domestic labor
properly inside or outside capitalist production?2 The debate was thus reduced to
roughly two positions: the more unorthodox participants conceived the waged labor and
household economies in more integrated terms and struggled to challenge the basic map
1 A third discourse, socialist feminist systems theory, which concentrated on mapping the relation
between the systems of capitalism and patriarchy, dominated the period roughly between the
domestic labor debates and the early development of socialist feminist standpoint theory. For
examples of the domestic labor debates see Malos (1995); for some of the original contributions to
standpoint theory in its socialist feminist mode see Harding (2004); for representatives of systems
theory see Sargent (1981). Alternative versions of these three projects, which are not subject to the
same limitations I go on to outline and which continue to prove valuable today include, respectively,
wages for housework (see, for example, Dalla Costa and James, 1972), post-Fordist socialist feminist
standpoint theory (see, for example, Haraway, 1985), and unified or intersectional systems theory
(see, for example, I. Young, 1981, and Glenn, 1985). Although socialist feminism lives on
(sometimes under other labels), the late 1960s to the early 1980s marks the period of its peak.
2 Part of what was at stake here was a question of political strategy: should feminist struggles be
autonomous from or integrated within working class organizations and agendas?
of capitalist production, whereas those holding to the more orthodox line, which came
to dominate the debate, insisted on some kind of dual systems distinction. Drawing on
Marx’s original distinction between productive and unproductive labor, the more
orthodox authors defended a narrow understanding of capitalist production tied closely
to the industrial paradigm.
Given the dominance of this essentially Fordist industrial framework of the domestic
labor debates, it is perhaps not surprising that there was a tendency on both sides to
privilege the example of housework over affective forms of domestic labor. Indeed, one
of the things that is so striking about the literature from a contemporary perspective was
how rarely the specificities of caring labor were addressed, a tendency perhaps
attributable to the feminization of the work (and hence its status as ‘shadow labor’), to
the preeminence of a rather orthodox brand of Marxism, and to the hegemony of the
Fordist imaginary. Even the more unorthodox participants who claimed the
fundamentally capitalist character of domestic work tended to overlook or
underemphasize caring labor. On one hand, they recognized that labor was not only
activity that created objects; on the other hand, they tended in this period to focus on
domestic labor’s resemblances to such work, possibly to help make the case that
domestic work and the women to whom it was assigned were relevant objects of
Marxist analysis and subjects of revolutionary politics. To the extent that housework,
for example, could be characterized in terms of the production of use-values for
consumption, it was perhaps easier to accept as labor. In this context it was no doubt
more difficult to grasp the relationship between caring practices and value-production.
By the late 1970s the domestic debate had exhausted itself on the shoals of the
inside/outside controversy. What started as a wide-ranging exploration of the
relationship between capitalism and domestic work narrowed down to repeated stagings
of the debate about whether domestic practices and relations were integral to or
relatively autonomous from capitalist production.3 The more orthodox claim that
domestic labor was different from and hence part of a distinct circuit outside capitalist
production emerged as the dominant line. Reproductive labor in the domestic realm was
then either relegated to a territory outside capitalist production proper or perhaps
included inside, but typically insofar as it could be likened to or directly implicated in
industrial production. Dual systems logic predicated on a model of separate spheres
came to dominate not only the specific terms of this debate but much of the subsequent
socialist feminist literature in the period.
Socialist Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Subjects of Resistance
In contrast to the earlier domestic labor debates, socialist feminist standpoint theory –
and here I am concentrating on the period of the later 1970s and early 1980s – more
often focused on caring labor, embracing its differences from industrial production as a
3 For a useful overview and critical analysis of the domestic labor debates see Ellen Malos’
introduction and concluding essay in Malos (1995).
potential source of alternative epistemologies and ontologies. Indeed, standpoint theory
is of particular relevance for our purposes here both for its early explorations of
affective labor and for its attention to the possibilities of resistance it might enable.
Between the spheres of household and economy, the contradiction between the
exigencies of capital accumulation and social reproduction gives rise to a variety of
disjunctures and conflicts that could generate critical thinking and political action.
Where the domestic labor literature concentrated on mapping the gendered patterns of
exploitation, early standpoint theories focused more on the possibility that revolutionary
projects could emerge from these exploited practices and marginalized subject
positions. Reproduction, again typically equated with domestic space, is the site from
which feminist political subjects might be constituted and alternative visions imagined.4
The terms of the inside/outside division figured differently in this discourse. In the
context of the domestic labor debates, the most compelling contributions from a
contemporary perspective were those unorthodox arguments that pressed for a more
radical reconception of capitalist production that could encompass the domestic sphere
as an integral node in the circuit of value creation. But again, given the way the debate
was typically framed, domestic labor was often taken to be inside capital to the extent
that it resembled and was thus comparable to waged labor in the industrial mode.
Standpoint theories, in contrast, explored the differences of domestic laboring practices,
embracing the otherness of caring labor as a potential critical lever and site of agency.
This reproductive ‘women’s work’, which is at once necessary to and marginalized by
capitalist valorization processes, was posed as a potential source of feminist
standpoints: alternative knowledges, resistant subjectivities, and feminist collectivities.
The possibility of alternatives was located in the productivity of practices, in a claim
about what we do rather than what we are. Insisting that “[t]he production of people
is…qualitatively different from the production of things”, Hilary Rose, to cite one
example from this period, argues that women’s work in the household involves a
distinctive kind of emotionally demanding caring labor, the labor of love (2004: 74).
She then explores the possibility of a feminist epistemology that integrates the
knowledges gleaned from labors of the hand, brain, and heart. “Bringing caring labor
and the knowledge that stems from participation in it to the analysis”, Rose claims,
“becomes critical for a transformative program equally within science and within
society” (2004: 78).
The problem is that although caring labor and its potentially subversive difference were
brought to light, the achievements of the project were hampered by the assumption that
resistance must come from the outside and the spatial division between production and
reproduction by which that outside was secured. Thus although Rose recognizes waged
forms of affective labor, she nonetheless tends to assume that affective labor of the
heart is what distinguishes reproductive from productive labor, thereby fastening the
distinction between material and immaterial labors to a division of social realms. That
is, the specificity of labor in the affective mode was secured by recourse to the same
4 See, for example, the classic essays by Hartsock and Rose (in Harding, 2004). For examples of how
standpoint theory continues to be a generative framework after this period see the introduction to and
selections in Harding (2004) and Hartsock (1998).
logic of separate spheres that dominated the domestic labor debates. This difference in
laboring practices and the subjectivities that might be developed on their basis was at
the same time grafted by the logic of separate spheres onto a rather strict two-gender
model. Women’s laboring practices in the domestic realm, the realm of reproduction,
which though necessary, are thereby posed as nonetheless fundamentally different from
men’s laboring practices in the realm of production. By relying on the logic of separate
spheres to posit a radical difference between men’s work and women’s work, these
standpoint theories risked, despite strong methodological commitments to the contrary,
replicating undifferentiated and naturalized models of gender. The theories of
revolutionary subjectivity were thus hampered by the reliance on gender dualism that
was common to the period, as well as the homogenization and reification of gender
identities it can enable.
The present utility of each of these older analyses is further called into question by the
specificities of post-Fordist labor and production. First, the distinction between
productive and unproductive labor, on which the claims about what is inside and outside
were predicated in the domestic labor debates, is based in turn on the paradigm of
industrial production and the model of a material commodity. Regardless of whether it
was ever adequate, especially under the conditions of post-Fordist production, the very
same practices deemed unproductive in one site directly produce value in another and
thus this simple distinction between what is inside or outside the circuits of capitalist
valorization becomes increasingly untenable (see, for example, Negri, 1996: 157).
Second, the distinction between men’s work and women’s work, on which the hope for
a feminist standpoint outside capital was based, is similarly troubled by the increasing
integration of what were imagined as the separate locations of production and
reproduction. The further development of post-Taylorist and post-industrial labor
processes, for example, confounds the separate spheres model both in terms of its
respective products and in terms of its various labor processes. For example, the
merging of reproduction and production is visible in the ways that commodities
continue to replace domestically produced goods and services and many forms of caring
and household labor are transformed into feminized, racialized, and globalized forms of
waged labor in the service sector. Moreover, particularly in the service sectors,
processes of production today increasingly integrate the labors of the hand, brain, and
heart as more jobs require workers to use their knowledges, affects, capacities for
cooperation and communicative skills to create not only material but increasingly
immaterial products (see for example, Hardt and Negri, 2004: 108). Thus production
and reproduction are more thoroughly integrated in terms of both what is (re)produced
and how it is (re)produced. What could once perhaps have been imagined as an
‘outside’ is now more fully ‘inside’; social reproduction can no longer be usefully
identified with a particular site, let alone imagined as a sphere insulated from capital’s
Nor can reproduction be identified with a particular gender, although the story here is
complicated. Whereas women continue to hold primary responsibility for the privatized
work of care and tend still to be relegated to the gendered occupational niches that the
domestic division of labor helps to secure, the practice of affective labor and
presumably the potential political subjects that can be constituted on its basis cuts
across the older binary divisions of both space and gender. Women and men are indeed
still often engaged in different laboring practices, but these differences cannot be
mapped onto a binary gender schema secured by recourse to a model of separate
spheres. Thus this reconfiguration of the gender order in the context of post-Fordism
presents the persistence of the gender division of work in a situation in which the
binaries of productive versus reproductive, waged versus unwaged, and with them,
‘men’s work’ versus ‘women’s work’ are increasingly inadequate. Under the conditions
of post-Fordism, what Donna Haraway once described as the “the paradoxical
intensification and erosion of gender itself” (1985: 87) demands more complicated
mappings of the gender divisions of material and immaterial labor.5
Mills and Hochschild: White Collar and Emotional Labor
One of the reasons these socialist feminist analyses ran into an impasse was their
inability to register adequately the passage from Fordism to post-Fordism. By shifting
our attention from the early socialist feminist traditions to a different intellectual
tradition represented by Mills’s and Hochschild’s groundbreaking analyses of postindustrial
labor, we will move beyond this particular limitation. In turning from the
classic socialist feminist texts to these contributions to the sociology of labor the focus
changes from Fordism to post-Fordism, from unwaged to waged work, and from the
critique of exploitation to the problem of alienation. Although the two texts are
comparable in terms of both analytical orientation and critical apparatus, Hochschild’s
concentration on the specificity of emotional labor and attention to its gendered
dimensions enables some crucial insights into the significance of the rise of immaterial
forms of labor.6
In his 1951 book White Collar, Mills offers a prescient analysis of the nature and
significance of the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial labor order, a theoretical
enterprise for which there were, Mills noted, few instructive precedents or capable
guides. “[T]he outlines of a new society have arisen around us,” he declares, and the
category of the white collar middle class – a class between or beyond both proletariat
and bourgeoisie – “is an attempt to grasp these new developments of social structure
and human character” (Mills, 1951: xx). As Mills explains it, white collar work –
including everything from managerial to teaching, office, and sales work – involves
putting subjectivity to work in jobs that are less about manipulating things and more
about handling people and symbols (1951: 65). From a contemporary perspective,
Mills’s insights into what he names the ‘personality market’, in which “personal or even
intimate traits of the employee are drawn into the sphere of exchange” are particularly
timely (1951: 182). This trade in personality entails new criteria for hiring based on the
5 This is a project that Haraway (1985), for one, has brilliantly advanced by extending and
transforming the tradition of socialist feminist standpoint theory.
6 In comparing the two analyses, it is hard not to be struck by the rather traditional gendering of style.
Each of the texts is conducted on a different affective register. One takes the form of a hard-hitting
expose, the other is conducted in the mode of sympathetic inquiry; one deploys passion and
indignation whereas the other evinces compassion and concern; one is designed to marshal outrage in
a time of political complacency while the other seeks also, in the tradition of feminism’s insistence
on the relation between the personal and political, to invite identification and self-reflection.
assessment of personality rather than skill, a new ideal of successful education for
children, a new target for managerial intervention and, above all, a new kind of
commodification of the laboring subject. As Mills observes, the rapid expansion of the
activity of selling into new social spaces and relationships makes this enlarged market
paradoxically “more impersonal and more intimate” (1951: 161).
In many ways Hochschild takes up in 1983 where Mills left off in 1951, though
narrowing her focus from the broad swathe of immaterial labor in white-collar
occupations to the emotional labor of pink-collar workers, of which the flight attendant
serves as an iconic example. In the preface to The Managed Heart, Hochschild
acknowledges her debt to Mills’s inquiry into how and to what effect we “sell our
personality”, while also noting the insufficiencies of his analysis (Hochschild, 1983: ix).
The category of emotional labor, which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in
order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in
others” (1983: 7), would, Hochschild suggests, help to bring into focus what Mills’s
analysis of the personality market tended to obscure. More specifically, what was
missing “was a sense of the active emotional labor involved in the selling” (Hochschild,
1983: ix). Whereas Mills “seemed to assume that in order to sell personality, one need
only have it” (1983: ix), Hochschild’s analysis makes clear that this ‘active emotional
labor’ is first, a skillful activity, and second, a practice with constitutive effects.
First, unlike Mills, Hochschild acknowledges the specific skills required for emotional
labor. Whereas Mills focused on exchange relations in the ‘personality market’,
Hochschild’s category of ‘emotional labor’ shifts the focus to the labor process itself.
The salesperson or flight attendant, for example, does not only sell his or her personality
in return for a wage, but engages in a distinctive kind of labor. Indeed, emotion work is
not just a form of labor, but an example of socially necessary labor. When Mills
considered these activities only from the perspective of market exchange he found
nothing of value in these practices that, as Hochschild notes, are also part of the labor of
social reproduction that helps to sustain relations of cooperation and civility. Using a
feminist lens, Hochschild recognizes the strategic management of emotions for social
effect as an everyday practice which, since it is traditionally privatized and feminized, is
not generally recognized or valued as labor. Thus in the ‘private’ realm in particular,
efforts to affirm, enhance, and celebrate the well-being and status of others (1983: 165)
exist, like housework, as forms of shadow labor (1983: 167). To the extent that the
expression of emotion has been not only feminized but in the process also naturalized –
as a spontaneous eruption rather than cultivated display – the skills involved in
managing it successfully remain difficult to grasp.
Second, as ‘active’ labor Hochschild, in contrast to Mills, offers a compelling analysis
of the constitutive effects of immaterial labor. Mills did not acknowledge the skillful
practices exhibited by the ‘salesgirl’, for example, which he reduced to the general and
pejorative category of manipulation: the predatory behavior of “the new little
Machiavellians, practicing their personable crafts for hire” (Mills, 1951: xvii). But in
addition, he did not fully understand the labor process as a process of subjectification,
let alone the specific performativity of emotional labor. What for Mills was only the
production of insincerity in this new “time of venality” (Mills, 1951: 161) is recognized
in Hochschild’s account for its deeply constitutive effects. As Hochschild explains, it is
not only about the emotional laborer seeming to be but also about his or her coming to
be; the work requires not just the use but the production of subjectivity. Thus, for
example, when the emotional display of the worker is part of what is being sold in
service work, “[s]eeming to ‘love the job’ becomes part of the job”; but what is more,
“actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort”
(Hochschild, 1983: 6). Indeed, as labor that “calls for a coordination of mind and
feeling, and … sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral
to our individuality” (Hochschild, 1983: 7), its impact is not even limited to what we do
or what we think, to the body’s health and energies or the mind’s thoughts. It extends to
the affective life of the subject, into the fabric of the personality.7 In Hochschild’s
language, it involves not just ‘surface acting’ but ‘deep acting’, practices that have a
transformative effect on the doer. The question that guides Hochschild’s investigation,
and which remains critically important today, is about what happens to individuals and
social relations when techniques of deep acting are harnessed by and for the purposes of
Gender is also produced and productive when personality is put to work. As Hochschild
points out, personalities are gendered and that is part of their value to employers.
Although Mills reported that women constituted 41% of white collar employees in 1940
(1951: 74-75), he did not seem to grasp the significance of this in terms of the
gendering of post-industrial waged work. That said, it is not the case that Mills ignored
gender or abstained from gendered rhetoric. Indeed, he appeals to a betrayed
masculinity to add punch to his critique of the white collared ‘Little Man’, tapping into
a nostalgic ideal of masculine authority to highlight the realities of the new worker’s
powerlessness and subordination. Drawing on metaphors of emasculation, the members
of the white collar ‘vanguard’ are characterized, in sharp contrast to an image of the
heroic proletariat, as “political eunuchs … without potency and without enthusiasm for
the urgent political clash” (1951: xviii). Thus to the extent he recognizes a shift in the
gendering of work he represents it as a matter of de-gendering not of re-gendering. As
Hochschild so effectively documents, the gender of the workers – feminized flight
attendants and masculinized bill collectors in her study – is not so much compromised
as it is shaped and put to work.
7 To register the constitutive impact of these practices, the category of affect would be more useful to
Hochschild’s analysis than that of emotion. To the extent that the category of affect traverses the
divisions of mind and body, reason and emotion, and confounds the ontological containment these
dichotomies enable, it can better register the power of the subjectification effect that Hochschild’s
analysis reveals. Moreover, as a category that highlights the produced and productive qualities of the
phenomenon it can better resist the kind of naturalization of emotion that Hochschild wants to
contest. Here one can also see one of the advantages of the focus on affective labor rather than the
kind of cognitive labor more often privileged in Mills’s discussion as well as in many contemporary
analyses of immaterial labor. Again, as laboring practices that are both expressive and constitutive of
affect, their impact is potentially more pervasive than those that seem to signal merely a potential
shift in consciousness.
8 Consequently, Hochschild recognized the challenge posed by the new labor order to the ideals of
liberal individualism was not only, as Mills claimed, that it reduced the independent individual to a
‘Little Man,’ but was rather its more thorough-going challenge to identity; “so in the country that
most publicly celebrates the individual, more people privately wonder, without tracing the question to
its deepest social root: What do I really feel?” (Hochschild, 1983: 198).
The Estrangement of Immaterial Labor
Mills and Hochschild, despite their different analyses, employ very similar critical
strategies, both relying on a Marxist analysis of estranged labor to provide some
perspective on these new modes of cognitive, communicative, and affective labor. Each
extends Marx’s familiar critique of industrial factory production – which estranges
workers from the product, process, self, and others – to new forms of relatively wellpaid
and high-status work. “The alienating conditions of modern work”, Mill observes,
“now include the salaried employees as well as the wage-workers” (1951: 227). As
Hochschild explains it, with both manual and emotional forms of labor, there lies a
similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or
alienated from an aspect of the self – either the body or the margins of the soul – that is
used to do the work (1983: 7). Together they make a very compelling case that the
critique of estranged labor is even more applicable to the conditions of immaterial labor
than it ever was to industrial production. The alienation of immaterial laborers from the
product and process of labor may be comparable to the experience of industrial work,
but work that requires the application and adjustment of ‘personality’ threatens to carry
“self and social alienation to explicit extremes” (Mills, 1951: 225). Hochschild too
zeroes in on the potential for self and social alienation: the consequences for the
individual’s sense of self and the quality of social interactions when the “workers’
psychological arts” (1983: 185) are subject to the law of value and with it, to the
dictates of command and the imposition of standardization. “Estrangement from
display, from feeling, and from what feelings can tell us is not simply the occupational
hazard of a few”, she notes; rather “[i]t has firmly established itself in the culture as
permanently imaginable” (1983: 189). With the increasing interpenetration of
production and exchange, of making, serving and selling, the problems of selfalienation
and social cynicism are compounded. “Men [sic] are estranged from one
another as each secretly tries to make an instrument of the other, and in time a full circle
is made: one makes an instrument of himself, and is estranged from it also” (Mills,
Once again, however, Hochschild’s approach proves more timely. Mills uses the
critique of alienated labor to make a point very similar to one of the claims that Marx
advanced, namely, that the problem with work is that it engages too few of our skills
and creative capacities. Given “the boredom and the frustration of potentially creative
effort”, we are left to find meaning in leisure activities (Mills, 1951: 236). “Each day
men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and
weekend with the coin of ‘fun’” (1951: 237). This focus on the problem of work that
did not engage enough of the self was also the version of the critique of alienation that
made its way in the 1970s into popular public discourse in the U.S. The new modes of
management that were advanced as cures by at least the 1980s – those that promised to
engineer work cultures that would expect greater effort, inspire loyalty, and reward
creative initiative – produce a whole new set of problems. Hochschild, writing in the
context of a more developed service economy, saw what Mills could not yet grasp:
when what workers offer for sale and command is “a smile, a mood, a feeling, or a
relationship” (Hochschild, 1983: 198), it may be that work requires not too little but too
much of the self. Hence we need to attend to the ways that work does not thus simply
abandon us to non-work pursuits but is carried by subjects into the temporalities,
subjectivities, and socialities of non-work. Rather than focus solely on the familiar
critique of the colonization of life by the market – through, for example, critiques of
consumer culture – Hochschild’s analysis extends also to the colonization of life by
At some point, however, the critique of alienation proves problematic. Both authors are
well aware of the typical limitations of the theory of estranged labor as it was developed
in humanist Marxism: a tethering of the critique to a nostalgic ideal of pre-industrial
artisanal work and to an essentialist ontology of labor. Leery as they may be of these
tropes, however, I would argue that they still deploy them, or variants of them, as
standards by which to measure the estrangement of labor in the present context. Just as
in the case of the standpoint theorists who grounded their critical analyses in a
reproductive outside, we find these authors relying on an outside – in this instance, both
a site of unalienated labor and a model of the self prior to its alienation – to animate
The first of these traditional anchors of the critique of alienation was what Mills
described as the ideal of craftsmanship (1951: 220), a standard of what work should be
and mean against which the new forms of immaterial labor could be judged. Although
Mills dutifully pursues the exercise, measuring the conditions of post-industrial white
collar work against an essentially pre-industrial ideal of craft production, he has no
illusions about its contemporary resonance. He knows that since the workers themselves
have no memory of the world of work against which the present is assessed, the critique
is of little practical consequence to 20th century workforce. “Only the psychological
imagination of the historian makes it possible to write off such comparisons as if they
were of psychological import” (1951: 228). So even though the distance between this
oft-cited ideal of unalienated work and the present reality of work has grown, the classic
critique of alienated labor, grounded in an historical outside that is no longer
remembered, has been drained of political relevance.9
Hochschild, by contrast, does not look backward for an ideal with critical leverage.
Instead she finds a standpoint from which to evaluate the conditions of emotional labor
in the private realm, in practices, subjectivities, and relations that she suggests are not
subject in the same way or to the same degree to the strictures of capitalist valorization.
This public/private distinction was indeed central to Marx’s original critique. The
confounding of private and public – feeling at home when not at work and not at home
when at work – was presented by Marx as one of the most striking symptoms of the
alienation of labor.10 Mills replicates this analysis quite faithfully in his account of the
‘big split’ between life and work. Our dissatisfaction with work, Mills claims, leads us
to over-invest in leisure pursuits and consumption practices. Hochschild’s analysis, by
9 This position is in keeping with Mills’s political pessimism and insistence that white collar workers
represent a dominant tendency but not a leading edge, an emerging class but not a nascent vanguard.
10 “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He
is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home…. As a result,
therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions
– eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human
functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx, 1978: 74).
contrast, simultaneously depends on and usefully troubles this private/public distinction.
On the one hand, she trains her critical attention on the ‘transmutation’ of a private
emotional system to a public one, attending to what happens when “emotion work,
feeling rules, and social exchange have been removed from the private domain and
placed in a public one, where they are processed, standardized, and subjected to
hierarchical control” (1983: 153).11 On the other hand, she also effectively undercuts the
very same distinction between social spheres on which she depends for her critique.
That is, Hochschild is critical of what happens when the private management of feeling
is socially engineered in the public sphere for the purposes of profit while also
acknowledging that this private realm of feeling is similarly subject to the imposition of
standardized feeling rules, the instrumentalization of affect, and the inequalities of
emotional exchange. The differences between the private and the public instances of
emotional work – the claim, for example, that in private life we are free to negotiate
relations of emotional exchange that we are often obligated to accept in the public realm
of work (1983: 85) – is troubled by her own astute observations about the social
management and gendered hierarchies of so-called private relations. Thus the private
realm serves as an alternative to the capitalist market at the same time that its distinction
from that market is called into question.
The critique of estranged labor is traditionally anchored in a second outside as well, not
only in a specific ideal of unalienated work but in a certain model of the laboring self
from which we are estranged and to which we should be restored. Both authors are
dubious of the essentialism of this approach. Mills declines to ground his analysis in
“the metaphysical view that man’s self is most crucially expressed in work-activity”
(1951: 225) and Hochschild avoids affixing her critique to the authenticity of emotions,
insisting that they are never independent of acts of management and thus always already
social (1983: 17-18). But despite these misgivings and cautions, the fact remains that
the critique of alienation works by evoking a given self, our estrangement from which
constitutes a compelling crisis. Mills claims that one can pursue the critique without
deploying a metaphysics of labor, yet tends to evoke instead an ontology of the liberal
individual to animate his critique of the fate of the ‘Little Man’. One also finds, once
again, a tension at the heart of Hochschild’s analysis: she insists on the social
construction and malleability of the emotions while also positing them as fundamental
to the self such that their alienation is a problem. Her strategy of placing references to
the ‘real’, ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ self in quotes paradoxically serves to problematize –
albeit in very useful ways – the essentialism on which the analysis, nonetheless,
depends. Her argument, in other words, is animated by an ideal of the ‘unmanaged
heart’ – associated either with a separate private world of emotional practice and
contact or with what one may experience as one’s ‘true’ self – the possibility of which it
simultaneously disavows. Both Mills and Hochschild thus recognize the limitations of
critical strategies that rely on nostalgic ideals of work and essentialist models of the
self, but ultimately end up reproducing them.
11 Posing as Hochschild does a categorical contrast between emotion work and emotional labor, one a
public act with exchange value and the other a private act with use value, would seem to suggest that
one can use the distinction to judge the latter from the standpoint of the former (1983: 7).
Life, Work, and the Logics of Immanent Critique
These excavations of the two traditions have recovered some important insights and
revealed some crucial problems. Turning first to their many lasting contributions, I
would mention socialist feminism’s emphasis on the contradiction between
accumulation and social reproduction, in both its functional moment as a way of
realizing and sustaining the exploitation of labor and in its potential dysfunction as a
site of antagonism. From the review of Mills’s and Hochschild’s accounts of white and
pink collar work, I find of particular relevance today their focus on the impact of these
modes of labor on subjectivity. Hochschild’s analysis of the constitutive effects of
affective labor and the colonization of life by work is particularly important, it seems to
me, for the contemporary project of mapping and contesting the organization of
immaterial/affective labor. And finally, from both Hochschild and the socialist feminist
tradition we are reminded of the need to attend to the ongoing gendering of labor in the
affective mode both in its waged and unwaged instances.
Despite their many contributions, however, these older critiques of reproductive and
emotional labor prove limited as guides for future interventions. In predicating their
analyses in the respective logics of separate spheres and estranged labor, both depend
on a critical standpoint located in an outside: in a site separate from capitalism proper or
in a model of the self prior to its estrangement, that is, in some kind of spatial or
ontological position of exteriority.
But as I noted earlier, one can learn as much from the shortcomings of these critical
strategies as their strengths. Indeed, perhaps the most significant lesson to be drawn
from this genealogical exercise is a clearer recognition of our present predicament.
Once the model of separate spheres is rendered finally unsustainable the problem is how
to develop a politics in the absence of an outside in which to stand. Could different
versions of these critical strategies be developed that do not rely on a sphere of
existence or model of the subject outside capital? How might one conceive the terms of
an immanent critique of and resistance to the post-Fordist organization of labor? If, as
Hardt and Negri argue, it is “no longer possible to identify a sign, a subject, a value, or a
practice that is ‘outside’” (2000: 385), on what ground might one establish a critical
standpoint? What are the ways by which one can advance a theory of agency without
deploying a model of the subject as it supposedly once was or is now beyond the reach
of capital? In Judith Butler’s words, “[i]s there a way to affirm complicity as the basis
of political agency, yet insist that political agency may do more than reiterate the
conditions of subordination?” (1997: 29-30). Finally, there is the perennial feminist
problem of how to make visible and contest the gender divisions of labor in relation to
the construction of subjectivities and hierarchies without reproducing naturalized
models of gender dualism and relying on familiar brands of identity politics.
Socialist feminism’s insistent focus on the antagonisms generated at the intersection of
capital accumulation and social reproduction can still function as a compelling point of
departure.12 The sometimes competing requirements of creating surplus value and
sustaining the relations of sociality on which it depends, give rise to a series of
12 For a current example of this project see Bakker and Gill (2004).
© 2007 ephemera 7(1): 233-249 Life Within and Against Work
articles Kathi Weeks
problems the analyses of which can yield important critical levers. This problematic
has, for example, served to frame pressing questions about the relative value of
practices, including, notably, the undervaluation of caring practices both waged and
unwaged in relation to the legacy of their gendering and racialization. But once “social
life itself becomes a productive machine” (Hardt and Negri, 2004: 148), the terms of
that distinction and its conflicts must be made more complex than once imagined. In
contexts where reproduction is no longer identifiable with a particular space or a
distinctive set of practices and becomes coterminous with production, there is a need for
new ways to pose the antagonism and acquire some critical purchase.
Let me propose – if only in brief and speculative terms – the outline of one such
alternative strategy. What if the older division between reproduction and production
were to be replaced with the distinction between life and work? How might this
different way of mapping the terrain of capitalist relations and lines of antagonism serve
to help shift the terms of political analysis? There are, it seems to me, certain potential
benefits of such a framework. For one thing, compared to the category of reproduction,
life has the advantage of being a more capacious concept. As a more expansive category
it does not risk corralling the practices constitutive of social life into the space of the
household or, even more narrowly, equate them with the institution of the family. Thus
the political struggle that poses life against work is less readily equated with and
reduced to the project of re-valuing the private world of the family and defending its
But more important to our discussion here, I wonder if the critical distinction between
life and work can perhaps better register one of the key insights gleaned from Mills and
especially Hochschild’s analyses about work and the construction of subjectivities.
Once we recognize that work produces subjects, the borders that would contain it are
called into question. It is not only that work and life cannot be confined to particular
sites, from the perspective of the production of subjectivity, work and life are
thoroughly interpenetrated. The subjectivities shaped at work do not remain at work but
inhabit all the spaces and times of nonwork and vice-versa. Who one becomes at work
and in life are mutually constitutive. There is no position of exteriority in this sense;
work is clearly part of life and life part of work.
This does not mean, however, that work and life are indistinguishable. Indeed, the
language of work and life is also used popularly to pose the terms of a conflict between
them. Consider the observation that someone who works too much should ‘get a life’.
What distinction and antagonism between work and life is referred to in this
expression? It is not necessarily about getting something one does not have; presumably
one already has a life. Neither is it necessarily about engaging in different practices. If,
for example, one’s work involves the exercise of affective labor to construct social
relations with clients or customers and this is also what one wants to do in one’s nonwork
time with family or friends, getting a life does not mean being able to do what one
cannot do at work. Rather it would seem that such popular conceptions of antagonism
refer primarily to a quality of living that one wants to achieve or expand. What if this
familiar line of demarcation were to be made into the basis of a political project? Could
this notion of a life that one might want to get that is distinct from and conflicts with
work be fleshed out in a way that points in the direction of a liberatory project, one that
strives towards relations of equality and autonomy rather than hierarchy and command?
To the extent that it could serve as an immanent standpoint of critique, life would be at
once fully implicated in, but nonetheless potentially set against the spaces, relations,
and temporalities now dominated by work.13 This critical standpoint and political
project thus requires not the discovery of a space or defense of a subjectivity that is
outside, but the struggle for a different quality of experience.
The question remains, however, of how to register and challenge the gendered
organization of labor within this frame. The production/reproduction division was
designed to call attention to the gendered division of waged and unwaged service labor,
even if not always in terms that could escape equating reproduction with the domestic
sphere and ‘women’s work’. For this alternative framework to serve a feminist project,
the gender hierarchies and divisions of labor within both work and life must be made
visible and subject to contestation. The terms themselves will not secure a feminist
content to inquiries framed under their rubric. But perhaps the distinction between life
and work could be made to pose important questions, for example, about the status and
organization – including the gender division – of unwaged household and caring
practices: where in this case might one draw the boundary between what is work and
what is life? What counts as work and as life, and the border between them, are not pregiven;
they are, rather, matters of political determination and, I would add, important
points of focus for feminist struggles. That said, it seems to me that with the continued
integration of women into waged work under post-Fordism and the re-privatization of
domestic labor under neoliberalism, the project of making visible and contesting the
gender, racial, and international divisions of domestic labor is now more difficult (see
B. Young, 2001).
Returning to the legacy of Mills and Hochschild’s contributions, I think their analyses
of the impact of immaterial labor markets and processes on individuals and society
suggest the ongoing importance of a critical standpoint rooted in a discourse of
subjectivity and in relation to some notion of an alternative model of the subject. The
expansion of affective forms of labor today only makes these critical investigations into
its impact on who we become as emotional laborers in relation to the ‘personality
market’ and on the texture and quality of social relations in the ‘great salesroom’ more
pressing. Once we recognize the constitutive force of labors in the affective mode, once
it is subjectivity that is hired and managed and at work “the prescription and definition
of tasks transforms into a prescription of subjectivities” (Lazzarato, 1996: 135),
questions about how it is governed and who we become are more critical. The problem,
it seems to me, is how to focus critical attention on work as a mechanism of
subjectification without the conceptual apparatus of alienation and the distinction
between existence and essence on which it inevitably depends. How might one
formulate a critical assessment of what we are becoming in and through work without
depending on a given model of what we truly are?
13 Here the category of life serves a critical function analogous to the way that it served in Nietzsche’s
philosophy as a means by which to advance the critique of ascetic values; life was deployed as a kind
of shorthand for that which ascetic values – in this case work and its traditional ethics – disavow and
which exceeds and disrupts ascetic modes of conceptual and institutional containment.
One approach would be to ground the critical standpoint on subjectivity not in a claim
about the true or essential self, but in a potential self. What if this alternative model of
subjectivity, from the perspective of which existing models can be critically assessed,
were to be imagined not in terms of subjectivities that now exist but in terms of those
that might come to be? Once the temporal horizon of a possible future replaces the
spatial confines of an existing sphere of practice or model of identity, the standard by
which the present is judged could expand to visions of what we might want rather than
the defense of what we already have, know, or are. The self at work could thus be
judged in relation to a self that one might wish to become and both work and non-work
time could be assessed in relation to the possibility of becoming different. What if the
critique that had been developed around the logic of alienation were recoded so that it
was no longer about a self to save or to recover but one to invent?
Once again, however, there is the question of what would happen to gender if the
discursive frame of analysis were to shift in this way. As long as labor is signified and
divided by gender, the critique of work as a mode of subjectification must be a feminist
project. What this approach does call into question, however, is the adequacy of gender
identity as a basis for making political claims and a means of political recruitment.
Many have noted, especially with regard to sexuality and race, the problems with those
models of feminist identity politics that risk reinforcing exclusive and normative models
of gender. But what if feminist political analyses and projects were not limited to claims
about who we are as women or as men, or even the identities produced by what we do,
but rather put the accent on collectively imagined visions of what we want to be or to
do? Confronting the ongoing gendering of work and its subjects would thus be more a
matter of expressing feminist political desire than repeating gender identities.14
Rather than a true self versus its estranged form, or a reproductive sphere of practice
separate from a sphere of properly capitalist production, an alternative critical strategy
might thus hinge instead on the distinction between life and work and a vision of what
subjects in relation could become in contrast to what they are. These would be, in short,
critical standpoints grounded not in separate spheres of practice but in the possibility of
different qualities of life; not in a claim about who we are but rather in a vision of who
we might want to become; not in an essence but in a logic of political desire immanent
to existence. These biopolitical standpoints might thus be able to direct us towards more
promising lines of critical insight and frame more compelling political responses to the
organization of labor under post-Fordism.
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14 Demarcating a similar alternative to feminist identity politics, Wendy Brown asks, “[w]hat if we
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Kathi Weeks was trained as a political theorist and is currently an associate professor of Women’s
Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects (Cornell University Press,
1998) and is working on a manuscript about the politics and ethics of work.