Adventures in the Cash Nexus

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild is known, among other things, for theorizing and documenting emotional labor — the work of not only massaging other people’s feelings but interpreting and managing our reactions to them in the process — and the effects this kind of work has on those who have to sell it. In The Managed Heart (1983) she details how the “deep acting” of workers in the service industry instrumentalizes human feeling and makes it hard for them to distinguish between emotions and their performance. This has an obvious connection to her new book, The Outsourced Self, which, she writes in the introduction, “is about the market’s pressure to commercialize the self, and the way in which we accept, resist, and grapple with that challenge.” We have feelings about the feelings we commodify and sell, and harmonizing those disparate feelings is often the most expedient way to cope.

But to say that the “market” exerts this malign influence of emotional alienation is a bit of a dodge. What Hochschild ends up exploring in The Outsourced Self is how capitalism generates this pressure and sells us rationalizations for a logic that was only just emerging a generation ago: one in which monetary payments supplant traditional ties, care work is divided into increasingly minute specializations, and all aspects of human experience are subject to commodification to create more profit opportunities. Though this logic stems from consumer capitalism’s fantasy of markets as conduits of freedom as a whole, that doesn’t exonerate that logic’s ideologues and apologists, nor does it make the “challenge” of commodified emotionality an inevitability we must learn to accommodate, as Hochschild tepidly suggests. Hochschild allows the pioneers on the frontier of the cash nexus speak for themselves in the book and express their anxiety or their excuses for their choices to buy or sell modes of care once considered unmarketable, and she lets their ambivalence stand without much explication. 

The Outsourced Self is altogether unconcerned with political solutions. Hochschild is chiefly interested in personal narratives, relating anecdote after anecdote about the individuals who void the taboos on the commercialization of intimacy. She introduces us to professional dating advisers, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, baby namers, party enliveners, potty trainers, and aged-relative visitors, to name just a few. Oddly, she doesn’t discuss prostitution, which might be the paradigmatic example of intimate personal services for sale. But unlike selling the naming rights to your first-born, there is nothing especially innovative about buying and selling sex.

Hochschild presents her research in the form of potted human-interest stories, heavy on gratuitous details about what people look like and the names and breeds of their pets and so on, delivered in bite-size, subhead-laden chapters loosely sequenced to parallel the life cycle: how we pay to find love, pay for couples therapy, pay for nannies, pay for manufactured memories, pay for to have our elders cared for, pay to have their death dealt with efficiently. Somewhat jarringly interspersed with these is Hochschild’s own story of how she tried to find a live-in caretaker for her elderly aunt, which gives the impression the book is an elaborate exercise in self-justification. Occasionally, Hochschild adopts that hallmark of mass-market sociology books: punctuating her stories with fear-mongering rhetorical questions posing obvious conclusions as open-ended worries. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” “Does a science of names touch, in the new parent, a nerve of self-doubt?” Hmm. Yes?

Throughout the book, we hear from both sides of the personal-services exchange, part of a Downton Abbey-style effort to humanize the maids and home-care specialists and surrogate mothers on the one hand and allow us to at least try to empathize with the sort of people who hire “rent-a-friends” on the other. Judging by the book’s illustrations, its target audience seems to be the sort of people who see New Yorker cartoons as an incisive index of contemporary social problems. But mainly these tales make the subsumption of everyday life by the market feel safely other; it happens to childless unfortunates who fly to India to recruit a womb for their test-tube baby or to parents so fragile that they feel obliged to hire “agitators” for their children’s birthday parties rather than face the possibility of their boredom. It happens to immigrants or the poor who must turn their basic humanity into an alienable asset for lack of any other tangible ones to capitalize on.

Being able to pity Hochschild’s subjects would probably be a good way of exempting oneself from the mercenary attitude toward feelings she describes. Unfortunately, I must have so outsourced my capacity for empathy that I felt I could hardly afford to spend any attention on the anecdotes. I found myself skimming ahead, looking for the analytical passages, only to abruptly hit the end of the chapter.

Hochschild is at her best when pointing out the contradictions of the market for personal services. “Ironically, one of the feelings the market can sell us is the feeling of being authentically out of the market,” she says after detailing how a wedding planner programmatically orchestrates a feeling of genuine occasion for her customers. Of a woman who had hired a dating consultant, Hochschild writes, “Grace might be using the market to find a man but she didn’t want to end up with a man who saw her in a marketlike way.”

That cuts to the basic asymmetry at the heart of these services: You pay in part for the illusion that no one else is hiring people to handle you the way your factotum handles the people you are too busy to deal with. The emerging servant class has learned to sell a new kind of emotional labor, one focused not on reinforcing the masters’ feelings of class superiority, like traditional servants did, but instead a purely individual superiority — that the ordinary emotional constraints of life don’t apply to the personal-services purchaser. Life coaches and their ilk must first and foremost persuade clients that they shouldn’t feel guilty about cutting corners on friendships and family, and replacing relationships with expenditures that allegedly optimize them. The coaches sell the idea that it’s only right and natural and not at all shameful that everyone should want to purchase the convenience of not having to deal with other people’s feelings, and they flatter the client for having been shrewd enough — or even courageous enough — to hire an “expert.”

Of course, once an entire segment of society is outsourcing emotional work, its aptitude for doing such work on its own will begin to atrophy. If you hire someone to parent for you, it’s much more likely that your horizon of nuisance will begin to encompass even more of what remaining parenting responsibilities haven’t been delegated. You don’t suddenly treasure the demands on your attention. As Hochschild suggests, when you outsource the need to be patient, you only become more impatient yourself. You become in danger of “outsourcing sympathy itself,” Hochschild warns. After the mass emotional deskilling, the only people left with emotional competence will be those who haven’t had opportunity to develop more lucrative skills. “Could it be,” Hochschild wonders, in another of her rhetorical questions, “that we are dividing the world into emotional types — order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom?”

In Hochschild’s view, the increasing isolation of modern life under capitalism and the demise of the communal ties of the  “village”  were initially responsible for the growth of the personal-services industry. The need to find and hold on to wage-paying jobs broke apart “traditional” social arrangements, driving people to urbanize and move more frequently, breaking apart extended family networks. Neoliberalism then intensified pressure on employees, making job stability precarious and forcing on them a flexibility that obliterated the line between work and leisure. Workers are thus left with little energy for the emotional work necessary to maintain personal relationships. It’s all being spent on commercial relationships. For the people Hochschild interviews, this means hiring professionals to perform leisure activities and family duties for them. “The answer to market pressure outside the home? Market thinking inside it,” she notes. The personal-services industry thus invites us to consume relationships rather than work on them. Money is accepted as a shortcut, and every empathetic gesture has its price.

Though economic forces undermine the once taken-for-granted collective faith in the rituals and practices that sustained communal life, these vestigial forms remain, giving society a kind of ghost structure. Hochschild construes this as indicative of the way “market values subtly distort family values.” She writes as if those family values — the same ones that have emerged from patriarchal culture and skewed emotional labor along gender lines — reflect eternal truths about human desire and the market is a recent invention that has perverted them. But it may be that the more thorough commodification of emotional labor can expose some of the broadly shared mystifications about, say, what sort of emotional work comes “naturally” to women, opening more opportunities for refusing it, if not for reorganizing its distribution. What? You got to pay for it now? Sadly, such questions have become a prerequisite for social change, but they may open vistas to different ways of organizing the socially necessary labor of civility and sympathy along lines that don’t rationalize gender or class divisions.

Capitalism trains us to look for asymmetries and cherish them as opportunities. Exploiting other people’s concern about protecting their havens in a heartless world is one such asymmetry. We can make the game-theoretical wager that everyone else still buys into those empty forms of civility and empathy and family, and then get an edge by paying others to participate in them with the other rubes while we move on to do something more economically productive with our time, something that adds more value.

Capitalism’s incentives for competitiveness can thus leave little room for alternative forms of togetherness to develop. Instead, experiences are compressed into commodities to be enjoyed privately, regardless of how collective those experiences might appear to be. Hochschild found in talking to her subjects that “the memories they treasured did not center on the professionally planned birthday party, picture-perfect wedding, or hassle-free vacation tour. Instead they vividly remembered times when things went haywire or otherwise surprised them.” In a smoothly administered life of consumerism, these moments of breakdown are the only ones that feel spontaneous, uniquely particular to those involved and thus genuinely shared. Soon we will hire people to fuck up the plans made for us by the other people we hired.

Commoditizing intimate life presumes that you can subtract the intersubjectivity that gives experiences and their token souvenirs their meaning — that we can enjoy the moment of purchase as a proxy for the long slog of actual accomplishment. Though personal services promise to liberate us from the time constraints other people impose on us, time is precisely what’s needed to jointly develop intimacy and meaning. Time can’t be replaced with objects whose only emotional resonance is derived from how they’ve been marketed. When we insulate ourselves from the trouble of interactions, we don’t merely damage our capability to have meaningful relationships but also meaningful objects. Objects encode social relations, but if all our relations are mediated with cash, then all our things will signify nothing but money.

The new servant class promises to purify relationships of annoyance, freeing their clients to enjoy a frictionless existence. But the desire for frictionless relationships stems from mistaking the capitalist fantasy of frictionless markets for a self-actualization plan, from internalizing the sad idea that emotions, like productivity, should be assessed in terms of efficiency — that we want a maximum of feeling with a minimum of effort, as if feeling itself isn’t effort in its essence.

The danger encapsulated in the concept of emotional work is the way it can seem to promise an alternative form of emotionality that’s easy and effortless and thus genuine. But Hochschild’s point in The Managed Heart is that emotions are always social work. Abstracting that work from the traditional associations and relationships in which it’s performed and making it marketable doesn’t yield an uncomplicated product; it doesn’t mean that someone else can simply buy off-the-shelf feelings and enjoy them unproblematically. The cash nexus generates its own set of peculiar emotional demands on buyers and sellers alike. No matter how much you are willing to spend, you can’t buy your way out of the trauma of capitalist relations.