More than just bear it, capitalists today demand we love our exploitation. Sara Bennett reviews a new book on the new emotional demands on workers, arguing it aid us in our understanding of modern class relations.
Sarah Jaffe’s impressive book Work Won’t Love You Back is a detailed exploration into the growing implicit (and sometimes explicit) demand for us to be devoted to our jobs and how this is leaving us exhausted and dissatisfied. Labour, the ability to conceptualise and then execute an idea, to change the world around us (and, in so doing, change ourselves) is, argued Marx, what makes us unique amongst the species on the planet. And when it comes to work, Jaffe is all in favour of us taking “any opportunity for happiness, pleasure, and connection we can get.”1 But it becomes ever more apparent as we progress through her work that we’ve arrived at a point where, at least in much of the developed world, showing up and getting your job done is no longer enough. Capitalism no longer just wants your time and labour power – it wants your love.
The book has a clear structure: divided into two halves, each one with a focus on a different unrequited ‘love’ when it comes to our relationship with work. Broadly speaking, these can be summarised as the love that puts the needs of others before oneself and the love of the talented individual who shuns the world to strive for a higher goal. Both types of love entail sacrifice, both types of love are meant to override the reality that the relationship at the heart of our jobs is exploitation.
The chapters in each half follow the same organisation: Jaffe focusses on an individual worker (all but one of whom are women). Jaffe recounts their story but then opens up an investigation into the nature of that work and its evolution up to the modern day. Importantly, however, she tells us of the struggles that have taken place in those sectors, where ordinary people develop a level of consciousness with regard to the exploitative relationship involved in their work, and start to organise, often finding themselves in the leadership positions of the fightback as a result. Some workplace struggles, perhaps due to the very nature of much of the work she writes about, flow in and out of other wider community campaigns too, especially those involving women and people of colour, such as the famous Chicago teachers strike of 2012.
There are a number of common themes which resurface throughout the book and make her overall argument compelling.
Work: what’s it all about?
Ultimately, Jaffe is attempting to get to the roots of why we are increasingly working harder and longer. Although there are other forms of income, most people on this planet will need to engage in some kind of recompensed labour to survive. However, Jaffe looks at how in modern times, just getting the job done as a means to a financial end is not deemed sufficient. Increasingly, she says, we are encouraged to love what we do.
Capitalism has never been an uncontested system and the resistance and struggle it gives rise to have to be overcome or conceded to (or both) to allow the process of accumulation to continue. Jaffe states that it is “in the shifts created by these struggles, [that] new work ethics and new spirits of capitalism emerge.” 2 Indeed, EP Thompson in his Making of the English Working Class, pointed out that even in the infancy of capitalism, compulsion alone was not particularly effective as it often drove resistance from those being exploited. Instead, considerations were given as to how to get the worker to become their “own slave driver.” 3 Religion, notably the Methodist Church, played an important role in this respect, proselytising that “to labour and to sorrow was to find pleasure, and masochism was ‘Love’.”4
“From its dawn, the exploitative relationship between worker and boss under capitalism has been masked in ideas of work being undertaken for a higher reason, not just an exploitative boss.”
So, from its dawn, the exploitative relationship between worker and boss under capitalism has been masked in ideas of work being undertaken for a higher reason, not just an exploitative boss. We might argue that God has been supplanted over time by love of queen, or country, or even just some higher ‘value’. But the idea remains that we should be working for something of a different order: a better world, a different vision, or each one of us ‘living our best lives.’ In turn, we sacrifice our present working in underpaid and even unpaid roles for some future superior state (or job, or life). Jaffe’s book even introduces us to new terminologies such as ‘hope labour’ and ‘venture labour’ which reflect this process.
So, although only overtly mentioned on a few occasions, what lies beneath the surface and runs throughout the course of Jaffe’s book is Marx’s concept of alienation. She rightly points out that it is not simply a psychological state, describing it as “whether you have the power to decide where and how hard you will work, and whether you will control the thing you make or the services you provide.”5 However, whilst the root of our alienation might be the labour process itself under capitalism, the impact of it confronts us from many different, often intertwining angles: alienation from our labour, alienation from others, alienation from our environment and the natural world, and ultimately alienation from ourselves. Writ large, this manifests itself in a system of commodities that exchange for profit, rather than human labourers who produce for collective and individual needs, or as Marx himself describes it as “material relations between persons and social relations between things.”6
An example of this manifests itself today in the area of care work. In the developed world we are facing the prospect of people being replaced by robots in those areas of work that are most dependent on human emotional caring capacities. With the demographic balance shifting towards an ageing population, and wages of workers not keeping up with the cost of living, care becomes prohibitively expensive for many working class families and too underpaid to attract enough workers into its ranks. Capitalism’s answer, as Jaffe points out, is to find a “technological fix” and we see the rise of the care robot, meaning actual human care and companionship is “only available to those who can pay”.7
Ultimately, as our capacity to labour becomes alien to us, out of our control and belonging to the employer once they have purchased it, even as we try to engage with the process our experience of work is often that of repeated drudgery, dissatisfaction, and forced smiles for the customer. This dehumanising process leads to workers feeling most human when they are away from work, often engaging in our more animalistic pursuits: eating, drinking, and fucking.8
Women’s work: not work?
Following on from this distorted state, the process of alienation leads to a separation between the spheres of home and work. However, another theme throughout Jaffe’s book is how those separate spheres are becoming blurred. This has been exacerbated under Covid, where the home has literally become the workplace and classroom for millions of people around the globe.
“Both inside and outside the home, caring and social reproductive work has mainly been undertaken by women. What’s more, Jaffe maintains that this association has lead to such work not being considered ‘real’ work at all.”
A key argument Jaffe builds throughout the book is around women and work. Both inside and outside the home, caring and social reproductive work has mainly been undertaken by women. What’s more, Jaffe maintains that this association has lead to such work not being considered ‘real’ work at all.
The roles that Jaffe explores in the first part of the book are mainly those waged social reproductive roles that take place outside of one’s own home (although possibly in someone else’s), such as domestic work, teaching and not-for-profit work. Her argument is that “what all intimate labour has in common is that it brushes up against the line between what we think should be done for love and what we think should be done for money.”9 Moreover, these types of waged work rely on this grey area to obfuscate the fact that what is being undertaken is labour, ie, that there is a relationship between exploiter and exploited. And as ‘love’ is thrown into the mix as part of the job, we confront another element of our humanity as something estranged from us, as a commodity to be exchanged.
This invisibility and non-work status of women’s labour is not new. Jaffe picks up on EP Thompson’s framing of the worker in his Making of the English Working Class as ‘he’. He also, when providing a breakdown of the largest groups of workers in nineteenth century England, omitted one of the largest groups, that of domestic servants. And Karl Marx himself has also come in for some criticism in this area. In Capital Volume 1, some of his commentary has been noted “uncritically connecting the employment of women (and children) with the development of machine production requiring less muscular strength from its workers”10 thus tending towards “naturalist assumptions”11 about women. So, Jaffe’s spotlight on women workers could be considered an overdue corrective to some of those earlier accounts. She touches on a common element of the female experience under capitalism: the requirement to be in a simultaneous state of being and negation, constantly present yet invisible, ever available but never demanding. In short – to be ever active, but not act with agency.
Jaffe sees the family under capitalism and the relationship between women and the home and women in the workplace playing a fundamental role. The family, in one form or another, has been in existence for far longer than capitalism. Whilst it’s important not to fetishise the nuclear family and reduce it to a purely functional role in social reproduction under capitalism, we should recognise that capitalists will always adapt to restructure the world in order to allow the process of accumulation to continue. The family as a structure and an institution is not immune from this process. Jaffe argues that with the development of the idea of marriage for love, so came the idea that the work carried out in the marital household should likewise be done out of devotion. For Jaffe, therefore, love itself is “just another form of alienated labour”.12
“Hierarchies within the family could serve as some kind of psychological bonus for the alienated male worker who felt a lack of power and control in the workplace.”
The bourgeois ideal that evolved in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain, with the male breadwinner with his dutiful wife at home, and domestic servants tending the household and children, intended to showcase bourgeois capitalism as a superior form of society. Of course, the reality often failed to live up to its own ideals and was simply an impossibility for working class families to achieve. But the ideological impact rippled through society and helped establish the gendered roles still with us today: the essentialised caring, emotional woman as opposed to the intellectual, logical male. Thus the birth of the male breadwinner and the woman in the home. Jaffe makes an interesting point that this created hierarchies within the family that could serve as some kind of psychological bonus for the alienated male worker who felt a lack of power and control in the workplace.
The relationship between workplace and the establishment of the family ideal is starkly revealed by Jaffe when she talks of how Henry Ford put conditions on his male workers receiving the family wage, known as the Fordist compromise. As workers’ protections grew following the New Deal and World War II, Ford decided his workers had to ‘qualify’ for a family wage, sending out inspectors to his workers’ homes to ensure that the housewives were upholding their end of the bargain and submitting to ‘full domesticity’.13 But of course, not all jobs were deemed worthy of such protections offered by legislation such as the Fair Labor Act. Agricultural and domestic workers were excluded – precisely those areas of work once again dominated by women and people of colour. And even today in the US, the National Labor Relations Act, which gives protection to employees to organize and bargain collectively, explicitly excludes workers “in the domestic service of any family or person at his home.”14
Unsurprisingly, for many workers the real source of enjoyment comes not from the tasks they undertake but from co-workers. This is what many workers have missed most when not working in their workplace during Covid. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that employers try to profit from this human instinct by trying to build affection towards the company itself. After all trying to make employees feel a sense of loyalty and love towards the company might be one way of getting them to stay later and work harder. As the World Economic Forum stated in an article from 2015: “We go the extra mile when we feel we belong to a team, that we’re pursuing a higher purpose, that we’re working with people who care about us as individuals and not just as employees. Then we want to come to work because that work is more rewarding. Caring gives work meaning and helps us love our jobs.”15
“There are now some hopeful signs that union decline in the UK is in reverse, with union membership reaching 6.4 million by May 2020, with female union membership being its highest since 1995.”
In times when union organisation was stronger and workers felt they had won more control and power in their workplaces, the workforce became a sort of collective community, its impact spreading beyond the immediacy of the workplace. In these communities, another form of bond between humans was formed: that of solidarity. Today, you’re more likely to hear that term applied to some bellicose international coalition of capitalist governments such as Nato than to mutual support among workers. And while solidarity between workers is not in itself able to overcome the alienation intrinsic to capitalist relations, it is a crucial aspect of any attempt to confront them, and any attempt to transform the social and economic relations to a mode of production free from exploitation will depend on it. Jaffe rightly, in my opinion, pays attention to the work done by her protagonists in this book to organise, grow solidarity and fight back. There are now some hopeful signs that union decline in the UK is in reverse, with union membership reaching 6.4 million by May 2020, with female union membership being its highest since 1995.16
However, it is beyond doubt that since the 1970s, the breaking of union power, the shift away from manufacturing, the subsequent restructuring of workplaces and unions looking for ‘partnership and servicing’ models have all contributed to workers being atomised and less able to organise. The rise of neoliberalism also encouraged us all to look for individualised solutions, and away from collective ones. It’s not surprising, therefore, that workers themselves might expect their bosses to care for them and show them the love that is often demanded in return and feel let down when they come to realise the true nature of the boss/employee relationship: the recent case of the Scottish beer company Bru Dog, for example, was blown open when employees went public on their mistreatment and “being treated like objects”, against the company’s supposed caring ‘values’.17
As Jaffe points out, the rise of globalisation and the shift of manufacturing jobs to parts of the world where labour costs are cheaper and regulation is more relaxed has now, somewhat ironically, led to “employers seeking out those very human traits that industrial capitalism had tried so hard to strip away.”18
“Women are compelled to rely on the often better-remunerated male partner (if they are in a heterosexual relationship) or possibly even a father, and immigrant workers are reproduced in their native country which bears those costs.”
Let’s return once again to the area of care work. It attracts a high number of immigrant workers and women, and tends to be poorly paid and leaves workers far more vulnerable to exploitation. Earlier this year, for example, the supreme court in the UK decided that care workers whose job requires them to stay overnight are not entitled to the minimum wage when not awake, ie, that even if you are contractually obliged to spend the night at your place of work, it still isn’t considered work.19 Perhaps the expectation is that these (mainly) women should be sleeping at work out of the kindness of their hearts? Jaffe picks up that one reason for this is that their wages can be reduced to below the level of the cost of reproducing themselves as workers. Why? Because women are compelled to rely on the often better-remunerated male partner (if they are in a heterosexual relationship) or possibly even a father, and immigrant workers are reproduced in their native country which bears those costs.
As we progress through the book, we begin to see key points come to the fore again to develop a core argument: when most work carried out for free inside the home is still undertaken mainly by women and not considered work it has the effect that waged jobs in such areas as health, care work and teaching are considered likewise. Jaffe argues that the social reproductive work undertaken free in the home is downplayed and undervalued directly to underplay its importance in the reproduction of the capitalist system as a whole.
Then, when women come to dominate those roles, it is argued that it’s due to the fact that it complements their inherent characteristics. This has two immediate impacts: pay and conditions should not be a prime concern for those workers and if women start to contest this or even organise to improve conditions, then they cross over the boundary of what is acceptable. Jaffe explains how what she calls the ‘labour of love ethic’ is used time and again to prevent workers fighting for better conditions. When workers in sectors of social reproduction take action, they are frequently castigated for being ‘bad at their job’ and accused of not putting the needs of their patients or students first. The implication, Jaffe says, is that these workers and their unions are being “selfish”. Perhaps the best riposte to this was, as Jaffe reminds us, the slogan from the hugely successful Chicago teachers strike of 2012 ‘Our working conditions are our students learning conditions’.
Jaffe is keen to show, however, that women do not simply accept the status quo. From Selma James, famous for her wages for housework campaign in the 70s to the more recent International Women’s Day strikes, women have raised the issue of the unpaid work that they undertake and its essential role in the system. Whilst the argument around wages for housework is not without its difficulties (for example, who pays? the state? an assumed male partner?) it nevertheless served the basic function of raising awareness of the fact that unpaid work within the home is still work.
“Arguably, in Western capitalist countries, there is far more work being done in the home today than at any other point.”
And arguably, in Western capitalist countries, there is far more work being done in the home today than at any other point. All that cleaning, washing, caring has now been joined by online booking of childcare spaces, booking doctor’s appointments, shopping – a whole range of roles that would once have been done by someone outside of the home, now brought to you online at home in the comfort of your pyjamas. More and more of the time outside of your paid work is spent, well…working. Even when we are ‘relaxing’ on social media or browsing the web, Jaffe makes the point that all that data we are leaving behind online is in fact providing a very useful product for the social media giants to use and eventually sell back to us.
Double freedom and double burden
The second half of her book focusses on those roles that people might undertake to express some inner talent or an intellectual pursuit. From the artist to the gaming workers to the professional sportswoman, what they all have in common is that their roles are, again, not considered to be ‘real’ work. One aspect that unites them is the need to be always available and a belief that they should in fact be grateful for the roles they have. And one can see how working in academia, or the arts can be considered to provide more autonomy and control over one’s work. However, the reality of these worlds is that they are completely integrated into the galaxy of commerce and market forces and those that work in these fields need to subject themselves to all sorts of demands. In May, the tennis player Naomi Osaki withdrew from the French Open, suffering from depression that she claimed was exacerbated by the demands to talk to the press, which was part of her role as an athlete. There is an expectation to do what is asked of you due to the ‘privileged position’ these sportswomen find themselves in and there is a financial penalty to pay for not playing by the rules. Indeed, Grand Slam rules state that players can be fined up to $20,000 for failing to meet their media obligations.20
Working all around the clock has even gained its own name in the gaming industry – ‘crunch’, where workers operating in cross-national teams work exceptionally long hours to meet the deadline. To make this more appealing, the workplace is equipped with furniture and games to make the workplace feel more like a home “bringing more of the things that workers might have done in their spare time into the workplace.”21 The fact that this intensification of work might detrimentally impact the quality of the product doesn’t seem to be a key consideration with the companies who pursue this mode of working.
Liberty and equality are values often associated with the rise of the modern age and, with it, the capitalist system. The freedom that capitalism brought had a double meaning: the worker was free to sell their labour to whichever employer they chose and could expect to receive its full value in exchange. However, there is freedom in the second sense too: freedom from any ownership of the process, the means of production and the end product or service.
“The rise of neoliberalism was able to co-opt those liberationist ideals of the 1960s and 70s and shape them according to its own need to restructure.”
Once again, we return to the point of how capitalism rarely relies simply on repressive measures to get us to buy into it and Jaffe makes one of her most interesting points on this question. In a similar vein to Hester Eisenstein in her book Feminism Seduced, Jaffe says the desire for greater liberation and independence, especially for women, could be co-opted by the system for its own end. In some ways, even our own struggles against our oppression can be subverted, packaged up and sold back to us.
By the 1960s, groups that had suffered oppression under the system were starting to make their demands heard for a different type of freedom. For women these struggles related to the freedom to not be tied to the home, to see their unpaid work in the home as labour, to have autonomy over their sex lives and their bodies. People of colour were organising and fighting back against the structural racism of the state.
Many women of course joined the workforce out of sheer economic necessity, but as Jaffe points out “this new labor-of-love myth was bolstered by the idea that leaving the home to go to a job constituted empowerment.”22 The fact is, the ability to gain some financial independence would indeed have been empowering to some women. Therefore, the rise of neoliberalism was able to co-opt those liberationist ideals of the 1960s and 70s and shape them according to its own need to restructure. This basically represents a mass exercise in femwashing the super-exploitation of low-paid women workers.
This process also sits comfortably with the neoliberal notion of rolling back of the ‘nanny’ welfare state for support and toward self-efficiency and control. The state is able to concede ground on issues that appeal to women and other oppressed groups whilst simultaneously introducing legislation that impacts on the working class and appeases global capitalism: “The advancement of women’s interests, via federally funded childcare and domestic violence and rape prevention, was compatible with policies that simultaneously increased the gap between rich and poor and weakened the labour movement.”23 What we also now know, however, is that these were exactly the types of services to be cut under austerity.
“The rise of identity politics works well for those companies who are increasingly recognising they need to widen their pool of workers.”
And workplaces today are keener than ever to go out of their way to express their progressive values. To a great extent, this is about PR. In July, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was exposed at having used an image from a well-known online photo library (not even its own staff!) on the cover of its annual diversity report that had obviously been photoshopped in order to enhance the company’s ‘diversity’ credentials.24 The corporate takeover of the annual London Pride celebrations is another example. The rise of identity politics works well for those companies who are increasingly recognising they need to widen their pool of workers. So in 2021 the underlying message is that people of colour, women, LGBT+ people, indeed everyone, is equally ‘free’ to be exploited.
Jaffe ends her book asking ‘What is love?’ and how is it that we have come to work harder to make our own jobs and workplaces the place to find that love, whilst the impact on our time and health is taking us away from our families, friends and neighbours – those people from whom we might actually get some affection and validation and alienating us from our co-workers, with whom we might grow a sense of solidarity. Since the rise of neoliberalism and the weakening of the unions and with it, to some extent, our collective capacities and aspirations, we have been left to individually scramble around to try to make some sense with the fragments left behind, including trying to ‘love’ our jobs.
Whilst Jaffe’s book concentrates on those roles where ‘love’ is perhaps more overtly part of the job description, the phenomenon she describes extends to other areas of work too. Structural changes to the modern workplace over the last few decades that include the alignment of individual goals to a company mission, team work instead of the blunt worker/boss division, company ‘away days’ to bring everyone together, the increased use of technology to mean that workers are never completely offline, are all ways to try and increase affinity with the company and reduce potential conflict. And whilst workers may no longer be required to wear a suit, they understand they are expected to don the company ‘personality’, enthusiastically cheering on the ‘smashing’ of sales targets or ‘loving’ the latest marketing campaign. However, despite these managerial manoeuvres, outside of the workplace and away from the bosses, many workers will talk of their dissatisfaction with their jobs.
Jaffe believes the mask is slipping, accentuated through government reaction, in the UK and US, to the pandemic. Work no longer works – we work harder, for longer, for less. At the same time the drive towards automation will restructure the world of work again, throwing many back into the reserve army of labour. The changing world of work has also influenced the way we conduct and view our relationships, both in and outside of work. It has also met with resistance. Fundamentally, however, to break the emotional ties between exploiter and exploited, we need to expose this mystification and build a vision for world where we could be doing work, and love, differently – a task that Jaffe has undoubtedly contributed to through this book.
Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs keeps us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone by Sarah Jaffe can be purchased from Hurst Publishers
1 S Jaffe Work Won’t Love You Back [Hurst & Company, London, 2021], p267
2 Ibid, p10
3 E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class [1968, Pelican Books, reprint 1982], p393
4 Ibid, p409
5 Jaffe , p8
6 K Marx Capital (Volume 1}, 1867 [Penguin Books, London: 1976, reprint 1990], p166
7 S Jaffe , p64
8 “Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.
“As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything.” K Marx Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844
9 S Jaffe , p51
12 S Jaffe  p272
13 Ibid, p29
18 S Jaffe , p5
20 French Open: Naomi Osaka says she will not take questions at tournament https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/57263774
21 S Jaffe , p229
22 Ibid, p32
23 H Eisenstein Feminism Seduced [Paradigm Publishers, USA, 2009] p8