Emotional labour and the paradox of ownership

The late, lamented, David Graeber talked about emotional labour in his book Bullshit Jobs. We live in a society that’s in thrall to ownership. If you own an enterprise, or are a director of it, you don’t have to make any effort to understand what your employees want, or even think. On the other hand, they have to understand you, because in a real sense their lives depend on it and you could discard them if you felt like it.

Of course, this is taking the idea to an extreme that’s probably not been as evident since Victorian times. But if you think how power hierarchies work it’s a very cogent thing. If you look how corporations work, with the lower-ranking employees scurrying around to avoid offending their masters and avoid showing initiative that could result in being wrong, it’s still very apparent. Particularly now, when trade unions and collective approaches to running society have been so traduced and neutered compared to the ridiculous cult of the individual and the leader.

It also explains why so-called leaders in corporations are always bemoaning how they can’t get people to own problems and solve them for the company. Well, bluntly, why the fuck should you? The owners keep the rewards and you get the ulcers. Doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.

This forced, insincere, emotional labour, pretending to give a shit about what some dickhead boss wants, is at least part of what Marx called alienation. I believe that it’s what is causing the rising tide of mental illness in the West.

Marx pointed out to us that we are slaves. Wage slaves. Instead of being fully owned like the chattel of old, we rent our labour out for fixed periods of time in exchange for tokens that we can use to get the necessities of life. If you aren’t a member of the owning class (and very few people are) then this is where you sit despite all the freedoms you have on paper. As an individual you have very little power. This is why our society makes a cult of the individual, it means the powerful few keep control while the rest of us wander around with nothing. The freedom you have is the freedom to own things, or the freedom to starve if you don’t and can’t get to place where you can rent your labour to someone who does.

The paradox

If you’re human you can’t help being emotionally involved with the enterprise you work for. You identify with it, and even feel that you want it to succeed. This is why being made redundant can hurt so much, part of your humanity is being thrown away by people who don’t value it. It’s also why the saying it’s not personal, it’s business is such a load of crap. It’s personal all right, business won’t work without both kinds of labour. Now we arrive at the point of the title of this essay: the paradox of ownership.

Say if you work for a company that’s very successful, that you put a lot of effort into, and it’s bought by someone, your contribution does not belong to you. Your owner has taken it and turned it into money, but it has nothing to do with you any more. Unless the original or new owners decide to acknowledge you with some kind of thank you (financial or even just verbal) you may not even have a job. You own your labour, and emotional labour in particular is hard, separating your feelings from what you do is damn near impossible.

The ownership of the company and the ownership of the work mean different things. The emotional labour you may have put in is necessary, may even have built something that can be sold by your employer, but if the company is itself sold it’s been taken from you to make a commodity. This is the quintessence of capitalism, everything you have, even the things that make you feel human, perhaps even love, become things.

A company is all of the people who work there, all of the things they did to make it better and help their customers. All the folks you enjoy working with and want to succeed. All that stuff, that human stuff, can be sold from under your feet and you will get nothing unless there is some kind of contract or the owners are willing to share.

A cynic would say that you shouldn’t give too much, if anything, to avoid being hurt. Just the time you’re paid for and that’s that. Is this what will work for you, though? It’s right to want human contact, and right to want to help others. Neither of these things is pathologically bad. However we live in a society with a bad pathology. Where the accident of ownership means you can do what you like to the people that work for you and they can’t do anything about it. An owner isn’t even obliged to understand the thing they own and how it works – think about it, it is absolutely mad when you get down to it. This bad pathology hurts us inside and out, it dehumanises and makes hurting other people seem acceptable. This is why dangerous nonsense like the enterprise destroying concept of shareholder value is acceptable if all you want is to play games with money – what the enterprise does, what value it brings, is overriden by who owns it.

This is why the rest of us need collectivism, and why we need each other. It’s why we need to reject the cult of the individual, the arsehole, and work together on things. It’s also why our owners have spent the last fifty years undermining trade unions, why the legal recourse for discrimination has been so restricted, why things like zero hours contracts have been created, and why the billionaire press is so hell bent on persuading us to hate even the idea of unions or collectivism and be suspicious of each other. The destruction of the post-war consensus was deliberate. It’s now almost impossible to remember what it was like when virtually everyone was in a union of some kind and your employer couldn’t pick on you if they felt like it. It happened so slowly nobody noticed, but the world is fundamentally different.

If an enterprise is sold, then there is a really weird assumption that the workers go with it. But what was sold, really? The mechanical thing. A business is a means of organising people and materials in such a way as you put resources in, turn a handle, and profit comes out of the process the handle initiates. So what the new owner bought was the process and the handle, possibly the brand if there is one. But they didn’t buy the workers, the physical labour was bought. Selling time for the use of your hands doesn’t mean you’re obliged to do the emotional labour as well, that would mean you worked for some kind of cult. So a business being sold generates a deeper conflict in the people that work for it. After all, chattel slavery finally disappeared a long time ago. They didn’t buy your heart, but they like to pretend that they did.

The other strange import from the USA, at least if you live in the UK, is this bollocks about family. Somehow the accidental combination of the people you work with and your employer’s limited largesse has created a family and you’re automatically a member. People you choose to be with vs. people you need to hang out with so you can earn a living. Bosses that assume you will go to out of hours virtual meetings and play pub games with strangers you didn’t choose as friends, whom you may not even like particularly.

When I worked for a big database company and 9/11 happened the billionaire boss sent an email round saying the folks we knew who died trying to take down the planes where all family. Maybe this was the harbinger of a new attitude where we all pull together and the wealth is shared along with the risk etc. etc. Six weeks later he was back firing people and doing all the aggressive stuff the MBAs told him to do to make even more money. It wasn’t a lie, as such, it just wasn’t a sentiment that lasted more than a week. Well, we aren’t dogs, our loyalty isn’t automatically given when someone shows even slight affection, and why should we pretend? Hey billionare narcissist, it’s just business and we don’t love you.

The cult of the individual also serves to isolate us from one another. You can find yourself in a situation and not realise that most of the people you work with feel the same. It’s what Marx talked about, what a class actually is, a group of people united by having the same needs and circumstances having the same perspective on what matters. Our owners are outnumbered and very weak, so they have to pretend our class does not exist. They have to turn us into individuals because it makes us easy to control. They create bureaucracies to hide from us so we can’t see their hands behind the puppet show.

This is also where the whining about people wanting free stuff comes from: nope, workers demand recognition of who they are and what they do. Their interests do not coincide with the owners. In fact the owners’ interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of the enterprises they own, they just want the profit and don’t care how it happens. This is why capitalism is destroying the planet – profit-driven ownership, rather than stewardship, is a very stupid idea when it becomes world-spanning monopolies that are wrecking the environment.

But if you look carefully it’s pretty easy to see, and then the paradox resolves itself by taking the ownership back from the people who only ever borrowed it, whatever they may pretend to.