Emotional Wage Labour

As workers without the freedom of capital, we have two choices. Either we sell ourselves to an employer in whatever role the labour market has decreed for us, or we starve. Most of us take the first option. We rent out our bodies and minds to the slave owners, bound by contract to obey their bidding. But this isn’t enough for the capitalists. Like the medieval aristocrats, they don’t want to be seen as the petty tyrants they are. The term ‘benevolent job creator’ fits much more nicely. So it isn’t enough that we rent out our bodies and minds. Capital wants our spirit as well.


Do you like your job? Suppress your reflexive answer and consider the question. Every day, you navigate through the traffic snarls to sit in an office. There, you must obey every dictum of your manager and suppress any individuality to become an optimally productive part of the machine. You have an assigned repetitive task, which you must repeat, over and over, day afer day. That task is assigned not on the basis of ability or interest, but by the mere dictums of the labour market. Is this really what you would choose to be doing with your life? Perhaps a small number of people have won the labour market lottery and are willing to put up with these conditions to do something they care about. But for the rest of us, it should be clear. We hate our jobs.


Why, then, is this such a heresy to admit? Why do we maintain the ridiculous falsehood that we can think of nothing better to do with our lives? That this job is at the very centre of our existence rather than a mere toll to be paid?


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology


For the medieval aristocrat, it wasn’t enough to control the lives and production of his serfs. His ego couldn’t square his Christian ideals with the reality of being a slaving warlord. So he, along with his fellows in similar positions, built a narrative of divine right and patriarchal obligation. It was the will of God that they rule over the serfs, and it was actually for their own good – so they could be guided by the aristocrat’s magisterial presence.


Throughout history, the ruling classes have deployed similar ideas to justify their dominion. Colonialism was necessary so that the savages could learn from the civilised Brits. It was the destiny of the United States to expand from sea to shining sea, displacing or slaughtering the land’s previous occupants. Women were too emotional, and voting should remain only for the rational, land-owning men. Decisions about the future of a country should be left to the experts, not the easily led masses who don’t know what’s good for them.


As it was before, so it is today. The wealthy capitalists don’t want to see themselves as bad people. Many slice off a sliver of their wealth for charity to assuage their own guilty consciences. They want to see themselves as self-made and generous, not parasites made wealthy by a tyrannical system of wage slavery. Power over a worker at a firm flows through many levels of management, but at its core it is directed in the interests of shareholders – the interests of capital.


Shareholders demand profits, certainly, but also salves to their ego. The glossy reports on a company’s diversity and inclusion aren’t produced to maximise profit, but instead to assure shareholders that their company is doing good. Companies dedicate resources to producing highfalutin mission statements, declaring their benevolent intentions. It is not enough to merely extract profit from the worker’s labour, but the capitalist’s guilty conscience must be soothed too.


Who owns the media? Capitalists, by definition. Who pays for the advertising upon which media depends? Companies, which are in turn owned by capitalists. It shouldn’t be any surprise then that the media is in support of capitalist interests and propagates their ideas. Ideas like wage labour being our true calling, and something we should love. That jobs are divine charity handed down by the blessed businessmen to the needy masses. These ideas become the bedrock upon which our society rests, the default mode of thinking.


When someone asks whether you like your job, you fall back into that default mode of thinking. You don’t want to rock the boat, or mark yourself as an outsider. But the collective decisions of a society build the values it holds. So, with every mealy-mouthed platitude about how much you love your job, the cult of labour grows. It becomes abnormal to hate one’s job, a hidden truth which can only be expressed obliquely. Garfield hates Mondays. Dilbert hates his manager. Everyone loves the weekend. But only those on the lunatic fringe hate capitalism.


In the workplace, you keep up the same facade. To do otherwise would be to invite trouble, and risk falling back into the reserve army of labour. It is better to have to work than have to starve, after all. If a manager peeks under that facade, the marking could follow you for your whole career. You’d be an Other, shorn of references and unsuitable for anything but the most menial jobs.


So capital demands not just our body and mind in service of their interests, but our spirit as well. Performing not just physical or mental labour, but also profound emotional work. We have to pretend that we like our jobs, act like plugging numbers into spreadsheets is satisfying or worthwhile. Not only is the way we act and think dictated to us, but even how we must feel. On the clock, we don’t even have the basic freedom to hate our jobs.