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A Response to David Graeber

Has the Working Class Really Accepted Austerity?


David Graeber answers the provocative title question affirmatively in a recent Guardian op-ed, “Caring too much. That’s the curse of the working classes” (3/26/2014). The result of this excessive caring is “that the basic logic of austerity has been accepted by almost everyone.” So while others may consider solidarity to be a virtue, Graeber believes that it is “the rope from which [the working] class is currently suspended.” This marks something of a shift from his position on caring articulated in his magisterial historical survey, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, where he observes that the “non-industrious poor spent [time] with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, [thereby] probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”

Where “caring” prefigures the new society in Debt, it seems to anchor us to an austere present in the Guardian op-ed. If Debt was about the strange alchemy transmuting love into debt, this op-ed is about how caring becomes austerity – a Gordian knot if ever there was one! Fortunately, his austerity claims fail on several levels; the op-ed’s premise, that the working class accepts austerity is a shaky, largely false one. Further, even if we accept that the working class cares, it does not mean that caring predisposes one to austerity.

Does the working class accept austerity?

It is easy to make this a fuzzy kind of question, after all, what is “acceptance” and how do you measure it? Nonetheless, pretty uncontroversial polling data show that working people are concerned about budget deficits. But the same polling routinely shows that they support policies that run contrary to the logic of austerity; today about 73% of the US public support raising the minimum wage. Interestingly, this has been pretty consistent over the decades. Back in 1995, Bill Clinton had 79% support for hiking the minimum wage and for defending “entitlements”. Even where the public accepts the need for budget cuts, they are increasingly focused on reducing the spending that supports the powerful (rejecting tax cuts for the rich, weapons spending, etc.). Evidence for similar sentiments can be marshalled from around the world. The French, for example, originally elected François Hollande based on his anti-austerity platform. On its abandonment, the same voters either stayed home or turned to the right. To be sure there are a number of well-worn critiques of polling straight out of freshman sociology textbooks. However the consistency of these kinds of results—across different political contexts, countries and generations—and election outcomes are hard to refute. The opinions surfaced exist in spite of overwhelming media coverage and propaganda designed to produce just the opposite results. This speaks to the resilience of working class solidarity and more to a rejection of austerity – even after decades of withering assaults.

Maybe Graeber has higher expectations for what constitutes rejection. He echoes the question of the wealthy: “What I can’t understand is, why people aren’t rioting in the streets?” If this is the question, the reply is fairly straightforward: “Do not for one moment mistake the current absence of riots for acceptance of your order.” The absence of open revolt is not the same as acceptance. Maybe working people are demanding something more from their organic intellectuals, anarchist agitators, union bureaucrats and wannabe vanguards in order that they may yet act upon their rejection of austerity. Certainly, the Graeber of Debt seems to think that effort needs to be made to imagine alternatives, “We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.” (Debt, page 382)

Caring Work = Caring Class?

Let’s think about Graeber’s claim that working people are more caring because the majority of them do caring work. “Human beings are projects of mutual creation,” Graeber writes, “Most of the work we do is on each other.” As a result, workers “care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.” Okay, it’s a bit condescending. But is it true that because we work with/on other people, we are more caring?

This is a seductive hypothesis. However, it seems to ignore the actual work process and how people encounter one another in their highly constrained capitalist work places. At a micro-sociological level, it is not clear that the interaction between a service worker and their client is a human-to-human interaction – instead it involves two highly alienated forms interacting – e.g. a fast-food worker processing a long line of lunch time orders. Here the customer appears before the worker for a few seconds to confirm an order and make payment – even this may be automated so as to radically reduce any human, “mutually creating” interaction between the two.

Over the decades, a great deal of sociological work suggesting that working with/on people may be just as alienating as working on objects – calling into question Graeber’s hypothesis about caring work. Arlie Hochschild (The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling [2012, 1983]) drew on C. Wright Mills’ insight from White Collar, that salespeople sell their personalities. Hochschild took this insight further to examine the “the active emotional labor involved in the selling.” Her findings include the observation that emotional labor involves hiding and suppressing “inappropriate” emotions. As a result, Hochschild came to recognize that, “Beneath the difference between physical and emotional labor there lies a similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self-either the body or the margins of the soul-that is used to do the work.”

In this sense, it is hard to see why the labor should make us more caring. Indeed the opposite may be true as the emotional worker experiences dissonance between the work demands and their own reactions or underlying feelings. By the end of her book, we realize that emotional labor has its costs, including “numbness,” decreased empathy and its own sense of grievance. Intervening research has revealed that the work is complex and its operation across different work situations and managerial regimes suggests many different kinds of outcomes. Just as hard physical work may build muscles, it may also be debilitating. So too may be the case for emotional labor.

A recent doctoral thesis suggests that emotional labor may provide its own rewards in some circumstances. In another work, Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service, authors Mary E. Guy, Meredith A. Newman, Sharon H. Mastracci, quote one worker, “On a lot of days there are sometimes when you when you feel like you might want to explode… but then what comes to mind is that I am a professional…” Does this emotional restraint lead to acceptance austerity? Perhaps, but Graeber’s assertion does not find ready support in the literature.

Of course, Hochschild (in another essay) also deepened our understanding about emotional labor and also about the gender and transnational dimensions to this labor process: “Just as the market value of primary produce keeps the Third World low in the community of nations, so the low market value of care keeps the status of women who do it—and ultimately, all women—low.” She went onto analyze the importation of “pre-capitalist” love (from the Global South) into post-modern caring situations in the United States. All of this suggests the complex character of emotional labor… and also provides for other questions to be asked: for example, immigrant and people-of-color workers in the caring and hospitality industries, including home care workers, have been among the most militant of workers and swelled the ranks of the service workers’ unions in the United States (see for example, the actions by home care workers). Similarly, nurses and teachers whose work, above all else, is emotional labor, have been particularly prominent in labor challenges to austerity and cutbacks across the United States. So much for caring work generating acceptance of austerity!

Graeber teases out further inferences from his caring hypothesis. In the modest space offered by the op-ed medium, he suggests that we can understand nationalism and anti-immigrant politics (“manufactured abstractions”) as a redirection of this caring impulse. These too can be subject to sociological interrogation and the results will be ambiguous at best. For example, as David Roediger long ago observed in Wages of Whiteness, hegemonic political identities, German-Americaness in his case, are defined less by positive caring for an imagined German heritage and more by anti-black sentiments. Rather than caring, these identities seem to express aggression!

Although we have shown (1) that evidence for workers’ support for austerity is hardly unambiguous and (2) that emotional labor does not necessarily lead to greater caring, there is a more fundamental problem with the inferences Graeber draws from emotional labor. As a serious thinker, he recognizes this. If, as Graeber says, caring work has always existed, why didn’t it produce the same hypothesized demobilizing results in the past? At the end of the essay, Graeber gives us the answer by introducing another argument. Here he concedes that “we are seeing the effects of a relentless war against the very idea of working-class politics or working-class community…” This is too true. But then this observation is quite a different one from his thesis that we care too much; its subject matter is found in political institutions while the caring work thesis emerges from a potted industrial psychology. The lesson? Let’s get beyond attributing political outcomes (consent to austerity) to alleged psychological predispositions (caring) and start the hard work of experimenting with and developing organizational forms equal to the tasks of the day.

Suren Moodliar serves as Director of Global Policy Programs on the Democracy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet. He is also a coordinator of encuentro5 and Mass. Global Action.