Toiling in the Field of Emotion
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 03:00PM
Dr. Harriet Fraad

First published in The Journal of Psychohistory Jan 1, 2008

What is Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor is the expenditure of time, effort and energy utilizing brain and muscle to understand and fulfill emotional needs. By emotional needs, I mean the human needs for feeling wanted, appreciated, loved, and cared for. Individuals’ emotional needs are often unspoken or unknown/unconscious.  Emotional labor often occurs together with physical labor (producing physical goods or services), but emotional labor differs from physical labor by aiming to produce the specific feelings of being wanted, appreciated, loved and/or cared for. Of course like all powerful forces, emotional labor may be used to cruelly undermine others or frustrate their emotional needs as well as help them. I do not discuss that aspect of emotional labor in this article.

Emotional labor is directed towards understanding and fulfilling one’s own and also other human beings’ emotional needs. My focus in this article is on emotional labor devoted to another’s emotional needs. Such emotional labor involves:
 First, watching and more generally engaging that person for all possible clues as to her/his emotional needs. This entails using all one’s capacities for analysis, empathy, using brain, muscle and emotion to comprehend and assess those needs whether they are spoken or conscious or unconscious. Second, designing a strategy to meet those needs in the other person based on one’s assessment of that other’s needs. Third, executing that strategy: taking concrete steps to meet what have been identified as the other’s emotional needs.

A simple example: A parent performs emotional labor to identify and meet his/her infant’s needs for love, security, etc. If the baby cries, the parent will try to sense whether that cry may indicate physical needs such as hunger or a wet diaper or emotional needs for being held or otherwise connected to the caregiver in order to feel  loved , connected and secure. An infant will need both emotional comfort by itself, and also, emotional care given in the process of performing physical tasks. Under some circumstances, a parent’s emotional labor may aim at determining whether an infant needs some reassuring distance to offset moments of over-stimulation by parents or others. The parent may provide that form of emotional care as well. Carers and infants communicate through sensual emotive responses that they send to and receive from one another. Satisfying communication involves an intricate mutual dance. If either partner cannot receive the other’s signals a painful disruption occurs. The infant may cry repeatedly or withdraw from the contact s/he desperately needs for survival. The caregiver may become frustrated and rejecting and further disrupt the relationship.

Emotional labor is produced in addition to and along side of the physical labor involved in feeding, clothing, and sheltering children. It is the loving care of intuiting a child’s signals, picking up those signals and meeting the child’s emotional needs. It involves sensitivity to the communications that an infant transmits, the sounds, gestures and facial expressions that indicate her or his need, or upset or joy. It involves sensitive non-verbal communications that let an infant know that her/his needs are recognized, acknowledged met and at the same time, that the process of meeting the infant’s needs is enjoyed by the caretaker. While I am not focused on the caretaker meeting his/her own emotional needs, this is a case in which a caretaker’s joy in caring simultaneously fulfills both the caretakers’ needs for connection and the needs of the person s/he cares for. Children can recognize the caregiver’s emotion and therefore benefit from the caretaker’s joy or suffer from the caregiver’s boredom, indifference, anger, etc. The relative new field of attachment theory eplores and explains thes interactions without the benefit of Hchschild’ s term, “emotional labor.

That recognition and non verbal emotional communication establish the foundation of the child’s awareness of the larger society, its intuitive grasp of the basic fact that others’ statements and actions matter to the child, much as its own messages matter to others. This process – what we might call the socialization of the brain - happens in a healthy child during the first two years of life. It is that socialized brain which is the foundation of all human emotional and intellectual life and all relationships. Without the development of the socialized brain, the child can have neither a full emotional life nor a developed rational mind. Both a full emotional life and a developed rational mind develop from that foundation of caring, sensitive interaction and recognition of the child. In fact all connections in the brain, no matter how complex and seemingly abstractly intellectual, begin with emotion.  Children who do not receive a minimum of emotionally caring labor literally fail to thrive. They cannot turn over, sit up or accomplish the requisite developmental milestones that permit them to live.

A more complex example of emotional labor: A man comes home from work angry. His wife or partner performs emotional labor to determine whether he needs to be alone, to connect, to be busy, to be comforted, to discuss or to explore what may have caused the anger, to be encouraged to go out and walk to release anger etc. S/he devises a strategy to meet the needs s/he identifies. Perhaps s/he asks him directly. Perhaps s/he avoids just that because her partner neither acknowledges his needs nor acknowledges the work s/he is doing to help him. And finally, she uses her brain, muscle, and emotion to execute a strategy to provide needed comfort in the hope of producing the feelings she believes he seeks, in order to satisfy his emotional needs.

Now that we have introduced the concept of emotional labor, it is relevant to ask: Why is the category of emotional labor significant for Marxian analysis?

Emotional labor like most labor has a class dimension. It involves a differentiation between necessary and surplus labor in the most basic Marxian sense. Necessary emotional labor is that amount of emotional labor, self care self appreciation, self soothing, which is needed to sustain one’s basic mental health. Surplus labor is that amount of emotional labor one produces over and above what is needed for psychological survival. Surplus emotional labor may be extended to others in the family, friend colleagues, etc. If the demands of others sap not only one’s surplus labor but one’s necessary labor one can experience a range of symptoms from burnout to neurosis to madness.

There are three classes processes involved with emotional labor that parallel the three class processes involved in physical labor. There are those who produce surplus emotional labor, the producers. There are those who enable emotional labor by providing its conditions of existence, the enablers. And there are those who appropriate the surplus labor of others without reciprocating the emotional labor they receive. They exploit others emotional labor in a classic Marxian sense. They are they exploiters.  
When we look at sites where emotional labor is primarily produced, such as  the household we can ask the salient questions of Marxian analytics:

These are class questions that help us to analyze life’s complexity. Life’s complexity can never to reduced to the clarifying categories that human knowledge designs. The questions I ask shed light on one aspect of emotional life rather than give absolute all encompassing answers . I will not look at the question of how he production of emotional labor in the household interact with the production of surplus labor outside of the household. Even though I understand that emotional labor facilitates all relationships whether intimate relationships in families or employer-employee or inter-employee relationships at work. That is too much to consider in this chapter.

Emotional labor has often been invisible to those who benefit from it, to those This invisibility results in part from social norms that require disguising the emotional labor one is doing for the other. Thus, recipients of emotional labor may deny its existence because they cannot admit their emotional needs. Performers may be complicit in such denials to save recipients from the pain of recognizing their repressed emotional needs or to save themselves from recognizing that their hard work is exploited and denied. If performers and recipients of emotional labor are differentially gendered, social norms may impose a need for men and women alike to be blind to emotional labor and fixate only on the labor that produces goods and services other than those emotional services that produce feelings of being loved, appreciated, cared for, and wanted.

In our previous example, the wife who encounters her angry husband may conceal to him or even to both her husband and herself the work she is doing to guess what bothers him while she simultaneously tries to create opportunities for him to understand and manage his anger. She may disguise from her angry husband the fact that she is spending time and energy as she labors to help him. Her various suggestions of what to do or her attempts to engage him may be presented as if they were addressing the woman’s own need to connect and talk. She may disguise from herself her own need for a household not stressed by anger, just as she may be unconscious of the emotional labor she devotes to meeting his needs. The wife may collude with repressing her awareness of the emotional labor she performs for her husband because she too may need to pretend that her husband is an inhuman powerhouse without emotional needs. Neither she nor he recognizes the labor this repression entails. In this episode the wife is emotionally exploited. Her husband appropriates her emotional labor without recognition, no less gratitude or reciprocity. Gender, a non class process is enabling this exploitation. The wife and the husband may have expectations that the wife is either genetically engineered or mandated by God to understand her husband’s feelings and work to please him. They may believe as did feudal serfs that their role of birth order as male and female proscribes wifely emotional labor not reciprocated by the lord of the manor, her husband. If you think this is far fetched such subordination is mandated by the Southern Baptist Convention on Men and Women (2000).

Emotional labor is something we all recognize without being aware of how to define it or what it actually entails. It is a knowledge that exists ”avant le lettre,” before the concept is formulated. It is repressed from awareness. Yet, the history of all novels is in part an attempt to explore this concept.  Emotional labor exists in all attempts at personal expression. There are five recent academic explorations which attempt to clarify this concept. One is Arlie Hochschild’s brief definition of emotional labor (1983) and her deeper explorations of the emotional relationships of foreign nannies with both their own children at home and their foreign charges. Hers include explicit discussions of emotional labor, a term that Hochschild coined (1983).
A second area of research that is relevant to emotional labor is the research of Pam Smith on the importance of emotional labor in nursing care. Smith, Hochschild and I use the important and clarifying concept of emotional labor.

A third area of research that is relevant to emotional labor is the research on attachment theory which explores parent interaction with infants and children. And other intense emotional interactions such as that between therapist and client, 2204

A fourth is brain research exploring and creating photographic images ofmother child communication, and a fifth is the social science explorations of what is called “caring labor,” i.e. physical and emotional care combined without being differentiated (Folbre 2001, Eisler 2007).

When a concept is formulated, one can finally see it with greater clarity. I want to clarify both the concept of emotional labor and the concept of class two highly repressed concepts.

Why has Emotional Labor Been Repressed?

Definitions of emotional labor are not readily available because the concept is repressed and therefore unacknowledged. One reason that it has remained outside of our conscious vocabulary is that emotional labor is associated with women’s labor and particularly women’s gendered work in the home and family. Just as women’s domestic labors in cooking and cleaning were invisible until they were explored in successive women’s movement inspired texts, emotional labor has been overwhelmingly erased from consciousness. Once we notice emotional labor we see that it is a large component of traditionally female fields such as early childhood education, nursing, social work, psyholical counseling and personal secretarial work. Women’s emotional labor in these jobs, like our work at home, is expected without being named. That is a striking omission in the light of the fact that emotional labor is a crucial to life itself. Children who receive only physical care and not emotional care literally fail to thrive. They die. In a far more trivial example, we have all felt the difference between being waited and receiving the same dinner from a bored, indifferent, or hostile waiter or one who seems pleased to provide us with food and seervice.

If emotional labor is even obliquely mentioned, it is often attributed to a genetic nest making mandate on the part of women’s nature, if not a God driven destiny in much the same way as women’s housework was considered a natural outgrowth of love, nest making, or a program installed by God. Emotional labor is not even implicitly recognized in men, as if that crucial emotional part of life were not part of the felt experience of half of the human race. My focus here on women in no way connotes that men are total strangers to emotional labor. In fact, one of my purposes here is to expand and explore the concept so that men can recognize, value, and greatly expand the emotional labor that they perform and the potential they have to embrace and expand their repertoire of emotional capabilities.

Women’s emotional and physical labor is merged with pure sentimentality in the US, particularly around Mother’s Day. However, neither a description of the emotional nor physical work actually involved in parenting, nor any substantial rewards are forthcoming. In fact, women who are mothers are penalized for their emotional labor In 2008, a study by reported that the value of a full-time mother’s labor is $116,805. The monetary value of a second-shift mothers work in mothering is $68,405.

Women’s emotional and physical work is not only under or unacknowledged, women’s labor as mothers is an economic disadvantage. Correll  and Paik (2007) performed an experiment to see if there were a motherhood penalty in the job market. She found that among women aged 27 to 33 who have never had children, women's earnings approached 98 percent of men's. Mothers were half as likely to be hired as childless women or men with or without children. Mothers were offered $11,000 less in starting pay than non-mothers. Correll’s study is the most recent version of studies with similar results.

Emotional labor and physical caring labor is twice penalized in America. Americans, unlike their European counterparts, bear the burdens of losing income and of shouldering most of the costs of raising their children. The cost in dollars directly spent to raise a child to age eighteen in the US are now in the $145,000 range. This does not include college or graduate school costs or wages lost because of child care responsibilities or the value of physical or emotional caring labor. Parenthood and particularly motherhood with their huge demands for both physical and emotional labor are, in fact, economically punished. When the cost of time spent in child rearing is added to the cost of parenting children, the economic price of raising one child to age 18 are $410,000 for low salaried parents, $811,997 for middle income parents and $1,502,231 for high income parents. These costs are accruing to US families who have seen a steady decline in real wages since 1970. In our land of dollars, children are an economic liability. The best predictor of poverty in th US is having a child. If anything is truly valued in the US it is compensated with high salaries and perks. The absence of support for American parents in maternity or paternity benefits, paid family leaves, child care and after school support, or job credit show how physical and emotional parenting labor is actually valued.

Religions have obliquely acknowledged mothers’ caring labors both physical and emotional. However religion has relegated mothers to the status of inferiors. Women have been responsible for what the Catholic Church calls “hearth and home.” That sphere which the Southern Baptist Faith and Message declares is part of women’s job of support and subordination within the family. Part of a wife and mother’s feminine job is “to graciously submit to the servant leadership of her husband.” She, as a woman and mother, is not allowed to become a minister,  as in the Catholic faith she is not allowed to become a priest nor in the Muslim faith a Mullah nor in the Orthodox Jewish faith, a rabbi. The religious right joins employers in devaluing emotional labor as well as domestic labor by devaluing the mothers who perform that labor in its primal site, the family. Orthodox religions ideologically endorse the idea of family while subordinating its primary creators, mothers, and supporting the destruction of the most basic financial supports for families from quality public child care centers and maternity and paternity leaves to paid vacations, to family leave, to free health care for parents and their children.

US degradation of women’s caring physical and emotional work creates the sad situation of mothers who are unrecognized, overworked and underpaid. They lack the leisure, the confidence, the subsidy, and the belief in the importance of child rearing labor that would make it likely for them to bask in the importance of child care and of their children. People are social animals. It is difficult to sustain oneself in the joy of maternity without social supports. Children demand a great deal. The work they require is not only uncompensated, it is financially punished. Increased rates of child abuse and neglect illustrate the indifference and the rage parents direct at their children for their very existence, which is in financial terms a burden on their parents. The greater the time that children spend in the home with parents, usually mothers, the greater the increase in child abuse. If mothers and indeed both parents are afforded time where children are cared for or educated outside of the home, children suffer less and so do mothers. Primary conditions for reducing women’s and children’s emotional exploitation in the home are providing universal quality childcare, infant care and after school programs as well as maternity and paternity leaves, and family subsidies. At present the United States has fewer of these family supports than any other wealthy industrialized nation in the world (UNICEF 2007).

Both gender and race play roles in emotional exploitation. Poorly paid service work is often performed by America’s minorities and women. Service workers get tips as a measure of their ability to show their eagerness to serve, i.e. their emotional labor. Women’s pink collar jobs and careers are often extensions of physical and emotional caring roles in the home. Day care workers are among the most poorly paid US workers. Early childhood education, social work and nursing are both emotional labor intensive professions, traditionally women’s professions the lowest paid professions.

Even though 82% of childcare is still done by women, (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006) mothers are not the only ones whose emotional labor is exploited, invisible and unrecognized. Failure to acknowledge the emotional and physical caring work of fathers and husbands contributes to the damaging gender stereotype of emotionally barren maleness to which many young men aspire. Many forms of popular male rap music celebrate humiliating women, calling them “bitches and hos”.

There is little in popular youth culture that celebrates the caring labor of fathers or mothers. The only popular cultural form that celebrates parents is country music. Their sentimentalized family celebration is part of the rightwing populism of many fundamentalists. They romanticize parenthood while denying or opposing its conditions of existence in quality public childcare, parental leaves, health insurance elder care, etc. lack of cultural or economic recognition of the emotional labor of parenting further enhances its exploitation.
Parenting is so devalued that for the first time the majority of US couples do not consider child rearing a crucial or desirable aspect of their lives together.The only Americans who now have numerous children are immigrants who have not yet adjusted to the realities and costs of American life.

Parents’ and particularly mothers’ emotional labor is exploited in a classic Marxian sense. Parents emotionally labor to produce emotionally healthy viable citizens for the future of their nation. Those children’s labor will be in turn exploited as they become the workers of tomorrow. Parenting results will be appropriated and distributed by future employers and the state. Yet parents receive neither payment nor rewards from their society. Other Western Industrialized societies such as the Scandinavian societies and France provide child allowances, child school supplies, school clothing subsidies, free or highly subsidized childcare and subsidized housing for parents. America provides little or nothing, exploiting particularly mothers’ physical and emotional labor.

Children’s Emotional Labor

Children’s emotional labor is another example of the invisibility of emotional labor and its exploitation. In the Western industrialized world children’s labor for money is outlawed. Here children’s physical labor is relatively insignificant. Their emotional labor is entirely obscured.  Children strain, they use brain, muscle and emotion to meet the largely unspoken emotional needs of their parents. They produce emotional surplus for their parents while their labor of pleasing is unrecognized and far to often appropriated and not reciprocated in a classic case of exploitation. A veritable explosion of therapies, 12 step programs and self help books, films and tapes documents children’s emotional exploitation, their depleted reserves of emotional labor and their sufferings as denied emotionally exploited beings. Here too a culture of pretence enables exploitation. The very idea that being pregnant however accidental and casual qualifies people to become the sensitive informed physical and emotional guardians of totally vulnerable life is absurd.  That ideology and many others enable children’s exploitation.

Why do children work emotionally? They do so because their survival over the ages has depended on pleasing the adults responsible for that survival. Until the 1800s birth control largely consisted of killing those children one did not want or leaving them at the marketplace to be picked up by strangers or abandoned to the elements.. Those children who survived in yesteryear, learned what most children who were killed did not. That is, how to please their omnipotent caretakers. Therefore, those of us whose ancestors survived usually learned how to please. The human brain illustrates exactly that point.  Infant brains contain an extra large number of mirror neurons that allow them to pick up crucial emotional messages from their caretakers. Mirror neurons permit babies to be highly attuned to the moods of their parents. A three month old infant can notice the narrowing of a parent’s pupils in fear or anger in the way that many adults cannot.
Even though at present it is illegal to kill one’s children, young children do not know their legal rights. Many strive to be what their parents want as if their survival depended on it. Of course, parents have and also communicate all sorts of simultaneous and contradictory desires and children are multi diimensional and react to physical or emotional distress in some ways that do not please their parent but rather illustrate their biological needs for comfort and their limited means of communicating. Children strive and pick up the signals they can manage to receive within their own dispositions, biological imperatives and sensitivities amidst the confusing welter of wishes their parents present. Children’s self subjugation can be accompanied by rebellions against that subjugation in self destruction, cruelty to other children or animals, emotional withdrawal or acting out against their parents.

Children, like other humans, are highly complicated. The ways that children strive to be what their parents need and the emotional toll that takes is equally complex. The damage is usually only apparent as children mature into wounded adults. These impaired adults have not received the necessary emotional labor that they needed to flourish. Their normal emotional needs are needs for acceptance as unique, valued and lovable people. In order to please and to survive, they have tried to decipher and embody personal qualities their parents seem to require even if those qualities violate their own emotional needs. In one example Christian Fundamentalist child rearing demands unquestioning obedience to parental authority. Fundamentalist children learn that their natural desires to question, speak out and rebel are devilish manifestations that precipitate severe parental rejection. Dobson’s best selling child rearing books suggest physical punishments, shunning etc to break a rebellious child’s will. Fundamentalist children learn to despise their curiosity, and wishes for developmentally appropriate independence and empowerment. They identify with and conform to their authoritarian parents instead of their own needs. They emotionally labor for their parents by being the child that their parent wants instead of their own sometimes affectionate, sometimes questioning, sometimes rebelling selves. Wishes to express their disallowed questions and rebellions enter into an unspeakable realm of unconscious wishes while they labor to both repress their need for emotionally necessary labor, repress the process whereby they serve their parents and also conform to their parents needs for unquestioned obedience. Such children learn to reject their emotional needs as bad. Their internalized definition of bad is adapted from their omnipotent caretaker’s definition of bad which is whatever the caretaker does not want, Children reject themselves to identify with the omnipotent parent-leader. Emotional exploitation is a window into a class aspect of the exploitation of children that complexly interacts with psychological aspects of children’s exploitation. That exploitation also lends itself to belief in dominating authorities in school, in church and in government. Projection of goodness on to the dominating authority and badness on to one’s own feelings, thoughts and reactions extends into adulthood with damaging consequences.

Damaged Adults Emotional Labor and the Authoritarian Family

Part of the reason I am exploring these questions as a leftist is that we need to understand exploitation and root it out wherever lives. It flourishes in the family. The family is an area that the left neglects to its peril since it is an arena in which Americans are passionately engaged. US society is focused almost exclusively on personal life which the right wing engages and the left ignores. This makes us irrelevant to millions of Americans.

The study emotional of exploitation in the family may shed light on crucial questions for the left. What allows people to support leaders and governments that deny their needs? Why don’t people organize against their financial exploitation or political oppression? What keeps people from forming viable organizations to create a supportive socialist government, which respects the needs and demands of the majority? In short, what keeps people from insisting on personal, social, and political freedom? There are three great schools of thought that see these questions through the lense of psychology of the family One is The Frankfort School, a second is the work of Louis Althusser and a third is psychohistory. All three provide key insights that pave our way. In this section, I will briefly summarize what each school of thought offers to help answer these questions.

The Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt school found that one of the primary reactionary forces holding back human progress is right wing authoritarianism as manifested in as the authoritarian personality nurtured and formed in the authoritarian family.  As David Smith attests, the Frankfurt School’s findings are still accurate. today A 60% majority of US adults are attracted to authoritarian leaders, another 20% are sadistically enmeshed in authoritarianism and a third 20% are utterly opposed to authoritarianism just as they were in the Weimar period before the establishment of the Third Reich Smith (2007).

The Frankfurt School’s Research studied our questions. They asked what social conditions encourage and enable the passive, ambivalent 60% majority to dare and rebel against dictators and what other social conditions foster blind obedience to dictators? They found that fearful conditions such as Pre World War Two Germany’s rapid inflation and the bombing of the Reichstag could precipitate the ambivalent 60% majority to blindly obey Hitler and the Nazi Party and condemn those who did not obey. Anyone  who questioned was attacked as unpatriotic, toxic, or weak. Those labeled “toxic and weak” joined those whose very gender or ethnicity designated their toxicity or weakness such as women, homosexuals, Communists, Socialists, Jews, Minorities, etc.

We note that the steady decline in US male wages since 1970,combined with the vast transformation of the US family and bombing of the world trade center, seem to have had the same effect in the United States. After the trauma of the World Trade Center (WTC) bombings combined with the severe economic loss of the family wage for suffered by white male workers and a revolution in family structures and roles caused such trauma that Americans temporarily transformed their perceptions of an unpopular, selected, not elected president who stole votes to perceiving Bush as a leader who could not be questioned After the World Trade Center bombing, all those opposing Bush were branded as unpatriotic, weak, terrorist sympathizers. Right wing forces that condemn feminism, homosexuality and foreigners burgeoned. They are the champions of today’s authoritarian families.

The authoritarian family is a rigidly hierarchical family structured in the fashion advocated by the US religious right of all faiths. Women and children in these families are to willingly, and without question, subordinate themselves to the male family head. Children’s and women’s natural rage against their own oppression is turned against those who do not obey and are branded as bad.

I believe that right wing authoritarian personalities are first developed in both the authoritarian family and what I will call, the detached family. The detached family provides neither security, nor protection, nor guidance for children. This would include US families of stressed overworked overwhelmed parents and their neglected children. Detached families may include families with parents who live out their own antiauthoritarian fantasies by ignoring their children’s antisocial behavior. Detached families often produce children looking desperately for structure, and boundaries. They find both in strictly hierarchical organizations requiring unquestioned submission to authority. They find their safe boundaries in rigid, authoritarian religious and or secular groups.

The children from these detached or authoritarian families, work emotionally to serve their authoritarian or detached families and hide their rage at their subordination, their neglect, and their emotional exploitation.. They turn that rage on their vulnerable selves and hate their own needs, and everyone else’s. They perceive as weak, their normal needs for acceptance and protection in vulnerability. Others perceived as weak, or needy: the poor, women, children, gays are therefore deserving of the rage and or abandonment the children experienced from their domineering or neglectful parents.

Luis Althusser

Another body of work that is central to exploring what forces create authoritarian personalities and authoritarian families is Luis Althusser.

Althusser defined and explored forces that discipline human beings in a particularly insidious way. They develop deep unconscious patterns of submission to authority. These patterns operate seemingly automatically as profoundly embraced convictions of personal unworthiness in the face of omniscient and omnipotent authorities to whom one must abdicate ones own independent judgment and will. These forces police the population far more effectively than an external police force could. They are internalized police, “ideological state apparatuses.” The most important ideological state apparatus is the family. The second most powerful ideological state apparatus is religion. In church and family people learn to know their place and what is more important, to deeply internalize their place as subordinates within the power structure. They learn the lines of dominance and submission in their families before they develop an awareness of what they are learning. Women and children learn their “God given” submissive roles and men their dominant roles as dominant over underlings, cowering before superiors and deniers of emotion and the emotional labor they receive. Emotional patterns of subordination before dominant authorities develop in their brain stems before children know what is happening.

The seemingly omnipotent father and mother of the authoritarian family are not only duplicated, they are exaggerated in the worship of the Holy Father and often the Blessed Mother as well. One subordinates ones self to the dictates of religion as a continuation of one’s subordination to the dictates of the family. Catechisms of church, temple, or mosque are internalized as understandings of the way things are in oneself and the world. Althusser (1993) developed the depth of insight into the ideological state apparatuses of family and religion that open the door to my analysis of emotional labor. He unlike his Leftist contemporaries recognized the power of emotional labor in its life lessons of dominance and subordination in the Siamese twin institutions of the authoritarian family and religion.

The left has also largely abandoned its passionate critique of religion. A critique which is now desperately needed. The seemingly omnipotent authorities in the family or religion are absolute. They do not wonder aloud about the legitimacy of their authority or their right to mandate obedience. It is a rare parent or priests who asks his/her child or parishioner to obey because s/he thinks it will work out best and has responsibility and therefore must make a decision, no matter how possible it may be that the parent/ .priest may be mistaken. That kind of explanation considers the equal humanity of another human being and the limit of any human authority. Instead, children and worshippers are to obey because their parents/priests know absolutely what is good or bad.  Most parents, like their God infused religious leaders and corrupt secular leaders show no doubt, no hesitation to condemn, and none of the emotionally difficult labor of trying to make a just decision. Parental and religious authorities and corrupt leaders have the answers. Part of the authoritarian style of most parents and religious figures as well as authoritarian state heads is to deny the human condition of vulnerability and insecurity. Authoritarians take an emotionally invulnerable position that relegates indecision, pain and doubt, the limitations, insecurity and weakness that are the human emotional condition to lowly ones like women, children, and gays. Women’s absolute position can only be asserted with children who stand even lower they stand in the authoritarian assertion hierarchy.


Psychohistory is another force that helps us understand the origin of authoritarian personality structures. Crucial to psychohistorical theory is the concept of the killer caretaker. Because US children are largely abandoned by our social institutions, they are raised by caretakers, overwhelmingly mothers, who are unrecognized and unsupported. These mothers often vent their powerlessness and resentment on their vulnerable children. They communicate both love and also strong ambivalence including death wishes towards their children. They may demand unquestioned obedience. They may project the idea of their absolute knowledge, and authority on to the only people who must obey them. Children with rageful ambivalent parents may well pick up their parents’ murderous feelings toward them when the children show thoughts or wishes different from those their parents have. These children fear the revenge of the omnipotent parent, the “killer caretaker “if they dare to disagree. Right wing religious child rearing texts extol what is an element of most family life. They celebrate a hierarchy in which children must conform without question.

In times of crisis about 60% of US adults regress to their childhood conviction that safety will be gained by strict obedience to and reverence for the authoritarian leader who is a replacement for the killer caretaker such as  der Fuhrer, or the President. Here too, rage at ones abject submission is vented on those who are disobedient or designated poisonous or inferior such as feminists, homosexuals, immigrants, welfare moms, people of color, etc.

Let us return to our original concern for emotional labor. Emotional labor is the work to care for and about others. It is also the work to figure out what is the right thing to do for others’ emotional well being i.e. how to please, to nurture and to care for others. The acknowledgement and allowance for need, and vulnerability which are built into the developmental level of children and are the province of women are despised by right wing authoritarians. Within the authoritarian personality, need is weakness and those who attend to the weak are inferiors.


While it is related to physical labor and is part of the familiar institutions of social life, emotional labor has a structure and dynamic of its own. Respect for emotional toil is central to the Left project of understanding authoritarian personalities and repressive ideological state apparatuses in order to dethrone and replace them. This is particularly important since right wing authoritarian values dominated America since 9/11. Only now has the majority of the population rejected our right wing authoritarian president whose absolute certainty of victory in the war on Iraq has failed along side of his absolute endorsement of the Market to deliver US prosperity. Now, in spite of a pathetic lack of courageous leadership, the American people are looking for different values and priorities that could include a well organized and sophisticated Left. Now is a time when the acknowledgement of emotional labor is crucial. Emotional labor which is so rarely acknowledged and has not even been adequately defined is central to our Left project. The Left is failing in America. We need to abandon the worn catechisms of the US left. Addressing issues of emotional labor just might help.

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