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Work and Revolt – Edna Bonhomme Interviews Sarah Jaffe


Edna Bonhomme: In your book, Work Won’t Love You Back, you provide an excellent critique of capitalism but also have us think actively about what the world of work means in the contemporary age. In this generation, we’re often told that we must love our work, especially if it’s in a creative field like writing. And yet, the reality of what that labour might look like shows that there's often hyper-exploitation. How did you come to this project? I know you’re a labour generalist, but different aspects of labour journalism don’t necessarily consider the love of labour.

Sarah Jaffe: Absolutely. I had a lot of crappy jobs. I worked in the service industry for a long time, where I was expected to perform the love for labour. You must smile and do whatever they want, no matter how awful your customers are. I worked in restaurants and bars, which meant a lot of horrendous behaviour that I had to smile and tolerate. And so I worked hard to get out of that, I went to university and earned a degree that would take me somewhere. But it was the 2000s, so that wasn’t true anymore. So I hustled, I did a bunch of freelance work unpaid, and I did all of the things that I write about as ‘hope labour’, a term I stole from scholars Thomas Corrigan and Kathleen Kuehn, meaning the work that you do for free or for meagre pay, to make yourself hireable and available for wage labour. I did unpaid internships, I did free journalism. I went back to grad school. And finally, I got a job in journalism. Except I was making less money than in some restaurants and was still exhausted. I was freelancing because I didn’t earn enough money to pay for my New York apartment, where I had to live to get a job in journalism. I had no spare time and I was exhausted. That was when I had a good boss. Then, I ended up in a journalism job with an evil boss. I had worked for years to end up being treated worse than in many of the restaurants I had worked in. One of my former bosses was actively abusive; he expected me to answer emails at two in the morning. 

So, by the time I got out of that job, I had been disabused of the notion that there would be a ‘dream job’ that would rescue me from the abuses of wage labour. I was also talking to a lot of people who were in similar situations. I remember this interview with a freelance reality TV producer, in which they pointed out that reality TV is a massive cultural explosion from the 2007 writers’ strike. They said, ‘I worked hard to get to this job. This was my dream job. And it’s gig work. So it's short-term contracts. And they tell you that if you complain, 100 people just down the street would love your job; we can hire anybody, anytime.’ And so it was stories like that, combined with my own, made me think there’s something about this, and then I compared that to the experience of an older work style. Thinking about factory work, I wrote a lot about factory closures in and around the Trump campaign and Trump election because he made such a big deal about them. Thinking about how that kind of work works, nobody expected you to love it.

Edna Bonhomme: But do you think that question around performative and emotional labour during work is unique to the US? And so far? Because I see, at least on a very superficial level, as someone living in Europe, service workers are not smiling in the German context.

Sarah Jaffe: My ex, Peter Frase, once wrote a beautiful ode to the Soviet waiter – just, like, the grumpiness of them. There was a line that was something like, when they first opened a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union, the hired workers were like, ‘Why do we have to be nice? We have the hamburgers, and they want them.’ 

There’s something different about tipped work, where you have to suck up to every single customer or else you just aren’t getting paid for working that table. The minimum wage for a tipped job in the US is still $2.13 an hour, which is what it was 18 years ago when I was last working in a restaurant. It has stayed the same for twenty-something years. So there’s a unique sort of awfulness to tipping culture in the US that makes it extreme. 

But still, the server can’t tell you to go fuck yourself, right? They still have to be pleasant. And also because, like us, annoying US cultural hegemony is spreading. Most trends in Europe and the rest of the industrialised world are trending towards the US, so union density is getting lower. The same companies are coming in; workers’ expectations are pulled towards the US. 

Emotional labour isn’t just the direct aspect of the service industry, though. People who do caring work are also doing emotional labour, so doctors and nurses – whether in the National Health Service or otherwise publicly funded,or in a super-privatised, piecemeal healthcare system like in the US – still have to control their emotions to produce the desired emotional state in you. Flight attendants on an aeroplane are the people Arlie Russell Hochschild was studying when she came up with the concept of emotional labour. They have to keep you calm, they have to keep you happy, and they have to save you from freaking out and causing a crisis when you're in a tin can flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Edna Bonhomme: In the same book, you have a lot of protagonists who are women. They love their jobs, but some of them struggle with the disappointment that arises from being underpaid. What I admire about your text is that you represent these women as multi-dimensional characters: they are workers who have other ambitions beyond reproductive labour and they see themselves beyond a domestic spacel.

Sarah Jaffe: It’s exciting because a few people, primarily men, commented: ‘Oh, My goodness, but almost all the workers you write about in this book are women.’ And I was like, ‘Does that bother you? Is it hard for you to see yourself in women? Why do you think that?’

It’s such a funny thing to comment on, in a way. I hadn’t done it intentionally at first, then when I realised that was the way it was going, I was like, ‘Alright, cool. We’re not interviewing any white men.’ So the one man that I profiled in the book is a queer man of colour. I mean, there are white men quoted in the book because, like, white men have done valuable research on these subjects. But because this is a history of a certain kind of feminised labour, I also used Donna Haraway’s specific quote about this in my new book: ‘To be feminised means to be made extremely vulnerable, able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force, seen less as workers than as servers subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited workday, leading an existence that always borders on being obscene out of place and reducible to sex.’ 

That succinct description of what has happened to the workforce under the labour-of-love regime is Donna Haraway’s writing in 1985. So, feminist theorists have always thought about the ways that work does and doesn’t play a role in women's struggle for equality and struggle to be seen as full humans, whether we’re talking about Silvia Federici and Caliban and the Witch or Donna Haraway writing ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. They always write about their relationship to work production, capitalism and power. 

The feminist tradition I identify with has also consistently pointed out the problems with wage labour. That is not to say the solution is for all of us to become girl bosses. There's a feminist tradition that looks at the whole structure of the thing and says that workplaces are one of the things that make gender. One essential thing that makes gender is the position of being feminised in the workplace, right? I had an interview with Bethany Moreton, who’s one of my favourite labour historians, many years ago that I still refer to all the time. She told me that the real story of the past few decades is not that women get to be the president, it’s that men are now in feminised jobs. 

One of the fundamental problems that we have now, and you can have a progressive or fascist response to this, is that men don’t feel like men in the kinds of jobs that exist now. Particularly for people who have not gotten a university degree or didn’t get a graduate degree. Men can’t do the things that capitalist society told them made them men. That can go in two different directions. I spoke to a lovely man for this new book, who had been a coal miner and then ended up a care worker, and he loved doing it. And it was also noted that they hired him because he was a big guy. He was looking after adult men with emotional and mental disabilities who could be violent and disruptive. 

In the conversation around transitioning away from fossil fuel work, but also around industrial work of any kind, one of the things that comes up a lot is union leaders saying, ‘My members don’t want to work in this new place. They don’t want to do this; they want work that makes them feel like men.’ And I think it takes a feminist thinker and a feminist critique to understand that as well. To understand all sides of the workplace as something that produces and does gender. Not in ways of our choosing: people misread Judith Butler’s saying that ‘we decide to perform gender every day’, as though it were like when I put on a different pair of glasses.

Edna Bonhomme: I agree with this situation. And it’s been great to read. Gen This reminds me of Sheila Heti’s books Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? And precisely because of this, there’s a way that people expect women to have this maternal instinct, and somehow, then decide that’s the role they’re going to have and make all these sacrifices. No one ever says to a man, ‘Oh, are you going to take off from work for five years and put your career on hold?’ And, you know, because that's what you have to do as a man like I just over and over again, I keep seeing people ruin their lives.

Sarah Jaffe: It’s this double-edged thing: if you take time off work that will be a literal disadvantage to you, but it’s also emasculating, Like, ‘Oh, God, a man couldn’t stay home with the baby.’ But I have friends who are men who have cheerfully taken time off work [for a new baby] and would have liked to take more time off work, except very few people can afford to have a single-income family anymore.

Then, the other thing that comes into play is that men still make more money. We’re assuming a heterosexual monogamous couple right here, right, which is not an assumption we should make these days for a lot of reasons, one of them being the fact that queer people are more out in public about relationships these days. But men are likely to be paid more, to have a more secure, well-paid job. Therefore it makes more sense for the woman to take time off, which puts them into the cycle of earning less money, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? This is why Janet Gornick, a sociologist who studies working time and family leave, points out that the best way actually to create gender equality is to give all parents family leave and to push them to take it, not just to give men optional family leave or a couple of months or whatever. Both people get two years, which would be fantastic. When it’s an option, we fall into the old gender roles.

Edna Bonhomme: The US is often seen as a bastion of everything wrong. It is a settler colonial state exercising neoliberalism on steroids, universal health care is absent, mass shootings continue to increase, and our politics can feel like electoral politics can feel like a sham. Yet there’s been a significant wave of industrial action, including teacher strikes (which you’ve written about), auto worker strikes, actors, screenwriters – everyone's doing everyone’s on strike. It’s amazing. As a labour journalist, how do you understand the contradictions between this and the broader political structure in the US, which is quite oppressive? Is organised labour resisting that somehow and, in many cases, winning?

Sarah Jaffe: I think it’s exciting because in the period of labour’s weakness, which has been since the early to mid-80s, until now – and again, this trend is the worst in the US, we have 10% inion density but everybody is trending in our direction. We have seen the expectation that unions will be a wing of the Democratic Party or the Labour Party in Britain, that unions will be affiliated with a political party and be part of that project. And what’s happening in recent years is that – this started in the US, interestingly – in cities, particularly in Chicago, where you had a Democratic mayor who was crushing the unions. You had the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party epitomised by Rahm Emanuel, who had been in the Clinton White House, been in the Obama White House, and then became the mayor of Chicago, and is out to crush the Chicago Teachers’ Union, then led by (we miss her so very much) Karen Lewis. This union has done a lot of internal reform and has elected this radical slate led by an incredibly charismatic, brilliant, hilarious black woman who’s a stand-up comic in her spare time. You have this union confronting this Democratic mayor, who is deeply entwined with the Democratic establishment at the highest possible levels. He was Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. You can’t look at that and go, ‘Oh, vote for Democrats, that’ll solve your problem.’

Edna Bonhomme: There’s a book called Creativity by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychology professor. He argued that while most people are either introverts or extraverts, or either intelligent or naive. Do you think that this is true? And if so, does that apply to you as a writer?

Sarah Jaffe: I don’t believe in introverts and extroverts. So I don’t know what to say about that. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot because I just came out of the rabbit hole of writing another book, and now I’m in the editing process. As you can see, I’m in my hoodie, computer, and apartment, thinking about ways to have more collaborative projects because I probably have too much in my head. And when the world is on fire in particular moments, and everything is horrifying, it's not great to just be trapped in my head. It could be more valuable and productive to my mental state, which, despite all of the cliches about creative people, I need to be in good mental health to produce. My new book is about grief. I had a breakup this summer. And I had a few friends tell me, “Oh, but won't that be great? You can use it for your work”. And I'm like, no, I do not produce better work when I'm sad. I do not do better work when I'm grieving. I do not do better work when I'm miserable. And I certainly don't produce better work when all I'm doing is clicking refresh on Instagram to see fresh pictures of bodies being hauled out of the rubble. 

This is a thing that I write about in Work Won’t Love You Back. We would produce much better, more varied, and exciting art if more people had time to be creative. It wouldn’t be like, ‘I’m a particularly creative person who needs X, Y and Z things to write because I have an extraordinary brain. No, everybody has the brain to do art, and we live in a society that doesn’t let us. Some people  whocould be making beautiful art are stuck doing jobs that they hate, miserable jobs and brutalising ones, because that’s what the economy needs. We would have much more, much better, more exciting and more fabulous art if we freed more people from drudgery. Ideally, we would free everybody from it, or free everybody from it as much as possible and share it more equally. Rather than saying that a lucky handful of people get to be poets and the rest of us have to wait tables, dig coal, drive a truck and pick up garbage, almost all of which are jobs that I’ve done in my life, by the way. What would produce better art is a less shit world. I don’t make great stuff while I’m miserable. I would love not to have to keep reading books about how the world is terrible. Instead, I’d get to write beautiful things to make my friends and myself happy.


Sarah Jaffe is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone, and of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, both from Bold Type Books. Her next book From the Ashes: Grief and Revolution in a World on Fire, will be published in the autumn 2024 and is a study of grieving amidst the ruins of capitalism. She is an independent journalist covering the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, the Guardian, the Washington Post, The New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is a co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast with Michelle Chen and a columnist at The Progressive.


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