On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy

Abstract

This article explores the role that compassion plays in the building of a post-Fordist laboring public in Italy. By exploring how the state has made compassion productive through new regimes of voluntary labor, this piece shows that compassion operates not as a mitigating force against, but as a vehicle for the production and maintenance of a new exclusionary order precisely because it allows for the emergence of a fantasy of spontaneously available public emotion. Affective labor is a desired form of activity for marginalized members of Italian society because it allows them to approximate the form of social belonging that was centrally institutionalized and cultivated within Fordist societies—that of the capacity to belong to and be publicly recognized by the world through waged work. Fordism thus appears not as an era past, but as an object of desire and mourning that still retains much social force as people attempt to recapture or at least approximate Fordist forms and feelings of stability and belonging.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on affect, including Danilyn Rutherford’s “Sympathy, State Building and the Experience of Empire” (2009), Joseph Masco’s "Survival Is Your Business”: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008), and Didier Fassin’s “Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on post-Fordism. See for example, Melissa W. Wright’s “Desire and Prosthetics of Supervision: A Case of Maquiladora Flexibility” (2001), Anne Allison’s “Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines” (2001), and Diane M. Nelson’s “Stumped Identities: Body Image, Bodies Politics, and the Mujer Maya as Prosthetic” (2001).

About the Author

Andrea Muehlebach’s research interests broadly focus on the relationship between economics, politics, and ethics. She addresses these themes through her work on the state (particularly state “benevolence” (i.e. welfare)), neoliberalism, citizenship, labor, and affect. She is finishing a book manuscript on the transformation of welfare statehood in Italy (tentatively titled An Opulence of Virtue: Welfare, Citizenship, and the Moral Neoliberal in Italy; under contract with The University of Chicago Press), where she asks why and to what effect processes of neoliberalization often come in highly moralized and moralizing forms, what roles sentiments such as solidarity and compassion play in the building of new forms of collective living, and how new forms of labor and affect get marshaled to this end. She is also working on several new projects, including an edited collection of essays exploring Fordism and its afterlife as an affective form, as well as a project on the museumization of Fordism (Fordist factories, machines, bodies, and forms of labor) in Sesto San Giovanni, the Northern Italian “City of Factories,” where she did her fieldwork.

Interview with Andrea Muehlebach

Damien Stankiewicz: Your article brings so much insight to anthropology’s examination of cultures of affect in a late capitalistic world:  But why Europe?  Why Italy?  How did you get interested in this project, and what do you think this particular context brings to the discussion on neoliberal ways of acting, being, feeling?

Andrea Muehlebach: Well, since I was interested in neoliberalism and what it undoes, European countries East and West are interesting because of the many social protections they had built over much of the 20th century. As for Italy, this is a country which built many social protections as well, but as a whole, it was always more “unfinished” if compared to countries like Germany and France – it’s state never as strong and never quite secular, its political scene highly volatile, and so on. So some of the shifts I was interested in have, I think, come to the fore with particular clarity in Italy. Or differently, a state that was always relatively weak is easier displaced than that which was strong.

And yes, I do hope to bring insight into questions of neoliberal feeling – that is to say, I think that social-political-economic arrangements also bring with them an organization of affect or feeling; and when these social-political-economic arrangements change, structures of feeling are also differently organized, both individually and collectively. I think that a close look at compassion, sympathy etc. and other form of ethical behavior today can offer insight into what you call “neoliberal acts of feeling.” It’s no coincidence that these last 10 years or so have seen the rise of a kind of humanitarian capitalism; one that weds exploitation to gifting (in the form of corporate social responsibility), or consumption to ethics (fair trade) or enormous wealth at a moment of huge income disparity, with spectacular forms of gifting (Bill Gates, etc.). This is what I am trying to think through in my book project, which is animated by the attempt to theorize neoliberalism not only as a move towards universal marketization and rationalization (which many of my colleagues have well documented), but actually also as a move towards a new culture of feeling structured around an intensification of "compassion" and "sympathy."

DS: I was struck by a sentence close to the beginning of your article:  “Good citizenship, it seems, relies not only on the capacity to enunciate one’s interiority…but also on the ability to engage in specific acts of other-recognition and action.”  Can you talk a bit more about what you mean here?

AM: What I meant here was that the citizenship project I document is one that puts specific forms of affect - co-suffering, love, sympathy, compassion – at the center of what it means to be a good citizen. So if you are a good citizen, you ought to feel certain things in the face of suffering, and then act upon it in the right way; or, as one of the images on the webpage puts it, “do the right thing.” That’s quite a particular way to mobilize citizens, and very different from Fordist-Keynesian forms of citizenship making. It is much closer to the kinds of massive mobilizations of citizen-volunteers that Italy witnessed under Fascism, where thousands of women were mobilized into very similar kinds of affective work for poverty-relief. But whereas the Fascists mobilized affective laboring citizens in the service of massively building welfare, today citizens are mobilized as welfare is being dismantled.

DS: You argue that a culture of voluntarism, in northern Italy, has emerged in the receding wake of the Welfare state.  But is this “cultura del volontariato” mostly left over from the Welfare State, or is it coming to fill its place?  Both?  In other words, is this attachment of “good citizenship” to volunteering and helping to provide services that the State no longer can or will, a response to neoliberalization of the State, a kind of ghostly continuity of the Welfare State’s former discourse of social responsibility—or how to you see the causality and ideological relationship here?

AM: Northern Italy is famous for its culture of voluntarism; Robert Putnam made it famous in his (in)famous book “Making Democracy Work,” where he sort of invented the term “social capital” as it is mostly used today in the NGO world (i.e. not in Bourdieu’s sense). So there is definitely a long history there, as well as the Fascist history which I alluded to in the previous question.  But what is new in this neoliberal moment is the way the state has become massively invested in voluntarism while at the same time obscuring its role in this investment; so it's perhaps better to say that voluntarism as a state-mediated project has reared its head in ways similar and dissimilar to the Fascist period.  So there are definitely ghostly continuities there, just that they go back to the 1920s rather than back to welfare. In fact Gramsci was very suspicious of voluntarism and wrote about it – he thought of it as an expression of the individualization of the masses rather than an expression of real organic social action.

As for social responsibility; yes … it is definitely a discourse of responsibilization – vis-à-vis suffering others, which is very different from welfarist kinds of discourse of responsibility because the pretense then was that the state monopolized on mediating the common good. Of course, in Italy things were complicated with its history of clientelism linked to political parties, the mafia etc.etc., but nevertheless, the official Fordist-Keynesian ideology was always that the state ought to function as universal protector of the common good. Today, it is individual citizen-volunteers who are marshaled into ameliorative action that is supposed to help recreate the common good and the fragile social bonds it is built up upon. 

DS: Near the end of your article, I felt like there was a sense of desperation, longing, even loneliness that was conveyed by your ethnography with people who had lost their jobs or who couldn’t find work.  Did you get the sense that the people you were working with understood volunteering as a poor substitute for a paying job with benefits, or were they finding certain satisfactions in doing volunteer work?

AM: Yes, they did, very much so … and I should have made that clearer perhaps as I was writing the article. There are always things left unsaid as one writes! I was very focused on the one strand of argumentation I was making, which was that despite the emphasis on impegno and commitment and love and so on, there was a very important undercurrent of desperation that initially drove many of these elderly men and women into voluntarism, a desperate sense of wanting to appear in public as publicly productive citizens, as socially useful. I don’t think they would themselves have interpreted their activities in my terms. They often talked about losing their jobs, and about feeling useless, but what they foregrounded in the end, for sure, was the tight community that arose out of their labor. So in my very last paragraphs I tried to foreground this double-edged sword that is this affective labor regime; one that exploits free labor while at the same time also creating very dense new forms of sociality. I was thinking as I was finishing the article that I need to bring this out better in my book! So thank you for pointing that important point out again.

DS: In what ways is post-Fordist affect differently experienced or embraced by older generations of Italians who were more likely to have had job security in the Welfare State, versus younger generations whose experience of the economy has been altogether different?

Great question – I try and hint at that in a footnote in the text … I would love to have more to say about how feelings of a lost welfarist security leave traces across generations, how these feelings of a past regime of social protections reverberate very strongly in the present even as (or perhaps because) it is being dismantled. I am edited a collection of essays with Nitzan Shoshan, and we have a wonderful contribution by another Italianist, Noelle Molé, who argues that the protected labor regime is not gone at all. In fact, a lot of labor markets (especially the Italian one) are split between a still secure workforce (often older workers) and the growing precariat (often younger workers), so that younger workers are in fact in their everyday lives not just confronted with the lost remnants of Fordism but with its very real aftereffects in the form of secure work (which others have). In their everyday lives, they work in offices where they have short-term contracts while a small number of workers have what in Italy are called “indeterminate” (long-term; secure) contracts – and so they experience Fordist security on an every-day basis – as lack. And this has all sorts of quite nefarious consequences, as Noelle argues. But I do think more research could be done on, for example, the huge demonstrations in the streets of France against pension reform – as far as I could see, many, many of the demonstrators where young people, and I would have loved to do some research on how a certain politics, a sense of entitlement, a sense of citizenship rights get conveyed across generations to young people who will never ever have a direct experience of social citizenship – i.e. Fordist-Keynesian welfare rights.

Multimedia

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"Sesto San Giovanni, where Muehlebach completed fieldwork research."
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Cover of a publication of a national conference organized by an organization struggling against the flexibilization of the Italian work force., "Welfare mon amour! Fordist-Keynesian welfare as love-object."
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Ad from volunteering website, "An elderly lady calls, solidarity responds. The elderly as solidarity incarnate."
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Front page of non-profit magazine, "I give, therefore I am."
Inline_volunteer_news_image
"Announcement of a new project: Volunteers as European citizens."

More About the Rise of Unwaged Labor

Youtube video about the European Union's 2011 "Year of Volunteering"

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