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Working on Ourselves

Esther Perel’s class-free diagnosis of workplace conflict

“Whole worker” organizing, a trade union strategy popularized by Jane McAlevey, emphasizes the connections between workplace problems and problems in the social sphere. To illustrate: higher wages are worthless if your landlord hikes the rent with impunity. This is why McAlevey and others argue for unions campaigning around childcare and public transportation, as well as pay and conditions.

How’s Work?, a new podcast series from the celebrated therapist Esther Perel, acknowledges this profound overlap between work life and life life. That we bring an “emotional dowry” from the home into the workplace is Perel’s most repeated dictum. Like an inverse “whole worker” organizer, who brings trade union methods to community campaigns, Perel uses the therapeutic repertoire to intervene in her subjects’ work lives. She understands workplace relationships as directly informed by family relationships, and she treats these bonds as seriously as friendship, parenthood, or romance. Imagine a Perel in every workplace, working in tandem with their “whole worker” union rep. Workplace relationships are improved through group therapy, and the effects are felt in the home, park, and pub. At the same time, community life is improved through the union campaign, and the effects are felt in the workplace. This is a truly “whole worker” symbiosis, one that catalyzes a radical set of demands for the material, mental, and spiritual betterment of the worker that will, with insuperable force, lead to the total collapse of work life into the realm of free association!

But, before we recruit Perel as secretary for the soul in our workerist committee, let’s review her CV. Perel is probably the most famous active therapist in the world. She has written two bestselling books about relationships. Her TED Talk on erotic desire has been viewed nearly 16 million times. Where Should We Begin?—her brilliant, often-epiphanic podcasthas solidified her place in the public imagination. Across three seasons, she invites listeners into one-time couple’s therapy sessions, introducing us to real people talking about real problems. How’s Work? applies this winning formula to the workplace. But the first thing to note about the show is the composition of Perel’s subjects. Of the nine “couples” who Perel interviews, five of them are company owners, founders, or directors: ex-pilots who established a highly profitable business; the CEO of a real estate company and her employee son; two young Brits who started an international communications firm; co-directors of a nascent taqueria chain; a divorced couple who own a vineyard and restaurant. The only (apparently) unemployed subjects are on the precipice of founding a new company together. From the outset then, How’s Work? announces an implicit allegiance to bosses and a vision of work expunged of class conflict and exploitation.

Alongside therapy, public speaking, and writing, Perel works as a “psychological consultant” for tech startups. Far from the fantasy of the “whole worker” therapist, Perel explained in an interview with WeWork that her therapeutic skills are used to mediate the often fragile executive relationships between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised about the class allegiances on display in How’s Work? Despite her regular missives against the shallow approach of HR departments toward interpersonal disagreements, Perel’s praxis throughout the series is best understood as an extension of Human Resource Management (HRM). In a 2016 HRM textbook, the authors set out divergent strategies for dealing with underperforming staff. If the worker is incompetent but highly motivated, they need coaching, feedback, and goal-setting. If the worker is competent but unmotivated, they require stress management, team building, conflict resolution, andcue Esther Perelcounseling. Perel’s only innovation on this strategy is to move away from the management of worker relationships and toward the management of executive relationships. The ultimate goalthe unfettered pursuit of profitremains the same.

Like an inverse “whole worker” organizer, who brings trade union methods to community campaigns, Perel uses the therapeutic repertoire to intervene in her subjects’ work lives.

Still, there are admirable aspects to How’s Work? As in all her work, Perel is comfortable talking about structural trends and the way these interact with interpersonal issues. Her “cross cultural” methodology stresses the importance of cultural and racial inequalities in determining relational dynamics. Throughout Where Should We Begin? Perel is attuned to the burden of expectation on second generation immigrants and the strain this can put on relationships. In her study of infidelity, The State of Affairs, she lists racism, poverty, and unemployment among the causes of libido loss. She is also happy to raise the specters of gender, sexism, and patriarchy. In a world of glib memes and shallow advice columns, Perel takes a refreshingly deep and longue-durée approach to understanding how relationships and mental health have transformed alongside socio-economic shifts. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she recapitulates a post-Fordist conception of contemporary society: networks have supplanted the family unit, and cognitive work has supplanted manual labor. However, her periodization of contemporary labor quickly veers from this voguish lefty thesis: Perel then claims that we have transitioned from a service economy to an “identity economy.” In this topsy-turvy world, evacuated of political economy, work serves the worker, providing necessary ballast for the fragile millennial self. Of course, to the extent that this is true at all, it only applies to a tiny fraction of the population: “I’m talking about a particular class,” Perel confided on the Financial Times’ Culture Call podcast.

Her engagement with service industry workers produces the most edifying conversations in How’s Work?, yet it also reveals the limits of Perel’s functional HRM-for-bosses approach. Episode two is an intimate and urgent session with two strippers, refreshing first and foremost for its treatment of sex work, without qualification or apology, as labor. And Perel’s subjects articulate vital concerns around legality and management for sex workers in contemporary America. In episode eight, Perel interviews two hair stylists, uncovering the anxiety-inducing patterns of waiting and activity that characterize the stylist’s workday. But there are telling moments in both episodes in which Perel challenges the workers on their attitude toward their clients. She needles one of the strippers on their slogan that “men are the enemy,” encouraging her to understand her attitudes and actions as part of the nexus of the client’s life, which includes their wife and children. One of the stylists expresses a similar disgust towards their clients: “I don’t like touching these people and dealing with all their bullshit.” Perel pushes back forcefully, explaining that the stylists’ clients have become stand-ins for her family, and, in order to deprive them of the power to control her emotional life, she must humanize them. Panicked and breathless, the stylist asks, “What about the people who aren’t nice?” Perel advises them to ask the customer if they’re having a tough day. Confronted with the spent and immiserated worker, Perel breezily prescribes more work—this time the complex emotional labor of listening.

In both of these cases, Perel’s therapeutic response is to flatten her subjects’ impulse toward a polarizing conception of their work. The stripper and stylist understand themselves as part of a divided and conflictual relationship, but Perel reorients them toward compassion and understanding. In other words, this is the moment Perel is fired by the “whole worker” organizer. The organizer embraces frameworks of division in the workplace: recognizing that this conflictual dynamic is a constitutive part of work is the first step toward changing it. The organizer may attempt to redirect workers’ anger towards agents with power—i.e. bosses and politicians—rather than customers, but they would never seek to replace an accurate vision of polarity with one of phony harmony. It is only in these two episodes that Perel uses the word “solidarity,” referring, in both cases, to a business culture in which workers do not perceive their colleagues as threatening their capacity to earn.

Solidarity, for Perel, is an abstract concept delinked from the actually existing struggles over pay, conditions, and trade union recognition within many parts of the service sector. You wouldn’t know from listening to How’s Work? that sex workers, for example, have been active participants in the American trade union movement for decades, from the Detroit Playboy Bunnies’ struggle for an hourly wage in the 1960s to Soldiers of Pole, the strippers organizing against exploitative working conditions in contemporary Hollywood. Like many therapeutic solutions, Perel’s show stops short at the point of intervening in the material reality of these workers’ livesa reality that cannot be separated from the quality of their relationships and mental wellbeing. The best response to those who despise their clients might be to ask a question: How do we eradicate abuse and disrespect from your workplace? This (vulgar) Marxist critique would dismiss Perel’s show, as it dismisses all therapy, as peddling the wrong prognosis to alleviating suffering under capitalism.

There is, however, a fugitive thread within the communist tradition that resents How’s Work? because it sees the unfulfilled emancipatory potential at its core. Therapy, in this alternative account, is just one tool for the transformation of the self that is necessary for the transition away from capitalism. The women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the radical promise of talking cures for social problems. Building sideways from Maoist self-criticism practices, feminists created consciousness-raising groups to address issues around reproductive rights, relationships norms, and domesticity. Some radical feminists found the reduction of these political meetings to therapy condescending and sexist. Kathie Sarachild, in her essay on consciousness-raising, writes that “the purpose of hearing people’s feelings and experiences was not therapy . . . The idea was not to change women, was not to make ‘internal changes’ except in the sense of knowing more.” But this pro-rational, anti-relational approach to these practices was certainly not shared by everyone. Over in the UK, socialist feminists experimented with a more expansive form of consciousness-raising. In a recent interview, academic Mica Nava explains how women-only groups sought to challenge the “profoundly naturalized” arrangements of the family. She notes that these talking sessions created the conditions for moments of pure “revelation,” a turn of phrase that clearly links the intended outcomes of consciousness-raising to those of therapy.

Activists circling Big Flame and the Communist Party made this link explicit, experimenting with what they called “red therapy” in the late 1970s. Like traditional consciousness raising, red therapy was about demystifying the systems of oppression that lead to anomie and misery. But these group sessions were also an attempt to build trusting relationships and collective self-worth by breaking unwritten laws about public intimacy. As the Red Therapy collective wrote in a 1978 pamphlet, the “revolution isn’t something we sacrifice ourselves for now, in the hope of some future reward. It starts now, here and now. It’s about changing structures of ownership, work, community, family, and the relationships within those structures.” Some of these relationships are transformed directly through struggle; other relationships require bespoke attention—this is the function of therapy. 

Work means domination for all but those at the top, and we need therapy that recognizes this.

Activists from autonomist traditions have, over the last few years, attempted to resuscitate consciousness-raising and radical group therapy. A few years ago, I attended sessions held by a group called Mental Health Under Capitalism run by care-work professionals in central London. One session focused on work became unstructured mass therapy. “I’m sick of feeling like my job defines me and that I’m only worthwhile when I’m working,” lamented the woman next to me. A young person confessed to the group that they felt lonely every day at work, and they wished that there was a group like this every week. More recently, members of the UK-based Plan C collective, inspired by the writings of 1970s feminists and Mark Fisher (who was himself a member) have toured the UK offering consciousness-raising workshops aimed at sharing the psychic, affective, and relational content of people’s lives in a context that encourages critical reflection on the structural forces that bind them together. These sessions have explicitly addressed work life under capitalism, sometimes starting with the question: When was the last time you felt “truly free from work?”

These activities flow from an exploration of Acid Communism, a delicious provocation that groks the need for cultural objects and practices that are capable of expanding our political imagination, transforming our relationships, and shattering our anxieties. It argues that the left must find ways to integrate technologies of the self—psychedelics, spirituality, art, therapy—into the traditional organizations of political change: political parties and social movements. For Mica Nava, consciousness-raising figured as part of a collective leftist culture—along with communal childcare, LSD trips, radical theater production, and forays into neo-Vedantic mysticism—that pushed at the bounds of self-knowledge and perception as it pushed at the bounds of the wage relation. For all its faults, How’s Work? points, in a piecemeal way, toward the possibility of recapturing the flavor of this countercultural life. Personal stories of subjugation and solidarity, told in caring spaces, can collectivize the emotional experience of work under capitalism; renew the way we see ourselves, others, and the world; and cultivate political understanding and class power.

One of Perel’s favorite refrains in How’s Work? is: “Were you raised for autonomy or loyalty?” Sensitizing people to their need for independence or support, in Perel’s view, helps them to foster better workplace relationships. But the question mocks the working lives of most people, who regardless of their proclivities, are not permitted to express autonomy in the workplace. Work means domination for all but those at the top, and we need therapy that recognizes this. Too often, Perel’s approach relies instead on feelings of guilt and personal responsibility. In a recent essay on depression and the left, Mikkel Krause Frantzen imagines an emancipatory therapy that could politicize mental illness by externalizing blame and communizing care: 

This is care which . . . moves beyond care in its commodified and capitalist form. When bodies take care of each other, when responsibility is redistributed, and individual collapses are transformed into collective intimacies, the future can be (re)built in the name of a communist, shared, and sustainable one.

Frantzen starts with the catch-22 at the heart of the debate around mental health and politics: How do we affect change when we can’t get out of bed? One answer looks to relationships, the autonomous communities of care, that already exist or are awaiting cultivation in our workplaces and neighborhoods. Strong relationships are both the means and end of radical therapy; they are also the living foundation of working-class power. Though it remains sadly unfulfilled, the radical promise latent in How’s Work? is that we might build trust, love, and respect in our workplace bonds as a foundation for self-discovery and struggle.