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Paul Myerscough · Short Cuts · LRB 3 January 2013
What Pret has understood, and its competitors haven’t (or not yet), is how much money there is to be made from what radical left theorists have been referring to since the 1970s as ‘affective labour’. Work increasingly isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of producing things, but of supplying your energies, physical and emotional, in the service of others. It isn’t what you make, but how your display of feeling makes others feel. This won’t be news to mothers, nurses and prostitutes, but the massive swelling of the service economy means that emotional availability can no longer be dismissed as women’s work; it must be seen as a dominant commodity form under late capitalism.

And it has to be real. ‘The authenticity of being happy is important,’ a Pret manager tells the Telegraph, ‘customers pick up on that.’ It isn’t clear which is the more demanding, authenticity or performance, being it or faking it, but in either case it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t something demoralising, for Pret workers perhaps more than most in the high street, not only in having their energies siphoned off by customers, but also in having to sustain the tension between the performance of relentless enthusiasm at work and the experience of straitened material circumstances outside it. ‘Henceforth,’ as Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming put it in their recent jeremiad Dead Man Working (Zero, £9.99), ‘our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness’ of the workplace, ‘but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us’.
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