Carla Freeman

Durham: Duke University Press, 2014, 258 pp.

Reviewed by Carla Jones

A major strain of anthropological scholarship of the past decade has analyzed the contours of neoliberalism. At first glance, the term itself conjures a now familiar set of effects. Rooted in the political and economic restructuring of basic social welfare through the state, neoliberal conditions demand a new individualistic attitude that requires subjects to treat themselves as objects of improvement, self-care and provisioning. In short, selves are obliged to become entrepreneurial about themselves.

While these features may seem familiar, Carla Freeman’s masterful book Entrepreneurial Selves refuses to accept their appearance in the small Caribbean country of Barbados as simply another instance of a global tidal wave of economic liberalization. Instead, what might deceptively seem like yet another example of increased precarity generated in the name of worker flexibility is instead rooted in a particular set of historical conditions that can disappear in the face of an apparent sameness. As Freeman demonstrates through over a decade of fieldwork, these particulars become most apparent when the intersection of class and gender are the center of the analytical frame. Her approach highlights how prior conceptions of labor, affect and selfhood formed under the colonial plantation economy haunt the recent rise in entrepreneurial employment for women. As a result, Freeman argues that the best mode for apprehending the rise of a potent combination of immaterial and material labor is to situate questions about affect in the context of feminist theory and ethnography. The effect of this framing is powerful. In challenging the teleological narrative of global neoliberal culture, Freeman poses an even more powerful question: why is it that the rise of androgynous flexible and affective labor has become a site of intellectual interrogation and political concern, evident in the work of Michael Hardt, Nikolas Rose and others, yet has not recalled the prior feminist academic and activist arguments about the gendered contour of these processes? As Freeman asks, “What are the implications of this effacement of gender precisely when its traditional expressions are being formally required and thus hailed with the marketplace?” (214).

At the center of Freeman’s argument are the potent twinned concepts of respectability and reputation. Borrowing from British concepts, but transformed by the colonial economy, this pair of cultural codes have permeated conceptions of race, class and gender across much of the English-speaking Caribbean and have dominated cultural analyses of the region. Respectability referred to a complex of attitudes, lifestyles and livelihoods that telegraphed middle and upper-class membership, while the features of reputation marked a comparatively poorer, scrappier, and itinerant life. Respectable households enjoyed stable incomes, potentially from civil service employment, and transferred their respect to their descendants through a focus on decorous homelives, lived in private and with formal marriages, education and a gendered division of labor in which women were charged with the perhaps rewarding, perhaps stultifying, responsibility of managing domestic rituals. Although divorce was rare, neither was marital happiness expected. As a result, although respectable families relied on a paternal rhetoric of the male-breadwinner, the form was synonymous with women’s spaces and symbols. By contrast, reputation has had a strongly masculine flavor, associated with insecure employment, flamboyant expression (such as calypso music), life lived on the street corner and through “visiting unions” in which men fathered children with multiple women (each heading their own vulnerable households). Firmly entangled with each other, respectability required reputation as its foil and its foundation. Through the uncompensated labor of female kin, the scandalous essence of roving men, and the apparently infinite capacity of poor women to work hard and survive, these concepts felt the natural expression of femininity and masculinity, middle and working class.

This system remains influential in a contemporary moment in which the Barbadian government has, like so many, retrenched the civil service and exhorted its citizens to imagine themselves as entrepreneurs. Freeman demonstrates that the effects of this rhetorical and economic shift is perhaps most apparent when ethnographically attending to changes in women’s lives. Telling its citizens they can seek wealth and celebrity through self-employment, the Barbadian government has begun to counter the negative character of informal employment, instead attempting to attach “respect” to reputation. Whereas creativity, resilience and hard work were once harnessed to the production of material commodities like sugar, they now seem naturally and laudably matched to work in the service industries. Some of these industries serve foreign capital, such as tourism, while others entice local consumers, through new industries suited to the demands of neoliberalism, such as personal training. Many of these jobs require workers to be gregarious, publicly visible, and affectively attuned to their clientele, harnessing a self to the pursuit of income. While these qualities would have once been inappropriate for a respectable women, Freeman’s informants prefer to be their own bosses, even if the hours are long and the gossip potentially harsh. They express a newfound satisfaction in making themselves into enterprises, in the sense of an economic undertaking and a personal one. In the process, they come to see themselves as consumers of any available expertise that can make them more productive and, importantly, happy selves.

Freeman identifies these features in new forms of work, new discourses on companionate marriage, new therapeutic and leisure forms, and new concepts of religiosity. As entrepreneurs, they conceive business ideas, recruit investment, seek customers, interview and manage employees and are generally heavily occupied by their occupations. In short, they hustle. Although potentially contaminating to a woman’s respectability, Freeman’s informants describe feeling a sense of accomplishment in earning, and in investing their creative, imaginative, and affective energy into a business of their own, rather than working for a corporation or the state. The 24-7 nature of this work parallels the nonstop quality of parenting and domesticity their mothers experienced, a fatigue they say is salved through a variety of novel and not-so-novel solutions. For example, rather than conceiving of home and marriage as a vessel through which to reproduce the class standing of the family, these women describe homelife, marriage and children as, ideally, nourishing. Whereas their mothers may have endured loveless marriages, these women refused to remain married to a man who is not willing to be a “partner” in his wife’s pursuit of wealth and self-actualization. Curiously, then, rates of formal marriage have increased with the rise of entrepreneurism, as have divorce rates. Freeman finds that entrepreneurial men and women alike expected their marriages to provide closeness, intimacy and communication, less than shared housework. The routines of childcare and housecleaning, instead, were redirected to employed female staff such as nannies, who themselves were rigorously interviewed for their professionalism and ability to provide sincere affection to children. If a husband was unable to meet this new expectation for partnership, Freeman’s informants sought divorces and were willing to lead matrifocal households supported by a team of caregivers. Freeman subtly demonstrates how this rhetoric of freedom and work/life balance comes out of a regional pattern in which matrifocal households were rarely havens of feminine autonomy, but were themselves shock absorbers for the extractive demands of the plantation system.

Although Freeman’s informants actively sought these lives, repeatedly saying they wanted the flexibility that entrepreneurship promised, they also acknowledged that these new forms of work entailed new forms of feeling that could be stressful and alienating. The same impulse to make one’s own life could generate new anxieties that have produced their own solutions. New industries and new forms of public culture offer some. Freeman describes the simultaneous proliferation of public and private therapies. New boardwalks and parks index a new preference for leisure time, described as being of high “quality,” where families can stroll in public rather than at home. New services promise to train children in outdoors activities while cultivating their self-confidence. Women and men alike hire personal trainers, who promise to apply the same rigorous expertise and ethic to efficiently working on the body as one might to one’s business ventures. And new therapeutic fields acknowledge that self-work requires formal introspection, narration and assessment. Many of these practices come together in an especially new form, the charisma of the Pentecostal church. Expressive, flamboyant, openly lauding the pursuit of prosperity through discipline and hard work, the rise of these churches in the past decade appear to compete with the staid, affectively remote respectability of the Anglican Church. Yet, as Freeman demonstrates, it is precisely the creative flexibility of entrepreneurial Barbadian women that motivates them to attend multiple church services a week, refusing to identify with any particular denomination but instead sampling a variety in pursuit of the mix of comforts they crave. Rather than imagining themselves as beholden to a rigid church orthodoxy, they instead see religion as one of the therapeutic options they can recruit for their own self-improvement.

The general esprit of mixing life and labor, creative resilience with hard work, requires recruiting affective life for production of capital and of humans. As feminist theory has persuasively documented, the biological and social reproduction of the labor force has, in capitalist and non-capitalist systems alike, occurred through the uncompensated and often invisible labor of women. That some Barbadian women are now creating lives that require them to merge their public and private selves may seem like another example of the invasion of capitalist rhetoric into the pure core of the self.  Freeman tells a more complicated story. Instead of simply extracting emotions in service of capital, the very emotions one can imagine, express or treat are only possible in a particular neoliberal register. If Barbadian women have not historically been associated with stereotypically feminine qualities of nurturing care, then the new forms of affective care they now consider essential to leading quality lives show how labor power is neither universal nor interchangeable. Instead, these women illustrate the particular yet familiar allure of making oneself in uncertain conditions.

 

Carla Jones is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and President of the Association for Feminist Anthropology (2017-2019).  Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, domesticity, aesthetics and Islam.  She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Yogyakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003).  Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about corruption and exposure.

 

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