Financial metaphors have long since colonized and infected our way of understanding emotion; this may be inevitable in a commercial society, which forces us to understand everything in terms of bargains. Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional work especially conveys the degree to which we habitually reify emotion, and think of it as a social currency. Feelings are something we owe or spend or hoard, we incur debts of gratitude, we imagine we are owed certain amounts of love or respect, as though we could tabulate them on a balance sheet and present our acquaintances a bill for a specific amount of emotion. Hochschild’s point, following Erving Goffman, is that emotions are produced on demand, that we expend a certain amount of labor manufacturing socially appropriate emotions for various occasions. Emotions aren’t reactions, as common sense might suggest they are; emotions don’t necessarily happen in response to stimuli. Instead we print them up like paper money in anticipation of events, we expend labor to manufacture socially consumable moods that we expect others to find appropriate. Or we measure up what we save and what we risk by withholding the emotional expenditure that’s expected.
If this theory holds, then varied, unpredictable social interaction is required in order for us to develop the skill of producing a variety of emotions, to ready us and permit us the full scope of emotional life that we’re capable of. When capitalism — and its convenience fetish that hinges on isolation and streamlining away unpredictable, unmediated, uncommercial social exchanges — eliminates our public sphere and our potential for social life, it circumscribes our emotional development at a very early age. Since we are born into it, we don’t even really know what sort of emotional life we might be capable of outside the commercial paradigm, outside the accounting of emotional debts and hoarding emotional energy. Goffman goes so far to regard the emotion expediture required to conduct interpersonal relations to be a kind of “emotional tax” that we owe. This builds in the antisocial bias of capitalism into the analysis at the level of terminology.