Our outsourced lives

Pay someone to name your child? It can happen, says Arlie Hochschild, author of "The Outsourced Self"

Published August 15, 2012 3:37PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Would you pay a nameologist to help you name your child? Would you “Rent-A-Friend” to keep you company? How about paying a wantologist to help you determine what you want out of life?
These services may seem a bit absurd now, but they may soon become more mainstream, just like previously debatable outsourced personal services that are now everyday aids. For instance, today, if you are single, you probably wouldn’t think twice about paying an online service to help you find a date. And if all goes well, you may pay someone to plan your wedding.

Where do we draw the line? This is the question Arlie Hochschild asks in her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times. Hochschild traveled around the nation talking to people about which personal life processes they choose to outsource. She begins with Grace Weaver, a 49-year-old who hires Evan Katz to be her love coach. Katz helps her write her profile and takes her photo, but when he asks if she would like him to read all the responses she receives, she declines. That would be “over the line.”

The author engages people across America who hire wedding planners, nannies, life coaches or household managers. Hochschild then makes her way overseas to Anand, India, where she examines perhaps the most intimate of outsourced affairs: child surrogacy. Hochschild talks to couples about their choice to outsource pregnancy as well as talks to surrogates about their experience outsourcing their bodies. She does this all while keeping a special eye on how much significance the pregnancy’s stakeholders find in the process. Some couples and surrogates say they see the process as a simple financial transaction. Others find those nine months extremely meaningful. One surrogate told the author about the close relationship she formed with the woman whose baby she was carrying: “She held my hand during the delivery. When the baby was born, she said, ‘Look how beautiful our child is.’”

From time to time throughout the author’s journey, Hochschild juxtaposes market life with the “just do” village life of her family 100 years ago, when people attached more meaning to life’s personal processes, like making friends, falling in love or caring for your community.

AlterNet spoke with Hochschild in Berkeley, Calif., in late July about the rapidly expanding phenomenon of privatizing many of our most personal affairs.

AlterNet: One of the undercurrents in the book is people’s almost religious belief in the market as a way to solve their personal problems, even though the market fails a lot of the time. Why are people so dependent on the market? 

AH: Right. We don’t live with the community of yesteryear. And we don’t enjoy the public services Europeans do. So we turn to the market. Once we do, we find that service providers raise the standards of personal life, so that we come to feel we need them to live our “best” personal lives.

And we’re in the middle of a “perfect storm.” These days, government social services are being bad-mouthed and defunded. The non-profit world is looking more and more like the for-profit world. The growing gap between rich and poor makes most of us very anxious about where we stand. And the growing service sector offers answers, both real and exaggerated, to problems of personal life — including those the market itself creates.

AN: And it all has a political context, right?

AH: Oh, absolutely. We live in an era of market triumphalism. As Robert Kuttner argues in Everything for Sale, since the l970s the big multinationals have gained power. And increasingly both parties are financially indebted to them. And the Republican Party especially associates the market with the idea of progress, goodness, family, and points us toward the mall as an answer to all our personal dreams.

AN: You talk about the paradox of the market — how the market erodes stability and promotes anxiety, and then turns around and provides relief from that anxiety.

AH: Yes, we live inside a strange take-away, give-back system. Here’s a small example. Everyone is using cell phones and Blackberries they bought from the market, right? Not long ago, I was walking down the street, imagining how it would be if I were trying to make a friend in the neighborhood. As I walked along, all the people I met were talking on their cells, or looking down at them. I stopped in a park; everyone was looking on his or her cell phones. I stopped by a café; everyone was looking at his or her cell phones. After a while, I was looking at my cell. I didn’t find a chance to offer someone a “good morning” head nod, and I didn’t receive one from anyone. Maybe that would have seemed passé. So if I’d been new to the neighborhood and looking to make a friend, I’d be out of luck — over tech anomie.

And now the market has an answer: Socialjane.com. It’s a for-pay service — a Match.com for finding local same-sex friends. You sign up, pay and look at profiles of potential friends. And the site boasts good ROI — return on investment of money and time in finding a friend. The Web site reassures one that others on the site are “serious” about finding a friend. Why? Because they’ve paid money to do so. So you’re not just paying money to find a friend, you’re thinking about friendship in a more commercial way. And the charms of the market have moved you in a take-away, give-back system. That’s sort of a paradigm for a much larger story in America.

AN: And how does social class fit into The Outsourced Self?

AH: In fact, and also in fantasy. I did a survey of California residents, over 1,000 people, and what was really haunting is that when you ask people “Would you be interested in hiring a love coach, a party planner, someone to arrange your family photos in an album?” I had imagined that it would be the middle-class that had developed a greater taste for these services. But no. It was the poor who wanted them more. It was those with low incomes who were more likely to agree with the statement: "You can’t always rely on family and friends to get what you need, but you can always rely on money."

The poor lack money, but they also lack the helpful back-up community that could help them through hard times and good as well. So just equalizing their access to the market doesn’t speak to the larger issue of how they are held by the society around them.

AN: In the book you write: “The well-being of families may hinge on the subtle art of weaving village ‘just do’ into market bonds.” Do you think the solution is a balance between the two? And if so, can we do better than a balance?

AH: Yes. We draw lines. On one side of the line, we feel the “right amount” of emotional attachment to a person or thing. On the other side, we feel too detached or estranged from them. In the chapter about finding love, I describe a woman called Grace who hired a love coach to help her get on Match.com to find a life partner. And her coach gave her a lot of advice that made her have to think where her line was. He told her, “Looking for love is like looking for work. You have to put in the hours.” Grace thought, “Not such a romantic way of thinking about it, but okay.” And now you have to brand yourself, the coach said. So Grace said, “Brand myself? Well okay.” Then he said, “And you’re in the world’s largest love mall and as a 49-year-old you are probably a 6 on a l-10 scale of desirability.” She gulped but said, “Okay.” And she had a long shopping list: tall, engineer or related field, 40s-50s, emotionally mature, and more. And he went on to tell her she had to count her ROI (return on investment) and again she said, “Okay.”

The coach was trying to help her deal with the market, think in a market-like way about her personal life, and his advice seemed like it was on the okay side of her line. But then she met Mr. Wrong. Six months later they broke up. And as he went out the door, he said, “You were so easy to find. I’m going back on Match.com to find someone just like you.” As she told me, “That crossed the line. It was like he thought I was a box of cereal on the shelf. He was going back to the store for a facsimile.”

Mr. Wrong wasn’t just using the market as a means to achieve a non-market result. He went all the way; he saw Grace in a market-like way, too. She was like a thing he could get a duplicate of. So Grace drew a line. That was how she kept personal life feeling personal. In a way, the coach was helping her do that, and doing that work himself, to avoid feeling estranged. In the end, Grace found a great guy, but she had to throw away her shopping list to do it.

AN: You move from love coaches to India, where Americans in large numbers go to have babies carried by surrogates. One place you visit is described as "the Henry Ford of making babies."

AH: Yes, the Indian women I met were lovely people — highly reflective, intelligent and just stuck in horrific circumstances. They’d come to offer their wombs to carry to term babies of genetic parents they were discouraged from coming to know. The director of the Ashanksha Clinic boasted running the largest surrogacy service in the world. And she ran it like a factory. She wanted to increase volume, so sent out scouts to get more surrogates. She wanted quality control. So the surrogates slept in dormitories, eight cots to a room for nine months. Their husbands were not allowed to have sex with them so as not to risk getting a communicable disease. And she wanted to maximize efficiency. So she trained the surrogates to think of their wombs as carriers, detached from themselves. The surrogates I talked to didn’t know where their clients lived nor remember their names. And they spoke to them only briefly.

And the director’s language was entirely a market one of “win-win” market exchanges between infertile couples and economically desperate surrogates. And of course there is a “win-win.” The surrogate gets much-needed money and the couple gets a much-desired baby. But that "two self-interested parties" way of looking at things stripped away other personal understandings of the process of giving birth, and of the ultimate gift of life. There are only “I’s” in that picture, no “we’s.”

Actually the state is a missing “we.” Gujarat state offers virtually no social safety net under the poor, which they might enjoy as citizens. Like in the rest of India, the public health system is abysmal. Less than 10 percent of women having babies get any kind of prenatal care.  In the village I visited, there were no streetlights, no public roads. There was no public infrastructure. And that to me is the kind of hidden dystopia surrounding the whole question of outsourcing.

These days, we’re invited to be afraid of "Big Brother" government. The idea is that the government only does bad things, not good ones. In George Orwell’s1984, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it is the government that is the big, bad Mack truck coming at you. But in much of India, there is little effective government service presence for the poor at all. It’s not doing a thing for you. You are making your “free choices” in the absence of any help at all. And that’s what is really haunting. That’s the big Mack truck — nothing between a person and this sink-or-swim market. And yet borrowing from an entrepreneurial language, these poor Indian surrogate mothers I talked to said, “I chose this myself.” What they didn’t choose was the care vacuum within which they made the choice.

AN: Did the surrogate’s situation have psychological ramifications?

AH: Oh yes. One story tells it all. One surrogate was a Hindu but she was paid by a Sikh couple to carry their child. They asked her to go everyday to the Sikh temple so the fetus could be exposed to the recitation of the Sikh texts. They even hired a maid to “help” the surrogate, but also to make sure the surrogate went to the temple daily. So it was like the Hindu surrogate had swallowed a bag of gold that “belonged" to the Sikh clients. But the surrogate drew a line between herself and this idea: she said Hindu prayers to the baby secretly.

AN: In the United States, there is less of a safety net than in Europe and Scandinavia, more privatization, more breakdowns of communities. Is there less outsourcing in Europe?

AH: The U.S. Germany, Sweden, Italy — they’re all capitalist economies with service sectors offering many personal services. But the U.S. differs from these other countries in how many different services it has, in the lack of public services and in its more pronounced market culture.

When I give lectures on the book, the response is utterly different. When I speak to American audiences, the response is often reflective and sometimes anxious — as if I might be about to criticize some emotionally important service or take it away. But in Italy or Denmark, when I say exactly the same words, people begin a collective giggle. And I’ll have to explain that I’m actually not making fun of anyone or making a joke — and then they think that’s funny. And they’ll say, “Well maybe all this will be coming our way, too.” They see it as a futurama thing. But they’re used to looking over at America and thinking, “Oh my god, in 20 years that’s going to happen here.”

AN: That reminds me of something you wrote that said people are more likely to invest money in eHarmony and Match.com if they think it’s science — the matchmaking is done with some pseudo-scientific system. Is this serious?

AH: It is serious. And I interviewed the head of the research lab of eHarmony and he was saying what was really great was that now they were going international, they got a Relationship Lab, and he wants to further the company’s research on love. What they have a lot of research on is social similarities — and the more similar people are, they find, the more compatible. But what escapes them is “chemistry” or what they call “spark.” And they want to do research on that. But to open up that frontier, they’d have to take mouth swabs and examine DNA. And they aspire to that level of predictability of matchmaking.

Match.com and eHarmony and other companies are now competing with each other on the relative proportion of dates, lasting relationships and marriages each service produces. They advertise their scores in order to attract more customers. Companies are competing not only with each other, but with regular life — they’re wanting to show that you’re more likely to meet someone special via a for-profit matchmaking company than at the office or friend’s party. That makes me wonder what’s happening to the liveliness of our communities.

AN: You talk about how we have grown to stop “feeling a part of something larger.” What is that "something larger" you think we should feel a part of? And how does outsourcing corrupt that?

AH: Yes. Like feeling part of a progressive movement for social change. The environmental movement. A movement for urban renewal. A movement for educational reform. People who volunteer at the recycling center or soup kitchen through a church or neighborhood group can come to feel part of something “larger.” Such a sense of belonging calls on a different part of a self than the market calls on. The market calls on our sense of self-interest. It focuses us on what we “get.” When we feel part of a family, larger community or social movement, we think more of our connection to others, and to what we can give. We are “rich” or “poor” in our access to this feeling part of something larger.

AN: When you give your talks, what is it you want for people to take away?

AH: Three things at least. One is that the market goes deep. It’s not just an external system. It comes with a culture that influences how we look for gratification and meaning. Even if we don’t buy anything at all, we can develop a commercial way of seeing life. It affects not just what we want but how we want. We can focus on the “perfect” birthday party, or the “perfect” wedding — the result, that which was purchased. And we can stop looking for gratification in the process that brought about that result — the making the cake together, or blowing up the birthday balloons. So the book asks us to ask ourselves how it is we’ve been influenced. Where are we drawing the line?

The second message concerns the real source of the problem — a growing imbalance between the market and everything else (the government, civic society and community, families). Our culture has grown out of whack and we’re not looking in the right place to set it straight. We’re looking for balance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government — and that’s well and good. But we’re not looking at the balance between the market and everything else. And we’re in a strange political moment. We’re downsizing the non-military side of the government. We’re privatizing prisons, parks, schools and libraries. We’re shrinking the public sphere. And in The Outsourced Self, I’m asking: Are we doing the same thing to private life?

In the end, I think we’re being sold a bill of goods: that all the policies that promote a free-market — deregulation, service cuts, privatization, regressive taxation — actually go with or help strengthen families. Actually each of these policies has an unobserved downside for the family. (I did a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, also on AlterNet on this.) Deregulation of ads on Saturday morning TV for junk foods are making kids obese, susceptible to diabetes, high medical bills and distress that hurts families. Service cuts in public library staff, public parks hours, after-school programs, HeadStart — all hurt families. A tax structure that exacerbates the class gap hurts the physical and mental health of the poor, as we know, but also the middle-class. And a self-oriented, free-market way of thinking can butt into a “we-oriented” happy family way of thinking, too.

By Alyssa Figueroa

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