The Labor of Hope
Meritocracy and Precarity in Egypt
Harry Pettit


chapter abstract

The opening chapter introduces the people who provide the focus for the book as well as the conceptual and methodological framework used to understand their lives. It first traces the production of a middle-class population in Egypt who now grow up with a disconnect between the globalized aspirations they develop and the precarious livelihoods they lead. The chapter then establishes the book's interest in how young middle-class men emotionally cope with this disconnect and sets up an analytical framework which departs from existing approaches that interpret these attempts as either a form of resistance or agentive survival. Instead, it suggests seeing attempts to secure brief distraction from difficult emotions and sustain a vital sense of hope as a form of emotional labor which works in the service of labor markets by securing the continued participation of low-waged, precarious workers.

1Selling Hope
chapter abstract

The first chapter reveals a booming labor market industry of training, recruitment, entrepreneurship, and self-help – spanning public, private, and developmental spheres – which has rapidly grown in Egypt in recent years. By examining encounters between university-educated youth and training courses, employment fairs, and entrepreneurship events, the chapter demonstrates that this industry is thriving through selling a feeling of hope to young Egyptians. This hope rests on the extension of a neoliberal understanding of selfhood alongside a meritocratic vision of the labor market. This industry, the chapter argues, is purposely set up to profit from the production of workers who are ready to invest in a precarious, segmented labor market. In doing so, it advances understandings of the way affect and emotion infuse practices of governance and accumulation in contemporary labor markets.

2The Drugs of Life
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 follows young male university graduates who are chasing a private-sector career but become stuck in Cairo's growing call center industry. It traces the 'emotional labor of distraction' required to keep going in jobs which induce constant frustration, boredom, and humiliation due to their inability to provide middle-class masculine respectability amidst low-pay, deskilling, and insecurity. Through macho joke-making, watching light television, scrolling through social media, engaging in performative consumption, organizing social outings, going to the gym, and smoking hashish and drinking alcohol, men forget the negative emotions which build up on the phones and 'fuck with their heads' momentarily. Developing literature on detachment, avoidance, and deflection, the chapter argues that these practices constitute a form of emotional labor that enable workers to dissipate the anxieties and frustrations thrown up by low-status work and continue offering their labor power.

3Without Hope There Is No Life
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 traces the daily practices through which a group of young men sustain a vital sense of hope amidst a disconnect between their career aspirations and current employment. By praying to God for guidance, recounting inspirational stories of successful friends, lessons from self-help books, and quotes from entrepreneurs or Hollywood movies, and following these examples by attempting to work on their skills, apply for jobs, and plan their dream start-up, men reintroduce a sense of momentum towards a fulfilling future. Departing from literature highlighting the agentive ability of marginalized populations to navigate precarity, I argue that these practices represent an emotional labor which enables laborers to survive but also legitimizes continued exploitation by keeping them invested in low-paid work and constructing a meritocratic moral economy that places emphasis for success and failure on the individual.

4The Labor of Love
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 traces the tumultuous pursuit of love among young precariously employed Egyptian men. While avoiding familial pressure to marry in their early 20s to focus on careers, engaging in casual courting and discussing women among friends provides brief distraction and masculine validation in the context of demoralizing work experiences. As men get older, they turn attention to longer-term love through preparing marital houses and entering relationships. These practices provide self-worth, excitement and hope which can make up for labor market struggles or add impetus to keep going. However, the persistence of a moral economy which leaves love and marriage dependent on money and status ensures this pursuit produces immense heartache. Revealing the power of love within the economy, the chapter argues that pursuing intimacy represents a key form of emotional labor amidst structural economic and cultural forces that render both love and a career precarious.

5The Migration of Hope
chapter abstract

The final empirical chapter explicates the relationship between the emotional labor of sustaining hope and the act of migration. It traces how imagining and investing time and money into migration possibilities enables precariously employed Egyptian men to cope on a daily basis, even though this involves many doubts and failed attempts. This is fueled by a migration industry which makes money out of stimulating hope. The chapter then follows men who migrate to the Arab Gulf, Malaysia, and Europe. While sometimes enabling dramatic financial mobility, migration is also experienced as immensely disappointing as men get stuck in low-end jobs, experience loneliness and racism, and navigate difficult relationships. By following men as they get older – both those in Egypt and abroad – the chapter argues that years of dashed hopes requires a more contingent and detached orientation to the world in order to maintain a liveable life.

chapter abstract

The concluding chapter emphasizes the main call of the book to recenter the analytic of labor when understanding the ways in which precarious, low-waged workers emotionally cope with their conditions. This allows recognition of how capitalist regimes – not just in Egypt – continue to capture the attention of people who appear harmed by them as they continue to produce the means for people to sustain individualized, meritocratic forms of hope. Following this, the conclusion examines the question of the emergence of more collective labors of hope – both in Egypt and beyond – geared towards tackling the structural injustices built into capitalist economies.