- Entrepreneurial Selves: Neoliberal Respectability and the Making of a Caribbean Middle Clas by Carla Freeman
This book sets itself more than one task. It is a study of neoliberal ethos among the Barbadian entrepreneurial middle class, particularly the women of this class, although the study does address and report more briefly on the lives of like middle-class men. By and large, the women are engaged in forms of affective labor—emotionally commodified service industries—while also sustaining personal “partnerships,” child-care responsibilities, and attention to their own well-being. The book addresses general dimensions of a neoliberal social milieu: an expanding small business sector; decreasing job security with a concomitant emphasis on “flexibility”; and a wide-reaching commodification of the self that is physical, cognitive, and emotional. Freeman suggests that the increasing interpenetration of work and domestic life creates an impetus to maintain family as a zone of quality with children and intimacy between partners. Over the past 15 years or so, in a range of research contexts, these factors have become familiar aspects of neoliberal social life.
A further task of the book, however, is to reveal the manner in which this ethos is transforming the values and the practices of middle-class Barbadian life. Therefore this account of neoliberalism is, in addition, an account of a particular culture and class. In the past, and closely related to a slave-plantation heritage, this class and culture has been notable for marked hierarchy and conformism, authoritarian governance of children, pronounced generational and gender divides, and a clear distinction between a work and public “outside” life and a personal and private “inside” life, the former identified as male and the latter as female.
Freeman deploys a well-known opposition in Caribbean ethnography, that between reputation and respectability, to sum up the nature of this middle class and address its changes. Reputation, it has been argued, is principally a performative phenomenon located in the public domain: male, oppositional, and risk-taking. Respectability, on the other hand, resides in the domestic sphere tended by women: a value orientation mindful of color-class hierarchy and of orthodox religion and morality. To put it briefly, Freeman suggests that women have entered the small- business sphere as entrepreneurs, courting reputation. At the same time they struggle or yearn for a respectability that is not so much ruled by external authorities but, rather, turned to cultivating oneself and one’s family relationships. Freeman makes the point that for second-wave feminism the object was to escape the family; for these Barbadian women, the object is to reconstitute it as a respite from the world of entrepreneurship—even as they continue to commodify themselves.
The book presents at least three issues for debate. First, with reference to reputation and respectability, Freeman notes changes that include a growing middle-class embrace of matrifocality. Moreover, there is little doubt that reference to this dualistic proposition, explicit or implicit, has been ubiquitous in the Caribbean. At the same time, however, ethnography has shown that it is inaccurate as a general description of class and gender differences. This suggests that Freeman may have exaggerated the magnitude of change within the Barbadian middle class. [End Page 677]
Second, Freeman’s study suggests that men are far less involved than women in quests for domestic intimacy and not so involved in forms of affective labor. This suggests that the rendering of neoliberalism as a significantly “emotional capitalism” may be overdrawn, notwithstanding the growth and diversification of service industries within neoliberalism. Third and finally, Freeman emphasizes the positive side of flexibility for Barbadian women escaping a milieu of conformism. At the same time she sees flexibility, in the form of “occupational multiplicity,” as a perennial of the Caribbean. In the past, this flexibility has been indicative of a precarious position in capitalism. If this is not the case for these middle-class women, how does their position differ from other Caribbean women and men...