Invisible Labor, Invisible Hands

April 16, 2022   •   By Emily Hodgson Anderson

AS A WORKING WRITER and a single mom, I think invisible labor is important because I feel engaged in a lot of it, and I suppose I feel a fair amount of resentment about this fact. Case in point: a friend once shared a review of one of my books with another friend, who observed that I “must have had a very good nanny to pull that off.” My friend had answered, no, to the contrary, but instead of feeling prouder of my accomplishment, I’d felt angry and confused. Had I been blind to the way the rest of the world was going about such activities? Didn’t everyone get called away between sentences to wipe a butt that was not their own? Was the rest of the writing world leading lives with more support?

Honestly, we never know what hurdles others have to overcome in their daily lives, and I’m usually happiest doing things the hard way around. But when it comes to invisible labor, I do know that I’d like more of my work to be acknowledged, maybe through funds or better systems of regulation — or, say, through a golf-handicap system that would account for my external challenges and rank my work more highly as a result. I can imagine that same book review with an asterisk indicating that “the author wrote all this without a nanny,” though upon reflection, I’d want the asterisk to be revealed only retroactively, after my work had already towered over all the other, ostensibly nanny-supported books.

Upon reflection, I’ll also admit that many of these desires reveal psychological baggage specific to me. To wit:

I have trouble saying no, and I would appreciate if institutional structures or supervisors, better seeing the whole picture of my work-life imbalance, said no to some projects on my behalf.

I also have trouble acknowledging many of my own activities as work, and if I could see more clearly as work some of what I do, I’d feel better about my allocation of time, my end-of-day fatigue, my choices in life.

This is because, as the latter statement makes clear, I have trouble appreciating pleasure in a non-transactional context, since I’ve inherited a skewed life view in which work is the main purpose of existence, with pleasure earned as a result. Work I’ve done that is invisible even to myself thus robs me of extra joy, and extra rest, and for this reason especially I’d appreciate if more of my invisible labor would be seen.

My final bit of psychological baggage is that I’m someone who believes that the answers to life’s mysteries are to be found in books. As a result, I decided that the best way to address my struggles with invisible labor was to read some Adam Smith.


Adam Smith is not someone I had read a lot of earlier in life. I spent most of my college and graduate school career reading novels and plays, not 18th-century Scottish philosophers who wrote big books that I found — and still find — somewhat dry. To this day, I’ve never read all of Smith’s most famous work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), though I did finally enjoy his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), or most of it, I think.

I’ve more enjoyed getting to know Smith as a person, since he’s a character, to say the least. He’s the original absent-minded professor: someone who supposedly wandered miles through town in his nightgown while thinking, fell into a tanning pit while discussing free trade, and put bread and butter mistakenly into his teapot only to complain of the taste of his tea. He suffered from hypochondria and regularly talked to himself or to his imaginary, invisible friends. He is known today for his contributions to our current theory of a free-market economy, but he considered himself more of a philosopher than an economist. He never married, and his closest relationship with a woman was with his mom. He is most well known for a phrase that is still used by current economists, the concept of “the invisible hand.”

In economic theory, the “invisible hand” stands in for the unseen forces that motivate a natural movement in prices and trade, independent of any governmental control. When I first started expressing my interest in invisible labor, it was also the metaphor that many colleagues kept mentioning I should pursue as relevant to my work. I found this curious, since, as I discovered, the concept of invisible labor wasn’t defined until much later, by the sociologist Arlene Daniels, who in 1987 coined the term “invisible work.” The date of Daniels’s definition suggests that invisible labor wasn’t really a well-known concept, although we’d spent the past two centuries seeing invisible hands.

My point here is that, regardless of my colleagues’ recommendations, Adam Smith doesn’t automatically equate invisible hands with invisible work. Really, Smith doesn’t seem much interested in what I would define as invisible labor, at all. Reading Smith to learn more about this idea instead raised for me a whole new set of questions. Do invisible hands do invisible labor, or are they engaged in something else? Is invisible labor even done by invisible beings, or does labor become invisible by a different mechanism altogether? And if invisibility is not the key requirement for invisible labor, how and why does labor … disappear?


To define invisible labor, I need first to define labor itself.

Intuitively, I define labor as that which involves sweat, fatigue, and/or exertion. I also define labor as the opposite of pleasure or relaxation, even though, ironically, I’m usually happiest when I sweat. I define labor as compulsory, as opposed to voluntary: something I do because I have to do it and not because I seek it out. But labor in my mind begins with the idea of sweat, though I’m not actually sweaty every time I work. I think the connection stems from my decades-long association of working with working out, and if I’m not doing jumping jacks every time I teach, I am a relatively sweaty lecturer, thanks to adrenaline, and I also not coincidentally do a lot of my teaching in yoga clothes — what my college friends used to call “my uniform,” or what a current friend calls “activewear.” Back when I was a hardworking college student, my dad would try to send me email missives addressed “Hi, sweetie!” but had to insist upon this nomenclature because his computer spellcheck would religiously change my name to “sweaty” instead. “The association is becoming powerful,” he once wrote.

Interestingly, given the ideas that follow, my commonsense definitions of labor don’t involve money, or value, or a wage.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith defines labor as “the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” Another way of putting this concept is that labor for Smith is that which creates tangible goods that can be bought, traded, or sold. To count as labor, exertion has to produce some tangible product, and that product has to be exchangeable for money. Working out wouldn’t count as work for Smith. Nor would academic pursuits. “Philosophy is not labour,” Smith writes, because it “produces no value and must [thus] be considered economically ‘unproductive’ along with the work of ‘churchmen’ and ‘opera-singers.’” To be productive is to be economically productive. Churchmen and opera singers, take note.

The sociologist Arlene Daniels, the one who coined the term “invisible work,” agrees that, thanks to Smith, we have long defined labor as something for which we get paid. Sometimes labor is skilled, and sometimes it is monotonous or backbreaking, but even if we enjoy the activity, it is work if we get paid for it. If it isn’t paid, we don’t recognize it as such. Daniels also argues that “[t]he notion of work as something set apart from the rest of life is a peculiarly modern and Western idea.” Our Western correlations among salary, public systems of exchange, and definitions of labor have rendered many laborious activities — in my more general sense of the adjective — unseen.

Adam Smith developed the concept of the invisible hand by considering how hands function and then extrapolating the implications if these hands were unseen. As an idiom in our language, “hand” stands in for activity, an invisible synecdoche affirming the able-bodied notion that hands are our prime movers, responsible for how we manage — i.e., handle — the responsibilities of our days. We use our hands to build things, just as we use them to write and type. What one hand makes, another hand must grasp (since for Smith, labor had to produce a product you could touch). “Let me give you a hand,” we say to someone struggling to complete a task, though Adam Smith obviously never juggled five bags of groceries while shutting a car door with his butt.

Making that laboring hand invisible doesn’t necessarily take away its strength. When I was a child, invisible hands would lift me sleeping from my car seat and transport me into bed. Invisible hands hefted a 10-speed bike down my chimney one Christmas and placed it by our tree.

People before Smith talked about invisible hands, too. As a phrase, it appears in Shakespeare, when Macbeth calls upon the night, “with thy bloody and invisible hand,” to “cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale!” Horace Walpole also uses the concept in The Castle of Otranto (1764) to describe a Macbeth-style supernatural experience of having a real (as it were) invisible hand frighten his heroine by closing a door. When hands become invisible, life can become scary or confusing as a result.

But Smith himself actually used the phrase before Walpole, in his never-finished, never-published essay “History of Astronomy,” written in the 1750s or thereabouts. Here, it describes how the motions of the cosmos confuse an uneducated observer, who can only attribute them superstitiously to the invisible hand of a pagan god. “Hence the origin of Polytheism,” Smith asserts, “which ascribes all the irregular events of nature to the favour or displeasure of intelligent, though invisible beings.” So, the earthquake and the eclipse: since the earth should not shake independently or the moon just disappear, those who don’t understand these motions create an external, non-natural mover to explain them. They believe, much like Walpole’s superstitious characters, that an invisible hand is the source.

Some unskilled observers, however, as Smith goes on to argue, didn’t make these supernatural attributions: nature contained many seeming miracles that most ancient people accepted without assuming they relied on an invisible cause. “Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards […] nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.” Regardless of our level of education or religious beliefs, we often experience the results of actions without seeing their causes, and we sometimes benefit from and come to depend upon these actions occurring. By calling attention to such matters, Smith wants to make us aware that life involves efforts that often pass unseen.

Maybe the pagan observer should wonder more at the workings of gravity. Maybe we all regularly take credit for what are, as Alexander Pope would phrase them, labors “not our own.”


After using the invisible hand in “History of Astronomy,” Smith recycles the concept twice more.

First, he uses it again in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This time, instead of associating the invisible hand with a group of pagan observers, from which we set ourselves apart, Smith attributes it to the workings of a divine providence from which we all benefit and in which we all believe. The invisible hand now describes why an economy in which the rich behave in a selfish and rapacious manner ends up nonetheless sharing its bounty with the poor. They all are led, Smith states, “by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life.”

Seventeen years later, Smith recycles the concept in The Wealth of Nations to explain how our free-market economy works. The individual who labors with only a thought to his personal gain in fact acts to benefit the larger economy, since he is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” The reasoning is the same as in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but the end is now financial profit, or monetary gain.

In these scenarios, Smith has shifted from depicting the invisible hand satirically, as something in which educated observers should not believe, to presenting it as a legitimate force in the workings of moral and economic life. In the process, he shifts from viewing his readers as educated observers who can see how less educated others might believe fallaciously in this concept, to viewing them as educated observers who don’t see the forces moving them, who don’t even see that they are being moved.

But, Smith says, we are all being led in this manner. The invisible hand allows us to believe that we are acting in our own self-interest, and fueled by this (mistaken) belief, we continue acting in the service of the greater good.

The superhero is often most powerful when she vanishes. The invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the hand of God.

Adam Smith wanted his hands to be pretty invisible, too. For all the attention he gets for this particular concept, he uses it but sparingly. Three brief mentions, in pages and pages and pages of work.

The more curious question is why he makes the idea visible, at all.


Adam Smith, as I mentioned, never married, and from the ages of 44 to 53, he lived with his mother, during which time he was writing The Wealth of Nations, explaining how our self-motivated actions are guided invisibly to serve some communal need. One assumes that, during this time, all his necessaries were taken care of, so that the proponent of the invisible hand was blind to the invisible hands that supported his own needs. (Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal has written thoughtfully on this topic.) It reminds me of the stories of women who used to type their husband’s manuscripts instead of writing up their own.

In my family, though, when my mother gave birth to me during medical school, she dictated her thesis to my father, who typed it up.

Look at all of you, Smith says, but only in passing. You are being guided; I am guiding you along. But don’t look too closely, because our collective blind spots are necessary if this system is to work. It is just — sometimes I need for you to see what I have done. While I’m at it, can I have some tea?

Production is a result of labor, but you can’t have labor without the level above. Does this higher-level management count as work? “Clean your room,” I pronounce, to keep myself from being infantilized, to teach my children responsibility, to assert my position in the chain. Still, there are days I find myself crawling on their floor, and my children are just learning to feel guilty about that fact. When the invisible hand emerges, it can be molded in a gesture of reproach.

And yet, and yet: Adam Smith never had a theory for selfless work.

If I don’t see what you do, it is because I believe you love me.

When I don’t show you my hands, I love you more than I love myself.


Emily Hodgson Anderson is a professor of English at University of Southern California and the author of Shakespeare and the Legacy of Loss (2018).