Thursday, August 03, 2006

On Barbara Ehrenreich – Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch

Recently I read the above mentioned books, starting with Bait and Switch, which concerns itself with the search for white collar work, then Nickel and Dimed which is about working at the lowest rungs of the job market.

Ehrenreich comes across as a kind of 1930’s leftist, a la Dororthy Parker and Mary McCarthy. She is never, ever short of a wisecrack, a barb or a quip. Indeed, most of both books almost turn into sheer comedy. Mixed in with this is a kind of Orwellian immerse-yourself-in-it journalism and tell the tale of your experiences.

This is all very well, however, reading through her books you wonder at how much of Ehrenreich’s own idiosycrasies and personal views colours her reportage. In a lot of ways she’s a classic leftie, the kind of liberal template that many intellectuals and politicians in America continually slag off.

For example, Ehrenreich’s an athiest who believes in a socialist Jesus (there are quite a few remarks in both books about Jesus and poverty. At one stage Ehrenreich comments on how the money lenders have finally ejected Jesus from the temple.) Then there are her attitudes to white people. She feels free to criticise them, quite harshly sometimes. But if you’re black, you’ve never done anything wrong in your entire life, and if you have, the causes are society, not the individual.

Another example: when slogging it out as a Wal-Mart employee (Ehrenreich called herself a ‘Wal-Martian’), she has a long tirade against fat white people. Now if she’d done this against fat black people, no major publisher would have touched her book.

In short, Ehrenreich comes across as a kind of perpetual teenager (she’s in her 60s!), a disgruntled Holden Caulfield who can’t wait to see the whole crummy system come tumbling to its knees. At one point, again while working for Wal-Mart, she quips how she doesn’t care if employees are getting high in the car park, and admits she wouldn’t even snitch on a colleague if she knew they were lifting stuff. (I confess to laughing out loud at these gags.)

Now Karl Marx was a bit like this too. He rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of the whole capitalist system crashing to its knees and absolutely destroying the middle class (ironically, Ehrenreich is firmly middle class herself, an irony she fully admits). Ehrenreich can make these kind of quips because she will never have the stresses of actually running a business: making sure people turn up, don’t pinch stuff etc. etc. It allows her an irresponsible air.

Okay, they’re my criticisms. The good part is, both books are very entertaining, and I don’t doubt her sincerity in Bait and Switch when she says she gave it her best shot (spending $6000 and 6 months trying to find white collar work as a PR writer or events organiser, the only work she felt she could offer).

And in Nickel and Dimed, you can’t say that she tried to insulate herself from the worst of blue collar work. In that book, with shocking candour, she describes the three types of shit stains you find in the toilet bowl. It made me feel almost sick.

The most interesting part for an Australian reader is the amount of urine tests prospective employees have to take before they can get a job, and these tests are not cheap to do either. (Ehrenreich quotes statistics that show, when broken down, it costs $77,000 for every federal government employee found to have drugs in their system.) Americans must be so paranoid about drug taking. Ehrenreich at one stage has to beg off a job interview after finding out she’d have to take a urine test: she’d recently had a joint, and marijuana stays in the blood stream for at least three months.

Ehrenreich is also super critical of all the personality tests you have to do, which she sees as being absolutely ridiculous. Anyone who has had to go through these dumb tests will agree. Again, all this testing costs money.

In the last chapter of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich is at her most moving, describing how the affluent middle classes are sponging off the cheap labour of the working classes.

‘The ‘working poor’, as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.’

Both books should probably be read together. Start with Nickel and Dimed (it’s the funniest one), then move onto Bait and Switch, where ironically no real work is undertaken, but endless networking, coaching and image enhancing goes on, which I guess proves Ehrenreich’s last point, that the working classes do, well, all of the working.

With her social and economic views, Barbara Ehrenreich is no doubt already preaching to the converted. What sets her apart is her chutzpah, her energy and her willingness to immerse herself in what she’s writing about. What other authors write about wiping shit off the toilet seat that never made a clear passage to the bowl?

(Her blog is here.)

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