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First class reporting on the destruction of middle class life in the US
on 8 April 2007
Barbara Ehrenreich has a dry wit. When she decides to go undercover as a white collar professional (first seeking and then fulfilling a job within America's corporate citadel), she finds herself in a world so desperate and surreal that she need only report with her admirable clarity to render it, quite often, funny.
But humour is not her intention, for the most part. Her subject is essentially suffering; the immense human cost of the way American business, especially big business, now approaches staffing at all levels, and the almost totally meaningless responses with which individuals try adapt to it.
Being a white-collar jobseeker is these days proclaimed to be a job in itself. It is also a position in which people are prey to a whole industry of pundits, coaches, purveyors of tips, networking opportunities, boot camps, prayer meetings and therapy groups. Ehrenreich spent over $6,000 during some seven to nine months of intensive searching. All her work, and investment, never yielded so much as an acknowledgement from most of the potential employers she approached.
This is a highly instructive piece of reporting from a world which otherwise really doesn't get represented. The reason is, practically everything else dealing with these realities is determined to ignore their human and social (and, one would think, organisational) costs and simply to provide a programme or set of indicators to people facing the difficulties of what is euphemistically called 'transition.' No-one wants to admit that what is really going on, as with the broader drive of neo-liberal economics (see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-liberalism) is effectively class war. What is both comic _and_ tragic is that the American middle class seems completely unable to perceive the reality of what is being done to it. Educated to think they don't actually have a class-based society, they are naturally perfect victims for a war they literally cannot imagine (but can be sacrificed to).
For a remarkable feat of contemporary anthropology, documenting the rituals and belief systems of a clearly delusional subculture in the mainstream of American society, Ehrenreich deserves major kudos. As a warning of what will almost certainly engulf middle class professionals everywhere sooner or later, she also deserves the gratitude of anyone attempting to understand the world today. It would be unfair to criticize the book for what it doesn't do (and doesn't set out to) - critique and analyse the policies and dogmas with which the attack on middle-class employment is rationalised, or the underlying motives. This is a missing part of the picture here, one which has yet to be documented to my knowledge (except in the general terms presented by Harvey in the work cited above). Bait and Switch is nevertheless a valuable document and ought to be read as a fierce indictment of the indefensible destruction of a way of life and the demoralization of an entire society.