Bait and Switch

You probably don’t think of C. S. Lewis as a critic of corporate business. Yet, although he was certainly no revolutionary, Lewis considered capitalism as pointless as it was unfair-a system that squanders the talents and time of workers on absurd but profitable tasks. “The world of business,” Lewis mused at the end of his essay, “Good Work and Good Works,” “does with such efficiency so much that never really needed doing.” It’s a sentiment I recalled more than once while reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s mordant and depressing new book, Bait and Switch.

A veteran of the secular democratic Left, Ehrenreich has fought the good fight on a number of fronts: sexist medicine (For Her Own Good), male irresponsibility (The Hearts of Men), the roots of war (Blood Rites), the culture of avarice and indifference (The Worst Years of Our Lives). In Nickel and Dimed (2001) she reported on her three-month sojourn as an unskilled worker, toiling alongside low-wage Americans whose plight she described with an angry clarity and lyricism. (“To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor,” she asserted, “a nameless benefactor to everyone else.”) Ehrenreich is also an incisive student of middle-class mores. In 1979 she coauthored a seminal essay on “The Professional-Managerial Class,” and a decade later published Fear of Falling (1988), tracing the cultural history of the credentialed bourgeoisie from its cold-war suburban equipoise to its Reagan-era obsessions with health, fitness, and “family values.”

Now, in Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich once again puts herself forth into the world of work-this time to chart the perils of a middle-class universe as unstable and treacherous as that of the waitresses and domestic cleaners she encountered in Nickel and Dimed. An almost unrelievedly downbeat chronicle of her search for a job, the book offers “a taste of white-collar life at its most miserable and precarious.” Repackaging herself as “Barbara Alexander,” a public-relations professional “in transition” (in other words, looking for work), Ehrenreich tours the drab purgatory of American bourgeois unemployment. Traveling to job fairs, conventions, seminars, and interviews, she ambles across a wasteland of declining shopping centers and second-rate hotels, where nervous applicants endure stale pastries, lukewarm coffee, and the rituals of self-abasement that constitute today’s job search. Many readers will recognize the low-grade fury and gloom that suffuse these gatherings, the worst of which Ehrenreich likens to “a high-school prom gone terribly wrong.” Helping her navigate this slough of despond are numerous “career coaches,” a gallery of mountebanks and megalomaniacs who charge their prey much and deliver next to nothing.

Along the way, Bait and Switch reveals the tragically wispy nature of middle-class work in America. If, as Lewis might imply, many of Ehrenreich’s farcicus personae were previously doing things that didn’t really need doing, it’s not always clear just what they were doing that didn’t really need to be done. “Development,” “event planning,” “on-site management,” “evaluating,” “transition acceleration,” and, my favorite, “facilitating postevent assessment”: the resumés and cover letters burgeon with these and other “jobs” that rival the sinecures of Versailles. Other applicants, of course, had “real” jobs, having “managed large numbers of people, handled impressive sums of money, nurtured important projects from start to finish”-and, Ehrenreich might have added, overseen or recommended the firing of thousands of subordinates, while waxing realistic about “tragic necessity” or “gaining a competitive edge.” It’s a sin against charity, but don’t be surprised if you feel a twinge of schadenfreude.

Still, only the most callously ideological will dismiss these stories of betrayal and indignity. Ehrenreich’s most compelling vignettes amply discredit the skinflint mythology of redemption through adversity and struggle. Take Leah, for instance, a witty ex-marketing executive who suffers anxiety attacks. Or Steve, an ex-computer troubleshooter who supports his pregnant wife by shuttling between part-time jobs at Starbucks and Home Depot. Or Donna, an ex-teacher and divorced single mother who “doesn’t have any more tears.” Their tales of downward mobility cry out confusion, fatigue, marital stress, and mangy frugality-and as Ehrenreich reminds us, corporations and government are making things even harder, with merciless credit checks on job applicants (especially punishing on those with lengthy “transitions”), ever fewer benefits and pension plans, and a new and harsher federal bankruptcy law.

So why doesn’t the middle class rebel, or at least complain more loudly? The answer, Ehrenreich announces in unrepentantly Marxist fashion, is ideology. While her subjects don’t blame themselves for their troubles-indeed, many exhibit a fairly keen awareness of class politics-they’re beholden nonetheless to the shibboleths of individual responsibility: rugged individualism, a moldy oldie still reeking in self-help literature and career coaching; positive thinking, smiling your way through rejection and foreclosure; and, of course, the Protestant work ethic, that toxic residue of Calvinist heresy, blighting our lives and leisure with the “craving to be doing something, anything, of a worklike nature.”

The Protestant ethic retains its theological veneer in today’s evangelical business culture, to which Ehrenreich, an atheist, devotes a thoughtful chapter. She finds plenty to ridicule in the land of “Jesus My Personal Career Coach.” We’re in televangelist Joel Osteen country, after all, where God and Mammon have settled their differences and formed a lucrative partnership. Yet Ehrenreich seems more disappointed than repulsed by evangelical venality. Put off by the repeated insistence that God micromanages every moment of life, she wonders if evangelicals have lost all sense of mystery, tragedy, and wonder. “It is not the business of religion to ‘make sense,’” she writes, skewering the rationalism of evangelical culture. Except, perhaps, in an ironic way. In one of those epiphanies that illuminate an entire historical moment, Ehrenreich notes the stylistic similarity of her hotel suite and the McLean Baptist Church outside Washington, D. C.: “economy of line, neutral colors, cheap indestructible furniture, short-haired carpet for easy cleaning.” Could sola scriptura and aesthetic banality be brethren sides of a coin?

If evangelical avarice has the feel of disenchantment, much of the rest of corporate culture is, in Ehrenreich’s words, “disturbingly loony.” Despite its current mythic stature as a paragon of efficiency and fearless iconoclasm, corporate business in reality is riddled with courtier sycophancy, “shot through with magical thinking,” and mesmerized by quackery and bunkum. It pays serious attention to the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, a classic artifact of pseudo-science that culls from Buddha, Confucius, and Jung, and furrows its brow in contemplation over the twaddle of a Rick Warren or Steven Covey. It counts out the “seven habits,” “four competencies,” and “sixty-four principles of success”-all as comically arcane as Rosicrucianism-and communicates in argots and acronyms worthy of Pynchon or Borges. Having read a lot of this stuff myself, I call upon conservatives to forswear all boilerplate about “ivory tower” liberals who’ve never (pick your cliché) worked hard, met a payroll, or suffered the headaches that come with running a business.

As for Ehrenreich’s headaches, after several months “in transition,” she ultimately lands two interviews-and no job offer. You’d expect a fiery peroration, yet she doesn’t provide one. Ehrenreich’s one concrete proposal-legally redefining corporate “personhood” to include responsibility to workers and communities-is too bold and sensible to interest today’s Democrats. The dispiriting conclusion of Bait and Switch suggests a progressive mind exhausted and adrift. You know things are bad when a committed leftist like Ehrenreich harkens back, however briefly, to benevolent executives and proprietors.

Still, I’m convinced there is hope in the darkness, even if Ehrenreich may not see it. At one point she muses, all too momentarily, on what might happen if people asked themselves: “What would I really like to do?” That simple question, posed so forcefully decades ago by Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd, could topple many a hierarchy in the coming generation, for it’s a dagger pointed straight at the tyrannical heart of the Calvinist ethos. If we could slay that beast, we could elevate fulfillment as the prime criterion for labor, pursuing the prophetic and felicitous possibility that desire and utility can in fact embrace.

Like Ehrenreich, I know far too many college students who forsake philosophy for finance, or music for management, or literature for accounting, even as they complain that what they learn in these courses is boring, immoral, or perishable. These are eager, talented young people who respond to Lewis’s essay with swift and unaffected affirmation. So in the spirit of the Savior who advised his listeners to consider the splendor of the lilies-lilies that neither toil nor spin but abide in a raiment more majestic and beautiful than Solomon’s-we should encourage the young to make a demand as practical as it is just: useful, gratifying, unharried labor, to which our divine image and likeness entitles us. Satan always finds work for busy hands to do.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: 
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Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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