Barbara Ehrenreich's White Collar Blues | The Nation


Barbara Ehrenreich's White Collar Blues

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Still, there's something disturbing about how she regards the poor souls she met along the networking trail of tears. Like Mills in his classic study, White Collar, Ehrenreich has a hard time empathizing with such people. In Nickel and Dimed, she wrote with respect, even affection, about the women with whom she cleaned toilets and peddled blouses. These underpaid but essential workers, she wrote in an exquisite phrase, are "the major philanthropists of our society."

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Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is co-editor of Dissent and the author of American Dreamers...

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The left's hope lies in reviving the tradition of speaking in credible, urgent, moral ways about policies to aid the great majority.

If Obama and his progressive allies hope to defeat the latest assault on federal power, they will need to go beyond his artful ambivalence.

In contrast, Ehrenreich despises the kind of corporate shill she was pretending to want to be. And her loathing tends to rub off on the men and women who desired similar positions for themselves, who equated a secure one with achieving the good life. Ehrenreich also slights the ingenuity required in many PR jobs; in a market society, the selling of images can be as exciting and creative, if not as socially useful, as investigative reporting.

But Bait and Switch rarely quotes or describes other job seekers. The few who do emerge from the shadows are bewildered by their plight, unable to perceive that they are wasting their time and money sitting "in windowless rooms while someone--most commonly a white male in his fifties or sixties--stands at the front testifying, preaching, exhorting, or coaching." Ehrenreich would "rather be waitressing."

Why do they sit there suffering? The only answer Ehrenreich offers is that these people swallow the ideology that it's every job hunter for herself. "It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers." Job coaches peddle the line that, in the fickle world of the postmodern corporation, only the "relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic, and obedient" will find secure positions, and the desperate do their best to conform.

But is aggressive individualism so irrational a belief for those who want to make it in big business? After all, professionals in every field--be it journalism, information technology or PR--are judged by how they perform in competition with their peers. Only for writers as talented as Ehrenreich can railing at the system bring anything but failure.

That cheerless fact is the reason few corporate white-collars are likely to follow her suggestion that they lobby for extended unemployment benefits and universal health insurance. One doesn't have to identify with the boss to see the benefits of spouting the company line, and progressive activists are not common inside the headquarters of the Fortune 500.

The only way to change this reality is to change the goals for which professionals are hired. The black freedom movement created jobs for thousands of civil rights lawyers and affirmative-action officers, and the green upsurge launched new careers for conservationists and environmental policy makers. Until there's a broad revival of the American left, most resisters among the white-collar unemployed will emulate Bartleby's immortal response to his employer: "I would prefer not to."

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