Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the Corporate Dream

4 Dec. 2011

Barbara Ehrenreich’s dark and unquestionably depressing book exposes us to a world in which the human soul is repressed to a level that the great twentieth century monocrats could only have dreamed of. The irony is that she (and the book) suffer from the very fealty to a lief lord that the unfortunates with whom she mixes are also subject. For them it is utter subservience to the corporates, for her it is her publisher.

What is quite clear is that Ms Ehrenreich pitched one book but discovered another. Sadly, whether she was indeed pressured by her publisher or whether she just didn’t see the elephant in the room, the book she has produced is an odd hybrid of the original idea and the potentially much more interesting one that emerges.

So now I’m going to ruin the plot; Barbara Alexander (aka Barbara Ehrenreich) does not get a job. Sorry folks, but in the opinion of this reviewer, if you’re going to enjoy this book (and trust me you can), you need to know, from the outset, that her mission to go undercover in corporate America from the inside fails. However a publisher’s press release which reads `Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover in corporate America but doesn’t’ butters no parsnips so to speak. Sadly we are drawn in with a promise which remains unfulfilled presumably to put a positive spin on the failure of the premise and salavage some sales.

On the very last page of the book Ehrenreich flags `courage’ as the missing ingredient amongst the employed and unemployed of American business. It’s just this quality that the press for this book lacks. Whether the author of the publisher are at fault here are unimportant, what matters is that an opportunity to create a much better book has been missed.

However, don’t let this put you off, just be aware of which dish you have before you. As Barbara Ehrenreich’s alter-ego moves painfully through the murky world of America’s white collar unemployed what emerges is not so much a story of the short-comings of American business, but a much more profoundly chilling and universal tale of the benality and redundancy of Western life at the end of its most shameful century. (Ok it’s 2006 but eras seldom follow neat chronology!).

Here we have a tale that, as life imitates art, would have made Samuel Beckett proud. More relentlessly quotidian than Godot and more absurd than End Game, Ehrenreich uncovers the stories and characters from a dark, dystopian world that sees them chasing rainbows, worshiping false gods (often literally) and pursuing hopeless, eye-wateringly expensive dreams in the misguided belief that it will all end in the job that will give them back their lives, their social status and their dignity.

Towards the end of the book Ehrenreich’s employs a strikingly effective metaphore in which the employed are in the castle and the job-seekers occupy the hinterland at the base of the ramparts. As she claws onwards towards the `citadel’ she encounters the disillusioned on the way back. Most of her fellow job seekers actually profess a powerful urge not to return to the hell that exists inside the corporate walls. They long for a life that will break the fetters and give them back their souls. But as citizens of Communist Russia discovered, when stripped of party membership for some unnamed crime, the only recourse is to succumb to the death, whether real or virtual, that loss of membership will bring. It is not the Party (or corporate America) that has failed but themselves. The only route to salvation lies the endless worship of the Golden Calf however palpably it fails to deliver.

So please buy this book but be ready for one subtly different from that advertised. Barbara Ehrenreich is a likeable companion for 220 pages – unquestionably witty, indisputably intelligent and rigidly, but admirably principled.

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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.

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