Obscuranta Hideypants's Reviews > Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
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's review
Oct 02, 2007

did not like it
bookshelves: readanddisliked
Recommended for: Revisionist die-hards
Read in January, 2005

Ehrenreich posits that, no matter your education or previous track record of success in the white collar world, you are not assured of a stable economic future.

While her premise is correct, it is neither groundbreaking nor well-presented. Many of the sources cited in the book are 10 or more years old, indicating that the reality of the increasingly “downwardly mobile” economy is one with deep roots. Yet this work is surprisingly shallow in its views.

Undercover, trying to break into the corporate world, Ms. Ehrenreich takes us along on networking, “workshopping” and consulting excursions (though much of the consulting requires only phone contact, so “excursion” is a bit of a stretch). In every scenario she is exhorted to be “upbeat.” The constant emphasis on maintaining a winning attitude even in the most dire of circumstances devolves into a flat-out denial of reality. The question, unasked in this book, is: who is served by the denial of reality?

The undercover tactic which worked wonderfully in Nickel and Dimed does not serve so well here, in large part due to the author’s surface treatment of the subject. Though she states on page 2 that “stories of white collar downward mobility cannot be brushed off as easily as accounts of blue collar economic woes,” she has done a good job of doing just that.

Though most of her networking meetings and seminars are well-attended, the reader gets scant more than stereotyped descriptions of Ehrenreich’s fellow jobseekers. She makes superficial appraisals of them, without talking to them at any length. While this is ostensibly to avoid being caught out in her disguise, one feels that Ehrenreich wants to avoid looking too closely at the economic problems these people face and what it says about the system as a whole.

Along the way, the author frequently says she “is outraged,” but seems unable to express what is so outrageous to her. Is it the exorbitant fees demanded by “consultants”? The endless hours spent alone searching online for a job? The nattering about “attitude”? Perhaps she is outraged that she feels unable to connect with her fellow jobseekers. It is not until the last chapter that they are given a chance to voice their concerns. Even then, they are kept at a distance and their words are limited to excerpted paragraphs. There are no conversations presented, and a lack of human context. It is as if the author is tired of her subject and the subjects of her study.

She ends with a call to the unemployed to organize and get involved to lobby for improvements. These calls avoid the need for systemic change while perpetuating the blame-the-victim attitude which Ehrenreich claims to deplore, saying in effect, “If you would just pay more attention and get involved, we would not be here now.”

A serious approach to these issues would require confronting the incompatibility of unrestrained global capitalist competition with the maintenance of the basic needs of the working class, white or blue collar. Similarly, one would have to address why the Democratic Party has abandoned any association with social reformism.

Ehrenreich does none of this. The author is unable to look beyond her narrow reformist perspective and see that what is needed is not lobbying to patch up a dying monster, but an independent political movement of the working class against the system as a whole.
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