The Scheme(s)

Continuing to find serendipitous connections between unplanned coincidental reads… The two titles for this one are Barbara Ehrenreich’s new Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Henry Holt & Co.: NY, 2005) and Magnus Mills’ novel The Scheme for Full Employment (Picador USA: NY, 2002). Mills’ novel is a very easy read, kind of like an extended short story. It’s really a one-joke story, but at the leisurely pace it’s told in, the rhythm is part of its pleasure. It tells the story of the “The Scheme for Full Employment, the envy of the world, the greatest undertaking ever conceived by men and women.” Under the “Scheme” UniVans are driven from depot to depot, full of parts for… UniVans. The UniVans are loaded and unloaded, disassembled and rebuilt, repaired and cleaned, by the employees working 8-hour shifts, everyone living in “glorious days.”

Of course it is such a perfect system that it ultimately destroys itself. A factional dispute breaks out between those who are “flat-day” workers (strict adherents to the 8-hour day) and those who are fond of the “early swerve” (getting signed off before 8 hours). As announced at the outset of the novel, they brought down the system themselves, and could not blame a bad leader or corrupt government.

Taken as an obvious allegory on the pointlessness of most work in this society, it drily sends up the work ethic and all the attendant neuroses that get people to keep each other in check, and to accept the ‘necessity’ of patently unnecessary behaviors. This accidentally fits together with Ehrenreich’s latest salvo surprisingly well.

After the unexpected success of her “Nickel and Dimed” about low-wage work, she now takes on the mid-level managers and white-collar professionals who make up the backbone of corporate America. Figuring she can remake herself as a sellable commmodity to that world, posing as a PR specialist seeking to finally join the full-time corporate world, she embarks on a hilarious tour of a whole range of coaches, makeover artists, networking seminars, career counseling services, etc. After more than a half year of earnestly pursuing any and all “opportunities” she has spent a bit less than ten grand and has only two fake job offers: one to sell AFLAC insurance and the other to become a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, both ‘jobs’ with no salary or benefits, only commissions on what gets sold.

Looking for a job with gaps in your resume (that means ANY time you weren’t fully employed by a large company, whether for child-rearing, illness, independent self-employment, or any other reason) makes it nearly impossible to find salaried corporate work. Without a background in the corporate world, she doesn’t have the connections that might produce a job via networking. But since she’s a successful writer and pundit, there’s no panic or real pain associated with the humiliations and degrading process she’s forced to endure. Not so for the numerous people she meets along the way; and that understanding can be extended to all the people we all know who are falling from the formerly semi-secure world of corporate employment. It’s sad and horrifying to read in detail the kind of soul-destroying, blandness-inducing seminars and trainings that people are subjecting themselves to. A shockingly large number of the leads Ehrenreich follows take her into the maws of Christian self-help groups for middle-aged white guys, where the emphasis is on Jeezus and prayer and obsequious kowtowing, all of which might lead to a job if one can strike the appropriate combination of devoutness and cheerful obedience to the ‘team’ agenda.

Unsurprisingly this leads us to what we were frontally assaulting 20 years ago in Processed World: attitude.

As Ehrenreich discovers:

“Perhaps the strangest aspect of the corporate world as I encountered it was the constant emphasis on “personality” and “attitude.” … The path to the corporate world is lined with admonitions to upgrade or improve one’s personality. Coaches administered personality tests and talked about the importance of being upbeat and likable; Internet and book-based advice urged a thorough retuning of one’s attitude; networking events emphasized the necessity of staying “up.” Other job searchers agreed that success depends on one’s ability to conform to the immediate microculture.”

The claim that corporate employment increasingly makes on your very demeanor, your inner emotional life, finally robs the individual of their basic humanity in a way that is even more extreme than the animalization imposed by extreme physical labor. Ehrenreich again:

“There is something even more central than job security that white-collar corporate workers lack–and that is dignity. A physician sells his or her skills and labor; so, in fact, does the blue- or pink-collar worker. Both the warehouse worker unloading trucks and the engineer designing a bridge can reasonably expect their jobs to involve a straightforward exchange of labor for wages…Not so for the white-collar corporate employee, who must sell–not just his skill and hard work–but himself… he or she faces far more intrusive psychological demands than a laborer or clerk would likely countenance. His is a world of intrigue and ill-defined expectations, of manipulation and mind games, where self-presentation–as in “personality” and “attitude”–regularly outweighs performance.”

In other words, the work is so transparently easy that almost anyone can learn it in a few hours or a few days. But it is also generally rather stupid and pointless. What takes on more importance for the company is the kind of attitude shown, the lemming-like loyalty to the corporate “family” and its fatherly executives. But even that loyalty is only a one-way requirement to keep a job until the company’s bottom line dictates that the bond must be broken for the higher cause of profitability.

Ehrenreich sees how the self-help seminars and networking luncheons and career coaches all follow one variation or another of the ESTian view that you, alone, the individual, have the power to change your circumstances. This scapegoating of the individual for what are obviously social dynamics turns remarkably many people into insecure, ineffective sycophants of corporate meritocratic ideology. One might imagine that all the time spent searching for work and running through the same ratwheels could actually lead at least some folks to band together and face their shared predicament collectively, as Ehrenreich exhorts in conclusion. But those who once lived the affluent life of the corporate upper middle class have a hard time believing that the door is really closed, and that the lifeboat doesn’t have enough seats on it for them. So the career coaching industry exploits their individualism and insecurities, while they together reproduce their own isolation and helplessness.

How long can that go on?

UPDATE, Oct. 4: I realized that I wasn’t really finished with what I’d set out to say. The last point on this is that it sure seems like the real scheme for full employment, as described in Bait and Switch (and having nothing to do with getting paid!) is to be fully employed in seeking employment, or counseling those who are! The hours spent by all the people looking for work, and all the people coaching and cajoling and berating those looking for work, are incalculable… what if all these people were doing something useful?

I’ve been waking up to the long-set-aside Spring05 issue of Granta on “The Factory”. Interesting juxtaposition to these books too: in it are a number of pieces describing life in the factory. Luc Sante describes working in a plastics factory in New Jersey in the 1960s. Another by Andrew Martin called “Chocolate Empires” describes growing up in York in the 1960s and 70s when everyone worked at a chocolate factory there (Rowntree or Terry’s). The factories themselves represent the “the high water mark of applied liberalism”: model worker housing, beautiful grounds, a theater, sports field, female welfare worker, doctors, a “savings scheme” and a “pension scheme”, all originated in the early 20th century. Another article describes making fancy lamps at the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company (out of business and to be converted into condos on the north side of Chicago as of June 05).

In all these stories the authors describe a quotidien existence with its attendant connections at work and in the neighborhood. An unmistakeable romantic quality, even in Sante’s unblemished look at the miserable plastics job (now long gone to China or Mexico), haunts these tales. The 20th century is slowly fading into the rear-view mirror, and with it all the long-held ideas about work and community as the locus of human life. Nowadays the ties that bind us are increasingly elusive. Is it our shared musical taste? Clothing choices? Other shopping choices? Or is it the niches we occupy in our on-line interests? The connections that seemed once so solid and timeless at work, strikingly described in these Granta stories, sound like a distant memory. Given the absurd wheel-spinning and attitude adjusting and personality tweaking that comprise the hard work of gaining employment these days, even if you DO work with someone for a while, it’s most likely a simulacra of whoever they really are!

There must be an incredible reservoir of yearning for real contact, real communication, authentic life, just ready to burst forth… What kind of ‘scheme’ would that be?

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