Sunday, June 04, 2006

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shockingly, this is not another blog post about How Much I Need Some.

Having been encouraged to do so by several friends, I recently read Barbara Ehrenreich's _Nickled and Dimed_. The book, subtitled "On (Not) Getting by In America," chronicles Ehrenreich's immersive investigation of America's "working poor." The book's most important work, I think, is detailing the exploitative mechanisms that produce the -- pardon my french -- completely fucked class of people that our government optimistically terms "working poor." That a staggering proportion of Americans are forced to live, day-to-day, in what amounts to an economic chinese finger trap is shameful, to say the least. The "American Dream" is a lie, and our society is essentially sacrificing an enormous segment of the population in order to cover that up; according to Ehrenreich's book, and I believe this, it is categorically impossible to come from nothing and to make a live-able life for oneself. That is to say, in practice, jobs like waitressing, housecleaning, retail sales, and telemarketing do not pay people enough to survive -- they may, in theory, but when realities like security deposits, car payments, childcare, and healthcare are factored in, America has basically created a situation wherein the floor is always sliding out from beneath those who do most of the jobs we have come to take for granted. But in order to rectify the situation, the government and business owners of America would have to admit that the very things on which they have been basing their policies for most of the existence of our nation are profoundly broken. And that it is, by and large, the societal intangibles -- non-traditional family structures, self-created communities, "alternative" legalities, and I would even extend this to include gangs and the mob -- are the sustaining structures of our nation.

This is, of course, a fascinating discovery. Take, for example, Steven Shaviro's perfectly reasoned passage on what we might call "post-Marxist" -- by which I am designating, basically, Deleuzian -- economics:

"Marx says that the very development of capitalist relations unleashes forces — for instance, possibilities of widespread material abundance, as well as collective modes of organization — that those same relations need to repress in order to perpetuate themselves. So, as capitalism develops, it is literally bursting at the seams: it needs to control and push back the very things that it makes possible. It needs to reimpose scarcity, and privatize what is inherently common and public. This stress is a dialectical contradiction, and its result is crisis: and ideally, for Marx, crisis is the point of leverage at which revolutionary change can occur, destroying capitalist property relations and replacing them with a common, or communist, system that is much more in accordance with the abundance that capitalist relations themselves inadvertently produced.

Now, there is something overly mechanical here about how the Hegelian dialectic neatly inverts itself, so that a contradiction directly leads to its own solution on a higher level. And in fact, of course, things haven’t happened this way. Capitalism today is not threatened by crisis; indeed, crisis is the tool it uses to renew itself. The “dialectic” by which a contradiction is resolved on a higher level is entirely absorbed within capitalism itself. When the “contradictions” of what I like to call FKW (the Fordist/Keynesian/welfare-stateist system) caused trouble in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was not to trouble the capitalist system, but precisely to allow capital to regenerate itself on high-tech, neoliberal lines. (This was the case whether we refer to social movements and to stagflation in the “advanced” western countries, to stagnation in the “socialist” bloc, or to anti-colonialist struggles and subsequent nation-building in the Third World).

In this situation, contradiction and negativity have become rather sterile resources for change, I think. Deleuze’s notion of the virtual allows for a wider range of resources. Instead of a dialectic, Deleuze (and Guattari) propose a vision of how capitalism simultaneously unleashes and regulates fluxes of energy and matter, of desires and subjects and objects. Both the relations of production and the forces of production are here seen as involving multiplicity, i.e. more dimensions than would be the case in an orthodox Hegelian account. Instead of a teleological dialectic, we get what Althusser would call “overderminations.” Capitalism is both a multiplying force and a homogenizing force; it cannot repress and exploit without expropriating actually-existing creativity; it assumes an “outside” that it constantly seeks to repress, but cannot do without. There is no dialectic here to guarantee antagonism; but that is because antagonism is precisely what needs to be produced. And this is where practice can be renewed, experimented with, and invented; precisely because it has been unshackled from the narrow constraints of the dialectic."

Thanks, Steve. I would simply add to that: "What he said."

Yet I don't find Ehrenreich entirely convincing. As is, I guess, to be expected of any journalistic enterprise in which the investigative reporter inserts herself, Ehrenreich doesn't manage to leave her class politics at the door. For one thing, the advantages that she cannot help but enjoy would make this impossible, and would likewise render her work completely disingenuous. Ehrenreich has, however, managed to make herself seem even more disingenuous by her constant reminders of how she deals with her bourgeois guilt by "saving" certain of her friends and co-workers. It's not that she transferred her security deposit into the name of a transient waitress in Key West so that the woman could overcome this crucial obstacle in securing housing that I have a problem with. It's that she reminds us of these kind of acts in a way that begins to seem relentless. The "big story" becomes less about America's working poor and more about a large-scale assuaging of bourgeois guilt. I mean, now that I know how exploitative corporate housecleaning agencies are, I will be sure I don't use one. And I will always offer my housecleaners a glass of water. Too many readers will be satisfied, per Ehrenreich's instructions, it seems, with such a solution.

Ehrenreich also managed to pick three areas in which she could do her experiment relatively unimpeded by such real-world concerns as crime, pollution, and cost of living. She chooses Key West, her hometown; Portland, Maine; and the Minneapolis suburbs. She rejects other locations because of her allergies and the areas' relative lacks of affordable housing. In so doing, Ehrenreich misses an opportunity to accurately present the REAL working poor and also, in many cases, to discover the non-official systems of support that sustain these communities. Instead of considering how non-traditional families and living arrangements might create the conditions for some kinds of success, she instead uses these situations as examples of how downtrodden her "colleagues" are. When women live with their mothers or sisters or boyfriends' mothers, they are painted as examples of failure to attain the Western (bourgeois) standard of living. When a hard-working housecleaner refuses to take time off following an injury, Ehrenreich displays her liberalism by chiding herself for assuming that the woman could take a break: "How do I know, maybe her husband beats her if she misses work." Would Ehrenreich have made this assumption about a doctor, a professor, or even, say, an aerobics instructor? In the end, Ehrenreich perpetuates more stereotypes than she destroys, all in the service of her own bourgeois ideals. Ick.

As you can imagine, I found one of her most greivous errors to be in her characterization of the state of Maine. She "chose Maine for its whiteness"; while this "demographic albinism" makes Maine a less than desirable "place to settle in for the long haul," the author thinks it will make her infiltration of the lower class less suspicious. Well, thank god for that. I don't think that reasoning holds up, since, for one thing, Ehrenreich spends most of the rest of her time in Maine rigorously trying to differentiate herself from her fellow white-people. Her "noble" attempts to defend her co-workers from their tyrranical boss? Not so noble considering that a) she doesn't need the job, and b) they don't want to be defended (but, ah, they don't know what's best for them). So all this "sticking up for the underdog" really serves to do is mark Ehrenreich as "not them." When she attends a church service on a Saturday night (because there is nothing better to do in Portland on a late summer weekend night, for free ?!?), she notes that besides a few people of color, the congregation is "tragically hillbilly." So, in addition to providing her with an opportunity to once again excise her liberal guilt by taking cheap shots at white people, Ehrenreich has also tragically misunderstood the demographics of her chosen state. I am generally the last person to leap to the defense of white people, but come on. Try telling the enormous populations of Penobscots and French-Canadians in Maine that their state lacks diversity and hence deserves to be termed "hillbilly." Ehrenreich clearly prefers the kind of racial difference she can see. At least she can reliably use that kind as a class marker. Being from Maine, I will gladly admit that the state is overwhelmingly -- and often uncomfortably -- white. But to "choose" a state for its "whiteness" and then denigrate said state for being white -- and, likewise, to embark on the project of "being poor" (and white) and then to denigrate those who are poor and white -- makes this reader wonder where the author's race politics really lie.

So, on the whole, I was dismayed by this book. But on the other hand, there are lots of clues within the work about how we might go about the always-questionable job of representation. One way to ensure that you will fail at this, I think, is to attempt to somehow make representation less questionable. The kind of documentary journalism Ehrenreich engages in here would have benefitted from a problematized politics of representation, and not the kind that is problematized so that it can then be neatly solved. As it stands, that seems the objective of _Nickeled and Dimed_, even as the author continually reminds us -- because she still feels guilty, even after trying SO HARD not to -- that she has not found such a solution. Try looking in someone else's class politics, lady.

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