On the tenth anniversary of its publication, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is being re-released with a new afterword. Before reading Nickel and Dimed, I considered myself fairly well-versed in the coerciveness of the American workplace. But Ehrenreich schooled me in a whole other dimension of barbarism on the job: that, for example, in the United States workers do not enjoy a basic right, the right to go to bathroom when they need to go. Turns out, that’s a privilege, not a right. And it still is.
Against critics—inspired by Michel Foucault—who focus on disciplinary institutions like prisons, hospitals, and schools, these books remind us that the workplace remains the central institution in most people’s lives. Foucault and his followers would have us believe that liberalism and the Enlightenment have vanquished the medieval world, and that discourses of freedom, reason, and individuality are the instruments of contemporary domination. But in the workplace, men and women are disciplined not by an impersonal panopticon but by the all-too personal figure of their boss. Liberalism is nowhere to be found, and Enlightenment might as well be the name of the utility company.
Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.