Ten Years On, We’re Still Getting Nickel and Dimed (and Still Can’t Pee on the Job)

Nickel and DimedOn 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.

I reviewed Ehrenreich’s book, along with Jill Andresky Fraser’s White-Collar Sweatshop, in Dissent.  Based on the two books, I concluded thus:

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.

And thus:

Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.


  1. Carl Freedman August 9, 2011 at 12:09 pm | #

    Absolutely right–and all too seldom pointed out.

  2. Shane Taylor August 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm | #

    [John Quiggin had a great post on workplace autonomy, and lack thereof, several years ago:]

    It seems to me that autonomy, or something like it, is at the root of many of the concerns commonly seen as part of notions like freedom, security and democratic participation. I’m still struggling with this, but reading Marmot has crystallised some thoughts I’ve had for a long time. I’ve put some thoughts over the page – comments appreciated.

    The points are clearest in relation to employment. Early on, Marmot debunks the Marxian notion of exploitation (capitalists taking surplus value from workers) and says that what matters in Marx is alienation[3]. He doesn’t develop this in detail, and the point is not new by any means, but he’s spot on here. It’s the fact that the boss is a boss, and not the fact that capitalists are extracting profit, that makes the employment relationship so troublesome. The more bossy the boss, the worse, as a rule is the job. This is why developments like managerialism, which celebrates the bossiness of bosses, have been met with such hostility.

    So part of autonomy is not being bossed around. But like Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’, this is only part of the story. Most of the time it’s better to be an employee with a boss than to sell your labour piecemeal on a market that fluctuates for reasons that are totally outside your control, understanding or prediction. This is where a concept of autonomy does better than liberty, negative or positive. To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.

    Of course, the environment consists largely of other people. So one way of increasing your autonomy is by reducing that of other people, for example by moving up an existing hierarchy at their expense. But autonomy is not a zero-sum good. Some social structures give more people more autonomy than others.

    • Corey Robin August 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm | #

      Thanks for this, Shane. I’d never seen it, and it definitely resonates with some thoughts I’ve had for quite a while, and tried to sort of limn in a piece I did on freedom for the Nation a while back.

  3. Shane Taylor August 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm | #

    And, of course, I was reminded of that post by your chapter “Upstairs, Downstairs” in Fear.

  4. seth edenbaum August 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm | #

    Foucault was writing as a post-Marxist in the post war “golden age” of capitalism. Post Marxism is dead. Marxism is back.

  5. Gabriel Brahm August 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm | #

    I don’t doubt that Walmart employees suffer some of the indignities of serfs–although, couldn’t these pretty much poop when they needed to?–but in my line of work it’s that impersonal Panopticon, I’m afraid, that constructs subjects as “docile and capable.” To wit: Note the facility with politically correct opinion that gets drummed into nearly all professors in the humanities and social sciences. The more highly trained they are, the more they experience themselves as “Enlightened” on every issue, the more coerced/coercive they become, circulating in turn the discipline that disciplines them through the capillaries of power/knowledge. Not to mention (politics aside) just the constant pressure from bureaucracy in the ways that Foucault aptly describes, and the dominance of sociology-speak and psycho-pathology babble, and the requirement that professors always only correct students, or require anything of them, to “help” them. The constant filling out of forms, and committee meetings to assess the forms… Efficiency and means are everything, while any talk of substance or ends (aside from the institutionalized, taken-for-granted politically correct ones) is taboo.

  6. Rick Berg August 16, 2011 at 11:24 pm | #

    “It’s the fact that the boss is a boss, and not the fact that capitalists are extracting profit, that makes the employment relationship so troublesome. The more bossy the boss, the worse, as a rule is the job.”

    I wonder how reasonable this is, although it must make bosses happy. For instance anyone who knows any adjuncts at any college or university would know that it is not the civility of the bosses — tenured faculty — that makes the ‘job’ troublesome. Tenured faculty, Department Chairs etc., are always civil and not at all bossy. In fact they usually go out of their way to explain that they are not the real bosses. They even reach out to include adjuncts into the ‘college family.” Civility underscores the hierarchy. Moreover adjuncts have a great deal of autonomy.

    But what is at the heart of festering discontent is not alienation but the obvious indifference the “non-bosses” have to the continuing exploitation, which serves the interests not only of the college but the tenured faculty. All adjuncts are very aware of this exploitation and on that awareness as well as the fundamental precariousness of the ‘job’ alienation rests

    Or if this example doesn’t do it let’s take a look at the lives of maids. I suggest Like One of the Family,” by Alice Childress.

    Those who are exploited know they are exploited. On a good day they can tell you why and to what end. They even know that a boss is a boss because of exploitation.

    So maybe it is not either/or: the debunking of the notion of exploitation for the notion of alienation, and troublesome workplaces are troublesome because the time of our lives profits others.

    • Shane Taylor August 17, 2011 at 7:52 am | #

      The exploitation-versus-alienation debate is mostly for Marxists. I’m not a Marxist.

      As Quiggin made wonderfully clear (it was the title of his post), he was primarily concerned with autonomy. Sure, it would help to contrast that with domination, but that is better down with the likes of Samuel Bowles.

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