Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich

When I picked this up in the sale bin of East Ave books in Adelaide for $1 I was hoping to get insight into the surreal nightmare of the US’s current state. A better dollar I will never spend. It was published early 1990s, which was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want a hindsight constructed narrative. Trump is no more than a casually mentioned billionaire of a type towards the end of Ehrenreich’s account of the middle class and its relationship to the other classes in the US during the course of the twentieth century. She explains the rise of the new Right in the US as well as the new Left. The book is highly readable whilst being dense; it’s both deeply and widely researched. I will be reading all her books. I think everybody should read this one.

The story she tells in this one is painful. She shows the rise of the middle-class, how they made themselves a financial and politically important group based on professionalising what they did and excluding others. She talks of its permanent insecurity as a consequence. Even though I’ve always known about it, her analysis of the exploitation of the educated youth and their university-student-led rebellion of the sixties and seventies when university students were actually mowed down by troops in the US was particularly illuminating and excruciatingly sad; staff in universities trying to protect their status from the questioning of the kids who were expected to work at derisory rates in their young professional years. Staff more or less on the side of the troops. None of this has changed, one might add. She documents the discovery by the middle class, to its great astonishment, that there were poor people in the US and she examines the way in which the middle class then set about categorising them and determining how to relate to them. She shows the fabulously patronising attitudes to those below them and the trouble it has ultimately caused.

I am really baffled and scared and disappointed by the way small ‘l’ liberals around the world (whom I tend to refer to as ‘nice white people’) treat certain groups as nothing but scum and even when that scum attempts to have a voice we as a whole have treated it with nothing but the utmost disdain. You’d think, for example, that Brexit might have had the impact in the US election of making the Democrats wary of going the same way and yet, there we had Clinton and her party not even ‘just’ treating the supporters of Trump as morons but calling them that in public as official policy, one might say.

I can see, however, from this history of the middle class in the US and its relations with others that it is perhaps inevitable that this is how things are, the liberals treating poor working class people as scum at worst, as people to be patronised at best, and being hated for it. (There is a presumption that these people are white in the US, a presumption which is obviously at odds with the facts, but so much of how the middle class sees the world about it is not in accord with reality.) Ehrenreich for example discusses the impact of TV, which made middle class Americans thinks that all white people had what they had, there wasn’t anything else on TV, whilst at the same time making white working class people both aspirational and angry that there was no representation of how things really were. Fascinating to read.

And there is the question of where exactly all this started, the ruthless ruination of the working class by the middle class which is still being played out, though the middle class is discovering its own capacity to be ruined by the same thing, really. Technology. To quote at length a key passage:

The profession of management was born on the front lines of the early twentieth century battle between labour and capital, and its story illustrates the tensions between the working class and the emerging middle class. Since the story has been so well told elsewhere, I will be recklessly brief: until the early twentieth century there was no profession of management – or for that matter of engineering. The reason, as the virtual inventor of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, later observed ruefully, was that ‘the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.’ Manual and mental labour had not yet been sorted into distinct occupations; skilled craftsmen dominated both the technology and the organisation of the work process. This left the employer in the vexed situation of being unable to comprehend or control the labour he paid for. Only the workers could judge, for example, how long a given job should take, and hence how much they should be paid.

Taylor’s contribution was to show how the intellectual command of the production process could be stripped from the workers and concentrated in a more reliable cadre of middle class managers and engineers. Through a careful analysis of the production process, the complex and intellectually demanding work of the craftsmen could be broken down into simple repetitive motions to be divided among less skilled workers. Henceforth, no mere worker would be able to comprehend or control the entire process; each would be reduced to a few repetitive motions such as turns of a wrench. Meanwhile the manager or engineer, armed with a stopwatch, now oversaw the work process, determining who would do what and, crucially, how fast it should be done.

Henry Ford’s assembly line sealed the new division of labour into the hard steel of heavy machinery. America’s working class began to be transformed into an army of wrench turners, required neither to think nor to create – in fact, usually required, not to think or create. The creative functions (such as designing new products were removed from the shop floor to the engineer’s work station; the day to day decision making was lifted into the clean and quiet offices of management. This ‘rationalisation’ of production did not succeed in taming the working class, which rose up with a new burst of militance in the 1930s. But it did greatly enhance the day to day power of employers over their blue collar hirelings, while – not incidentally – providing employment for growing numbers of educated white collar men.

Outside of the industrial workplace, other professions consolidated themselves by offering to ‘mediate’ class conflict or by usurping skills that had belonged to the working class. Social workers and teachers provided invaluable services to the urban poor, but in an ideological context that stressed ‘Americanisation’ (patriotism as opposed to class or ethnic identity) and middle class gentility – or as they insisted on calling it, ‘right living’. Medicine achieved its professional monopoly in part through a campaign to discredit and outlaw indigenous healers, especially midwives, who had played a key role in every ethnic working class community. (This was dubious ‘reform’, since as late as 1910 mid-wives were achieving lower rates of still births and maternal mortality than the profession physicians who sort to eliminate them.) Public health officials introduced the sanitary measures that eventually curbed epidemics of infectious diseases, but they also incurred lower class resentment by their heavy handed policing of immigrant ghettoes.

As it happens I am reading Gaita’s wonderful After Romulus at the moment and this passage in Fear of Falling brought into mind nothing so much as this, by Gaita. It is in the context of talking about goodness in the world and the hours Hora would spend telling stories of good people.

Simone Weil, when she was a radical activist working at the Renault factory in France before the war, said that only the very greatest literature was good enough for those who suffered the afflication of soul-destroying work. She read her translations of Greek tragedies to large groups of workers. When I hear talk of elitism in discussions about literature and art more generally, I remember that, and I remember my father and Hora in the kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of slivovitz. After Romulus pp. 23/4

Nice white people: it may be that we are moving into a period where in the same way we have destroyed the lives of poorer people in our society, people who would do physical work if we were prepared to pay them to do it, we too will largely be destroyed by technology. It could be that we will be part of a world we ourselves have not only permitted, but positively nurtured, of a handful of multi-billionaires who own everything, who live in gated ghettoes with the secrets of medicine and DNA and pure water whilst the rest of us live Orxy and Crake style, or even worse, most of us won’t live at all. We won’t even be needed, after all, as beasts of burden.

But hoping for the best that this isn’t going to happen or that people still have the power to stop it in its tracks, we have to find ways to live with our neighbours. Our actual physical neighbours, the poor people we have created out of our own greed and aspirations. It isn’t enough to buy freetrade coffee whilst treating one’s neighbours as scum because they are white and poor. There are reasons people are both these things, and we can look at ourselves for the explanations.

This is the note that Fear of Falling ends on, exhorting the middle class to do the things it needs to do to stop the fall. Going on for 30 years later, one can see that she has been paid no heed. I find Gaita inspirational, his belief in goodness. However, I do sometimes wonder, when I watch nice white people’s relationship to other white people, if it is symptomatic of needing to detest and look down on somebody and who, after all is left? One may no longer be racist or sexist. That pretty much leaves other white people. Ones that aren’t like us.

I hope that isn’t true.

Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.