Barbara Ehrenreich and the Brahmin Fantastic

by Nandini Ramachandran

3 May 2010

In Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, she experiences an exclusive corporate culture in America that is disturbingly similar to India's privileged genetic intelligentsia; also know as the caste system.

The thrill of reading is that the most unexpected things can mutually unlock one another. Thus it was when parallel reading tracks —Indian nationalism and the latest recession—brought Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch and Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History onto my desk last month. I have discussed Ehrenreich in greater detail below, for her story is directly relevant to my narrative. However, the influence of Doniger and the Indian historian, Romila Thapar, is hardly disguised. Thapar taught me my history, and I have stolen from Doniger my key phrase: the sinister ‘Brahmin imaginary’.

Playing Cassandra
Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman of demonstrably diverse talents. If she should want to find conventional employment, one would assume it would be a fairly easy process. This book, however, is a detailed exposition into why one would be wrong in that assumption. In Bait and Switch (Henry Holt, 2006), she goes undercover again, as she did in Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001), but this time she dives into the very white collar world of PR and marketing. Excluding the publishing world in her job search, she starts the book applying and searching for marketing/PR positions promiscuously, sans moral qualm and geography. Her single string is income level, yet she spends the rest of the book upgrading herself in vain.

I read this book amazed at the ‘transition’ industry unemployment in America has spawned, converting desperation into dollars. By synthesizing selfishness with self help, corporate America seems to have learnt how to systemically shed people while simultaneously convincing them it’s their own fault they’re out of a job. 

cover art

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Barbara Ehrenreich

(Henry Holt & Company)
US: Jul 2006

Ehrenreich describes her steady line of career coaches offering contradictory advice on the basis of loopy personality tests, one of whom hilariously advised her to work on her writing skills. She negotiates the catch-22 of “appropriate” attire for corporate women (simultaneously professional and feminine, without being either threatening or provocative), encounters the evangelical Right, and discovers that the new workforce makes the people it retains as miserable as the ones it fires. Several of the people she networks with are employed but desperate to find alternate employment: either because they are underemployed and dissatisfied, or because they are stretched far too thin in their work demands, forced to compensate for fired colleagues.

Apart from the time and energy involved, she ultimately spends $6,000 on her job search: that’s money spent on coaches, resume-checkers, job sites, networking “clubs” and “events”, bootcamp (essentially group therapy), a wardrobe consultant, a “professional development seminar” until, finally (and fittingly), she is offered the chance to pay someone to employ her.  That’s right: to pay someone to employ her.

In her penultimate chapter (“In Which I am Offered a ‘Job’”) Ehrenreich introduced me to “independent contractors”—a term I associate with people who can violate most Indian labour legislation. In American unemployment circles, it apparently means working for companies as direct sales people, with neither the benefits nor salaries of regular staff. The only income comes from commissions, which can be of two kinds: finding more agents to sell the product for the company or from direct sales of the product to consumers. 

In one instance she describes, Ehrenreich is offered the chance to sell “supplemental health insurance” for AFLAC, but when she enquires about her own health insurance coverage, her query is evaded with: “We’re independent contractors, we get our own”. “Supplemental health insurance”, as the name somewhat obliquely suggests, is additional health insurance for people who don’t receive adequate coverage from the insurance they get through their employers; providing such supplemental coverage is a business that is booming. In this dubious industry, at last, she can find “employment”, such as it is.

To become part of the AFLAC-family Ehrenreich needs to get a license and attend training ($1,900); and then hope that the local market for the product hasn’t already been saturated.  The more people she can pull into the scheme, either to buy or sell the insurance product, the more money she earns. As Ehrenreich points out in cases such as this, it’s tough to distinguish pyramid schemes from legitimate ones.

“As an option for the white-collar unemployed, there are thousands of commission-only sales jobs such as the one AFLAC offered me. According to the Direct Selling Association, 13.3 million Americans worked in such sales jobs in 2003, selling $25 billion worth of goods. In many cases, like AFLAC, these jobs offer rewards not only for selling the product but for recruiting new people to do so, as well. 

On its dark side, the direct-selling world is filled with traps for the unwary—pyramid schemes in which the ultimate product is valueless and non existent. An outfit called JDO Media, for example, enticed people to make money by enlisting others to sell a sketchily-developed ‘marketing program’, for which privilege each recruit had to put up as much as $3,500.” (pg. 185)…

... “a real job involves some risk taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment to acquire your labour. In real estate, franchising, and commission-only sales, the only risk undertaken is by the job-seeker, who has to put out money upfront and commit days or weeks to training. Then she is on her own, fearful that the market will soften or that the quasi-employer will flood the area with competing sales reps or franchisees.” (pg. 189)

“Independent contractors” must be a global euphemism for the unregulated underbelly of the corporate world.  As Ehrenreich wryly observes at the close of her last interview with Larry, the AFLAC minion, she “might as well have applied at Wal-Mart and been given a pushcart full of housewares to hawk on the streets”.

Bait and Switch was published in 2005, long before the words ‘recession’ or ‘economic crisis’ were bandied about in the popular press. It talks about the slow extinction of a class: the powerful American executive, the golden boys of capitalism. It confirmed what I had been reading on the fringes: that the recession unfolded across a decade, gathering momentum, with different classes hit at various times and with different intensity.

The fringes in India are making similar noises today about the drive towards a fully corporate, privately owned economy and its costs upon our ecology and our people. The mainstream remains complacent about the advantages of “modernization”, unwilling or unable to hear protest, even as it rises to a crescendo of desperate violence. Ehrenreich outlines a disturbing evolution in the pattern of global capital: if the American corporate workforce is being forced to adapt to a permanently “lean” culture, which recruits and discards at will, how much worse will things become in India?

In India, privilege still seems to ensure jobs. The “boom”, it seems, is on, and I am no economist. Nonetheless, the assumption of economic prosperity in India appears to be a fragile dream, grafted onto a vast quagmire of extortion and exploitation. Employment in India has always been uniquely ridden by the scepter of caste, and the corporate dream may only be the latest avatar of the Brahmin imaginary.

Jati vs. Varna: The Slippery Subject of Caste
Across the generations, Brahmins have concocted various exclusive universes where only they are allowed to succeed, sometimes even to exist as a recognized member of society. Caste is a slippery subject, but it exists at two broad levels: the normative and the pragmatic. On the ground, the caste system is primarily occupation-dependent, though it can also denote an extended kin-group, and one is born into a caste (‘jati’) and thus into an occupation. 

There are millions of jatis in India—foreigners, tribals, sects, lunatics—they all get their own jati, whether within the Hindu pale or beyond, and they always have. For most of Indian history, jati has been both collective and local: the best way to lose jati was for the group to move away and change occupation. They became part of the transitionary flux of humanity, with both the freedom and the insecurity that implies. The clan (and occasionally individuals) sought their fortune elsewhere, where the jati politics were more palatable, or where political chaos created vacuums for new power structures.

This fluidity is dissipating in modern India, a process initiated by colonialism, which crystallized caste in vivid and enduring ways. The collision between colonialism and caste deserves an essay (and several books) all to itself, but suffice it to say that in democratic India castes are (partially) constitutionally defined; losing caste now being a legally impossible act. Across India, a person born into a designated “scheduled” caste will automatically be subject to myriad prejudices regarding habits, ethics, intelligence and hygiene. This is only to say that the struggle between the castes and classes of India has evolved: some jatis may have mutated into subcastes, others into autonomous classes, but their confluence remains the only practicable way to conceptualize the social, economic and political chaos in India.

Caste is the decisive question in Indian politics: political parties build varied coalitions of sub-castes in different regions in order to get themselves elected. This is also why Indian politics appears so fragmented: jati alliances that are possible in some parts of the country are impossible elsewhere. For instance, as you go across the breadth of Uttar Pradesh alone, the primary landowning caste shifts from the Thakurs (an “upper” caste) to the Yadavs (an “intermediate” caste), altering the flavor of local politics and the permutations of jati coalitions.

The hierarchy of castes—the ‘varna’ system—is a textual invention, most famously posited in the Manusmriti. A compendium of legal and social norms evolved across the early centuries A.D., the Manusmriti is a text revered by traditionalists as the fount of “Hindu” Law, though it dates from a time long before Hinduism was an identifiable religion, and is fundamentally Brahmin propaganda born out of a fight for social dominance and religious relevance. It has the elusive virtue of being extremely intricate, without any corresponding relevance to the way caste has worked in Indian history.

Varna is a system where some castes are deemed purer / better / more important than others, the occupations are ranked (elaborately), and castes are told what to do (‘dharma’) and what to expect (‘karma’). Insofar as the varna system is caste ideology, it’s a useful guide to understanding the centuries of rationalization behind caste exploitation in India, but little else.

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