Same as the Old Boss

Curses of the New Economy workplace

Why the cave-in? Why did these pierced and tattooed bohos buy the corporate mottoes ("Everything that can be digital, will be"), the crazy demands and the near-religious tone of their manager's pabulum? More seriously, why did these people, many of them progressive, blithely disregard the fact that the "the ecological footprint of microchip production" in Silicon Valley, which grounded their entire industry, "involves more toxic gases and chemicals than any other industry, bequeathed more groundwater contamination and EPA Superfund sites than anywhere else in the United States, and posed widespread safety hazards to workers in fabrication plants."

"The trouble is," explains Camille Habacker, the company's former director of content for North America and the moonlighting stripper I mentioned earlier, "is that Razorfish duped everyone into thinking they're not part of corporate America. These people honestly don't believe they are part of the mainstream. What are they thinking? . . . They're [getting contracted work from] Schwab, Ford, IBM. They're working for the man."

Habacker's husband told Ross, "That's right. That's what your book should be about. How the counterculture was duped into thinking they're not working for corporate America."

* * *

Ross's book is much more diffuse and less thesis-driven than this, but I'd like to fervently agree with the stripper and her husband. That's what Ross's book should have been about, and it's surprising that Ross, trained in critical theory himself, doesn't go for it. But the question, again, is why did the no-collars believe so much? And why, when the crash came, did they feel so betrayed? Getting pink-slipped for many of them was like being excommunicated or getting booted out of their own family.

The evidence from the book suggests they were victims of a blend of genuine innocence, willful ignorance, and that curious blindness to the way capitalism works that characterizes so many of the educations of "smart" Americans and makes them so vulnerable to our economic system's periodic betrayals. After Sept. 11, which happened just a few blocks south of Razorfish's offices, one employee who'd ridden out the downsizing and was now participating in the company's full-throttle patriotism in the disaster's aftermath, said this: "Perhaps there is something in our generation that has wanted to be able to embrace something like the flag, to genuinely commit to something as simple as patriotism, or religion, or spirituality in a way that is not conflicted or marked with postmodern irony. Irony and cynicism give you the opportunity to feel superior; but they don't give you anything lasting to hold on to. I see a lot of folks being outwardly cynical but inwardly wishing they had something." Having once flattered himself that he was a member of "the subversive counterculture that rejects the dominant culture," he now wanted to embrace America in all its Bush-istic black-and-whiteness. He was tired of "view[ing] everything in six shades of gray because it begets cynicism" and was "charmed by the prospect of individuals reconnecting with more simple values like family, community and respect for people."

So, he gets tossed out of MOM's arms and, finding it lonely out there, jumps into Bush's.

Gen-X built its sense of generational solidarity out of its rejection of the Hippie/Yuppie trajectory of the generation preceding them. But Ross's book suggests that some of Gen-X's best and brightest are marking that same tired parabola, pulled down by the same soulless, powerful gravity American realities force on its dreamers.

No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs by Andrew Ross; Basic Books. Hardcover, 296 pages, $27.

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