The Cheese and the Worms

by Henry Farrell on September 5, 2005

Maria writes below about American mythologies; Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book (“review by Scott McLemee”: coming out which speaks to one particular version of this by examining the genteel poverty of the middle aged woman with middling qualifications seeking a white-collar job. She catalogues the chancers, coaches and con artists who purport to be able to help desperate job-seekers to reinvent themselves and to make themselves employable. This “New York Times essay”: gives a taste of her main theme – how job coaches, business best-sellers and the like reproduce a kind of mythology of the market which systematically masks the forces that actually drive it. Her take on _Who Moved My Cheese?_, which seems to have spent umpteen fucking years at the top of the NYT non-fiction bestseller list:

bq. The Mice Come Out Ahead. Although the plot of ”Who Moved My Cheese?” centers on two tiny, maze-dwelling, cheese-dependent people named Hem and Haw, there are also two subsidiary characters, both mice. When the cheese is moved, the tiny people waste time ranting and raving ”at the injustice of it all,” as the book’s title suggests. But the mice just scurry off to locate an alternative cheese source. They prevail, we learn, because they ”kept life simple. They didn’t overanalyze or overcomplicate things.” In the mysteriously titled ”QBQ! The Question Behind the Question,” we are told that questions beginning with ”who” or ”why” are symptoms of ”victim thinking.” Happily, rodents are less prone to it than humans. That may be why we never learn the identity of the Cheese Mover; the who-question reveals a dangerous human tendency to ”overanalyze,” which could lead you to look upward, resentfully, toward the C-suites where the true Masters of the Universe dwell.

William Browning Spencer’s wonderful “Resume With Monsters”:, a grim comedy of dead-end jobs, in which Ehrenreich’s Masters of the Universe have escaped from the Cthulhu Mythos, gets the underlying message of these books exactly right.

bq. It was a payday at work, and the motivational pamphlet that came with the check was entitled “You Matter!” and Philip effectively resisted reading it at work, but when he returned home and was emptying out his pockets, he saw it and read it while standing up, and it was every bit as bad as he suspected. It began “Successful people are people who always give one hundred percent, who understand that a company’s success depends on an individual’s determination to excel. You may say to yourself, ‘I am an insignificant person in this big company. I could be laid off tomorrow along with five hundred of my fellow workers, and no one would care.’ The truth is, what you do is important to people who _are_ important. While you may, indeed be one of many, your labor can benefit someone who is, in fact, _genuinely_ important. You can …” Philip put the motivational pamphlet down. The writer had gone too far this time, Philip thought.



Stephen M (Ethesis) 09.05.05 at 10:53 am

This is great, just what I needed for a project I’m working on.



Steve LaBonne 09.05.05 at 11:17 am

On the off-chance that someone reading this blog doesn’t know about it, some entertaining antidotes to “motivational” crapola reside at


Darren 09.05.05 at 11:26 am

The Scott McLemee review describes her as a socialist: “But Ehrenreich seems, at heart, a pretty old-fashioned kind of socialist”.

Yet, she writes like a libertarian; again quoting from McLemee

“A real job,” she writes, “involves some risk taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment in order to acquire your labor. … No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me. Is the fear that, if given health insurance for even a month, I will go on an orgy of body scans and elective surgery? The most any corporation seems willing to give me is the right to wear its logo on my chest and go about pushing its products.”

So what is he/she trying to say. Scrap all employment benefits – ie minimize the liability of the employer from his ‘risk taking’ – and you’ll have a greater chance of getting your foot in the door?


Another Damned Medievalist 09.05.05 at 11:35 am

Once upon a time, I worked in corporate America. In meetings, I asked the same kind of questions I had been taught to ask in grad school (applied to the relevant topics, of course) — things like, I can see all of x and it looks really good, but it doesn’t seem to take y into account — how does the plan deal with that?

I was told in my annual review that I was consistently negative.


Sven 09.05.05 at 11:40 am

I’ve seen no better – or funnier – insight into low-rung corporate life than this.


abb1 09.05.05 at 11:46 am

Once you get comfortable with the fact that the management is your worst enemy, it all becomes clear and simple.


stuart 09.05.05 at 11:55 am

Once you get comfortable with the fact that the management is your worst enemy, it all becomes clear and simple.

And this is true even if you are a manager, at least in my experience ;)


Matt Weiner 09.05.05 at 11:58 am

Darren, why would a libertarian want to scrap all employment benefits? For a libertarian, the employer can offer health insurance if that’s what it takes to attract employees (which it does).

Now, if there were universal health insurance–as socialists and sane people advocate–employers wouldn’t have to offer health insurance, and that would eliminate this particular risk. Socialize it, as it were.


asg 09.05.05 at 12:07 pm

And yet my worst enemy appears to be signing my checks. I could sure use more enemies like that.


Elizabeth 09.05.05 at 12:11 pm

Response to Darren (#3) – You write “So what is he/she trying to say. Scrap all employment benefits – ie minimize the liability of the employer from his ‘risk taking’ – and you’ll have a greater chance of getting your foot in the door?’

No, that’s not what she’s trying to say. Isn’t her point that the corporations aren’t offering ‘real jobs’ – and their claims to do so are deceptions. They aren’t holding up their end of a social contract – and they can get away with this because of their size? It’s been a while since I read Nickel and Dimed, but I don’t recall any grounds for thinking she is a libertarian.


g 09.05.05 at 12:14 pm

Darren: No, she’s claiming that the risk isn’t really very large
and that employers should be more willing to take it, and that if
employers treated their employees with greater respect (including,
e.g., not being afraid to trust them a bit, despite the risk) then
the results would be better all round.

Pointing out that some employers pathologically mistrust some of
their employees isn’t libertarianism. Libertarianism would be,
say, taking that as a sign that we ought to make it easier for
employers not to trust their employees. By doing away with
health insurance, for instance.

I’m a bit puzzled, though, by that quotation from Ehrehreich.
Surely the point of health insurance is that it doesn’t cost more
if you go on an orgy of body-piercing and elective surgery than
if you don’t. An employer unwilling to offer Ehrenreich health
insurance is refusing not to take a risk on her, but to spend
(a predictable amount of) money on her. If there’s a risk here,
it’s the risk that she might have quit early, leaving the employer
with the bill for (say) a year’s health insurance. But I bet it’s
mostly just about the money, not the risk.


jw 09.05.05 at 12:16 pm

Cool. Someone else has read William Browning Spencer. Resume with Monsters and Zod Wallop are both good reads. I don’t understand why they’re out of print or why I haven’t seen anything else from him.


abb1 09.05.05 at 12:41 pm

Asg, today they are signing your check and tomorrow they’ll sign your death warrant if it adds a nickel to their bottom line.

As long as you understand it – you’re fine.

But if you think (or feel) that they give you those checks out of the goodness of their hearts or that they have some kind of sympathy for you or that they bound by human decency in their dealings with you – then sooner or later you’ll be severely disappointed and possibly psychologically traumatized. Get real, man.


tom f 09.05.05 at 1:17 pm

To update that parable with a more recent management cliche, those people need to follow Wayne Gretzky’s advice and skate to where the cheese is going to be.


A. G. Rud 09.05.05 at 2:59 pm

Bravo on this racket. I have been addicted to self help tomes for some time. When I talk about Ben Franklin to our history of ed students, I say he was an early precursor of self help, though much better. For worthwhile discussion of such topics, see David Allen, his book _Getting Things Done_, and his website, which I think is Allen’s work is too subtle for a dopey PPT.


alex 09.05.05 at 5:38 pm

I was in a bookstore with a particularly snarky friend, and he spied that particular book, picked it up and said,”Who stuffed my cheese right up my ass?”

To this day I can’t look at a copy without snickering.


dan 09.06.05 at 12:21 pm

Surprised that post #2 didn’t mention that has a new manangement book out on the subject of employee motivation.

this particular chart offers about the most depressing summary I’ve ever seen of the futility of the motivation/self-help industries (or as the author likes to refer to them, the Motivational Educational Industrial (ME-I) Complex).


Stephen M (Ethesis) 09.06.05 at 12:33 pm

I found this thread useful too, and linked to it from:

In the work world, there are a number of messages you can send and a number you are sent. Books that purport to tell you how to be successful at work are legion (with exactly what that means). They are of the following kinds (regardless of what they claim to be on their title):

1) Books that tell you how to send the message that you are a useful worker bee (the kind of people businesses need to run, after all).
2) Books that send you messages about how to be happy as a worker bee.
3) Books that peddle myths, for the purpose of getting your money, that are useless or dangerous.
4) Books that give you skills or elements to improve your knowledge base and that will help you make progress (books like Dress for Success or The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work.


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