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Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in low-wage USA, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Jeremy Seabrook follows a fearless reporter into the mucky lower depths of the world's richest society

Class was first defined in Europe, became an obsession in Britain, and has been the object of pathological denial in the United States. Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's odyssey through the lower depths of the US employment structure, is a useful corrective to the image of America as a class-free sanctuary.

Ehrenreich, a mature and eloquent writer, sets out to impersonate a woman at the end of her resources, desperate for a job, income and the week's rent. She is hired as a waitress, a house-cleaner, a "dietary aide" in an old people's home, a Wal-Mart vendeuse (where customers have been transformed into "guests"). And she chronicles the lives of her co-workers, the lower managers hanging on by the tips of their nail-lengthened fingertips to the jobs of supervising and marshalling troops of women who must cleanse the houses of the rich with nothing more than half a bucket of water, a few chemical aids and air-sweeteners.

In these houses, she notes the frequency with which books on spiritual improvement appear, although this is rarely translated into charity towards those they employ. The workers live in trailers, car-parks and motel rooms, affordable housing having been ousted by three-garage kitchenless constructions that sell for a million dollars to that middle class to which everyone in America is now believed to belong.

There is one appalling moment, where Ehrenreich cannot bear to see one of her colleagues suffer any longer: a pregnant and malnourished waif who falls and breaks her ankle, but insists on carrying on with work, terrified both of losing her income and of her boyfriend's wrath. To the supervisor, Ehrenreich protests that the work is degrading and exploitative. Then she makes her real mistake, for which her co-workers will not forgive her – she says it is junk work anyway. Clearly, the fragile self-esteem of the women depends on holding down jobs for which the heroic fiction is required that their labour has dignity and significance.

She writes that "the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavours". Indeed. Inequality is the contemporary euphemism for class society. Class suggests living flesh and blood, with possibly antagonistic interests, while there are no actors in the great drama of inequality, a beautiful abstraction which rich and poor are united to combat in their universal dedication to wealth-creation.

Not that the poor create much for themselves. Ehrenreich lingers on the details of living and working in environments unfamiliar to her; she evokes the sheer physical pain of each day; she muses on the ubiquity of pubic hairs in the bathrooms of the rich, and the varying nature of filth in lavatories.

This physical intimacy between poor and rich is belied by their social distance. Employers sometimes install CCTV cameras to discourage their staff from rifling through drawers or stealing the objets d'art. Ehrenreich observes that: "Work is supposed to save you from being an 'outcast', but what we do is an outcast's work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditch-diggers, changers of adult diapers – these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society."

The book has all the raw energy of the work, performed by those best described in that archaic phrase, "the labouring poor", who work all hours, hold down two or three jobs, and still fail to earn enough to keep themselves and their dependents. Ehrenreich is self-deprecating about her shortcomings as a proletarian; indeed, she has great comic gifts. Much of the narrative reflects the tragi-comic sensibility of the poor, for whom a sardonic humour is one of the few defences against a labour which doesn't ennoble, but effaces, and makes prematurely old the most desperate, the non-voters, the dead souls of America's democracy. Ehrenreich says low-paid workers abandon democracy and human rights when they enter the totalitarian tyranny that is the domain of many employers.

The book is an eerie precursor of the social policies of New Labour: the welfare-to-work rhetoric has meant the compulsory impoverishment of those forced into a labour market which inexplicably fails to respond to the laws of supply and demand. Labour shortages do not raise rates of pay. The crisis of "affordable housing" leads to people spending 50 or 60 per cent of their earnings on rent; with the consequences for health and well-being that must be expected.

But the rich are increasingly insulated from the poor, so that injustice can be managed discreetly, and most beneficiaries of the global economy never confront the secret behind the great conjuring trick of the disappearing poor.

Jeremy Seabrook's latest book, the 'No-Nonsense Guide to Class, Caste and Hierarchies', is published by Verso