An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, Emaline Kelso, Jacob Waldruff, Scott Remer, Spring 2016

Barbara Ehrenreich is an extraordinarily prolific author, investigative journalist, and political activist. She received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Reed College and her Ph.D. in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. She is an honorary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and has been involved with a wide range of activist groups, including the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Women’s Committee of 100, the National Writers Union, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the Center for Popular Economics, and the Campaign for America’s Future. Her recent books include Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2007), and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009). Questions by Emaline Kelso, MC ’17, and Scott Remer, PC ’16; conducted by Scott Remer; transcribed by Jacob Waldruff, BK ’19, for the Spring 2016 Issue (PDF version).

An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

Margins: When did you first become a socialist? What sort of experiences proved formative in your political education? How would you identify your political orientation today and how would you define your personal political philosophy?

Ehrenreich: Well, I don’t think I became a socialist at first; I became an anti-war activist in the late ’60s — or mid ’60s even — as did many of my contemporaries. I had no particular theoretical framework for that. Then, in the course of time, meeting with more and more people, learning and reading, I decided, “Well maybe that’s what I am, a socialist. Look, there’s a solution, it’s easy! Just abandon this profit system.” That seemed pretty clear to the point of being almost uninteresting. You know, trivial. That if we just remove this terrible, mutual plundering, we could all live a lot better. So that was how I simple-mindedly thought of all this, and I was certainly a feminist. So that led to thinking, “Well maybe I’m not really just a socialist, I’m a socialist feminist.” I understand now that that’s called an intersectional feminist. Am I right?

Margins: Yeah, I think that’s generally the term that’s used.

Ehrenreich: Which was like saying you’re sort of a utopian socialist. You want everything fixed. You want economic justice, and you want to end hierarchy. So that’s pretty sweeping. But I don’t think I’ve changed on that. It’s not a political party or anything.

Margins: How would you define feminism?

Ehrenreich: Well, it’s fighting against women’s oppression and second-hand status. Now, I realize it’s gotten a lot more complicated with transgender rights and everything, and I would say it’s protecting rights for anyone who wants to be a woman. And let’s respect those who aren’t even sure.

Actually, over my years I tend more and more toward really wanting to abolish gender. What is it doing for us? Why do people have to make these choices? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s probably always been part of my makeup; I remember in the ’80s writing in Ms. Magazine where I had a column and said I raised my son as a girl. And then, it made no difference. I have a son and a daughter; I just mean that I didn’t have to sort them in some way, or counter the sorting that was going on. It was just not about, I don’t know — they certainly saw plenty of examples of performed femininity and performed masculinity. But they were not under any pressure to wear any particular kind of clothes or do anything else.

Margins: Did they end up doing that as a result of society at large? Or did they end up exhibiting some sort of gender-nonconforming behaviors, at least as society would define them?

Ehrenreich: Well, they’re more or less gender conforming. My daughter spent a few years in primary school where she only wanted to dress as a boy and have short hair. Then she sort of — she changed with puberty and everything else, and she became more girl-like in her self-presentation. My son is — I guess he’s pretty gender-conforming. But to me it was not a matter of raising them differently to be different kinds of people.

Margins: Right, it was just a matter of raising them as who they were without treating them differently according to gender preconceptions.

Ehrenreich: Yeah, exactly.

Margins: Switching topics a little bit, how do you come up with ideas for topics to explore in your writing? Is there a particular creative process that you have?

Ehrenreich: Well, there are different things. There are sort of short, newsy things to respond to in a topical way. I don’t do so much of that. I prefer a slightly deeper kind of — I prefer to go after concepts. And usually the things that provoke me are anger and also curiosity. If I’m very incensed about something — well something I’ve been thinking about and now writing again about is the rising rate of mortality among white working class people in this country. It’s very anomalous and sort of really out of line from a trend, and it’s dramatic, too! So that’s aroused both things in me. One was kind of an anger. I mean this is my people, and in fact one of the cities profiled by The Guardian as a hotbed of white, blue collar die off is my birthplace: Butte, Montana. So there’s that kind of anger, and this curiosity. What the hell is going on? And, you know, I had to read all the different theories and put them together and so on.

Margins: Which books or pieces of writing are you most proud of, and why?

Ehrenreich: My favorite of my own books is Blood Rites: On the Origins and Passions of War, and I say that because it was such a process of discovery. I mean usually when you do a book you’re sort of filling in the numbers in a painting or something. You’ve got an outline, and let’s go plug in our facts and our data and quotes we want to use. And you don’t expect to be completely challenged by what you learned and then have to start again. This book, it was different. It was an adventure.

Margins: When did you write this book?

Ehrenreich: Let’s see, it must’ve been in the early ’90s. Yeah, in the ’90s.

Margins: What would you say you had as an idea for thesis going in and how did it morph?

Ehrenreich: Well, I started going in very sociologically. I wanted to understand what drew people to war. And I started thinking about the kind of warrior elite that tends to form in so many societies. In the human lineage, the warriors would tend to be kings, and their sons would be princes and other warriors and on and on and on. And that’s the great European, for example, tradition historically.

Then I kept pushing and going back to prehistory, ancient history and discovered a theme, which I had not expected to encounter. Which was the theme of an­imal predators as part of symbolism that accompanies war and warriors and as an enemy. That sounds strange right? So my argument, and you have to really read it, is that before humans faced other human enemies — I shouldn’t say before, but very early on — there was a struggle with predatory animals that humans also were the prey of. As well, of course, of human hunting. Our ancestors had to encounter animals, both prey animals that they could eat and the prey animals that wanted to eat them. And that part of human prehistory and early history as prey is something that’s sort of buried. That nobody really wanted to touch. It went against all the stereotypes that came out of the 1960s sociobiology: man, the hunter who strides into the savanna and conquers everything. Better go crouching around in that savanna I’d say. So that was huge to me and with many consequences that went on and on.

Margins: How in general would you say that your scientific training and background inform your politics, if at all? And what relationship do you think science, religion, and politics should have to one another?

Ehrenreich: Well, I don’t really separate science into a separate part of my mind. It’s about reason and empiricism. Observation and then putting it together with other people’s observations. Drawing conclusions. But that’s just part of thinking, and that leads into how I see politics and anything else.

Margins: What, in your mind, do you see as the biggest problems confronting the U.S. and the world today?

Ehrenreich: Well, probably the same as you do. Will we survive as a species if we keep wrecking our habitat? How are we going to do this? That’s [your generation’s] problem.

Margins: Yeah, I guess it is. So global warming, then?

Ehrenreich: Well yeah, the destruction of the planet in all sorts of ways.

Margins: How do you think that we can approach poverty and inequality on a national and global scale?

Ehrenreich: I mean, I can tell you what I’d try to do. This is not a strategy for everyone. Two years ago, I realized that not many people, it seemed to me, were writing about the poor: the working poor, the whatever. At the same time, it was almost impossible to earn any money; that’s the truth. Once things went to the Internet and, of course, all the big newspapers were taken over by conglomerates — not all of them, but pretty much. Nobody wants to pay writers anymore. It’s a labor of love. When I realized that — I remember I was on an assignment for the New York Times, in fact, and realized the amount they were now paying me was less than I would need to cover my expenses. And so, my next thought was, “Oh well, I can afford it, I have savings. I will do this; I am so noble.” Next thought, about, I don’t know, a day later or ten minutes later: “Wait a minute, that’s really fucked. You know, the only people who can write about these things are people who have the means to do so. That is so wrong.”

So then I worked on creating a project inelegantly called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in which we raised money to support journalists — poor journalists, which is quite a majority of them — and get them into print. We know it’s a stop gap measure, taking money from foundations and things and giving it to long-term poor or writers who are starting out and have nothing — they’ve had nothing and been starting out for quite a long time. So, that’s what we do, and it’s immensely satisfying. Go to our website, economichardship.org, and you will see the beauti­ful photojournalism, the huge range of features and essays. I’m working on a book of my own, but the other half of my work is with this.

Margins: What are you working on right now?

Ehrenreich: My book?

Margins: Yeah, what’s your book about?

Ehrenreich: Well, it’s — my working title for it, which my editor does not like, is Old Enough to Die. That is it, leave me alone. It’s about the way upper middle class, affluent people who are around the world tend to spend more and more of their time simply prolonging their lives. They have a fascination with what they eat. Their exercise regimens. Modifying their attitude or mood in a way that they think is healthy. It’s not about “Why are we alive?” but “How do we stay alive longer?” So there’s a lot in this, and it’s allowing me to rampage through history and a good bit of science.

Margins: So shifting gears again a little bit, what would you say the future of labor is in America? With the labor unions so weak these days, do you think there’s hope for organized labor?

Ehrenreich: Oh gosh. That’s a hard question. I think the really dire apocalyptic thing that’s going on is really the end of jobs — the diminishing number of jobs. Well, first of all, the notion of what a job is has been so degraded. I mean once a job meant 40 hours a week and benefits, and you could count on that as long as the job lasted. Now, it’s more likely to be a gig. If you’re less educated you’re likely to be doing gigs, then you’ll be a taskrabbit. Do you know what a taskrabbit is?

Margins: What’s that?

Ehrenreich: It’s a model for work, it’s like Uber. You put out on there some task you would like done — like maybe I need my car inspected, but I’m too tired to do it — and people bid for this project, and then you go with the one whose bid you like. That person works with you for this project, period. So it’s a great model of work for the employer, not for the employee. You know, my daughter had a taskrabbit recently to help her with organizing things in her basement, and the woman turned out to be a lawyer, but that’s what it’s like out there. This notion of a job has gotten so squishy.

Margins: Who do you support in the 2016 presidential election, and why?

Ehrenreich: Bernie Sanders. Why? Because he comes closest to representing me and what I think.

Margins: What do you think he means for socialism as a political identity these days?

Ehrenreich: I think that he is referring to the kind of socialism that we are familiar with from Europe, and it’s really, sort of, social democracy. You know, let’s take care of people. If we’re losing jobs to automation and so many other things all the time, then I think Bernie would probably agree we need to have a kind of guaranteed annual income. Which is where this is heading. I don’t know if he has actually said that; I don’t think so. It’s a clear choice, I don’t make strategic decisions, I make ones based on my true feelings. And I like him!

Margins: Do you think that there’s any danger in him using the term democratic socialism for what is essentially the New Deal redux? Do you think that there’s any potential for confusion?

Ehrenreich: There’s tremendous confusion. It’s kind of funny because you get kind of red-baited for being a socialist, but it’s also very confused. Things have been so right-wing in this country, when Medicare was called a socialist plot when it was first proposed — and Obamacare — so, yeah it is sort of New Dealish.

Margins: What I’ve heard is that on the one hand it’s good because it’s reintroducing the term into the political discourse and getting people more interested in socialism, but on the other hand it does sort of blur the boundaries between robust, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, and actual democratic socialism in a way that potentially could be detrimental moving forward.

Ehrenreich: I don’t know, I don’t know. My daughter was just pointing out to me yesterday that there was a little tiff on Fox News about Bernie saying he’s not a liberal. They were saying, “What do you mean he’s not a liberal? He’s the most liberal person you can think of: he’s a socialist.” There was no understanding. So, it’s a wonderful occasion to get out there and try to talk about this.

It’s important to have some sense of yourself, not as a professional revolutionary…but as someone who is going to be a nexus of change — an agent of change.

Margins: That’s true. And no one really expects understanding from Fox News, I expect. So two more questions. The first is, what gives you strength and solace? You talked a lot about global warming and the huge challenges that face humanity as a species, and I was wondering, in your own life, how have you been able to find nonconsumeristic happiness?

Ehrenreich: Nonconsumeristic?

Margins: Yeah, or consumeristic, I guess.

Ehrenreich: You mean how do I stave off total despair?

Margins: Exactly.

Ehrenreich: I work. I have great friends and family. You know, the usuals. The usual things. I stream a lot of movies. What else? And I read a huge amount.

Margins: That’s a good segue into the penultimate question. So the penultimate question is, are there any books that you found particularly inspiring or illuminating? And what would you recommend that we, as college students, read to elevate our political consciousness and shape our worldviews?

Ehrenreich: I hate that question, like what’s your favorite book or something. Any books you should read… All of them! I mean, I don’t know how to answer that. I have been all over the place in terms of what I read or study, starting in science, and sometimes I wished I had maybe majored in history, it would’ve been more useful. But, you know, I can read history, and I do all the time. So, I don’t know. I generally am pretty disciplined in a way, but I’m also sort of undisciplined. If one trail of thinking leads to a question, I’ll follow that for a while, and so on. I consume stuff.

Margins: Would you say that there are any thinkers or writers who have had a particularly large impact on the way you think?

Ehrenreich: Well, hundreds. Philosophically, Nietzsche. And William Blake, even. And politically, it’s hard to…

Margins: Yeah, that’s fine if you can’t necessarily come up with any off the top of your head. So, the last question: what advice do you have, if any, for college students who are heading out into the world?

Ehrenreich: Make a revolution. Please. It’s important to have some sense of yourself, not as a professional revolutionary, God forbid, in a Leninist model, but as someone who is going to be a nexus of change — an agent of change. And to ask all the time, “Who will be my comrades and friends in this venture and what are examples we can build on? What can we do?” It takes that kind of inner responsibility, and then basically to exercise it in the world.

Image: Barbara Ehrenreich: TEDxZaragoza

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