Not surprising really. Barbara Ehrenreich, our foremost journalist of, and dissector of class is regularly not here. Practically a household name since she entered the low-wage working class disguised as herself and, in her already classic account, Nickel and Dimed, reported back on just how difficult it is for so many hard-working Americans to get by. Then, a few years later, she repeated the process with the middle class, only to find herself not in the workforce but among the desperately unemployed who had fallen out of an ever meaner corporate world. Her most recent book, Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, was the result. Now, she spends much time traveling the country talking to audiences about her -- and their -- experiences. She has become a blogger, is involved in launching a new group to help organize the middle-class unemployed, and in her spare time she's even finished a new book.
Now, after four years in Virginia (at least some of the time), she's about to head north. She gestures at the bookshelves. "There are a lot fewer books this week than last. I'm giving them to the Virginia Organizing Project." And it's true, the place is clearly being stripped down for sale. But you have the feeling, looking around, that it was a no-frills life to begin with, as Ehrenreich herself, in her short hair, jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, presents a distinctly no-frills look. (Suddenly, imagining her with an image make-over advisor in Bait and Switch trying to give herself that perfect corporate look of employability seems amusing.)
Her mind is wide-ranging and daring indeed. Some years back, in a book entitled Blood Rites, she even managed to turn traditional ideas about the origins of war on their head. She is a thoroughly no-nonsense national resource.
Looking forward to a trip to the local gym followed by a visit with her two grandchildren (the daughters of her daughter Rosa Brooks, a law professor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times), we sit down at a paper-and-book cluttered dining-room table, which shows no evidence of having held a meal in some time, and -- eye on the clock, no fooling around -- begin.
Tomdispatch: You were at a graduation ceremony recently where the students were bouncing beach balls in the stands. The college president leaned over and whispered, "This is the problem with having the commencement in the afternoon. Some of these people have been partying for hours." In response, you wrote: "There are reasons, whether the graduates know them or not, to want to greet one's entrance into the work world with an excess of Bud." Could you start by explaining why an excess of Bud might be an appropriate response to leaving college today?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, a lot of graduates are simply not going to find jobs appropriate to their credentials. They're going to be wait staff. They're going to be call-center operators. Their twenties could be spent like that. I recently got Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute to do some research on this. It's still tentative, but he found that 17% of people in jobs that do not require college degrees have them. Those are very often people in their twenties who can't get professional-type employment, or people in their fifties who have been through one too many lay-off and are no longer employable because they're quote too old. So I was thinking of that, and then I was thinking that for a lot of those who do get jobs, you know, the fun is over. They're going to be sitting in cubicles and they won't be able to bounce balls around when they're in boring meetings with their bosses.
TE: The real earnings of college graduates fell by 5% between 2000 and 2004, so they also have that to look forward to.
BE: There still is a real big earnings gap between college and non-college graduates, but it's begun to shrink. Jared tells me that the reason it was growing so fast in the nineties was not that college graduates were doing so well, but that low-wage people, blue-collar people, were doing so poorly. Their wages were being held down -- and that remains true.
TE: In 1989, you published a book about the middle class, or the professional-managerial class as you call them, entitled Fear of Falling. The book was way ahead of its time. If you were titling a work on the subject today you might just call it, Falling.
BE: What I was thinking about then was the fear of intergenerational falling, the fear a lot of upper-middle class people have that their children will not get into the same class, because you can't just bequeath your class status to them. They can't inherit. They have to go through this whole education thing. Now, it could be Free Fall, though it isn't quite that bad? yet.
TE: In Bait and Switch, the book where, as an investigative reporter, you sought a corporate job and found yourself in the world of the middle-class unemployed or anxiously employed, you wrote, "On many fronts, the American middle class is under attack as never before." What happened to the middle class between then and now?
BE: In Fear of Falling, I was concerned with the distance between the professional managerial class and the traditional working class. I thought I saw a new class developing. The strict Marxist idea is: You've got the bourgeoisie. Everybody else is a wage earner and they're not that different, whether they're accountants or laborers. And I was saying, no, there's a real difference here. The white-collar worker who sits at a desk is telling other people what to do in one way or another. Such workers are in positions of authority when compared to blue and pink-collar people.
Back then, I was emphasizing the differences. Today, in Bait and Switch, what I'm emphasizing is the lack of difference, that the security the professional-managerial class thought it had is gone. The safest part of that class, when I was writing in the eighties, seemed to be the professionals and managers with corporate positions. Then something happened in the nineties. Companies began to look at even those people as expenses to be eliminated rather than assets to be nurtured. What I was seeing in the late eighties was this pretty tight middle class where, really, the only problem was to get your kids into it, too.
TE: Your fear was for your children. Now it's for you?
BE: And of course, your children, too.
TE: In Bait and Switch, you describe life in the corporate world as a "perpetual winnowing process."
BE: One way that shows itself now is in the requirement in so many jobs for an annual -- or even an every six-month -- evaluation. You're constantly on your toes, constantly being reviewed, and potentially always up for elimination.
TE: And how do you account for the change in corporate culture?
BE: I'm not sure. This is partly a mystery to me, but the pioneers were people like [Sunbeam's] Al ("Chainsaw") Dunlap and Jack Welsh at GE, who took pride in eliminating as many people as possible, white as well as blue collar and were richly rewarded by seeing their stock prices rise and their CEO pay go up. Leanness became the currency, what you wanted to achieve. I think part of that -- but I don't know enough yet to say this with confidence -- had to do with the fact that top executives were increasingly being rewarded with stock options, so that the distance between management and ownership was no longer there. A CEO knew that, if he could raise quarterly profits via cuts, he would get handsomely rewarded. The easiest way to raise profits is to cut expenses and the biggest expense is labor. Of course, the better way to increase profits would be to sell a better product, or more of them, or at a higher price.
TE: You're famous now for having been in two worlds as an investigative journalist, the low-wage world of the working class in Nickel and Dimed and the middle-class unemployed one in Bait and Switch. You've also, it seems to me, been one of the relatively few members of the professional managerial class to gnaw at the issue of class regularly. I suspect on this issue you really feel your politics. What was it that got you to class analysis and what kept you there when so many others were heading the other direction?
BE: I'm sure it has something to do with my background. When I was born, my father was a copper miner in Butte, Montana. It was a hard-core, blue-collar situation. But ours was an amazing story of upward mobility. My father managed to get through college? well, the Butte School of Mines? while he was a miner. He was, by his own account, a genius. [She laughs.] Eventually, he got out of the mines and ended up as a corporate executive. He started out doing research as a metallurgist and then got turned into an executive. So my childhood was sort of an unguided tour of American classes.
TE: For people I've known, leaping classes tended to be a complicated, painful experience.
BE: Well, my dad was always a heavy drinker, but he was a falling-down drunk by the time he finished his career -- or it was finished for him. He wanted all that. He wanted success. He wanted to make more money -- not that we were ever wealthy, but we certainly got toward the upper end of the middle class. But he also had this social nostalgia for the mines and would often talk about men he had worked with, things that had happened. It was clear to me that that was a real world of much stronger ties among people.
TE: And that he had lost something?
BE: Oh yes! One thing that stuck with me and helped me when I was doing Nickel and Dimed: I had told him in the seventies about young leftists going to work in factories to organize the working class. He thought that was hilarious, but then he said something very interesting: "Do you know what they probably don't understand? If you want to do something like that, the first thing is you have to do your job right. The first thing is -- do the work." As a miner he had known communists organizing in the mines, but wasn't always impressed with them because some of them weren't good miners.
TE: Is there less mobility, and less study of it, than there was in your father's day?
BE: There is less. We don't compare well to Europe any more on that score.
TE: You now have a blog. You travel the country extensively and, because of your books, you hear from blue-collar and white-collar people in various kinds of trouble. What sorts of stories do you hear these days? What don't we know?
BE: Both chronic, long-term poverty and downward mobility from the middle class are in the same category of things that America likes not to think about. Periodically, we'll have some little focus on poverty, like post-Katrina, but then it goes away again. After the dot.com crash, there was a brief moment of thinking about downwardly mobile software people; then we forgot about them. But it's there all the time, these crises in people's lives.
When it comes to the media, anything about economic pain is what gets left out. People sometimes say to me, why do you always focus on the downside? Because morally that seems to be my obligation -- to look at pain. Not to celebrate every instance of successful entrepreneurship, but always to think of who's hurting. That just seems like a basic moral requirement for everybody. But that's what's missing too often in the media, the pain.
Stories of pain, the forum on my website is full of them. People will just post them:
I have a master's degree in mechanical engineering. I give up. I've been searching for three years.
I'm living with my parents now. I had to give up my apartment, my home.
I'm working in a call center now.
That's the kind of thing I hear, over and over. And then people are losing pensions, losing health insurance. That's happening across the board -- to people in middle-class occupations too.
TE: You recently commented, "Thanks to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, we now have a government with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions. Imagine, for an awkward zoological analogy, a lioness with grossly enlarged claws and teeth but no mammary glands."
BE: This was something I first wrote about in 1997 in an essay in the Nation which they entitled, "Confessions of a Recovering Statist." I talked about the shift of government, at the end of the Clinton years, away from the helping functions and toward the military, penitentiaries, law enforcement. At what point, I asked, do progressives have to say: I don't want to expand the helping functions of this government because look what it's doing? A nice example is public housing -- okay, public housing's a good thing, but when you start doing drug tests on people to get in or stay in such housing, then it's become an extension of the law enforcement function of government.
I still raise that question. Today, we have this even larger federal government, more and more of it being war-related, surveillance-related. I mean it's gone beyond our wildest Clinton administration dreams. I think progressives can't just be seen as pro-big-government when big government has gotten so nasty.
TE: And also when civil society has been stripped of so many of its "civil" capacities, including, as with Katrina, the capacity to rebuild.
BE: Katrina's a perfect example of how militarized the government has gotten even when it's supposedly trying to help people. The initial response of the government was a military one. When they finally got people down there, it was armed guards to protect the fancy stores and keep people in that convention center -- at gunpoint! I mean, this is unbelievable.
TE: And what about the fobbing off of the civil parts of government onto religious and charitable groups, often politicized?
BE: It's partly that the evangelical churches have reached for these things, and then there's the faith-based approach coming from the Bush administration where the dream was: Let's turn all social welfare functions over to churches. A lot of the megachurches now function as giant social welfare bureaucracies. I wouldn't have found this out if I hadn't been researching Bait and Switch and gone into some of them, because that's where you go when you want to connect with people to find a job. That's also where you find after-school care, child care, support groups for battered women, support groups for people with different illnesses. As government helping functions dwindle, the role of the churches grows. What's sinister is that so many of these churches also support political candidates who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and -- not coincidentally -- opposed to any kind of expansion of secular social services.
TE: Let's turn to the hot-button issue of immigration. For Nickel and Dimed, you went to places where there was still a low-wage, white working class -- Minnesota, Maine?
BE: Not Key West which was packed with immigrant workers. But I did choose my places carefully, because real ethnic sorting does go on. For example, my son Ben Ehrenreich, who is also a freelance journalist, decided to get a job in a meat-packing plant in LA. When he showed up, sixty guys were there and he was the only Anglo. Though he speaks perfect Spanish, he was rejected because they just think: What's he doing here? Employers get it in their minds that a certain kind of work is done by a certain kind of person and we're not going to hire someone different. When I realized that was going on in Key West, I said: Next stop, Maine, where almost everyone is white and I wouldn't run into racial sorting. I couldn't have done Nickel and Dimed so easily in LA or New York because they would have thought: Blue-eyed, white, middle-aged woman; if she wants this job, she must have a serious drug problem. [She laughs.]
TE: The issue of class and immigration threatens to split what's left of the Bush administration constituency, but not just them. How do you read the class politics of immigration?
BE: My son went to a Minutemen gathering in the southwest and the fascinating thing was that a lot of the leaders talked a very big anti-corporate line: The corporations are crushing us, we're the real Americans, and so forth. In their minds, the immigrants are part of the thing that's crushing them and it's so much easier to pick up a gun and go to the border than to confront your employer.
Then, commentators keep saying that Americans won't take the jobs immigrants take. It's not that native-born Americans won't do heavy work and hard work and sweaty work. The problem is that these jobs pay so little. What makes it possible for immigrant workers to live on such low wages is their willingness -- at least temporarily -- to put up with just impossible situations, with many people packed into a room. After all, what does immigration do, in corporate terms? It provides a group of people you can really, really exploit. As long as they're illegal, you can do anything you want to them. Like not pay them. Not at all. If you were going to take on the immigration issue seriously, you'd have to look at what NAFTA did to the economy and agriculture for working-class Mexicans. Much of the immigration stuff is standard scapegoating. I mean, we're not going to begin to get at the problem until we take a serious look at the economies of the countries that are exporting people. Illegal immigrants are not coming here for the climate. We need to ask: How would we help Mexico, for example, become a place with stable employment and agriculture. Not with NAFTA for sure.
TE: Isn't the other side of the immigration issue, the outsourcing of jobs?
BE: It's very hard to have a serious discussion of outsourcing when we have no safety net for people whose jobs are outsourced. It's calamitous to lose your job and that experience does pit you against the software writer in Bangalore. The longer term issue is: How do we get together across those national boundaries, so that the software writer in Atlanta is talking to the one in Bangalore and saying, we're in this together?
TE: What about the lack of protest in our world, especially the middle-class world you visited in Bait and Switch? You've started a new organization to begin to deal with this, right?
BE: You know, after I wrote Nickel and Dimed, so many middle-class people would say to me: Oh, what's wrong with these people? Why do they take it? Well, they didn't just take it! Even if they expressed defiance in ways that were not too productive like laughing at the boss behind his back or regularly breaking little rules. With the white-collar people, though, it just seemed so internalized. I couldn't get over it, how beaten down people were, how they had internalized obedience. The fear of standing out in any way that might be noticed seemed to grip them.
Our new organization, United Professionals, had its launch meeting in Atlanta at the end of April. Its constituency is unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white-collar people. Now, it's not a union. Obviously, you can't have a union for people with such vastly different employers and professions. But it will provide advocacy for universal health insurance, extended unemployment benefits, and the like. And some services. We're looking at ways of offering cheap health insurance and mostly what I call networking, not in the instrumental corporate fashion, but a coming together, people sharing their stories, trying to figure out for themselves what's going on, what they need to do.
TE: A little à la early feminism then.
BE: I see so many parallels because there's a huge stigma attached to unemployment. People who have been laid off are very ashamed and depressed. There's a need to come together and overcome that shame. In those early meetings in the feminist movement of the seventies, people were ashamed to talk about having been raped. They were ashamed to talk about having been molested as a child. To be able to say that has happened to other people proved transforming. So let's bring it out, let's see what the problem is here.
TE: Isn't this the problem without a name again?
BE: Exactly. So I see the need for something at the same level of emotional involvement as in the early women's movement.
TE: What other solutions to white-collar distress do you imagine?
BE: Obviously you want some employment rights like the French just fought to preserve -- saying you can't be fired at will, that a procedure must be gone through. When I was in England recently talking about Bait and Switch, my publisher told me: "You know, people aren't quite understanding what you're saying, how you could be laid off or fired without any procedure." They didn't understand the concept of employment at will. So I had to explain that, in America, you have no rights: no right to your job, no right to a hearing. You could be fired for a funny expression on your face.
Some of the people involved with United Professionals are looking into the concept of fighting collectively for what are called transition rights. Let's say everybody gets laid off. This happened at a mortgage company in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Layoffs of hundreds of white and pink-collar people. They're all told individually, here's your little severance package; now, never say another word or we might take it away. They're trying to take this on as a group and respond: No, you can't deal with us like that; we all want a severance package we can live with or at least that will get us through a few months.
TE: In that half-century-plus from the 1950s to the present, do you feel there's been a transformation of middle-class culture?
BE: It's more sealed off for sure. If you're in the upper middle class you never have to interact with other classes, except with your servants or a cab driver or a manicurist?
TE: Until you get fired by your corporation, of course.
BE: Yes, that's the surprise, but until then, your children won't go to the public schools; you won't be using the public parks on weekends. You don't ride public transportation if you're in that class. They're really walled off.
TE: Back in 1989, you wrote of a "culture in which the middle class both stars and writes the script." What did you mean and is it still true?
BE: There's been a lot of polarization within the professional-managerial class since the 1980s. There is now a huge gap, for example, between a journalist and the managing editor of the paper. The difference between the university provost and the associate professor of sociology could be a hundred thousand dollars a year. They're less and less in the same world. So I would modify that statement. The scriptwriters have gotten higher up.
TE: What would an anatomy of your professional-managerial class of 1989 look like now?
BE: The main thing is there's just more leakage at the bottom, people falling out of it. In 1989, college education had expanded a lot, but not as much as today. Now, so many jobs insist on a college education. I have no idea why. I think they're just training people to sit quietly for long periods of time. Obedience training I guess is the phrase...
TE: ...for dogs.
BE: Yeh! I don't see where a typical BA even represents any serious skills. Obviously I'm for education, but there's a major element of rip-off here.
TE: What happened, by the way, to the famed 1950s man in the grey flannel suit? I was amused that, for your working class book, you could go to work more or less dressed as you are now, wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
BE: I think you would need khaki pants.
TE: Right. But when you tried to make your way into the corporate world, there was this constant stylistic retooling. No more single uniform.
BE: The explanation for that -- which sociologist Robert Jackall offered and my image make-over guy confirmed -- is that, by being precisely right in your appearance, you signal that you'll conform in any other way they might want. You're sending a signal about your degree of compliance.
TE: Certainly the man in the grey flannel suit didn't expect to get a $300 million thank-you note when he retired. Here's a figure you had in one of your blog entries: "The top 10 percent of households saw their net worth rise [between 2001 and 2004] by 6.1 percent to an average of $3.11 million." I was wondering how you looked at the vast payoffs to CEOs, a tiny endowed elite, who will, in fact, be able to endow their children.
BE: It's just plunder. You have your pay determined by a board of your buddies, often just other CEOs. They can take what they want. What was it in the paper today? Home Depot. [She grabs a newspaper off the table and begins rifling through it.] "The stock fell but the chief's pay kept rising." That's news? [She laughs.] Or it was Verizon? Stock tumbled and the CEO got a raise. They'll push down wages as far as they can, and if there's no union to stop them, they'll just keep going, and they'll push up their own pay. There's no limit to what they'll take!
TE: You've talked about the invisibility of the poor, the low-wage working class, and these middle-class people falling out of the corporate world, but in a weird way aren't the rich invisible, too?
BE: Well, not that invisible, because they're always in the media spectacle, though they aren't studied enough. I think that the poor know much more about the rich than vice versa. You can get some sense of their lives from the entertainment media and, if you clean their houses or you wait on them in stores, you sort of see them. Whereas the other way around doesn't seem to function.
TE: What I was thinking, though, was: Who writes books today with titles like: Who Rules America?
BE: My fantasy after Bait and Switch was to go undercover among the rich. I spent a long time talking to [Harper's Magazine editor] Lewis Lapham about it, but we came to the dismal conclusion that I wouldn't pass. It's not only things like fingernails, but that a woman of my age should have had a lot of surgery. I would be a dead give-away. Not to mention: How do you get access? Too bad -- I thought that would be so much fun to do.
TE: Looking toward the midterm and presidential elections, what are your thoughts?
BE: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about electoral politics, though I'm kind of interested in John Edwards, because since '04 he's devoted himself to talking about poverty and he's showed up at picket lines and the like.
TE: In terms of the issues that matter to you, can you explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans to me?
BE: [Laughs.] What kind of question is that, Tom!
TE: I've been writing a lot, based on that infamous presidential Mission Accomplished banner of 2003, about what the Bush administration hasn't accomplished abroad. There, I believe, they're already standing in the rubble of their own project. But have they accomplished more of their mission more successfully at home?
BE: No, because they haven't completely dismantled the welfare state, I mean, welfare itself is pretty much just a pathetic wage-supplementation program now, but they couldn't get rid of social security and they actually expanded Medicare. There's a trip-wire people have not let them go over yet. I remember hearing Stuart Butler, a Thatcher guy who arrived from England at the end of the Reagan years, say that he felt this was a country where he could really see his goal, the destruction of the welfare state in all forms, being achieved. Well, they haven't done it.
However, one of the places where they've been most successful, as Peter Gosselin, an economics writer for the LA Times, has pointed out incisively, is in shifting risk to individuals. It's happening with the disintegration of the whole concept of insurance. Insurers don't want to insure the coasts any more; they certainly don't want to give anybody health insurance who might ever get sick. That's one of the things they've done pretty well at. In the ownership society, you take care of yourself; don't bother us, it's your problem.
TE: When you look to the future, do you see some path other than this incredible one we're on that seems possible?
BE: Oh, yes! I'm sort of a libertarian socialist type. There are a lot of things that just should not be in the market. Health care, that should be taken care of. I think there's a place for markets, but there's always going to be tension between markets and our mutual responsibility.
TE: If the polarization in the middle class you describe continues apace, do you imagine a moment when those dropping out of the old middle class and the corporate world may make common with?
BE: That's my whole theme as I've trooped around the country talking about Bait and Switch to somewhat more middle-class audiences than I normally get with Nickel and Dimed: There's a lot in our society that makes people with college degrees and white-collar jobs think they're special and superior. But next time you're seeing that person pushing the broom, remember, you may be one year, maybe even six months away from that yourself. You're not special, not in the eyes of the owners and the CEOs. So we've got to get together; we've got to bridge that divide, get over that snobbishness.
TE: Let's turn briefly to war. We're in a war period and you've offered a thoroughly ingenious explanation for the origins of? well, you call them humanity's blood rites in a book of the same name. You've suggested that they came not from our prehistory as aggressive hunters of prey, not even out of aggression, but out of fear and from an even earlier period when we were the prey of other creatures. Of course, in a non-war situation in your two recent books you've been dealing with the prey. But I was wondering if you have any comments on our modern blood rites?
BE: First, you said something interesting about looking at the prey in my books on economic themes. Well, yeh! And the way in prehistory that humans or hominids rose from prey to predators was through collective action. I mean that is the great human trick. Weapon-making, too. We're smart at that. But there's a human ability that doesn't get enough attention -- that ability to mobilize concertedly as a group. I think that's ultimately what tipped the balance in our favor. Other primates can jump around together to ward off a predator, but humans can do it so much more effectively. We're good at collective action. Similarly, to get out of these internal prey situations in our own economy, you've got to band together. That's not just a lesson from the last 200 years of labor history, but one of the deepest lessons from thousands of years of human experience.
Now, what do I think of wars at present? Well, the current war and the first Gulf War were, to a certain extent, rally events. That's a term sociologists started using fairly recently to describe something that leaders initiate for the purpose of manipulating mass emotions. In their favor of course. [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher was sinking in the polls when she did the Falklands War, just as the first George Bush was before Gulf War I when he soared to something like 90% approval.
TE: And, by the way, the younger Bush before 9/11.
BE: That's right. It was just sort of handed to him on 9/11. Of course, it was his choice to invade a random country in response. But that rally effect has not lasted and I don't think they can pull it off again. I don't think people are going to start waving American flags for the bombing of Tehran. The scarier thing would be another terrorist attack which might mobilize some crazed, non-rational response. What do we hit next? Norway? Because these people are not understanding that terrorism doesn't pose a normal military challenge. What the U.S. is doing in Iraq is as silly as the British marching around in little files in the forests of North America in red uniforms and getting picked off by Americans hiding behind trees. There's just no clue as to what to do. Historically, if you don't make the transition to the next threat, if you're still fighting, basically, the Second World War, which is as far as they've advanced, you're not going to make it.
TE: Last thing -- maybe a term that's disappeared might be worth reconsidering: class war.
BE: I already use it when I'm talking to groups. I say, yes, there's a class war. It's totally one-sided and it's time for the rest of us to mobilize against the aggressors.
Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch
This article appeared first at Tomdispatch.com.