On Political Ecstasy and Marble Rolling
SEP: What are some of the problems in the left? Not just organizing, but theoretical problems. You wrote in 1995 that leftists should abandon “deluded populism” and the idea of “historical inevitability.”
EHRENREICH: We have to get used to being a minority—a small minority—for some time to come. The odd thing is that the right wing, even when it is in power, likes to think of itself as an embattled minority against this elite that somehow runs everything. Whereas the Left, even when it has no power at all, likes to imagine it somehow represents the majority of people. These are mirror image delusions.
It is important to stick to principles, even when some of them may be unpopular for one reason or another. For example, there has been a tendency for some progressives to look at the power of the right wing, and say, well, all we can focus on it economic justice issues, because other things, whether they are abortion rights of drug law reform, will be less popular and more divisive. And I think that’s the wrong approach. There are certain core things that we stand for and these include both economic justice and civil liberties, which you can’t back away from.
How did you become political and how has your perspective changed over time?
I was radicalized in the 1960s by the anti-war movement, which I participated in. The civil rights movement was going on too. We were radicals—that’s what we called ourselves. It wasn’t a very ideological or intellectual movement, but it was very insistent on both economic justice and personal freedom. I was also very involved in the women’s movement from 2969-1970 on. I joined the New American Movement in 1973 or so, which then later merged with the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America, which I’ve been a member of ever since it started in 1983.
Getting back to the Left being a minority…
A lot of things on the progressive side are very popular and mainstream, like national health insurance and a fairer break for working people. We’re not kooks with ideas that nobody can understand. But some ideas that are part of a radical program have not been so popular in recent years, such as the need for a real safety net, including welfare or some equivalent of it. That has been fought to the death by the right. Also, I’d like to see big reforms in the criminal justice system. That is not a popular idea right now. Sentences are way too long in this country. Prison conditions border on torture in many cases. If we want to cut down on crime, we should end the war on drugs. These are not popular mainstream ideas, but they’re not based on polls and focus groups.
The burden is on us to make the argument that these things would actually improve particular lives as well as everybody’s lives in aggregate. You have to make that effort. You don’t just drop things because they are unpopular ideas at the moment.
You talk about the human need for communal transcendent experience, which is one of the guiding points in your book Blood Rites. It points to a current fissure among progressives, between those politicized by tearing down what are seen as oppressive community institutions—like the church or marriage—and the new “communitarians,” who call for more family, more connection, more community. How do you characterize this need for communal experience?
The desire for solidarity, to be bonded with other people, can take wither left or right forms. In this century, fascists were often best at orchestrating it, with Hitler rallies and things like that. The 1960s was a time when it was more the property of the Left, that kind of transforming excitement of being involved with large numbers of people in some cause.
I’m talking about something different than the communitarians. Community is another notion. It is a stable, almost static notion. I’m talking about a kind of experience that can unite people who don’t even know each other and that can occur in crowds and demonstration.
What I’m trying to figure out is where did that moment of passion—of public ecstasy, to perhaps overstate it—go in our society? Not to say that there is some definite need that has to be expressed in one place or another because I’m not sure there is.
But it is interesting that since the waning of the movements of the 1960s, for one thing, sports have become more and more a pervasive part of our lives. Sports, among other things, clearly represent a place where at least some small version of excitement and solidarity is permissible. In the rest of your life, you may be completely isolated from other people. But when you go cheer on the Florida Marlins baseball team, you can suddenly be uplifted into this collective euphoria.
The other thing what has happened since the movements of the 1960s is that religious worship has become more emotionally expressive. The mainstream denominations continue to be in decline, compared to those that feature a lot of emotion. Some of the mainstream denominations have been picking up on that and adding guitars and hugs to their services. These are sort of apolitical forms of what we could call collective ecstasy.
In politics, no matter how good the issues are or how appropriate the “objective” conditions are—to use a Marxist term—you don’t really get a movement that changes things in a big way unless it is fired by some of this passion. Unless people are meeting some of their needs for human solidarity from it. This can range from finding friends in the movement all the way to the thrilling, uplifting experience of being in giant rallies and demonstrations and feeling you are a part of a vast groundswell.
Is this capacity for collective euphoria something that organizers should consciously exploit?
Good organizers do. People want concrete things, like more money and better benefits and so forth, which draw them into the labor movement or the progressive movement, but nothing really takes off until they are fired up in some way by a different kind of vision. By the excitement—often for the first times in their lives—of being recognized as an individual by a group of people they like and respect, all the way to the thrill of chanting and picketing. A good organizer realizes that there are emotional dimensions, which go beyond the rational interests that everybody brings to a movement.
What role do reasoned arguments like yours have to play in inducing these passions for change?
I’m not saying that they are not important. Nobody takes all the risks for joining a union organizing drive just to experience the thrills they could get at a baseball game. If you don’t want the risk—and with it, the possibility of real achievements—you can go to the game. You don’t get anything out of it, either, it is just the sheer excitement of the crowd without any content. (Maybe I should say that I’m not a baseball fan.) People are moved by the rational calculus of what they will gain by participating. But they probably will not change their lives a lot unless these emotional needs are met too.
Some leftists have said that your book Blood Rites smacked of biological determinism. What do you think of the critique, such as that in Alan Sokal’s spoof in Social Text that parts of the Left are anti-science?
When I was working on Blood Rites, which includes a new evolutionary perspective on human violence, I remember several times burbling about my ideas with political friends and being shocked when they would sometimes make the sign of the cross at me and say, “Oh, no, you can’t say that. You can’t think that. You can’t trace things back to prehistory because that’s deterministic. I was really shaken by the dogmatism of that response. Dogmatism doesn’t belong on the Left. If we can look at things historically, why not prehistorically, too? The difference is pretty arbitrary as far as I’m concerned.
That was the main sticking point, that you crossed some kind of timeline?
Yes, and that in doing so, you are asserting that certain habits or patterns of thought or activity could persist over many generations. What I try to do in the book is not to say that these behaviors or ideas are permanent and immutable, but try to find where they started, so we can understand better what they’re all about.
The negative response comes from something that I share—a horror of the misapplications of biology to justify social hierarchy, especially of gender and race. There is a history of that, but it goes a little too far when it means you can’t invoke biological explanations for anything at all.
How do you think the Left suffers for that?
It is not how the Left suffers, but how many debates in society suffer. People on the Left often don’t even join these discussions. Right now we are still in this gene-for-everything mode, at least in the media. It is determinist to the point of being absolutely silly—genes for violence, genes for adventurism, and so on.
I would like to see more people critically engaging that. And they don’t have to be scientists to do so. But you’re not even in the discussion if you are saying that anything about genes and human behavior is automatically out of order.
You wrote in May 1994 that the divisions of race and ideology were “archaic” and “the real divisions are between those who watch MTV and those who favor Christian broadcasting.” You were being facetious, but do you think there is any truth to the idea that politics have become lifestyle issues, and how do you think this affects organizing today, especially of youth? For example, the whole post-feminism scenario in which being a feminist today is wearing the right kind of shoes or reading a certain kind of zine—which is pretty different from talking about patriarchy.
I think that has always been true. In the 1970s, there was a very individualistic, lifestyle interpretation of feminism—that all you need to be a feminist is a bunch of credit cards in your own name, for example. That’s always been there. This kind of individualistic interpretation never applies to socialism, though. It is very hard to be a lone socialist.
What tends to be missing for the next generation is the sense of collective struggle. For a lot of women in my generation, feminism is where we first discovered the collective excitement of a social movement. For me, it happened more in the anti-war movement, and feminism was more about finding that other women were great. You lived in a society that looked down on women and you didn’t want to be around them because they were second-class citizens. You couldn’t identify with them, so it was an amazing discovery that we were actually fun to be with.
I don’t see that this generation is likely to have that experience. Things seem a little more individualistic, less likely to be group-oriented. That might not be so bad in some ways, but I always feel nervous making any generational comparisons.
What do you think are some of the most important areas for activists to focus on within existing political institutions? You mentioned providing a safety net, for instance.
Yeah, except we can’t get anywhere with that, given the political makeup of Congress and the presidency. We have to get over the idea that just carrying around in our pockets a list of good progressive reforms that the government should undertake is all we need to do. We are a long way from having a government that will enact those things. We have to aim for things that are more achievable in a time when we are completely frozen out of power.
One is union organizing. It would be easier to say we should all participate in union organizing if the unions were more open to community support. Community participation is still sort of an avant garde idea among union leaders. They don’t utilize it enough. The UPS strike was enormously popular, but I didn’t see any sign from the Teamsters that they knew how to exploit that popularity. If the strike had gone on a little longer and the strike fund had dried up, was there any plan to utilize the support of people who were saying, “about time?” No, there wasn’t.
Some of this kind of organizing is coming from outside unions. We don’t have to wait on unions. People can get organized and then I’m sure the unions will be glad to affiliate with them and take their dues.
Another thing I think is very important, at a time when we don’t have access to government power is direct action against sadistic and abusive corporations such as sweatshop-dependent corporations like Nike and Disney, and so on. It would be great if the government would just regulate these guys out of existence or ban the sale of any sweatshop-derived product. But it is not doing that. So we can spend forever in Washington begging some Congresspeople to listen to us or we can go out and hit the streets and shame that corporation. And hopefully, we’ll be paving the way for real government regulation at some point.
A third thing is to create alternative institutions that can simultaneously meet needs for people, serve as gathering places, and be springboards for further political action. Some of the people organizing workfare and former welfare recipients are proposing storefront centers where you could get some employment counseling, you could learn about workers’ rights (such as they are), and you could find out about organizing and get in touch with some union reps, or whatever.
These kinds of thinks recognize the necessity for bold action even when—and perhaps especially when—we don’t have many friends in government. I’m not talking about really expensive things since we have no way of doing expensive fancy things. They have to be pretty improvised. There are a lot of things I don’t know enough about, but I think are interesting. For example, the idea of community currency as a way of valuing people’s labor in a way that multinational corporations don’t.
You mentioned in an interview the “marble theory of social change.” What is that?
You have to ask the framer of this important theory, who’s a union staff member named George Kohl. This was his idea: that you don’t know what you are doing all the time, you don’t know what kind of effect your actions are having, but you know that if you keep flipping marbles at a big crowd of marbles, eventually, bit by bit, they all might start moving. It helps me to think of my own work that way. I have my own marbles to roll, but if enough other people are rolling them, too, the mass may start moving in a good, or at least, less suicidal direction.
Do you think progressives can find common ground with people who haven’t already aligned themselves with the Left? Is it more important to be a principled minority than to build alliances with all the compromises that entails?
I don’t think those are alternatives. You can’t be part of a coalition if you have no principles. Why bother? You have to have your own identity and principles, but you have to work in coalitions and alliances with all sorts of people. Feminist and pro-reproductive rights as I am, I can see working with, say, the Catholic Bishops on some economic justice issues. I think it is important to make a principled alignments with particular groups around particular issues. The depressing thing at many left gatherings I’ve been to is this sort of purism. I was speaking on a panel recently and somebody mentioned Ben and Jerry’s as an example of socially responsive business. Some guy in the audience jumped up at question time to talk about how Ben and Jerry’s exploit cows.