Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, where her family had lived for generations, in 1941. Most of her male ancestors lost fingers working in nearby copper mines. But her father attended night school, then won a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon; the family moved to Pittsburgh and rose into the middle class. Ehrenreich studied physics in college, got a doctorate in cell biology, and, in the late sixties, alongside her husband at the time, John Ehrenreich, she became involved in health-care organizing and antiwar activism.
In the decades since, Ehrenreich has tried, as a writer and an activist, to forge a bridge between the working and middle classes. She published her first two books—one on chemistry and one, co-written with her husband, about student protest—in 1969, and started attracting a wide audience in the nineteen-seventies, when she began writing for the influential feminist magazine Ms. She’s now published more than twenty books, including the 2001 bestseller “Nickel and Dimed,” about the daily indignities of low-wage work, and “Natural Causes,” a 2018 polemic about the wellness industry and the illusion of control. Her latest, “Had I Known: Collected Essays,” which brings together work from the past four decades, examines health, the economy, feminism, “bourgeois blunders,” God, science, and joy.
I recently visited Ehrenreich at home, in her fifth-floor condo outside Washington, D.C. Like her, the place was no-nonsense but welcoming. There were magazines on side tables, and shelves piled with books. She had broken her arm the previous weekend—“attacked,” she said, “by a laundry basket,” which she’d tripped over in the dark—and had enlisted a publicist at Twelve Books to pick up sandwiches and drinks for us. She asked over e-mail if I had any dietary preferences or restrictions, and I said that I valued all sandwiches but preferred one without mayonnaise, a choice that later became the subject of discussion. After selecting a turkey sandwich with mustard—Ehrenreich had chicken salad—I sat down with her in a small sunroom overlooking the Potomac River, with a peaceful view of our nation’s stressful capital. Ehrenreich nestled into a wicker love seat, propping her feet up, her right arm balanced gingerly in a sling. Later, as the coronavirus began shutting down the country, we spoke again, over the phone. These two conversations have been combined and edited for length and clarity.
I saw that you tweeted, “Got up this morning and self-quarantined, just like I do every morning.” The writer’s life has prepared us both for this.
Yes, and they’re saying that old people shouldn’t be outdoors, so there we go.
Coronavirus has illuminated a lot about the limits of individualism, and our lack of a safety net. Is that where your mind has been?
My mind has been full of grim and rageful thoughts, many of which are about the lack of paid sick leave. We turn out to be so vulnerable in the United States. Not only because we have no safety net, or very little of one, but because we have no emergency preparedness, no social infrastructure. In other places—Barcelona, for example, where my son is now—there’s much more of a community feeling in how you face disaster. We have a little bit of it—Rebecca Solnit has written beautifully about the subject. But we don’t have enough. From the prehistoric perspective, people have gotten through a lot of stuff by coöperating and sticking together. We built cities, we irrigated fields. Whether we’ve lost that capacity, I don’t know.
There’s an underlying argument in your work, I think—in “Blood Rites,” for instance, your book about war, from 1997, and “Dancing in the Streets,” your book about collective joy, from 2006—that we are wired for solidarity but molded for competitive betrayal. You’ve also written about how solidarity can manifest both constructively and destructively—about how the rush of solidarity that accompanies war is not so different from the rush of solidarity that accompanied the birth of the socialist movement, say.
Solidarity can embody so many things—fascism, religious fervor. I don’t trust it inherently. I’m thinking a lot more about this dialectic right now because of a book I’m supposed to be working on—that’s what you saw me doing when you walked in—about narcissism. We want, we crave connectedness, and yet it can turn against us in awful ways.
What was the impetus for writing a book about narcissism?
Oh, you know—across the river. It is a rich topic, though I hate to say it that way, looking at the news right now and thinking that Trump, maybe the biggest narcissist that we have in the world, could be defeated by this speck of RNA and protein. And, as a species, humans are so narcissistic. We forgot that the animals with fangs and claws once dined on our predecessors. We forgot that the so-called defeat of the infectious diseases, in the early twentieth century, was never actually a defeat. We have to understand that our place in the scheme of things is not very high.
Coronavirus seems to be spotlighting the question that underlies everything right now: whether survival—of climate change, let’s say—will be something we negotiate individually or collectively.
The question is really: How many people do we expect are going to make it? The Silicon Valley view is that it’s about three hundred and fifty of us. The left point of view has to be, “We stand shoulder to shoulder and try to get through this.”
Do you think that’s—
Or naïve, or something? Mathematically, it is daunting.
I just became a grandmother for a third time. I can’t not think that some of us will survive.
When your third “grand-dot,” as you put it, was born, you tweeted, “The universe starts all over again.” And you’ve said that having your first child prompted a political and personal transformation. In “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses,” which you co-wrote with Deirdre English a few years after your daughter was born, you argued that women, for most of history, had been doctors without degrees—that learning and practicing medicine was women’s heritage, and that the gender imbalance in the medical field at the time, with ninety-three per cent of American doctors being male, was deeply unnatural.
Having my first child made me into a real feminist. It was the sexism of doctors, the whole system. With my first pregnancy, the doctor at this hospital clinic—I couldn’t afford private care—did a pelvic exam to see if I was good to go and have the baby. When it was over, I peeked up and said, “So, is the cervix beginning to be effaced?” And he looked at the nurse, and said to her, “Where did a nice girl like this learn to talk like that?”
I would say that that’s when I transitioned to raging feminism.
I imagine “Nickel and Dimed” was another turning point in your career.
That was a complete change for me. I thought of it as a kind of excursion into reporting. I’m not really a reporter, so I had no idea what to do. I just went out and got the jobs, and then after a few days I figured, well, I’ll just write down everything that happens during the day, during the shift, after.
What about in terms of the book’s success? It’s sold a million and a half copies.
Oh, yeah, because then I made money. I made money running around the speaking, lecture circuit for years, which combined well with activism for raising wages, to the dismay of the people and the administrators who invited me.
There was this one college that invited me to give a speech to all the incoming students. I was contacted before I came by some workers at the college asking if I could meet with them to discuss their organizing drive. I said, “Sure, let’s have dinner when I get there.” And I did. Maybe six of them. The word of this meeting got to the president of the college, who then did everything he could to sabotage me. Right before the talk, he told me I had twenty minutes, whereas before he’d said forty. And one other thing, can I be nasty?
He had a limousine pick me up at the airport and drive me back to the airport—a stretch limo, the kind where you can’t even talk to the driver, you’re so far back. Then he complained about my being a diva to the press, implying that I’d insisted on this limo.
When you were writing that book, who were you writing for? And who did your publisher think you were writing for? You’ve noted before that you received a pretty small advance—to the point that, when you were later diagnosed with breast cancer, you had to borrow money from family and friends.
I have a hard time, as a writer, picking an audience. I mostly just write whatever I’m comfortable with. I remember, writing “Nickel and Dimed,” thinking maybe I was using words that might not be familiar to some people—like “glossolalia,” speaking in tongues. And I thought, Hell, I feel like using it, you can look it up too, dammit.
I think the book struck such a nerve because the biggest media outlets rarely depict the actual textures of working-class life. About a decade later, you founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which funds and co-publishes stories about inequality in mainstream outlets—often written by people who are themselves receiving the sharp end of the stick. What inspired that? And do you see the project as having to do with the downward mobility of the journalistic profession?
Well, in 2009, I was appalled by the New York Times’ coverage of the recession, which was all about people on the Upper West Side who could not afford their personal Pilates trainer anymore. So I approached them and said I want to do some things about people who had already been struggling when the recession began. They agreed. I got space in what was then the Sunday Review section and got to work. In my mind, to do this I had to go to different places around the country, see different people. So it was costing me money, and, at a certain point, I realized that what they were paying me was so much less than what they’d paid me five years earlier, when I did a column for the same section of the paper. It was forty per cent of that.
And I thought, Geez, I’m losing money on this, but I guess I made money on “Nickel and Dimed,” I can afford it. And then I thought, What kind of bullshit is this? Only rich people can write about poverty? That’s when the idea of E.H.R.P. came to my mind.
Speaking of the Times, I was reading an old David Brooks column, from 2006, in which he wrote, “Liberals have adopted an overly negative view of reality. Barbara Ehrenreich’s books are well and good, but if you think they represent the broader society, you’ll get America wrong.” The underlying argument of the column was that things were going pretty well, actually—that the poverty rate, at about a quarter of the American population, was just fine.
Class insularity in the media élite is a huge obstacle—people who, when they see a working-class person, it’s probably the FedEx guy. I can’t tell anyone how bad that is if they haven’t already noticed. The other problem is that publications are afraid to offend advertisers, who tend not to want their ad for diamonds to be facing a page about indigent women with cancer.
The journalism professor Christopher R. Martin recently wrote a book called “No Longer Newsworthy” that’s about this problem. He writes about how, throughout the twentieth century, newspapers shifted their coverage of labor issues from the perspective of the worker to the perspective of the consumer—talking to and implicitly sympathizing with the woman who was inconvenienced by a bus strike, rather than the bus drivers who were striking. I wonder if you think this is a problem in coronavirus coverage so far.
Do you think it is?
Sure—there’s more about cruise-ship passengers who are quarantined than about the cruise-ship workers who have to sanitize spaces, and lots of talk about online ordering and few interviews with warehouse workers and delivery drivers who have to shoulder the risk.
I’ve been thinking about Typhoid Mary, who woke people up to the fact that they had a biological connection with people they barely looked at. Maybe this will be an opportunity to remind us of our dependence on everyone else. But I don’t see that happening yet.
I wanted to ask you about a term you coined, with your first husband, in 1977: the professional-managerial class, or the P.M.C. It’s become a popular term among the young left, and a big point of contention. The P.M.C. are people whose economic and social status is based largely on education rather than capital ownership: teachers, managers, lawyers, doctors, and culture workers of various kinds. These professionals make up about twenty per cent of the country’s population, but a person reading the news and watching TV might think they make up ninety per cent of it. Many of these professions began with missions of social improvement, but in practice the P.M.C. have largely reinforced an existing order rather than lifting up the people they represent or teach or care for. You originally asked whether the P.M.C. could actually align itself with working-class interests rather than continue to seek control. Then, in 2013, you wrote a follow-up, in which you observed that the P.M.C. lay “in ruins”—that its members were either placing themselves in increasingly direct service to capital, being disempowered by corporate control, or spiralling down the ladder into hourly wage work. You asked, “Should we mourn the fate of the P.M.C., or rejoice that there is one less smug, self-styled elite to stand in the way of a more egalitarian future?” Do you have an answer to that question, and has it changed?
I would say mourn. What’s happened to the P.M.C. has been a disaster that’s sort of localized. Like in journalism, in all the creative occupations, there’s no stability unless you’re a superstar of some sort. Law. A lot of software jobs have gone. I can’t rejoice. And what puzzles me about the young folks is their use of P.M.C. as a slur.
That puzzles you?
When people use it as a pejorative, they mean the massive non-radicalized faction of it, right? They’re echoing your analysis—which I found to be a pretty useful framework for parsing, let’s say, the divide between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters in 2016.
I should explain that the concept of the P.M.C. did not flow from long meditations about Marxist theory. It came from things that were happening in groups I belonged to, the way in which you could not keep together the blue-collar and P.M.C. people. The P.M.C. people were so goddam rude.
This may sound trivial, but it’s not to me. We had a meeting—this was the New American Movement, one of the predecessors of the Democratic Socialists of America—that was hosted by this blue-collar couple, Pat and Ed, who set out a really nice spread of cookies and little sandwiches at their house. And our two self-important P.M.C. members walked in and completely ignored the offering of food and just launched into a tirade against me, because I’d brought these blue-collar people into the group and they were “diluting the politics.” I was just like, “Fuck you. One of them is a practicing nurse and the other one is a locksmith. Because you guys are professors, you think you can do this?” Exposure to P.M.C. contempt for working-class people really is what did it. I began to think, “What’s going on here?”
That contempt still exists, don’t you think? And that same “fuck you” feeling—and the degree to which P.M.C. disregard for the working class has been the story of the Democratic Party’s failures—is why the term is used in a derogatory sense.
But I also like the definition of the working class that the professor of economics Michael Zweig has suggested: people who lack authority in their professional lives. That definition accounts for the ways that people who might have belonged to the P.M.C. people are aligning with the working class in part because of some shared experience of professional disempowerment. There are recent movements—the teacher’s strikes, the Google walkouts, organizers including Uber drivers as tech workers—that seem to reflect this.
In the seventies and eighties, when I was very involved with health workers, beautiful things would happen when the doctors aligned themselves with the struggles of aides and orderlies—saw them as people they would make change with. For example, if you want to understand what’s actually happening with patients, it’s the person who cleans the rooms who might know more than anyone else. That’s the terrible thing about capitalism: not just its exploitativeness but its refusal to let information flow uphill. That’s how we get things like Boeing, where the engineers know that things are really fucked but no one listens to them. And we make that mistake again and again.
How did you hold on to a working-class identity, when so many people who go to fancy universities and get advanced degrees do not?
I ask myself that every day. But I came from what was originally a blue-collar family, and so I’m steeped in that culture. In fact, I have questions about your dislike of mayonnaise.
Well, I’ve never liked mayonnaise—although my mom loves it. But it really comes from me being sixteen and trying to get money for college by going on this reality TV show where I could’ve won fifty thousand dollars. The first challenge was an eating race: the dishes were covered with those silver hotel bells, and they pulled off the cover, and under my bell was this big mound of hot mayonnaise.
And what are you supposed to do with it?
Eat it. So I had to eat a mound of hot mayonnaise.
O.K., you’re forgiven.
Do you think that people disliking mayonnaise is P.M.C. snobbery?
Yeah. It is. Mayonnaise is sort of low-class.
Why is mayo such a symbol for the white working class specifically, do you think?
I guess it seems retrograde, like something that goes with other things that are left behind by forward-looking people.
Wait, how did we get into this mayo stuff?
Class solidarity. I think one way to tell where your sympathies lie, if you’re part of the P.M.C., as we both are, is your point of view on the convenience economy. I’ve always really liked your formulation in “Fear of Falling,” where you wrote, “It is possible, however, to ‘read’ things another way: not only as statements about the status of their owners, but as the congealed labor of invisible others.” With Amazon, Instacart, it’s the question of whether we look at these things in terms of what they do for the consumer or what they do for the worker.
In my personal life, this is a problem. For Christmas, I won’t go into malls anymore. So, yeah. Things get ordered. Cardboard boxes pile up. People faint in the Amazon fulfillment centers, as they’re wonderfully called. And I can’t—I don’t know.
My ex-husbands, by the way, have been rising to the occasion of this broken arm. One of them showed up last week. One is coming tomorrow, and he’s a union organizer who’s sort of retired but is working as an adviser to Amazon workers who are trying to organize. We talk about this a lot, and I admit to being another failure of coming up with a solution. My general rule is to buy as little as possible, although I do lapse at Christmas.
Well, you’ve got three grand-dots. And you have a broken arm, so you really do have to order things in, as a lot of people do who use Amazon.
Yeah. But I didn’t have the arm as an excuse at Christmas. What do you think is the solution?
I don’t know. I think you’ve made as clear an argument on the subject as one can. But I tend to think that the mechanisms for enacting solidarity are getting more difficult to access.
Do you use Amazon?
I sometimes use it to order used copies of academic books, the ones that cost two hundred dollars otherwise. But otherwise, not anymore. I also have an easy life, though—no dependents, and I make good money. I used Amazon all the time when I was making twenty thousand dollars a year.
You don’t save money by using Amazon, do you?
I definitely saved money on books.
I have another question about P.M.C.-working class solidarity for you. I’m struck by how the right has provided a convincing but really deceptive version of it. Right-wing populist figures like Tucker Carlson are people with upper-middle-class backgrounds who express solidarity with the working-class, often by spouting xenophobia and racism.
I think that’s exploitative. I have no use for those people. We need solidarity, but we also need to face the differences between those classes. How have they come about? How are they maintained from generation to generation to generation? And what can be changed about that?
I don’t think you should put this in The New Yorker, but, in some deep way, as somebody pointed out to me recently, I am a Maoist. He was the first of the revolutionary leaders who recognized these divisions and decided that had to be something the revolution focussed on.
That’ll be the headline: Barbara Ehrenreich Is a Maoist. What did you think about Bernie Sanders getting in trouble for praising Cuban literacy rates?
I thought, That’s more silliness. In my case, I only mean that there was something inspiring about the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution—this idea that the contribution of the manual laborer is just as great as that of the engineer and the scientist. I kind of like that.
On the subject of getting in trouble, I have to ask about your Marie Kondo tweet. You tweeted, “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English.” And then there were headlines about it on USA Today’s Web site and elsewhere. Why do you think it made such big news?
Well, I think what I said was really stupid—ill considered and written quickly and I was mortified. Some editor had asked me to write something about Marie Kondo, so I watched part of her show on Netflix, and I was appalled. I hope that’s not intrinsically bad. I’ll admit something to you—one thing that was also going on was that my mother would just throw all my clothes out of the chest of drawers and onto the floor when she thought things were messy. Something about that got triggered with Marie Kondo and I felt this sort of rage, not that that’s an excuse or anything.
You’ve spoken somewhere about bringing some union people to a meeting where an adjunct professor stood up and said, “I’m so tired of hearing white men talk.” Do you have impatience with the discourse around identity?
Well, in that case, it was just P.M.C. rudeness. These union guys, they weren’t even all white, and it was more that they dressed differently, compared to L.G.B.T.Q.-supporting vegans and so on. I saw that comment as class prejudice, which can be as real and hurtful as racial prejudice.
How could class politics be differentiated from identity politics—or how are they differentiated from identity politics? Class is, or it should be, a fungible thing. I wonder if our understanding of class as identity would change if there was real class mobility in this country.
The two are different, very different. I think what we would say is that we want to end racism, not race—but with class, we can end it, and we should.