VICE first spoke to Barbara Ehrenreich in February, a month and a lifetime ago, before the coronavirus pandemic had wrapped the globe and altered the fabric of daily life for the foreseeable future. Yet much of what Ehrenreich spoke about—inequality, the fraying social safety net, her alternating feelings of terror and hope when she looks towards the future—feels more relevant than ever. So do many of the subjects contained in her new book Had I Known, a collection of essays spanning more than 30 years of her astonishing career.
Ehrenreich, 78, has long been primarily focused on inequality in America: the ways it affects our health, our wellbeing, our ability to make a living, and the extent to which we’re able to create community. Had I Known could simply function as a grim reminder that much of what she first warned us about in the ‘80s and ‘90s has only gotten worse. But the book is also a curious joy to read, full of Ehrenreich’s sly humor, her dry asides, and her elegant, bird’s-eye view of the many fractures and rotted spots in modern society.
Ehrenreich will cop to feeling “scared shitless” about the future, she told VICE. But even after the COVID-19 outbreak worsened, her searching, lucid mind was at work, seeking out the ways the United States and the world could emerge from this crisis stronger. Her greatest hope, she said, is that globally we learn, simply, “how to work together.”
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The introduction to Had I Known deals with the incredibly bleak state of journalism for many people. Among others, you talk about a talented writer you know in Santa Fe who also sells his plasma to get by. You also founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which tries to help journalists get stories about inequality and financial instability into news outlets all over the country. It made me feel keenly aware, all over again, of how narrow the ledge is that we’re all balancing on. But do you feel that way too, in your own life?
I have for much of my life. It started out very different. When I started writing for money, in the ‘80s, I could sort of do it. I could sort of make ends meet with help from child support for the kids and, you know, throwing in other jobs. Sometimes I was an adjunct professor, whatever it is we do when we’re not writing. So, I could sort of do it if I was very disciplined and I wrote about 4,000 words a month, 4,000 publishable words a month. But that’s all gone. You can’t do that anymore.
The number of people who are able to make a living that way is disappearing. You’ve definitely seemingly escaped the trap a lot of writers and journalists do. You’re one of the big ones. Do you feel a sense of luck, or of guilt? What is it like to have made it, where so many people haven’t?
Well, I feel lucky. I think that luck plays a big part in these things.
I want to go back to Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, since those were such defining books for you, but first I’d ask—are you tired of talking about them?
[Laughs] A little bit. It’s easy to talk about them, though. I can’t count the number of speeches and interviews I’ve given [about them] over the years.
It’s the curse of having written one of the defining books of modern journalism. I’m wondering if you can remember when you decided how Nickel and Dimed should be first person, fundamentally undercover, and if you came up with a defined set of ethics for how you’d write about the people you met, since they didn’t know what you were doing.
It seemed to me kind of ethically challenging. I talked to the then-dean of the Berkeley Journalism School and said, “What do I do? How do I do this?” He shrugged and said he had no idea. I decided if there were no particular guidelines I’d have to make up my own rules. I think they’re pretty clearly stated in the book; for instance that I wouldn’t describe people in such a way that they could be identified. That I would—that if I broke some kind of rule, if I used some of my own actual money, that I kept in a special wallet, that I would have to report that.
I wrote a book a while ago that required a lot of being in the field and really immersed in some challenging experiences and I was so exhausted after, just completely drained. Do you remember what it was like to go back to your life?
Well, I realized that my own life was sort of magical compared to my fake life as a waitress or a hotel housekeeper or whatever I was doing at the time. You know, I could have, if I wanted, called a taxi to get somewhere in a hurry. Things like that are just not even thinkable if you’re earning near the minimum wage. It seemed to me that my ordinary life was pretty magic.
It seemed to me that my ordinary life was pretty magic.
A lot of your books are fundamentally about the ways that society acts on us—or presses down on us—despite our frantic efforts to convince ourselves that we’re individuals who control our own destiny. Class and economics control us. Death comes for us no matter how fit we are, or hard we run on a treadmill. Where are you fatalistic and where are you hopeful?
I don’t really cop to either of those identities. I think the point is not to be positive and optimistic versus negative and grumpy. The point is to try to understand the world as it actually is right now around us. And think of what we can do to head off some of the worst outcomes, which are now pretty ominous.
Right, which is why you endorsed Bernie Sanders, why you talk so much about climate change—you seem very engaged in the project of trying to make things better, or at least head us somewhat away from the cliff.
I try, in my little ways. But I have to admit, I’m scared shitless. I probably wouldn’t be if I weren’t a mother and grandmother. This world is for my children and your children and their children. It makes it very hard to look at what may lie ahead of us.
You’re probably a lot younger than I am. You have kids?
Not yet. I hope to. But I don’t know if it’s ethical anymore, to bring more people in here.
I just acquired a third granddaughter three weeks ago. It’s amazing. It’s one of the most wonderful things that can happen to you. But it’s also terrifying.
What she’s inheriting?
A lot of what you uncover in your books is a kind of larger cruelty—a fundamentally unfair and inhumane system that’s making it virtually impossible to get by. But you also find a lot of smaller cruelties: in Nickel and Dimed, you talk about restaurant managers who scream at employees who stand still for a minute, or in Bait and Switch, would-be bosses who humiliate job seekers.
What do you make of the fact that so many ordinary people are willing to participate in—even relish—these inhumane systems, and seem to want to uphold them? In part, we’re talking here about the “professional managerial class,” a term you and John Ehrenreich coined in the 1970s.
If you’re a member of the PMC class you also realize you’re not at the top of the pile by any means. The pile is so high and so deep. We really don’t have much control over our lives no matter how highly educated and accomplished we are. They know that there is a pile, and they know the only way to advance higher in that pile is going to seem to be absolutely committed to your job, even when doing your job involves harming or discomfiting other people around you. It’s just a calculation. You don’t get ahead by telling your workers that they can sit down and put their feet up for half an hour. You want to be observed by other people as a stickler for the rules, a hard-driving manager.
You don’t get ahead by telling your workers that they can sit down and put their feet up for half an hour.
It feels to me, re-reading those books as an adult and many of your essays in Had I Known, that you’re often engaged in this urgent, sometimes infuriated project of trying to get wealthier people to care about poverty and poor people, writing these urgent pieces about poverty and class inequality and the difficulty of making it, for publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Does that feel accurate to you?
Well it’s sort of what I’m trying to do. What’s much more thrilling to me is to get mail from people who say things like, “You described my life.” If I can do that in a way that makes it recognizable and vivid to them, where they begin to realize that their lives are pretty special and should be paid attention to, then I feel good that I can do that.
Making people’s lives visible, not just as objects of pity, but that people’s lives and stories are worth talking about no matter where they are on the rung.
Your books have the depressing distinction of having stood the test of time—Had I Known is full of essays from the 1980s and ‘90s that are about the vanishing middle class, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, homelessness, the high cost of student loans, the hypocrisies of the so-called New Man—it often feels like not much has changed since the time these essays were except to get worse. Is that how you feel when you re-read
It was chilling to re-read these. [Chuckling] Because so little has changed and what has changed has so often changed for the worse. The class inequalities in our society are worse than they were 20 years ago, when Nickel and Dimed was published. I think it’s hard to find an area of great improvement. Certainly not in the area of low wage work. The kinds of conditions I was describing in Nickel and Dimed, I thought they’d be obsolete in a few years.
You wrote in 1986: “Without a potent political alternative, we are likely to continue our slide between the hungry and the overfed, the hopeless and the have-it-alls. What is worse there will be no mainstream peaceable political outlets for the frustration of the declining middle class or the desperation of those at the bottom. Instead it is safe to predict that there will be more crime, more exotic forms of religious and political sectarianism and ultimately we will no longer become one nation but two.” That’s pretty prophetic of you.
It feels like you were examining socialism a long time before you endorsed Bernie Sanders.
Oh yeah, I’ve called myself a socialist starting in the mid-70s. I even campaigned once with Bernie Sanders. I was in Vermont for some feminist conference and he tracked me down and asked if i wanted to knock on doors with him. Of course I was thrilled to. He was running for Congress. I’ve been feeling the Bern forever.
What was he like? Do you remember what spending time with him was like?
Slightly. He was jolly. I’ve heard he’s gotten crankier with age.
Haven’t we all?
[Laughs] I guess so.
I get crankier every day.
You’ve described yourself as a “mythbuster by trade,” which is interesting to me—a lot of those myths seem to be ones that start to shadow your own life, like some of what’s described in Bright Sided and Natural Causes, both of which reference your breast cancer diagnosis.
I’m wondering if you had some reluctance around writing about having breast cancer, and diving deeply into the reporting, or if you always knew you would end up writing about it.
Well, i didn’t think of writing anything at first. You don’t think right away in those circumstances. What fascinated me was not so much the biology of cancer, but the anthropology. This special subculture grew up around breast cancer, and to a much lesser degree, around other forms of cancer. It was a culture that was completely foreign to me and emphasized more than anything the importance of thinking positively: “You want to get better or recover? Think positively and it will happen.” I can’t tell you how much that really pissed me off. It was so clear that it was not something I could do with a flip of some mental switch at all. When we start putting it that way and putting the emphasis on how the patient’s feelings are, we are potentially blaming the victim.
Some of what was interesting to me in reading your work around this are the ways that corporations who may have a role in causing breast cancer benefit from making it a problem of not enough positive thinking, instead of carcinogens. But this kind of mind-over-matter, The Secret, “You manifest what you put in the world” really moved from the New Age subculture to the mainstream. That used to be a somewhat fringe idea, that your mind affected your body or your health. What do you make of the fact that positive thinking as a driving force to control your health became so mainstream?
It was diligently and enthusiastically promoted by those who had a stake in propagating it. Writers of books like The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. Life coaches. People who do executive coaching in companies. There’s a whole army of them. It’d be interesting to try to get a group of them together. People who are invested in having other people spend money on improving their energy as if that will do something for your physical health.
That was a big feature of Marianne Williamson’s career and, to some extent, of her presidential campaign. What did you make of her campaign?
I have to admit I wasn’t paying that much attention to the whole thing. I didn’t know what she was about. It was probably a little too mushy for me.
Back to the mythbusting thing, I’m surprised you don’t write more about conspiracy theories. They’ve become a big part of the culture. Some of our biggest world leaders engage in active myth-making and conspiracy theorizing. Are there any that you would say you believe in?
Oh yeah. I’m very much influenced by a friend who got a PhD in anthropology and has written about conspiracy theories and their association with being lower class and being stupid and uneducated, supposedly. And yet there are conspiracies, like how the United States went to war with Iraq. You could say there was a conspiracy. It included politicians and journalists and all sorts of people. I think anti-conspiracy theory stuff gets a little silly.
I think anti-conspiracy theory stuff gets a little silly.
It’s not a historically correct reading of the number of actual conspiracies there have been in this country. You would’ve had a front row seat to some revelations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Nixon’s secret bombings campaigns or the FBI trying to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to die by suicide.
Sometimes we have to realize that elites do—not conspire, exactly—they get together. They hash things out.
And exercise enormous control over our lives.
Do you believe in aliens?
Do I believe in aliens? “Believe” is not a category I use a lot. If I have evidence of alien intelligent beings, then I’ll believe. It’s not a matter of belief or not. We misuse the word belief. “Do you believe in evolution?” for instance, well, that’s not something you believe in. You look at the evidence for it, weigh it in your head, talk to different people. But that’s not belief.
But part of our growing polarization as a society is you believe one set of facts or another and you don’t change sides. People seem to choose different sets of facts and can’t be dissuaded from them. That must be frustrating for you as a researcher and someone who’s trained in science.
I sometimes feel like a real outlier. [Laughs] Examining evidence should be a time-honored Enlightenment command.
Living with a Wild God is one of yours I hadn’t read before, and it surprised me. It describes an encounter you had as a teenager with a terrifying, thrilling, ineffable natural phenomenon that resembled a religious experience, or at least an experience of touching something beyond the everyday. Is that a decent way to describe it?
Yeah. it challenged my very deeply held materialism.
You didn’t write about it or speak about it publicly for years, and you decided it was unfair to your younger self not to write about it or examine what had happened.
It was almost a journalistic responsibility. This happened to me and yet I never talked about it, never put it out there. The letters I’ve gotten about it are wonderful, people telling me, “I had a nearly identical experience.” That is extremely heartening to me. It sounds like someone ought to do a lot more research on what’s involved.
It does sound a bit like temporal lobe epilepsy; people often say the world looks sort of uncanny or unfamiliar before a temporal lobe seizure. William Blake described an experience like this. Philip K. Dick.
I sometimes personally have a hesitation in writing about the parts of my life where I, for lack of a better word—touch another place, both because they can be hard to describe and because I want them to keep happening, and maybe want to keep them private.
What was your experience putting that extremely personal and hard to pin down thing in the world? Did you ever regret it?
[Emphatically] Yeah. I did think, “Maybe that book was too much information.” You’re a writer. You go from feeling good and triumphant about what you’re doing to feeling like everything you write is a piece of shit.
I mostly do the latter.
[Laughs] I mostly do the latter too.
Has that experience you describe in the book visited you again?
Little flashbacks, yes.
Before I let you go, back to the hideous state of journalism: Would you tell someone straight out of college or journalism school to go into journalism at this point?
That’s such a hard question. If you’re giving a speech at a journalism school, say, you have to point out that this is not a profession with any kind of security or stability anymore. It once was, but no more. That’s how much things have changed since I was in my 20s or early 30s getting started. Now, it’s almost impossible to make a living as a freelancer writer unless you’re extremely hardworking and lucky.
What would you have done, if you had it to do over?
Oh, I wouldn’t have done anything different.
What if you were 25 today, just starting out?
It’s hard for me to think of doing anything else. This is what I have been doing, what I instinctively do: get a pen and paper, make little notes to myself.
It’s just part of you.
That’s how I feel. I can’t do anything else, I don’t have any other skills, I don’t have any other instincts, this is it. I don’t really have a choice in it. So maybe you should only do journalism if you feel doomed to do it and can’t function in the world otherwise?
Yes, if there’s no other way to function in the world. But what I’m doing now with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is trying to make it easier for other people to make a living as a writer or a video person or whatever their particular craft is. That’s what I think I owe people who are in poverty and have a story to tell, but who can’t afford to write for the trivial amounts of pay that one can get.
We look for those people, and then we help them plan how they’re going to go about the work. We edit what they do. We help them find possible outlets, which in our case range from small-town newspapers, those that are left, all the way to things like the New York Times.
You’re not just doing a service for these individual journalists. You’re doing a service for journalism. If the only journalism is performed by middle- and upper-class white people, it means we aren’t seeing large swathes of reality.
Yeah, but that’s what happens. We’re losing stories. We’re not recording people’s experiences. We’re not making a fuss about injustice.
March 20, several weeks later
Well! Since we last talked, the world has fallen apart, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and the government is failing us. You told me in our last conversation that you were “scared shitless” and said you saw some pretty ominous outcomes for the world in the years ahead. I imagine the last few weeks haven’t turned you around on that.
No. if anything it’s more worrisome when you see how clownish Trump has been in the face of a crisis. And yet at the same time, if you glance at the more liberal-oriented op-eds, everyone is saying that what we need is exactly what Bernie was proposing: some kind of basic minimum income for everyone for starters. Everything on the left-liberal agenda is now not just sort of considered optional and nice, but essential.
We’re literally watching what little social safety net there was just fray and collapse. You wrote on Twitter, “Is coronavirus incompatible with capitalism?” Can you expand on that?
A threat like this, people need to come together. And the major way we have of doing that in our overcrowded world is through government. You need a government. I’m not even specifying what kind, but you need some way or behaving collectively and making decisions. That’s what’s so scary. When the president says to the governors of individual states “You take care of this.”
Everyone is fending for themselves: every institution, every county, every individual person frantically buying up medical masks. Is it scary to see the way a lot of people seem to turn inwards and hoard supplies or toilet paper and act in self-interest?
Well, we see both. There are many instances of mutual aid and communities coming together to help their more vulnerable members. And this can go either way. I think it’s a good place for the anarchists to step in. They don’t like government anyway, so, great.
They have been! Anarchist and socialist organizations are trying to put into practice what they talk about: organizing mutual aid, delivering groceries to vulnerable people, protecting undocumented people.
Absolutely. There’s a lot happening. Both possibilities are open to us.
You also wrote on Twitter, “This could be a catastrophe or a great opportunity.” What did you mean? What do you see that we can learn from this, in a best-case scenario?
That we’ll learn to work together. We’ll learn that even geographical community, as old-fashioned as that might be, is very important right now. We’re not geographical. We have cellphones, those of us who do. We have if, we’re lucky, the internet. So we have to be creative here.
How are you feeling for yourself?
I’m feeling sorry for myself. [Laughs] Several weeks ago I broke an arm and it hasn’t gotten all the way better. It recently got bad again. So I’m allowed to feel a little sorry for myself. But there are so many other people to feel sorry for myself, it preempts any possibility of self-pity.
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