on the page magazine

issue no. 6, winter 2001–2002


Society's Failure
A Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is an award-winning political essayist and social critic. A frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Nation, her books include The Worst Years of Our Lives and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. For her latest book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Ehrenreich took low-wage jobs to see if anyone could survive, let alone prosper, in entry-level service positions. Traveling across the country, she worked as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart sales clerk. Studs Terkel notes that Ehrenreich has "accomplished what no contemporary writer has even attempted—to be the nobody who barely subsists on her essential labors."
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don't need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

        ~ from Nickel and Dimed

In October, OtP editor ZoŽ Francesca spoke with Ehrenreich about some of the collective failures of our society.

the failure to address the real threats to america

ZF:   In the pre-presidential election period of 2000, you told Salon magazine that "the one thing the next president could do is to shrink the military-industrial complex to about a fourth of its present size....The money thus freed can be used to defeat the real threats to America—like poverty, illiteracy and environmental degradation." How do you think the fate of the poor in America will be affected now that we're engaged in a "War on Terrorism?"

BE:   I was talking to a right-winger yesterday who told me, "The war will take care of the economy." But wars no longer generate the huge industrial manufacturing jobs they used to. Nor do wars require the vast armies of earlier eras. War is not labor intensive these days. It's capital intensive.

ZF:   Like we're all supposed to be spending our money right now instead of saving it.

BE:   You mean we're told to? I don't think war can be counted on to do something for the economy either way. A lot will depend on what sort of economic stimulus package comes out of Washington. If they want to have another tax cut like the last one that was just re-distributing wealth upwards (giving the "average" family a few hundred dollars to pay off some credit card debts), it's not going to help. Now if, on the other hand, they can come back with some beefed up form of unemployment insurance to help all the people who are being laid off now, that would be good. But clearly, something has got to be done about the safety net that was already damaged by welfare reform in 1996.

On quitting a waitressing job:   I leave. I don't walk out, I just leave....There is no vindication in this exit, no fuck-you surge of relief, just an overwhelming dank sense of failure pressing down on me and the entire parking lot.

ZF:   Reports show that 98 percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death. How is it that we have failed our workers again and find workers battling the same issues after a hundred years?

BE:   It's just so tempting. It's so apparently profitable to mistreat people and underpay them. And there's not enough will to stop these practices. There are some very exciting things like the campus concerns with stopping sweated labor. There's a new consciousness that was not here five years ago. But there still needs to be more public will to make a difference. I was just glancing at a resolution passed by the city of Bangor, Maine saying that no clothes made in sweatshops can be sold in that city. And there's been a movement to get cities to pass ordinances like that.

Work is supposed to save you from being an "outcast"..., but what we do is an outcast's work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditch diggers, changers of adult diapers—these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society.

ZF:   In an October 2000 interview with David Barsamian, you discussed the fallacies of the corporate philosophy that in response to criticism of sweatshop labor says, "We are providing work where no work exists and putting money into the pockets of poor Third World people." Nickel and Dimed reminded me of this argument from people who hire maids and nannies and feel they are giving work to people who need it. However, the women in these jobs get such low wages. How do we get away with blatant subordination of those we depend on the most?

BE:   To me, this represents an inversion of what our values ought to be. I think there's no kind of work that's more important than what our childcare workers, healthcare workers and eldercare workers do. Why aren't they at the top of the income distribution? At the top for respect and honor?

There's the whole pay equity issue. Historically, women were not expected to be supporting a family. There's also an unspoken assumption that taking care of others is an instinctual activity and doesn't need the same kind of reward or recognition that some other job would have.

What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The "home" that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be "worked through," with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next.

a moral equivalent of war

ZF:   Based on your studies on the history and causes of war, do you agree that this "War on Terrorism" is really different from previous wars, as we're being told it is?

BE:   Well, it shouldn't be a war. The weird thing is how it's so much like any war. That is, bombing a country. Bombing a nation state. Which is a strange response if you think about it, to a criminal act apparently performed by 19 men. Even with hundreds of confederates. We don't know. But it was not committed by a nation state. It's not something Egypt did, or Afghanistan did. It was a criminal act. Acts of war are between nation states. The United States hasn't had to think about a war against a very diffuse network of terrorists. It doesn't have any idea of how to think about that. So why not just bomb some country that's harboring them. If you start doing that, though, we'd have to bomb Germany, and Florida....It makes no sense.

ZF:   Have there been any words that have stood out for you in the rhetoric of the last month?

BE:   The word evil always makes me nervous. It's not just a more intense form of bad; it's usually a signal that we've stopped thinking. It's a signal that we're not going to bother to figure this out. Perhaps there's a feeling that if you try to understand, you might be condoning. We're shutting down our brains. And yet the real challenge is to look at terrible acts and try to work our way towards an understanding of how a human being might undertake them.

ZF:   Which would involve some level of compassion?

What I have to face is that "Barb," the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara....Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out—that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.

BE:   Maybe not compassion, but an empathetic ability. Trying to get into the mind of another person whether you feel compassionate toward that person or contemptuous, angry, and resentful.

ZF:   In your book Blood Rites, you paraphrase William James as saying that the kind of courage and altruism that people bring to war could, conceivably, be redirected to some more worthy enterprise. What would that moral equivalent of war look like?

BE:   What I realized when I was thinking through Blood Rites is that the lofty emotions that warriors often expressed—of self sacrifice and altruism, and being part of a larger cause than their own lives—are things that I've felt, too. Not while serving in wars, but while serving in anti-war movements. That's the human capacity to bond together and the willingness of individuals to seek to be part of something "larger than themselves." That capacity is always there. It's neutral. It can go into war. It can go into stopping war.

ZF:   In her famous speech to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Susan B. Anthony said, "Failure is impossible." Do you agree?

BE:   No. Failure is very possible. That's just exhortation talk. I myself might say something like that at the end of a speech or a rally, but failure is entirely possible. Our whole species can fail. And extinction is a real possibility, even without war.

what next?

ZF:   In another interview, you said you hoped more journalists would do the type of undercover journalism that you did for Nickel and Dimed, in other realms. What would some of those realms be?

BE:   There are so many possibilities. One that I wish I could do, but for many reasons I can't, would be to go undercover into middle management in corporate America. Study the corporate culture from that end. I got so curious when I was doing my work, thinking, "What's the rationale behind this? Why do they treat people like this? What is the corporate culture that I'm at the very bottom of?" I also think it would be hilarious.

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