She Kicked Ass Current Affairs – Current Affairs

Barbara Ehrenreich will probably always be best known for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a bestseller that recounted her time spent working low-wage jobs across America. The New York Times review of the book, which deemed Ehrenreich our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism, said the takeaway of the book was that for a worker holding two jobs, wages are too low, housing costs too high for minimally decent survival. Indeed, in obituaries for Ehrenreich, the point of the book is summarized as: working class jobs do not pay enough to cover a minimally decent standard of living. The Times obit says Ehrenreich found it nearly impossible to subsist on an average of $7 an hour and says she concluded that every job takes skill and intelligence and should be paid accordingly. The Guardian says the book helped spread awareness of an economy in which it was necessary to work two or three jobs to survive, and acted as a catalyst of the minimum wage movement.

Its true that a central finding of Nickel and Dimed was that its really difficult to survive on the minimum wage. As Ehrenreich worked restaurant, retail, and house cleaning jobs across the United States she found coworkers sleeping in cars, depending on relatives, forgoing medical care, and not getting enough to eat, and she herself could barely subsist. But theres more to the book than the simple observation that wages are too low and rent is too high. Ehrenreich was a staunch socialist (a fact unmentioned in the Guardian and Times obituaries. Having been a 1980s-era founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ehrenreich said she deserved to be in a club for those who were democratic socialists before it was fashionable), and her book was not merely a liberal reformist call to bump up the minimum wage and respect the dignity of labor. It also contained a (much less discussed) radical critique of how workplaces operate.

When Ehrenreich entered the low-wage labor force, she discovered that it was hard to make ends meet. But she also came to understand how workers were kept obedient by a repressive internal hierarchy of power. This began with tests at the application phase designed to weed out nonconformists and troublemakers. (In fact, on the Walmart survey she takes, the prospective employee is asked to agree/disagree with the statement There is room in every corporation for a nonconformist. The correct answer is totally disagree.) When Ehrenreich only strongly rather than very strongly or totally agrees with the statement rules have to be followed to the letter at all times, an explanation is demanded of her. Inside the workplace, she found, there are rules upon rules, ranging from prohibitions on time theft (doing anything other than working) to no blue jeans except on Friday, and then you have to pay $1 for the privilege of wearing them. At various workplaces, Ehrenreich reports a rule against drinking anything on the job (even when youre really thirsty), a rule that her purse could be searched by management at any time, and rules against gossip and talking (which obviously keep workers from comparing their wages and organizing). More surprising to her than the fact that the minimum wage is hard to live on was the extent to which one is required to surrender ones basic civil rights andwhat boils down to the same thingself-respect.

Ehrenreich discusses the way that management keeps workers from understanding their true bargaining power. She conducted her reporting at a time when jobs were easy to get and workers theoretically had a great deal of leverage to demand higher wages, but she notes that many workers have little sense of their own value to the employer. This is in part because they are constantly made to feel expendable and worthless, and instructed to see disobedience to any rules as shameful and disloyal. She concludes that the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being reamed out by managers are part of what keeps wages low because if youre made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what youre paid is what youre actually worth. She notes that while in the world of economic theory, rational self-interested workers might bargain with employers over their wage, in the real world employers often carefully eliminate any opportunity for such bargaining to take place. She cites the example of going straight from the job interview to being told to get started, without any moment where a job offer is formally extendedas she puts it, whisking the applicant from interview to orientation before the crass subject of money can be raised:

Youre handed the application form and, a few days later, youre being handed the uniform and warned against nose rings and stealing. Theres no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove.

Ehrenreich discusses the various ways that compliance on the job is maintained. For example, at the cleaning company, the bosswho, as the only male in our midst, exerted a creepy, paternalistic kind of powerhad managed to convince some of my coworkers that he was struggling against difficult odds and deserving of their unstinting forbearance. At Walmart, Ehrenreich notes the co-optative power of management, illustrated by such euphemisms as associate and team member, and such corporate-Maoist rituals as the dystopian Walmart cheer. Ehrenreich notes at one point that she herself is becoming more obedient in a way she doesnt like, when she fails to challenge the persecution of a coworker: something newsomething loathsome and servilehad infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. She concludes that part of why wages are low is that workers are kept in highly regimented environments where they cannot organize or challenge authority:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplaceand many of the medium-wage workplaces as wellyou check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the worlds preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship.

Ehrenreichs book is rich with qualitative observations about the world of work, from the presence of unchecked petty harassment and abuse to the fact that the work itself actually suffers as a result of the rigid hierarchyat the cleaning service, they were forced to clean houses poorly in order to minimize the time spent on them, moving dirt around rather than removing it. Ehrenreich shows how millions of people endure constant pain on the job, suffering in silence, so that the middle and upper classes can live comfortably. Her book famously ends by telling American wealthy people they should feel shame that they are so dependent on the philanthropy of people they do not care about:

When someone works for less pay than she can live onwhen, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and convenientlythen she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The working poor, as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, you give and you give.

Ehrenreich predicts, however, that this situation will not last forever, and they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what theyre worth. When this happens, we will all be better off for it.

It should be remembered that when Nickel and Dimed came out, neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to discuss the existence of poor people in America. Republicans because they dont give a shit about the poor anyway and think its treasonous to suggest American capitalism has imperfections. Democrats because they wanted to claim credit for the Clinton economy, which supposedly had brought unprecedented prosperity. As Ehrenreich wrote, the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment. Even religion seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor. It is still the case that politicians are far more likely to talk about the plight of the middle class than those who are significantly worse off than the middle class. Nickel and Dimed was a socialist book at a time when there simply wasnt an American socialist left.

If its important not to see Nickel and Dimed merely as a case for raising the minimum wage, its also important to see Barbara Ehrenreich as far more than the author of Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich was a polymath with a Ph.D. in biology, and over the course of her writing career she published books on war, collective joy, the history of medicine, positive thinking (she was against it), wellness and death, the culture of sexuality, and the middle class, as well as a philosophical thriller novel. (At the time of her death she was working on a book about narcissism.) She co-coined the useful term professional managerial class and founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which funds journalism that elevates the voices of working class people. (Ehrenreich said she 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.) She was a genius with a deep knowledge of both the social sciences and the hard sciences whose work beyond her most popular book has not yet begun to be sufficiently appreciated.

Ehrenreich said that her books were motivated by two things: anger and curiosity. The anger was directed at lies, cruelty, and anything that stifled the human spirit. She could write acidic Swiftian satire, as when she wrote that instead of abolishing welfare, the Clinton administration should simply require welfare recipients to be flogged, since it would achieve the policy goal of punishing the poor for their poverty without depriving them of the means of survival:

Allow welfare recipients to continue to collect their miserly checks, but require that they submit, periodically, to public floggings [T]he real beauty of the welfare-plus-floggings approach is that it will provide an outlet for the punitive rage now directed at the down-and-out. In a curious inversion of the Sermon on the Mount, no social group attracts more ire than the vaguely termed underclass. The need to punish the poor is, of course, already built into the present welfare system, which insists that recipients travel from one government office to another, usually with children in tow, and submit to intimate investigations of their finances, sleeping arrangements, and housekeeping habits. Often this bureaucratic harassment reaches fiendish proportions, driving many poor women from the dole. But imagine the much more vivid effect that could be achieved by the actual drawing of blood!

She concluded that this was win-win: It will make the hawks and the wonks feel much betterwithout starving a single child. Needless to say, it was the even crueler policy of taking away welfare entirely that ultimately won out.

Ehrenreich had a particular contempt for philosophies that tried to convince people that their suffering was their own fault, and that they needed to put on a smile and approach their situation with a positive attitude. In Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich enters the world of unemployed white-collar workers, who are told by career coaches that success in the corporate world depends on having a sunny disposition and that failure shows a lack of personal pluck. Responding to those who push the law of attraction, including one thinker who suggests people attract according to how they are really vibrating, Ehrenreich says:

The obvious liberal rejoinders come to mind: What about the child whose home is hit by a bomb? Did she have some bomb-shaped thoughtform that brought ruin down on her head? And did my boot-camp mates cause the layoffs that drove them out of their jobs by vibrating at a layoff-related frequency? It seems inexcusably cruel to tell people who have reached some kind of personal nadir that their problem is entirely of their own making. I find my thoughtforms massing for an attack on Hernacki, Doyle, and Knowles [three of the self-help gurus she has encountered]pummeling them, knocking them to the ground, all the while accusing them of unconsciously bringing this assault on themselves. Because how else could anything happen to these fellows, except through their own will and desire? But from the point of view of the economic winnersthose who occupy powerful and high-paying jobsthe view that ones fate depends entirely on oneself must be remarkably convenient. It explains the winners success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers. Patricks clients, for example, came to the boot camp prepared to blame their predicament on the economy, or the real estate market, or the inhuman corporate demands on their time. But these culprits were summarily dismissed in favor of alleged individual failings: depression, hesitation, lack of focus. Its not the world that needs changing, is the message, its you. No need, then, to band together to work for a saner economy or a more human-friendly corporate environment, or to band together at all. As one of my fellow campers put it, we are our own enemies.

Lest the corporate life-coaching industry seem like an easy or uncontroversial target, Ehrenreich also went after some more universally admired institutions. As she underwent treatment for breast cancer, Ehrenreich wrote a remarkable essay critiquing the pink ribbon culture around breast cancer, which she found discouraged women from feeling anger or despair at their diagnosis and told them their cancer was a gift and an important part of their life story. Ehrenreich saw this as a manifestation of the same cruel philosophy that was being pushed on the unemployed white- collar workers in Bait and Switch, one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves. Ehrenreichs conclusion about breast cancer culture shows her at her most provocative:

To the extent that current methods of detection and treatment fail or fall short, Americas breast-cancer cult can be judged as an outbreak of mass delusion, celebrating survivorhood by downplaying mortality and promoting obedience to medical protocols known to have limited efficacy. And although we may imagine ourselves to be well past the era of patriarchal medicine, obedience is the message behind the infantilizing theme in breast-cancer culture, as represented by the teddy bears, the crayons, and the prevailing pinkness. You are encouraged to regress to a little-girl state, to suspend critical judgment, and to accept whatever measures the doctors, as parent surrogates, choose to impose.

But Ehrenreich was not encouraging pessimism or despair. In Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, she made clear that instead of positive thinking, we need realistic and critical thinking. The alternative is not to see the bad in everything or to become cynical, but to try to appreciate things as they really are. As a trained scientist, Ehrenreich spent her life trying to refine her understanding of what the world is actually like (a quest documented in her memoir Living With a Wild God) and she wanted people to be able to describe things accurately rather than being coerced into repeating falsehoods.

Ehrenreich was a staunch feminist. Her 1970s books with Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, and For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, are classic critiques of the way the patriarchal values of the medical establishment have damaged womens health. But Ehrenreich was a critic of the kind of feminism that aims to secure women positions of power within existing unjust institutions without changing those institutions. She lays out her case in an extraordinarily good short essay on how feminism should deal with the fact that women tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib:

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naivet, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence that male sexual sadism was connected to our species tragic propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female sexual sadism in action. But its not just the theory of this naive feminism that was wrong. So was its strategy and vision for change. That strategy and vision rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men. We had a lot of debates over whether it was biology or conditioning that gave women the moral edgeor simply the experience of being a woman in a sexist culture. But the assumption of superiority, or at least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was more or less beyond debate If that assumption had been accurate, then all we would have had to do to make the world a better placekinder, less violent, more justwould have been to assimilate into what had been, for so many centuries, the world of men. We would fight so that women could become the generals, CEOs, senators, professors, and opinion-makersand that was really the only fight we had to undertake. Because once they gained power and authority, once they had achieved a critical mass within the institutions of society, women would naturally work for change. Thats what we thought, even if we thought it unconsciouslyand its just not true. Women can do the unthinkable.

Abu Ghraib showed, she said, that a uterus is not a substitute for a conscience (a memorable aphorism) and the assumption of female moral superiority is naive, lazy, and self-indulgent because it assumes that a victory for a womana promotion, a college degree, the right to serve alongside men in the militaryis by its very nature a victory for all of humanity and assumes that we have only one strugglethe struggle for gender equalitywhen in fact we have many more. She believed strongly in the struggle for gender equality, of course, but after critiquing what my colleague Yasmin Nair calls bourgeois feminist bullshit, she lays out a vision for a radical socialist feminism that addresses both class and gender:

What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say nonot just to the date rapist or the overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or the corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself. In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.

The desire for a world worth assimilating into was always at the heart of Ehrenreichs work, and the curiosity was just as important as the anger in her writing. She wasnt just a salty critic of the positivity-industrial complex and the breast cancer awareness cult. She was also a lover of human creativity and freedom. Dancing In The Streets: A History of Collective Joy celebrates the anarchic spirit of carnivalsthe urge to transform ones appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress, she writes. (She captures the qualities that make me love Mardi Gras so much.) In Blood Rites, her book on the psychology of war, there is no doubt that she detests war, writing it is first, in an economic sense, a parasite on human culturesdraining them of the funds and resources, talent and personnel, that could be used to advance the cause of human life and culture. But parasitism is too mild a term for a relationship predicated on the periodic killing of large numbers of human beings. If war is a living thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. But along with the critique there is a plea to bring a joyful collective spirit to our efforts to end war, in order that we might be as inspired toward the preservation of life as nationalism inspires people toward the infliction of death:

[T]he passions we bring to war can be brought just as well to the struggle against war. There is a place for courage and solidarity and self-sacrifice other than in the service of this peculiarly bloody institution, this inhuman memea place for them in the struggle to shake ourselves free of it. I myself would be unable to imagine the passions of war if I had not, at various times in my life, linked arms with the men and women around me and marched up, singing or chanting, to the waiting line of armed and uniformed men.

Ehrenreich hated cruelty, bullshit, and hierarchy, then, but she also loved both Earth itself and humankind, and believed in us as a species. (At the conclusion of her interview with this magazine in 2019, Ehrenreich said we needed a respect for the natural world and for non-human animals and so on, as well as our love for each other and our species and encouraged organizing: whatever you can get your neighbors and friends to join in with, do it.) In her great autobiographical essay Family Values (reprinted in the collection Had I Known, which the New York Times described by saying Barbara Ehrenreich contains multitudes. Theyre all ticked off.), Ehrenreich describes the heartland radicalism of her Montana family. Her mothers sound basic political wisdom (Never vote Republican and never cross a union picket line) and her fathers suspicion of the upper class (My father used to say, Never show your wallet to a rich person. Id say, Why? Hed say, How do you think they got that way?) stayed with Ehrenreich through the acquisitive 80s, when greed became good and televangelists were Americas spiritual center. During that period, when Ehrenreich was one of a dwindling number of open socialists in the country, she writes proudly that:

[S]omehow, despite it all, a trickle of dissent continued. There were homeless people who refused to be shelved in mental hospitals for the crime of poverty, strikers who refused to join the celebration of unions in faraway countries and scabs at home, women who insisted that their lives be valued above those of accidental embryos, parents who packed up their babies and marched for peace, students who protested the ongoing inversion of normal, nursery-school-level values in the name of a more habitable world. I am proud to add my voice to all these. For dissent is also a traditional value, and in a republic founded by revolution, a more deeply native one than smug-faced conservatism can ever be.

For Ehrenreich then, if corporate culture was stultifying and abusive, liberation could be found in protest, celebration, and struggle. Bright-sided, after heaping scorn on forced positivity, nevertheless ends on its own positive note:

The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the first responders! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, butif I may end with my own personal secret of happinesswe can have a good time trying.

Ehrenreich did not fear death. She made that quite clear. Her book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, The Certainty of Dying, and Our Illusion of Control encourages us to accept mortality and stop killing ourselves trying not to die. Ehrenreich critiques the wellness industry, but she also grounds her position in her view of biology, arguing that it is easier to accept death once we appreciate how teeming with life the universe around us is:

It is one thing to die into a dead world and, metaphorically speaking, leave ones bones to bleach on a desert lit only by a dying star. It is another thing to die into the actual world, which seethes with life, with agency other than our own, and, at the very least, with endless possibility. For those of us, which is probably most of us, whowith or without drugs or religionhave caught glimpses of this animate universe, death is not a terrifying leap into the abyss, but more like an embrace of ongoing life.

Ehrenreich saw life as a wondrous thing, but it did not make her despair about reaching the end of hers:

You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.

This does not change the fact that in losing Barbara Ehrenreich, the world has lost an intellectual treasure and the left one of its greatest writers. Ehrenreich was a model for what a fun, engaged, outraged public intellectual should be, and we can honor her by following her advice: dont blame yourself, appreciate the wonders of the universe, and have a good time trying as you participate in the ongoing collective effort to build a world worth living in.

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She Kicked Ass Current Affairs - Current Affairs

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