Barbara Ehrenreich rediscovers America’s working poor
By Jonah Raskin
OLD KARL MARX could be oh so wrong, and yet oh so right. He was dead wrong about communism, which he called the salvation of humanity, but dead right about capitalism, which even back in the 19th century he described as a global economic system. Of course, in America, you wouldn’t want to bank on Marx’s ideas. Here, as Wall Street brokers like to remind you, ragged workers are reinvented as rich stockholders, and the toiling masses spend more time at the mall than at the barricades.
Barbara Ehrenreich, a longtime crusading journalist and political activist, knows perfectly well the familiar story of the upwardly mobile, commodity-consuming American working class. Still, she’s kept her faith–through economic boom and economic bust–in democratic socialism (with a feisty feminist twist) and with a modified version of Marxism. In The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (Pantheon Books, 1990), the best-selling collection of her sassy essays, she noted that the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and social upheaval seemed inevitable.
“The Marxist vision at last fits America’s future,” she suggested.
Still, she was shrewd enough to add that in America, predictions about a workers’ revolution are dicey. “For one thing, Americans are notorious for their lack of class consciousness or even class awareness,” she wrote.
Now, in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan; $23), a newly published firsthand account of her brief, mostly unhappy life as a waitress, a cleaning woman, and a Wal-Mart salesperson–Ehrenreich seems more confident making predictions about worker protest, and less inhibited as a rabble-rouser, though she doesn’t resort to Marxist terms like “exploitation” or Marxist slogans like “Workers of the world, unite!”
Ehrenreich’s writings–she’s a fiery pamphleteer as well as a cantankerous columnist–have always exploded with anger about economic and social injustice. Now she seems more outraged than ever before about the havoc that the capitalist system has caused at home to almost all of us, whether we’re middle class or working class.
“Wherever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order, from which every form of local creativity and initiative has been abolished by distant home offices,” she writes in a chapter that depicts the diabolical and dehumanizing world of Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, and Home Depot that’s all over America. “What you see–highways, parking lots, stores–is all there is, or all that’s left to us here in the reign of globalized, totalized, paved-over, corporatized everything.”
Surely Karl Marx himself would find himself applauding Ehrenreich’s indictment. In her last chapter, she seethes with indignation about the absence of civil liberties and democratic rights in the “low-wage workplace.” Sounding like author and social critic George Orwell of 1984 fame, she rails against the ominous power of corporate Big Brother. “We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship,” she exclaims.
Nickel and Dimed is meant to disturb, and it does.
With unemployment and inflation both rising, and with fears of a recession, this could be a timely book that invigorates public discourse about our economy. It might also make affluent Americans feel more compassionate toward workers at the bottom of the corporate pyramid.
Nickel and Dimed began as a Harper’s magazine article about the author’s experience trying to make ends meet as a waitress in the fast-food industry near her home in Florida. Reader response was so positive that she decided to do a book on the subject. Ehrenreich might have retreated to a research center. She might have amassed government statistics and conducted formal interviews with working folk. Instead, she plunged into the often invisible world of work among America’s outcasts and untouchables.
What she proved, in dollars and cents, is that it’s impossible for a single person to survive on the wages at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“Immersion journalism” is the term the industry uses to describe what she’s done. Many of the writers I know call it “hang-out journalism.” Still others refer to it as “undercover reporting.” Whatever the term, it’s the best way–often the only way–to unearth the awful truths about the powerful and the powerless in an age when governments and corporations are increasingly secretive, and when PR flacks issue a steady stream of lies. As Ted Conover–the author of Coyotes and Newjack, and the best-known “hang-out” journalist of our age–explains, “The truly meaningful things about a people are not learned by conducting an interview, gathering statistics, or watching them on the news, but by going out and living with them.”
I’ve learned that lesson myself when I’ve written about political exiles and fugitives and about the underground drug economy in Northern California.
Ehrenreich’s low-paying jobs in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota proved to be more surprising than she had imagined. “Before I set out, I didn’t realize how few rights you have in the workplace,” she explains during a recent, long-distance phone conversation, shortly before embarking on a book tour. “My employers had the legal right to search my purse. I felt like I was back in junior high school. I also learned that it’s not easy to live economically on minimum wages; eating in fast-food places can be more costly then eating at home. Sometimes it’s more expensive to be poor than to be rich.”
Of course, Ehrenreich began Nickel and Dimed already knowing volumes about wealth, poverty, and survival. “I’ve been fixated on class issues because of my family history,” she says. “When I was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941 my father was a copper miner. Soon afterward, he became a corporate executive. We moved from Montana to Massachusetts to Southern California. Our houses got bigger and better. By the time I was a teenager I had a firsthand tour of America’s social classes.”
Ehrenreich was also impressed that her father’s economic success didn’t turn him into a Republican, or persuade him to look down on workers who were far less fortunate.
After graduating from Reed College, where she studied chemistry and physics, Ehrenreich earned a Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in New York City and seemed destined for a comfortable career in academia. Then history turned her life upside down. “It was the 1960s,” she explains. “I wanted to do something socially relevant.”
Her first book, which she wrote in 1968 with her then husband John Ehrenreich, was titled Long March, Short Spring. More Maoist than Marxist, as befitted the cultural revolution of that era, it was Ehrenreich’s first venture in hang-out journalism, though she was simply hanging out with rebellious students like herself. More than 30 years later, it’s still one of the most illuminating books about the international student protests of the 1960s.
Last summer, during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, she found herself in the streets, as a journalist covering the protests. “I’m amazed and fascinated by the anti-corporate demonstrations that have taken place from Seattle to L.A. to Quebec,” she says. “I’ve long been a democratic socialist, but I feel a real affinity with the young anarchists. In fact, some of them are my friends.
“From where I stand, it looks like we’re in this together.”
Barbara Ehrenreich talks about ‘Nickle and Dimed’ on Thursday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 415/927-0960.
From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.