Barbara Ehrenreich on Why Socialism Should Be Fun

In a sprawling interview, Ehrenreich explains the joys of radical politics and why there’s no time to wait on capitalism to solve the climate crisis.

Indigo Olivier

Barbara Ehrenreich says there's no time to wait on capitalism to solve the climate crisis. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Barbara Ehrenreich is an activist, journalist and author of over 20 books, including her classic 2001 title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Ehrenreich is a contributing editor to In These Times where her work first appeared in 1977.

"We need to offer a vision of the joy of collective accomplishment, the joy of working together."

She, along with John Ehrenreich, coined the term professional-managerial class” (PMC) in a famous 1977 essay to describe a class of salaried mental workers” separate from the working class, whose main function is to reproduce capitalist culture and class relations.

Ehrenreich recently endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic race. She spoke with In These Times about the upcoming elections, socialism and the climate crisis. 

IO: You recently endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 race. What made you decide to do so?

BE: The same reason I endorsed him the first time around. He’s the candidate that most represents me.

IO: How so?

BE: Well, he’s a democratic socialist. There’s nobody closer to me that’s running.

IO: Do you think we’ll see a rise in union membership or union militancy if Bernie Sanders wins the election?

BE: I think so. I don’t think that’ll be a completely direct effect, but it will be an indirect effect where people begin to see that a radically different direction is possible, and begin to feel their own agency, their own power.

IO: What’s your response to Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that nobody likes Bernie,” that he’s a career politician,” and opening the door to not backing him if he’s the Democratic nominee?

BE: I worry about Hillary. I can’t understand why she would be doing this. And I don’t want to speculate. It’s just sheer meanness.

IO: Why do you think she lost in 2016?

BE: It’s attributable to her. Specific things about her. A kind of visible elitism best represented with that statement about deplorables.” But the deeper reason is that the Democrats have, in recent years, betrayed the working class. They have not fought strongly for issues that are important to people who are not upper-middle class or richer, and there’s a sense of betrayal.

IO: President Trump, even if he didn’t win the popular vote, still has some pretty committed supporters. What do you think is energizing his base?

BE: Well, what I just said. This sense that Democrats really have nothing to offer. And liberalism comes across to many people as a kind of elitist stance. It’s not here are the people who are going to join with me in improving conditions,” but rather, here are the people who are going to criticize us for being politically incorrect.” And it’s just heartbreaking.

IO: What do you make of the recent New York Times endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, whom the editorial board described as the radical” and realist” models?

BE: You know, I don’t know. I have no idea what went on with that. What goes through their minds? Who knows. Klobuchar is kind of a mystery to me. I’m willing to learn a lot more. She’s certainly been galvanizing and she is definitely to the right of Warren and Sanders.

IO: A lot of the rhetoric around the election has been framed as can a woman beat Trump’ and not what kind of woman candidate can beat Trump.’ What do you attribute that to?

BE: Sexism for one thing. I mean, you just put it very well, but mainly we have to beat Trump, and I would love to see a woman do it and I don’t see a reason why a woman couldn’t do it. I really think we have moved on quite a bit. I can remember when Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president with Walter Mondale and the criticism that was raised was that she was of a menopausal age and could a menopausal person make decisions?” That was the level of discourse. I think we have moved on from there. Don’t you?

IO: I do. My concern is that, even on the Left, people want a woman to be president but some are more concerned about a candidate being a woman and less concerned about what kind of woman she is — like whether she’s a Hillary Clinton type, for example. They want to see a woman represented, and they care a little bit less about the platform she’s bringing because she’s a woman.

BE: I’m obviously not in that camp. In 2016, I voted for Hillary in the end, but there were so many reasons to distrust her. For me, it all started in the 1990s with welfare reform which Bill Clinton gets credit for — and Hillary enthusiastically supported. It plunged a lot of people living in poverty into extreme poverty. It was just very distasteful to me that she was, with her politics, the Democratic candidate. Also, her stance on bankruptcy, which I guess she modified over time. The Iraq war. On and on and on. So I did not see her as the right candidate of either sex, that I would be interested in.

IO: Liberal pundits, when they’re speaking about the candidates, often lump Warren and Sanders into the same camp. How would you describe their differences and the differences between their supporters?

BE: *laughs* I don’t know. I haven’t done a study of this. I understand that there has been some talk on the left that Warren is the candidate of what John Ehrenreich and I describe as the PMC, whereas Sanders is potentially more the candidate of the working class. But, you know, I think that’s getting a little bit silly. People can come from different classes and change their class allegiances. So I’m not interested in that kind of essentialist thinking. Somebody’s from a wealthy background or white so that determines everything about their politics? I don’t think so.

IO: Would you note any differences between the PMC from when you wrote that essay in 1977 versus today?

BE: Oh, for sure. And I’ve written about those differences and so has John Ehrenreich. We have seen vast swaths of the professional managerial class dumped down to the level of the working class. This is the big lesson of Occupy. There were homeless blue collar workers with graduate students who knew they were going nowhere or who had PhDs even and were going nowhere. So there’s been a huge demotion for traditional PMC professions such as college teaching, which is over 70% adjunct now. Opportunities have just shrunk in so many areas. I feel it particularly as a journalist and writer. You must feel it, too, I should think. At one point, a long time ago, when I was starting out and my kids were small, I could pretty much support us — with child support — but as a freelance writer. Now, could you do that today?

IO: *laughs* No, I bartend.

BE: That’s one of the things I actually thought of at times, but in those days, this would be in the 80s, I could still get jobs, not decent-paying jobs, but I could get outside jobs and I could patch those things together with the freelance assignments and the freelance assignments paid at least a dollar a word. And as my name became better known, it went up to like $3 a word.

You can’t get that now. This is why I instigated the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which is a little group that encourages low-income people to write and we will work with them from the initial idea and framing it into a pitch and finding a place to get it published. And then we also raise money so that we can pay the writer and make sure the writer gets $1 a word.

IO: That’s incredible.

BE: You know, we’ve been doing things for In These Times, recently. And we’re always looking for people who have a great story to tell and hopefully an original way of telling it and getting them into both mainstream media like the New York Times, for example, and in local newspapers. The path that existed for me — the upward path — is gone. The fact that I could make a thousand dollars for a thousand-word piece was decisive in allowing me to also be an activist and also write about things that I didn’t care if I got paid for.

IO: How would you explain this rise in precarity, not even just among people who formerly had union jobs or industrial jobs that were shipped overseas, but in general, for things like journalism?

BE: The big media outlets are owned by billionaires who, in most cases, have no real interest in the content of the journalism or the quality of the journalism that they are helping manage. If you eliminate half the people in the newsroom of a newspaper, they don’t care. To them, it’s just another profit source. That’s what happened — capitalism ate it up.

IO: Even outside of media, for example, teachers’ jobs are under attack. It feels like the economy keeps growing but there is still less and less work for all of us.

BE: Well, teachers are actually a very hopeful side. In the last couple of years, the number of teacher strikes, including with radical demands like for affordable housing for the families of the students they teach — this is unprecedented. It’s amazing. I feel very hopeful about them. I think that they’re a great example of some sort of resistance. But you know, it’s been relentless.

And I don’t have to tell somebody at In These Times that huge volumes of money and managerial effort go into preventing unionization or collective action of any kind by workers. I don’t want to limit the forms that that action could take to official unions. There are other ways people can resist, other forms of organization people have been creating, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance—there’s just a lot of things going on and experimenting, which is exciting.

IO: What do you think we need to stop this upsurge in right-wing populism? Is it a left-wing populism or is it something else?

BE: Well, yes of course. The short answer is a left-wing populism. But something I would want to add to that is, and this may sound a little weird to say in a straightforward political interview, but we need to offer a vision of the joy of collective accomplishment, the joy of working together. The joy of working together across lines of race or other things that separate people. We have to be not just the side that’s about gloom, which is what I feel, but about possibility and good feelings.

My favorite organizing project in this country is the Workers’ Project of Fort Wayne, Indiana. They organize workers and community, too. They do a lot of their organizing through fun things: Picnics and parties that draw hundreds and thousands of people. People love it because we don’t have that kind of thing in our lives.

IO: I think the best vision of a future with any kind of joy in it is being provided by the Green New Deal. People are starting to talk about a shorter workweek, leisure time, a jobs guarantee, publicly funding the arts.

BE: There are just so many things that could be done. We could be increasing public spaces where people gather for festivities and entertainment. We’re instead limiting public spaces more and more and segregating more and more by class and race. We could be having a good time together. And we need to radiate that a little bit.

Socialism, to affluent people, often sounds like privation. Oh, they’re going to take stuff from me and give it to somebody else. Suppose what you got in exchange is just a more joyous and convivial world. Where you talk to people on the street, where maybe people start dancing in the street — whatever!

And I’m serious about this. I wrote a book called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, about the intertwining of festivities, historically, with political movements. One of the greatest examples would be the slave uprisings in the Caribbean in the 19th century. They would use the occasion of Carnival for the uprising for some practical reasons: there’s a lot of noise going on and people can be masked. But also, what makes people want to do things? It’s not just all antagonism and anger — there’s a lot of that. It’s also the joy of doing it.

IO: What do you think it will take to get to that joyous world?

BE: Practice. I just want to see that become part of what the Left does. Everything we do should have some thought for the pleasure of doing it.

IO. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) went from around 6,000 members in 2015 to almost 60,000 today. What do you make of DSA’s recent growth?

BE: Oh! It’s wonderful. It was the most heartening thing that happened after the election in 2016. I feel great about it.

IO: Could you speak a little bit about your time in DSA? What was it like when it was first founded? How has it changed?

BE: There was a lot of discord from the beginning. And I am, I guess, a good example of it because I was part of the NAM contingent, New American Movement, that merged with DSOC, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. And I had not been enthusiastic about the merger. What happened was they said, would you like to be the co-chair of this organization?’ I said okay not realizing how much I was putting myself in a very difficult situation politically because there were such big differences between me, for example, and Michael Harrington. And I came to feel something like a token, which I was.

In those days it was totally different. You could not bring up the question of Palestine. You’d be quickly silenced. Certain things were just off limits. You could not criticize union leadership. We were supposed to always identify with union leadership which was, at the time, often quite progressive, like Bill Winpisinger of the Machinists’ Union, but we were very limited in what we could talk about. DSOC came from a tradition in the American left where politics was all about class and class was represented by the Democratic Party and the unions. And so, things like women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, were just seen as distractions. You must run into that sometimes, still.

IO: Definitely. Within the Left there are people who view class too narrowly, in the way you were just describing, and are criticized heavily for it and go back and forth with others between your understanding of the world isn’t intersectional’ and you’re focusing on identity politics.’

BE: It’s kind of crazy. So-called identity politics, like the feminist movement, grew out of larger movements — how much larger can you get than women? We came into feminism with anger about racism, about the war in Vietnam, about all these other things. It was never, Hey, look at us. We’re women.’ I mean, yeah there was some of that. That was important, but to narrow it down is to misunderstand. We had a much more inclusive notion of what we were going about. It’s always been true.

IO: I think a lot of the liberal left misses that when they say I want a woman president and don’t factor in what material interests that candidate has in mind. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently disparaged for pointing out that in any other country she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. She later added that the United States does not have a left party and, at best, the Democratic Party is a center or center-conservative party. What do you make of this cleavage between establishment Democrats on the one hand and the progressive wave pushing the party towards the left on the other? Do you think the left will be able to capture the Democratic Party?

BE: Oh, god. We used to debate this so much in the old DSA! I never had a strong feeling. I’m sort of an opportunistic person when it comes to this kind of thing. If you have a local Democratic Party that is very progressive, then go with that. I don’t know, I’m not a strategic person in that sense.

IO. Could you imagine a future where capitalism can somehow adapt to the climate crisis, but we still all survive?

BE: There’s no time to wait and see. There isn’t enough time. I would have to say socialism takes a lot of defining. And I think people will be going about it all kinds of different ways. So it’s not like Oh, here’s what you do. Here’s the starter kit for society.

IO: How would you define socialism?

BE: Well, it has to start with the knowledge and the faith that we can solve problems when we work together. Which means it has to start with some sort of work as well as an understanding of how totally mutually dependent we are. The issue is no longer the Left versus the Right. It’s those who want as many people as possible to survive this crisis and those who will be satisfied to get a few billionaires safely tucked away in their missile silos turned into mansions.

That’s one outcome, is that you do have some survivors but the great majority of people die off. That’s the right wing. And the outlook, judging from the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world, seems to be grab what you can while the grabbing is good. Let’s burn the Amazon. Let’s get everything we can out of this situation and those of us that are very, very super rich will survive, perhaps, in lunar colonies or in old missile silos.

IO: What do you think it will take to avert the climate crisis? To a place where we live in an inhabitable society?

BE: Well, we have to have less reliance on things, objects, fossil fuels and more reliance on each other. For example, in growing food, in entertaining ourselves, all sorts of things. We have to see ourselves as each other’s resources. In the frame of mind I’m in today, whatever I think about politically, whether it’s Democratic primary candidates or anything, has to be in the context of the coming apocalypse — no, really. This is no time to fool around. I will keep trying. That’s all. Until the last gasp.

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Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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