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Barbara Ehrenreich Challenged Readers to Examine Themselves

A FUNERAL SCENE, 1976: “When we emerged as radicals,” the eulogist observes, “there wasn’t much of a left tradition to plug into. There was a scattering of individuals and small groups . . . but they were generally dogmatic and pretty much uninterested in some of the things that were of most concern to us.” What was of concern? “We talked about ‘alienation,’ about people realizing their full potential; they said that the issue was wages. We were obsessed with the direct and personal experience of oppression (especially in the women’s movement), they said we were being ‘subjectivist.’ . . . Over here were our concerns—very humanistic and idealistic. Over there (from our point of view) was Marxism, like some kind of well-preserved but indigestible lump which only academics or sectarians would even try to swallow.”

The language—“alienation,” “direct and personal experience,” “humanistic and idealistic”— carbon-dates the event even if you don’t know the year: this is the discourse of the New Left. The speaker was Barbara Ehrenreich, and the occasion the funeral for the former metalworker, Marxist theorist, and Monthly Review editor Harry Braverman, author of the 1974 landmark account of the deskilling of work, Labor and Monopoly Capital. For Ehrenreich, whose own work had received crucial support from Braverman, the late theorist represented a precious, narrow bridge across a generational divide. “So you can begin to see the importance of Harry’s book to so many people of my political generation. It is, on the one hand, an intensely humanistic book. It’s a book written with vast respect for the everyday experience of working people—not as ‘production factors’ or commodities of some sort—but as human beings . . . So I could not help feeling, as I read it, that the book is in some ways a vindication of the concerns of the ‘new left’.” At the same time, Ehrenreich emphasized, Braverman did not merely pander to New Left predilections. “If Harry vindicates some of our concerns and questions, he also makes it clear that the way to understanding is not going to be found (as we sometimes liked to think) in consciousness raising, or revelation, or even in immediacy of personal experience,” she warned. “The book is written with grace, but it makes it clear that the road to understanding is arduous; that it winds through history; that it is open only to those who have the patience for systematic and materialistic thinking. And that’s not an easy lesson.”

The relation in which Ehrenreich stood to Braverman, we stand to her—and what she said to mark his death forty-six years ago should now be said to mark hers, almost to the word. When we emerged as radicals, there wasn’t much of a left tradition to plug into. There was a scattering of individuals and small groups, but they were generally dogmatic and pretty much uninterested in some of the things that were of most concern to us. It’s true that the additional turn of the generational screw means that New Left shibboleths occasionally held the position in the 2010s that economistic ones did in the 1960s, as a half-remembered and half-believed orthodoxy. But like the old left as transmitted through Braverman, the New Left as transmitted through Ehrenreich approached a new generation and issued a challenge. If we are honest, we must admit that we have only just begun to meet it.

At the core of Ehrenreich’s challenge, underlying its quintessentially New Left and feminist character, is a kind of tacit working existentialism. Across fifty years of books and no matter the specific subject—from her coauthored account of the global student uprising in Long March, Short Spring (1969) through her examination of the denial of death in American culture, Natural Causes (2018)—Ehrenreich argued that the self is made and remade continuously through speech and action. Each person’s choices to speak and act with authenticity and courage, or to muck about in bad faith—these sum up to the shape of our world. Ehrenreich’s specialty was to reveal her readers to themselves by showing them the other. Her humor and projection of personal vulnerability were particularly deft techniques for asking the reader to see their own position, often through identification with Ehrenreich: she invites this, beckoning you to follow her into her subject, and then suddenly wheels around on you—and you are caught out.

At the heart of her most famous book Nickel and Dimed is just this move: Ehrenreich wanted to expose the deep and persistent forms of poverty in American society, particularly in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform and in the context of a supposedly classless turn-of-the-century economic boom. Rather than report the book in a conventional way, she went “undercover,” working a series of poverty-wage jobs. She plays Virgil to the reader’s Dante in this way, taking you down into the underworld. Following her, you arrive without quite meaning to in a situation where you must contemplate your own moral balance sheet, because you’ve seen so much punishment being doled out. As she writes in her famous, ringing conclusion,

When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then 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.

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