Barbara Ehrenreich and Liberalism’s Cyclical Self Sabotage
Two years ago it might have seemed that Barbara Ehrenreich’s writings could be safely consigned to the archives as brilliant but no longer relevant illustrations of the problems with America that was. Then came November, and suddenly nothing seemed more urgent than pulling our Ehrenreich from the shelf and reading, hard.
Fear of Falling (1989) introduced us to the slick but frustrated middle-class intellectuals of the 1970s who created a caricature of the working class and then used that as a bludgeon to pummel liberalism. They brought Reagan to power, and they are back.
The Hearts of Men (1983) showed us the gray flannel men of the 1950s and ’60s who demanded a new culture of irresponsibility that was paid for in the coin of yet more duties foisted on the backs of women. And though we may have thought the Playboy second-childhood culture had well dissipated, between the men’s rights activists and a sexual predator on the throne of the free world, it is clearly working up to its second wind.
For two decades Ehrenreich was the chronicler of liberalism’s first great implosion, an era when the forces of reason and social justice were caught flat on their feet against a clever campaign that harnessed resentment against the middle class for a grand conservative crusade. It’s a class dynamic that Hannah Arendt detailed when describing the various fascisms of the early twentieth century—a threatened economic elite fearful of a rising class making disingenuous and ultimately parasitic common cause with the lower classes in the name of purported shared traditional values.
Ehrenreich took that great pincer movement against the middle class and focused in on the reactions of its embattled intelligentsia. Their existence is maintained by their status, which depends entirely upon how much their society values expertise. The student movement of the 1960s, then, presented the American academic elite with a moment of existential crisis, to side with the students against the authority structure that maintained their own status, or to reject the student movement and recast modern liberalism as a kind of social disease created by bad parenting and social permissiveness.
Enough chose the latter path to form a new conservative ideology, one which held social justice as an ultimately selfish ploy of spoiled children to get attention for themselves. Empathy was recast as weak-willed selfishness, social justice as aloof arrogance. The rhetoric of the liberal snowflake was born not from the bowels of Breitbart, but from the minds of liberalism’s fearful apostates, half a century ago.
This masterful inversion of values created the New Right, and if its rhetoric is to be conquered in this, the time of its ominous resurgence, we need to understand as much as we can about its birth and evolution, and so once more unto the Ehrenreich, dear friends…
Her story is one recognizable, I suspect, to every humanist: a youth spent in science fiction and philosophy books, wrestling with Nietzsche and the implications of solipsism while the other kids did normal kid things. Parties, I think they’re called. Her parents were proud freethinkers, intellectually fierce if emotionally harsh, an upwardly mobile family that used education to claw its way from the mines to the middle class, and that lubricated the path with a steady diet of alcohol and desperation.
It was the sort of family that, one imagines, made the company of books all the more appealing. Those books spoke of science and the paradoxes of experienced reality, the sort of mind puzzles that adolescents fall particular prey to, and that adults learn gradually to stop entertaining. Only for Ehrenreich, there was a very tangible urgency to those puzzles. Her youth was marked by recurrent episodes of dissociation, when objects, caught in a certain light, took on a kind of uncanny unreality that slipped mental or verbal categorization.
For a child of a religious household, these would be miraculous moments of communion with the divine. But for the atheist child of atheist parents, it was a deep and disturbing puzzle to unlock, culminating in a grand moment when, fueled by sleep deprivation and starvation, she wandered the streets of a small town in a fit of perfect and incommunicable insight that bordered on the mystical.
Wrestling with that experience, honestly engaging with its implications for her own mind and future, was a foundational experience, and the diaries she wrote as she wrapped her brain this way and that around its meaning created that psychologically incisive, mocking, truth-above-all-things voice that was the scourge of 1980s complacency. She went to college and, after some disillusioning experiences with philosophy, switched to chemistry, a move that is again perhaps familiar to the average American humanist. It’s easy to forget amidst all the era-defining journalism and best-selling books, but Ehrenreich’s first published work was The Uptake, Storage, and Intracellular Hydrolysis of Carbohydrates by Macrophages (1969).
She might well have remained a scientist were it not for what she underwent giving birth to her daughter in 1970. That experiencing of the shabby and dismissive state of women’s health care in modern America turned her towards a career advocating for an improved women’s health system, and the next four years saw her co-authoring papers on the intersection of feminism, health, history, and politics.
Ehrenreich emerged during feminism’s heady decade, bracketed by the euphoria of the Equal Rights Amendment’s proposal in 1972 and its ultimate demise in 1982. She saw Roe v. Wade and the rise of Phyllis Schlafly, and at the end of it all how little women truly had to show for their decade of prominent organizing. Men had somehow earned for themselves the right to a perpetual grab-em-by-the-pussy adolescence as a result of their quest for emancipation from the grind of 1950s expectations, but women were still getting paid less for doing the same work as men, still had uneven access to health services, still fought against belittling professional expectations of femininity and, on top of it all, had to shoulder the extra burden created by the men’s decade of male liberation.
She had hardly documented the contours of the male liberation phenomenon in her 1983 book The Hearts of Men when the rise of the yuppies and the decade of full-blown selfishness it entailed cried out for comment. The social class that had once been the standard bearer of liberalism had given itself over utterly to excess and status, driving the final dagger into the heart of the social justice movement that Ehrenreich had known in college. In both Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989) and The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1990) she outlined how liberalism had, by threatening the source of its own authority, prompted the rise of a new category of intellectual devoted to radical psychological mischaracterizations of civil rights promoters and the working class. The revolt against the empty prosperity of the Eisenhower era thus ultimately produced an age of greed and consumer culture that made the 1950s seem like an Amish paradise by comparison.
In essays and books Ehrenreich snapped at evangelist culture, yuppie excess, the powdered vacuity of anti-feminism, and the hypocrisies in our treatment of poverty. Like Bertrand Russell in the early twentieth century, she gave humanism a direction and purpose, something to be committed to with consequences beyond God’s existence or non-existence. She gave the self-satisfied ’80s a godlessness that worshipped not success, but mutual assistance, humanizing the humanists after the crusades of O’Hair and the vilifications of the Swaggart circuit had cast secularism as enemy number one.
But it’s not enough to mock—you have to build. And Ehrenreich’s work in the twenty-first century has done just that, through her bestseller Nickel and Dimed (2001), which took the war on poverty out of the realm of abstraction and into the first-person perspective of the struggle to survive on minimum wage, and her report on the gnawing insecurities of making even a middle-class living in Bait and Switch (2006). Through her, humanism gained an empathic heart clad in iron, caring enough to give a shit about the pain of others, and scrappy enough to do something purposeful about it.
If, in these grotesque times, we resist when our government turns inhumane, and deliver a thousand stings and bites that prevent the routinization of institutional prejudice, we do it because people like Ehrenreich, and Arendt before her, did the hard work of laying bare how power subverts compassion, and attempts to undo the ties that bind us to each other as people. We read her books, we learned the game, and we figured out a thing or two so that this time, just maybe, the carefully crafted resentment of a single election cycle won’t spill into another decade of greed, and slumber.
Living With a Wild God (2014), Ehrenreich’s account of her youth and the role her solipsism and dissociative experiences played in shaping her thought, is an account of a philosopher’s progress that I suspect many reading this article will find familiar. Really, though, in these times, it’s Fear of Falling and Nickel and Dimed that form your best and most timely entry points into her worldview and method.