Barbara Ehrenreich, born Barbara Alexander

Ehrenreich, born Barbara Alexander

American Feminist, Democratic Socialist, Political Activist, Columnist, Essayist and Author

Author Quotes

You might discover that, nationwide, America's food banks are experiencing 'a torrent of need which [they] cannot meet' and that, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 67 percent of the adults requesting emergency food aid are people with jobs.

When the Somalians were merely another hungry third world people, we sent them guns. Now that they are falling down dead from starvation, we send them troops. Some may see in this a tidy metaphor for the entire relationship between north and south. But it would make a whole lot more sense nutritionally -- as well as providing infinitely more vivid viewing -- if the Somalians could be persuaded to eat the troops.

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.

What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're really selling is your life.

What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the 'negative people' from one's life [as demanded by motivational speaker J.P. Maroney]? It might be a good idea to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager.

What these [personality] tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine since the 'right' answer should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders . . . The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us. We don't just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them; we want your innermost self.

What I have to face is that 'Barb,' the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. 'Barb' is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out — that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.

We who officially value freedom of speech above life itself seem to have nothing to talk about but the weather.

We (the left) have to be used to being a minority – a small minority- for some time to come. The odd thing is that the right even when it is in power, likes to think of itself as an embattled minority against this elite that somehow runs everything. Whereas the left, even when it has no power at all, likes to imagine it somehow represents the majority of people. These are mirror -image delusions. It is important to stick to principles, even when some of them may be unpopular now for one reason or another. For example, there has been a tendency for some progressives to look at the power of the right, and say, ‘Well, all we can focus on is economic justice issues, because other things, whether they are abortion rights or drug law reform, will be less popular and more divisive.’ And I think that is wrong approach. There are certain core things we stand for, and these include both economic justice and civil liberties, which you can’t back away from.

Upscale young men seem to go for the kind of woman who plays with a full deck of credit cards, who won't cry when she's knocked to the ground while trying to board the six o clock Eastern shuttle, and whose schedule doesn't allow for a sexual encounter lasting more than twelve minutes.

Upscale people are fixated with food simply because they are now able to eat so much of it without getting fat, and the reason they don't get fat is that they maintain a profligate level of calorie expenditure. The very same people whose evenings begin with melted goats cheese... get up at dawn to run, break for a mid-morning aerobics class, and watch the evening news while racing on a stationary bicycle.

Transcendent Oneness does not require self-examination, self-help, or self-work. It requires self-loss.

To draw for a moment from an entirely different corner of my life, that part of me still attached to the biological sciences, there is ample evidence that animals — rats and monkeys, for example — that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming 'depressed' in humanlike ways. Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter boosted by some antidepressants) declines in their brains. And — what is especially relevant here — they avoid fighting even in self-defense ... My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being 'reamed out' by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you're made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you're paid is what you are actually worth.

Thus will the fondest dream of Phallic science be realized: a pristine new planet populated entirely by little boy clones of great scientific entrepreneurs free to smash atoms, accelerate particles, or, if they are so moved, build pyramids -- without any social relevance or human responsibility at all.

This advice comes as a surprise: job searching is not joblessness; it is a job in itself and should be structured to resemble one, right down to the more regrettable features of employment, like having to follow orders -- orders which are in this case self-generated.

There seems to be no stopping drug frenzy once it takes hold of a nation. What starts with an innocuous HUGS, NOT DRUGS bumper sticker soon leads to wild talk of shooting dealers and making urine tests a condition for employment -- anywhere.

There seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality. Corporate decision makers, and even some two-bit entrepreneurs like my boss at The Maids, occupy an economic position miles above that of the underpaid people whose labor they depend on. For reasons that have more to do with class — and often racial — prejudice than with actual experience, they tend to fear and distrust the category of people from which they recruit their workers. Hence the perceived need for repressive management and intrusive measures like drug and personality testing. But these things cost money — $20,000 or more a year for a manager, $100 a pop for a drug test, and so on — and the high cost of repression results in ever more pressure to hold wages down. The larger society seems to be caught up in a similar cycle: cutting public services for the poor, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the 'social wage,' while investing ever more heavily in prisons and cops. And in the larger society, too, the cost of repression becomes another factor weighing against the expansion or restoration of needed services. It is a tragic cycle, condemning us to ever deeper inequality, and in the long run, almost no one benefits but the agents of repression themselves.

There is the fear, common to all English-only speakers, that the chief purpose of foreign languages is to make fun of us. Otherwise, you know, why not just come out and say it?

Then, in the 1980's, came the paroxysm of downsizing, and the very nature of the corporation was thrown into doubt. In what began almost as a fad and quickly matured into an unshakable habit, companies were 'restructuring,' 'reengineering,' and generally cutting as many jobs as possible, white collar as well as blue . . . The New York Times captured the new corporate order succinctly in 1987, reporting that it 'eschews loyalty to workers, products, corporate structures, businesses, factories, communities, even the nation. All such allegiances are viewed as expendable under the new rules. With survival at stake, only market leadership, strong profits and a high stock price can be allowed to matter'.

The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.

The very notion of personality, which is what we are trying to get at here, seems to have very limited application to me and quite possibly to everyone else. Self is another dodgy concept, since I am, when I subject this 'I' to careful inspection, not much more than a flickering of affinities, habits, memories, and predilections that could go either way- towards neediness or independence for example courage or cowardice.

The urge to transform one's appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress.

The secret of the truly successful, I believe, is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy. They saw through that adage, repeated to me so often in childhood that anything worth doing is worth doing well. The truth is, many things are worth doing only in the most slovenly, halfhearted fashion possible, and many other things are not worth doing at all.

The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all. Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding? Why retreat into anxious introspection when, as Emerson might have said, there is a vast world outside to explore? Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?

The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks.

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Ehrenreich, born Barbara Alexander
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American Feminist, Democratic Socialist, Political Activist, Columnist, Essayist and Author