New Part Three - May 11:
Part Two - May 4:
Part One - May 2:
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996). His new book, Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel will be published next month.
Previously in Fallows@large:
The Work of Words (February 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Christopher Hitchens, author of Unacknowledged Legislation and would-be prosecutor of Henry Kissinger.
Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics
More on poverty
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Atlantic Unbound | May 11, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Barbara Ehrenreich
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Daily life among the "invisible class" - Part Three
Yes, things could certainly continue in the direction of greater inequality: more pockets of wealth in a sea of middle-class anxiety and lower-class misery; more gated communities, on the one hand, and trailer parks, cardboard dwellings, and slums on the other; and more prisons, of course, to house the dissidents and deviants generated by relentless deprivation. This is the trend favored by the Bush Administration and in no way challenged by the Clinton Administration before it. All the political indicators point to an ever further "brazilianization" of American society, and our eventual cleavage into two separate and perhaps mutually uncomprehending classes: the rich and their upper-middle-class managerial minions vs. everyone else.
Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that "the people"—or as demonstrators optimistically chant, "el pueblo unido"—will rise up as one to demand a better break. Fascist or racist and nativist responses may be more likely, given the readily accessible ideological options, than noble and solidaristic ones: blame the blacks, the immigrants, the Jews, or whomever, and let the plutocrats continue to gorge themselves. Or you could have random, non-ideological kinds of responses: escapism into drugs, crimes of the income-redistributing variety, crazed outbreaks of rage, as when a "disgruntled employee" shows up at work with an automatic weapon in hand.
Tim McVeigh is my personal poster boy for wildly misdirected working-class rebellion. When he came home from the Gulf War, after having been rejected by the Special Forces, he got a job as a security guard for about $6 an hour. This must have been quite a letdown from his dreams of warrior glory, as well as a discouraging contrast to his father's no doubt much better-paying union job. Other factors, like neo-Nazi literature, certainly helped send him around the bend. But I doubt if he would have put his government-provided training in explosives to use if he'd come home to a more rewarding and respected niche. As long as the government has nothing to offer working-class youths except an education in how to kill efficiently and without remorse, we can expect a few more Tim McVeighs.
But on the brighter side, I would note that gross inequality coexists very uneasily with the prevailing vague rhetoric of democracy and human rights. Hence, for example, the surprising outbreak of pro-labor activism at Harvard in the past few weeks, where students occupied a building to get the university to pay its workers a living wage. Give kids some exposure to our vaunted "Western values" in the form of a liberal arts education and, sooner or later, some of them are bound to notice that the maintenance workers are living on crumbs. This is an old hazard of higher education, at least from a capitalist point of view: You can't take the humanity out of "the humanities," and a few really good students are always going to try putting what they learn into practice.
All over the country, there's a remarkable surge of pro-labor activism on campuses—students backing campus workers' demands for better pay or pressuring the administration to end its dependency on sweatshops as a source of university logoed products. Why should young people who're being prepped for elite positions get so bothered about economic inequities? Because, ultimately, it's a strain to live at the upper end of the hierarchy, too. The Harvard rebels—and the ones I've met recently at the universities of Oregon, Wisconsin, and Colorado—yearn for a world with fewer boundaries and fences and checkpoints, with fewer commodities maybe, but a lot more conviviality.
The new impatience is not confined to the campuses and those at the upper end of the income spectrum. Trade unionists swelled the anti-globalization crowds at Seattle and, a few weeks ago, Quebec, where unorganized working-class youths also leaped into the fray. The demonstrations at the Democratic Convention last August—which went almost completely unnoted in the national media—drew thousands of young LA Latinos as well as the usual largely white demo-hopping crowd. At Berkeley, where I spent part of last year, it was the public high school students—a largely working class, multi-ethnic crowd—who were making a ruckus.
I won't make any predictions. In fact I hate predictions and their substitution—in venues like The McLaughlin Group—for opinions and arguments. Hell, people will do what they want; no "laws" govern human political behavior. But I do know this, based on decades of close observation: defiance is contagious, and America's low-wage workforce is a tinderbox of unmet needs and desires.
Bye, Jim, it's been fun.
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