[The first part is the post directly above.]

TomDispatch: Let’s turn to the hot-button issue of immigration. For Nickel and Dimed, you went to places where there was still a low-wage, white working class – Minnesota, Maine …

Ehrenreich: Not Key West which was packed with immigrant workers. But I did choose my places carefully, because real ethnic sorting does go on. For example, my son Ben Ehrenreich, who is also a freelance journalist, decided to get a job in a meat-packing plant in LA. When he showed up, sixty guys were there and he was the only Anglo. Though he speaks perfect Spanish, he was rejected because they just think: What’s he doing here? Employers get it in their minds that a certain kind of work is done by a certain kind of person and we’re not going to hire someone different. When I realized that was going on in Key West, I said: Next stop, Maine, where almost everyone is white and I wouldn’t run into racial sorting. I couldn’t have done Nickel and Dimed so easily in LA or New York because they would have thought: Blue-eyed, white, middle-aged woman; if she wants this job, she must have a serious drug problem. [She laughs.]

TD: The issue of class and immigration threatens to split what’s left of the Bush administration constituency, but not just them. How do you read the class politics of immigration?

Ehrenreich: My son went to a Minutemen gathering in the southwest and the fascinating thing was that a lot of the leaders talked a very big anti-corporate line: The corporations are crushing us, we’re the real Americans, and so forth. In their minds, the immigrants are part of the thing that’s crushing them and it’s so much easier to pick up a gun and go to the border than to confront your employer.
Then, commentators keep saying that Americans won’t take the jobs immigrants take. It’s not that native-born Americans won’t do heavy work and hard work and sweaty work. The problem is that these jobs pay so little. What makes it possible for immigrant workers to live on such low wages is their willingness – at least temporarily – to put up with just impossible situations, with many people packed into a room. After all, what does immigration do, in corporate terms? It provides a group of people you can really, really exploit. As long as they’re illegal, you can do anything you want to them. Like not pay them. Not at all. If you were going to take on the immigration issue seriously, you’d have to look at what NAFTA did to the economy and agriculture for working-class Mexicans. Much of the immigration stuff is standard scapegoating. I mean, we’re not going to begin to get at the problem until we take a serious look at the economies of the countries that are exporting people. Illegal immigrants are not coming here for the climate. We need to ask: How would we help Mexico, for example, become a place with stable employment and agriculture. Not with NAFTA for sure.

TD: Isn’t the other side of the immigration issue, the outsourcing of jobs?

Ehrenreich: It’s very hard to have a serious discussion of outsourcing when we have no safety net for people whose jobs are outsourced. It’s calamitous to lose your job and that experience does pit you against the software writer in Bangalore. The longer term issue is: How do we get together across those national boundaries, so that the software writer in Atlanta is talking to the one in Bangalore and saying, we’re in this together?

TD: What about the lack of protest in our world, especially the middle-class world you visited in Bait and Switch? You’ve started a new organization to begin to deal with this, right?

Ehrenreich: You know, after I wrote Nickel and Dimed, so many middle-class people would say to me: Oh, what’s wrong with these people? Why do they take it? Well, they didn’t just take it! Even if they expressed defiance in ways that were not too productive like laughing at the boss behind his back or regularly breaking little rules. With the white-collar people, though, it just seemed so internalized. I couldn’t get over it, how beaten down people were, how they had internalized obedience. The fear of standing out in any way that might be noticed seemed to grip them.
 Our new organization, United Professionals, had its launch meeting in Atlanta at the end of April. Its constituency is unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white-collar people. Now, it’s not ? union. Obviously, you can’t have a union for people with such vastly different employers and professions. But it will provide advocacy for universal health insurance, extended unemployment benefits, and the like. And some services. We’re looking at ways of offering cheap health insurance and mostly what I call networking, not in the instrumental corporate fashion, but a coming together, people sharing their stories, trying to figure out for themselves what’s going on, what they need to do.

TD: A little à la early feminism then.
Ehrenreich: I see so many parallels because there’s a huge stigma attached to unemployment. People who have been laid off are very ashamed and depressed. There’s a need to come together and overcome that shame. In those early meetings in the feminist movement of the seventies, people were ashamed to talk about having been raped. They were ashamed to talk about having been molested as a child. To be able to say that has happened to other people proved transforming. So let’s bring it out, let’s see what the problem is here.
TD: Isn’t this the problem without a name again?
Ehrenreich: Exactly. So I see the need for something at the same level of emotional involvement as in the early women’s movement.
TD: What other solutions to white-collar distress do you imagine?
Ehrenreich: Obviously you want some employment rights like the French just fought to preserve – saying you can’t be fired at will, that a procedure must be gone through. When I was in England recently talking about Bait and Switch, my publisher told me: “You know, people aren’t quite understanding what you’re saying, how you could be laid off or fired without any procedure.” They didn’t understand the concept of employment at will. So I had to explain that, in America, you have no rights: no right to your job, no right to a hearing. You could be fired for a funny expression on your face.
Some of the people involved with United Professionals are looking into the concept of fighting collectively for what are called transition rights. Let’s say everybody gets laid off. This happened at a mortgage company in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Layoffs of hundreds of white and pink-collar people. They’re all told individually, here’s your little severance package; now, never say another word or we might take it away. They’re trying to take this on as a group and respond: No, you can’t deal with us like that; we all want a severance package we can live with or at least that will get us through a few months.
TD: In that half-century-plus from the 1950s to the present, do you feel there’s been a transformation of middle-class culture?
Ehrenreich: It’s more sealed off for sure. If you’re in the upper middle class you never have to interact with other classes, except with your servants or a cab driver or a manicurist …
TD: … until you get fired by your corporation, of course.
Ehrenreich: Yes, that’s the surprise, but until then, your children won’t go to the public schools; you won’t be using the public parks on weekends. You don’t ride public transportation if you’re in that class. They’re really walled off.
TD: Back in 1989, you wrote of a “culture in which the middle class both stars and writes the script.” What did you mean and is it still true?
Ehrenreich: There’s been a lot of polarization within the professional-managerial class since the 1980s. There is now a huge gap, for example, between a journalist and the managing editor of the paper. The difference between the university provost and the associate professor of sociology could be a hundred thousand dollars a year. They’re less and less in the same world. So I would modify that statement. The scriptwriters have gotten higher up.
TD: What would an anatomy of your professional-managerial class of 1989 look like now?
Ehrenreich: The main thing is there’s just more leakage at the bottom, people falling out of it. In 1989, college education had expanded a lot, but not as much as today. Now, so many jobs insist on a college education. I have no idea why. I think they’re just training people to sit quietly for long periods of time. Obedience training I guess is the phrase …
 TD: … for dogs.
Ehrenreich: Yeh! I don’t see where a typical BA even represents any serious skills. Obviously I’m for education, but there’s a major element of rip-off here.
TD: What happened, by the way, to the famed 1950s man in the grey flannel suit? I was amused that, for your working class book, you could go to work more or less dressed as you are now, wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
Ehrenreich: I think you would need khaki pants.
TD: Right. But when you tried to make your way into the corporate world, there was this constant stylistic retooling. No more single uniform.
Ehrenreich: The explanation for that – which sociologist Robert Jackall offered and my image make-over guy confirmed – is that, by being precisely right in your appearance, you signal that you’ll conform in any other way they might want. You’re sending a signal about your degree of compliance.
TD: Certainly the man in the grey flannel suit didn’t expect to get a $300 million thank-you note when he retired. Here’s a figure you had in one of your blog entries: “The top 10 percent of households saw their net worth rise [between 2001 and 2004] by 6.1 percent to an average of $3.11 million.” I was wondering how you looked at the vast payoffs to CEOs, a tiny endowed elite, who will, in fact, be able to endow their children.
Ehrenreich: It’s just plunder. You have your pay determined by a board of your buddies, often just other CEOs. They can take what they want. What was it in the paper today? Home Depot. [She grabs a newspaper off the table and begins rifling through it.] “The stock fell but the chief’s pay kept rising.” That’s news? [She laughs.] Or it was Verizon? Stock tumbled and the CEO got a raise. They’ll push down wages as far as they can, and if there’s no union to stop them, they’ll just keep going, and they’ll push up their own pay. There’s no limit to what they’ll take!
TD: You’ve talked about the invisibility of the poor, the low-wage working class, and these middle-class people falling out of the corporate world, but in a weird way aren’t the rich invisible, too?

Ehrenreich: Well, not that invisible, because they’re always in the media spectacle, though they aren’t studied enough. I think that the poor know much more about the rich than vice versa. You can get some sense of their lives from the entertainment media and, if you clean their houses or you wait on them in stores, you sort of see them. Whereas the other way around doesn’t seem to function.
TD: What I was thinking, though, was: Who writes books today with titles like: Who Rules America?
Ehrenreich: My fantasy after Bait and Switch was to go undercover among the rich. I spent a long time talking to [Harper’s Magazine editor] Lewis Lapham about it, but we came to the dismal conclusion that I wouldn’t pass. It’s not only things like fingernails, but that a woman of my age should have had a lot of surgery. I would be a dead give-away. Not to mention: How do you get access? Too bad – I thought that would be so much fun to do.
TD: Looking toward the midterm and presidential elections, what are your thoughts?
Ehrenreich: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about electoral politics, though I’m kind of interested in John Edwards, because since ’04 he’s devoted himself to talking about poverty and he’s showed up at picket lines and the like.
TD: In terms of the issues that matter to you, can you explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans to me?
Ehrenreich: [Laughs.] What kind of question is that, Tom!
TD: I’ve been writing a lot, based on that infamous presidential Mission Accomplished banner of 2003, about what the Bush administration hasn’t accomplished abroad. There, I believe, they’re already standing in the rubble of their own project. But have they accomplished more of their mission more successfully at home?
Ehrenreich: No, because they haven’t completely dismantled the welfare state, I mean, welfare itself is pretty much just a pathetic wage-supplementation program now, but they couldn’t get rid of social security and they actually expanded Medicare. There’s a trip-wire people have not let them go over yet. I remember hearing Stuart Butler, a Thatcher guy who arrived from England at the end of the Reagan years, say that he felt this was a country where he could really see his goal, the destruction of the welfare state in all forms, being achieved. Well, they haven’t done it.
However, one of the places where they’ve been most successful, as Peter Gosselin, an economics writer for the LA Times, has pointed out incisively, is in shifting risk to individuals. It’s happening with the disintegration of the whole concept of insurance. Insurers don’t want to insure the coasts any more; they certainly don’t want to give anybody health insurance who might ever get sick. That’s one of the things they’ve done pretty well at. In the ownership society, you take care of yourself; don’t bother us, it’s your problem.
TD: When you look to the future, do you see some path other than this incredible one we’re on that seems possible?
Ehrenreich: Oh, yes! I’m sort of a libertarian socialist type. There are a lot of things that just should not be in the market. Health care, that should be taken care of. I think there’s a place for markets, but there’s always going to be tension between markets and our mutual responsibility.
TD: If the polarization in the middle class you describe continues apace, do you imagine a moment when those dropping out of the old middle class and the corporate world may make common with …
Ehrenreich: That’s my whole theme as I’ve trooped around the country talking about Bait and Switch to somewhat more middle-class audiences than I normally get with Nickel and Dimed: There’s a lot in our society that makes people with college degrees and white-collar jobs think they’re special and superior. But next time you’re seeing that person pushing the broom, remember, you may be one year, maybe even six months away from that yourself. You’re not special, not in the eyes of the owners and the CEOs. So we’ve got to get together; we’ve got to bridge that divide, get over that snobbishness.
TD: Let’s turn briefly to war. We’re in a war period and you’ve offered a thoroughly ingenious explanation for the origins of… well, you call them humanity’s blood rites in a book of the same name. You’ve suggested that they came not from our prehistory as aggressive hunters of prey, not even out of aggression, but out of fear and from an even earlier period when we were the prey of other creatures. Of course, in a non-war situation in your two recent books you’ve been dealing with the prey. But I was wondering if you have any comments on our modern blood rites?
Ehrenreich: First, you said something interesting about looking at the prey in my books on economic themes. Well, yeh! And the way in prehistory that humans or hominids rose from prey to predators was through collective action. I mean that is the great human trick. Weapon-making, too. We’re smart at that. But there’s a human ability that doesn’t get enough attention – that ability to mobilize concertedly as a group. I think that’s ultimately what tipped the balance in our favor. Other primates can jump around together to ward off a predator, but humans can do it so much more effectively. We’re good at collective action. Similarly, to get out of these internal prey situations in our own economy, you’ve got to band together. That’s not just a lesson from the last 200 years of labor history, but one of the deepest lessons from thousands of years of human experience.
Now, what do I think of wars at present? Well, the current war and the first Gulf War were, to a certain extent, rally events. That’s a term sociologists started using fairly recently to describe something that leaders initiate for the purpose of manipulating mass emotions. In their favor of course. [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher was sinking in the polls when she did the Falklands War, just as the first George Bush was before Gulf War I when he soared to something like 90% approval.
TD: And, by the way, the younger Bush before 9/11.
Ehrenreich: That’s right. It was just sort of handed to him on 9/11. Of course, it was his choice to invade a random country in response. But that rally effect has not lasted and I don’t think they can pull it off again. I don’t think people are going to start waving American flags for the bombing of Tehran. The scarier thing would be another terrorist attack which might mobilize some crazed, non-rational response. What do we hit next? Norway? Because these people are not understanding that terrorism doesn’t pose a normal military challenge. What the U.S. is doing in Iraq is as silly as the British marching around in little files in the forests of North America in red uniforms and getting picked off by Americans hiding behind trees. There’s just no clue as to what to do. Historically, if you don’t make the transition to the next threat, if you’re still fighting, basically, the Second World War, which is as far as they’ve advanced, you’re not going to make it.
TD: Last thing – maybe a term that’s disappeared might be worth reconsidering: class war.
Ehrenreich: I already use it when I’m talking to groups. I say, yes, there’s a class war. It’s totally one-sided and it’s time for the rest of us to mobilize against the aggressors.