Barbara Ehrenreich was every good thing that was said about her, and more. The visionary author and activist, who died in 2022 at age 81, was, as her September New York Times obituary reminded us, America’s great “explorer of prosperity’s dark side.” With Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989), Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), Ehrenreich developed a fact-based critique of contemporary capitalism that was brilliantly researched and appropriately acerbic—as were the articles, essays, speeches, and media appearances that made her not just a tireless reporter but also a vital social commentator.
She did it all as a socialist, who proudly embraced America’s radical legacies of muckraking journalism and grassroots activism. That mattered a lot during the period when she was active with Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and then the visionary New America Movement in the 1970s, with which she wrote the classic 1976 essay, “What Is Socialist Feminism?” It mattered even more when—during the era conservative hegemony and neoliberal compromise that began with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980—she became a cochair of the Democratic Socialists of America. In those days, DSA was small but fractious. Ehrenreich did not always agree with the direction the organization was taking. But, as she once explained to me, she thought it was right and necessary to identify as a socialist in a country where the “s” word was so frequently written out of history and excluded from contemporary discourse.
In those years before Bernie Sanders launched the first of his presidential campaigns as a proud democratic socialist, it was of great consequence that a writer so prominent as Ehrenreich—someone who was, for a brief time, a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times—was so open and comfortable about declaring, again and again and again, that “capitalism is not working.”
Ehrenreich was a journalist and a researcher. She revealed the failings of capitalism by reporting on them. Well-versed in economic theory, she understood that there could be many responses to those failings. But, she argued, the best responses would be rooted in the faith in economic democracy that underpins democratic socialism. With Bill Fletcher Jr., she acknowledged, in a seminal essay for The Nation following the economic meltdown of 2008, that she did not have all the answers. But she felt that the people did. Ehrenreich and Fletcher explained:
We admit: we don’t even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism. Yes, we have some notion of how it should work, based on our experiences with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the labor movement, as well as with countless cooperative enterprises. This notion centers on what we still call “participatory democracy,” in which all voices are heard and all people equally respected. But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for, involving hundreds of millions, and potentially billions, of participants at a time.
In the great tradition of Americans socialists, such as Eugene Victor Debs, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and A. Philip Randolph, Ehrenreich recognized the first duty of a socialist in the United States was to declare that it doesn’t have to be this way. And Ehrenreich did so brilliantly. She brought democratic socialist critique to discussions not just of politics and economics but also to debates about the environment and the media. When Bob McChesney and I wrote our first book on corporate control of media, she wrote an introduction that, veteran organizer that she was, offered a call to action for a new generation of media activists.
Ehrenreich seized every opportunity to put the American crisis in perspective—as an essayist and activist very much in the tradition of Tom Paine—and to explain the threat posed by this country’s outsize faith in “the market” as a source of solutions for that crisis.
“At the very least, what we have to shake off at this point is the curious religion—and I call it a ‘religion’—that Americans have been in the grip of for years, And that is market fundamentalism: the market as a deity that will take care of everything for us,” she explained at the 2009 Meltdown Forum that was organized by The Nation and The Nation Institute.
Eventually, all the “deserving” poor will be wealthy, according to market fundamentalism. Eventually, everything will be okay. Now, that has had the quality of a religious belief in this country without, of course, evidence. But instead of promoting self-reliance—as it was advertised to do—I think it has fostered a kind of collective passivity in our culture, [which says that] you don’t really have to worry about so many injustices and so many forms of human misery because eventually the invisible hand will come down and smooth out everything. Now, if that doesn’t work, then it seems to me very simply that the alternative to that religious delusion of market fundamentalism is to determine our own destiny as human beings—to realize that there’s not something called ‘the market’ that’s going to do it for us. And I’d say that is the essence to me of what the socialist legacy is: this idea, this very simple idea, that people can get together and figure out solutions to problems.
The legacy of 19th- and early-20th-century socialism was something that Ehrenreich valued, and frequently wrote and spoke about. But she was not a nostalgic radical. Rather, she suggested that the job of contemporary socialists was more difficult than that of their predecessors because industrial capitalism had done so much damage to the planet, and to the climate.
“We have to come to the very sad realization that, in many ways, we are left by capitalism with less than what we started with,” she argued. “The environmental damage—not only of industrial capitalism but of industrial communism, I should say—has left us so depleted of so many resources and in danger on so many fronts that I don’t think it is crazy or paranoid to say that our species faces the threat of extinction.”
With a knowing nod to the present and to the future, she observed, “It’s not simply a matter of changing ownership, so that the people own the means of production, or something like that. It is a matter of rethinking what we mean by production and our entire way of life.”
Barbara Ehrenreich was willing to undertake that daunting process, and to do the hard work of shaping a new America in which socialism is understood not just as an alternative to capitalism but as an alternative to the desperation that extends from capitalism. She spelled out the premise in an interview several years ago, when she explained,
Socialism, to affluent people, often sounds like privation. Oh, they’re going to take stuff from me and give it to somebody else. Suppose what you got in exchange is just a more joyous and convivial world. Where you talk to people on the street, where maybe people start dancing in the street—whatever!