Fox Populi

Frances Fox Piven on how to grow the movement, and Glenn Beck-inspired death threats.

Joel Bleifuss

Frances Fox Piven speaks at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, where she has taught and mentored graduate students for more than 25 years. (Photo by: Peter Waldvogel of the CUNY Grad Center)

On January 5, Glenn Beck threw some red meat to his dogs: What Frances Fox Piven is talking about is riots. She’s encouraging riots. She wants people to rise up. This is a strategy developed in the 1960s: collapse the economic system. Their goal is a national wage. That’s communism.”

The response from his fans was immediate. On his website they fantasized about what they would do to the City University of New York professor. Burst through the front door of the arrogant elitist and slit the cow’s throat.” Snap her little chicken neck. This pinko filth needs a long dirt nap.” Let’s go string her up.” 

For the past two years, Beck has been obsessed with Piven, a 78-year-old grandmother. He is particularly upset about her role in the 1960s in establishing the welfare rights movement. The most recent object of his ire is a December article in The Nation, in which Piven posed some simple questions: Shouldn’t the unemployed be on the march? Why aren’t they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs?”

In These Times recently talked to Piven about political movements, the protests in the Mideast and the Midwest, and Glenn Beck.

How do you explain this hysterical reaction to your call for a movement of the unemployed”?

What the right is targeting are social movements and they’re singling out an article that my late husband Richard Cloward and I wrote in 1966, which was widely regarded as helping to inspire the welfare rights movement. That article is important in their cosmology, so when 45 years later I call for mobilizing the unemployed, it triggers the same sore spot, which is that popular movements from the bottom of the society are almost always movements that push our government to the left. That’s what they’re demonizing.

How does this movement then translate its power into a government program for, let’s say, a living wage?

Well, movements have power partly because they raise issues otherwise excluded from the political agenda. They do that by making noise, by marches and banners and yelling and threatening to shut down major institutions. In the great sit-down movement of the 1930s, workers occupied factories and shut down a very important institution in this society – industrial production. When students either walk out or occupy universities they are shutting down a very important institution. 

One part of it has to do with communication, with raising issues that are ignored by political operatives. Another part has to do with withdrawing cooperation. When workers walk out or sit down they are withdrawing cooperation. When people march in the streets and in that way block traffic they are withdrawing cooperation to keep traffic moving and to keep cities functioning.

This second aspect of movements also communicates, but in addition to communicating it exercises leverage because we need people to cooperate in order for the institutions of society to go humming along.

How do these attempts at character assassination fit into a broader campaign by the right to delegitimize the progressive movement and portray intellectuals un-American?

It’s very hard for people to understand the impact of government policies on deindustrialization or on job losses. What the right does is simplify all this and construct a kind of paranoid fairy tale: None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for that person.” 

I never called for bringing down the system or capitalism in order to replace it with socialism or communism. What I called for, in The Nation article, was reforming and modernizing the welfare system, which at that point in time and still today has many characteristics of the old poor-law in England. Instead of encouraging people to try to understand what is actually happening and think of the solutions that would reduce the hardships they are suffering, the right is putting out the worst sort of propaganda – a propaganda that creates a caricature of reality and encourages people to become blindly angry at a George Soros, at Van Jones, at Frances Fox Piven. 

Why are Americans so hostile to the welfare state? Is it an engineered hostility?

It is partly engineered. Our welfare program is a rigamarole of degradation, with investigations and the fingerprinting and the long lines, that systematically humiliates people and makes them into theatrical symbols of shame. But we also have a political culture that treats economic success as a mark of virtue and treats economic failure as a mark of personal iniquity. When we see someone who is impoverished, we think that that person is not very worthwhile or very industrious. When we see someone who is rich, who is sporting a designer suit and riding in a limousine, we think that that person must have great talent and ambition. The Protestant ethic is still alive in 21st century United States when in fact people are much at the mercy of national and global trends in the economy for which they bear no responsibility.

Grover Norquist said in 2001: I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Republicans in Congress are currently using the supposed threat of the national debt to demand an end to stimulus efforts and drastic cuts in social programs. Is this deficit scare orchestrated by the right as a means to fulfill Norquist’s dream?

It is orchestrated by the right. The reasons for the huge deficit are primarily tax cuts and the deliberate retention of tax loopholes by Congress. So we have a tax system that doesn’t raise enough money because it doesn’t tax corporations and the very rich. At the same time, we spend enormous amounts on defense and in all the talk about cutting discretionary spending there has been scarcely any talk at all of cutting defense spending.

And in the short time he’s been in office, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker cut taxes, and then a few weeks later announces a deficit in the state budget that requires him to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights and threaten to call out the National Guard to back up that promise. That’s obviously a created crisis, and so is the federal deficit crisis.

People like Grover Norquist love these crises because they are an opportunity to cut those parts of government that they don’t like. The right is not against government, the right is against those parts of government that are responsive to the needs of poor and working people. They’re not targeting the subsidies gained by the health insurance companies; they’re not targeting the military industrial complex. They’re only targeting the people’s programs.

You have called for the unemployed to march and to demand enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs.” How is what you are calling for similar or different from what Reverend Martin Luther King called for in 1963 with the poor march on Washington and in 1968 with the poor people’s campaign?

It’s very similar. Martin Luther King was trying with marches and demonstrations to put the grievances of people otherwise ignored, underrepresented or not represented at all on the national political agenda, and that’s what a mobilization of the unemployed might do. The official unemployment level is 9 to 10 percent and if you include those who only have part time work and want full time work it goes up to at least 15 percent. This issue of jobs for the unemployed gets very short shrift from Congress and the president and it will get short shrift unless there is a movement pushing them from behind.

Why do such tactics seem to have succeeded in Egypt, at least for the moment, but appear to have less resonance over here?

They could have resonance over here. It may well be that what we are seeing in Madison is the beginning of a period in which the people that are hardest hit by the financial meltdown and the ensuing recession will take to the streets and will make their voices heard. After all, we didn’t hear from Egypt for 30 years and then, when the spark was lit, we heard from them very loudly. They were noble and they were beautiful and they thrilled the world. Maybe, that’s going to happen in the United States.

How do you think your insights and ideas about poor people’s movements apply to the Arab world and how does the experience in Egypt apply to us?

It matters a lot. One of the reasons that so many Americans are thrilled by the Egyptians is because they do see parallels. They do see that ordinary people are so consumed by their daily lives and daily routines and their long working hours and having to get to the store before it closes and then having to run home to bathe the babies that they don’t have the energy or the hope that fuels protests. But when they see it happening and happening so boldly and brilliantly as it did in Egypt I think it seizes their imagination, because somewhere in their memory they do know about other moments of protests here in the United States. They do know that people could win. They do know that those victories have made the United States a more humanistic society. There is a reason that protests spread and that they come in cycles. And that’s because protests in one place among one group inspire hope among others who also need the kind of political leverage that comes in the form of protests.

What can mass actions today in the United States achieve specifically?

A reindustrialization program that generates lots of jobs – infrastructure building and green energy jobs, but also caretaking jobs. Another thing protests can do is help us to restore the social programs that have been slashed over the last 50 years. We need much better labor laws. We need to get rid of right-to-work provisions. We need to get rid of this categorical barring of unions from certain sectors as happens in many states. We need lots of things, and we’ll figure out more things that we need as the movement rolls forward.

How necessary a role does effective organization and astute leadership play in movements for progressive, social and economic reform?

A movement by the nature of what it is goes beyond organization. Sometimes organizations play a role in helping to coordinate, to send out the call and so forth. What is so remarkable about movements is the way in which the rallying cry, the call to come to Tahrir Square [in Cairo], escapes the control of any particular organization or any particular leader because it resonates with people.

The grievances resonate with people’s experience. There is something magic about those moments and that magic is not created by a particular leader or a particular organization.

Do political parties play a role in this?

Political parties do play a role, but it’s largely a role that they don’t intend to play. A political party sometimes makes promises to help the people and then disappoints by not fulfilling those promises. For example, FDR in his campaign speeches castigated the economic royalists.” The Democrats supported the right to organize and the National Industrial Recovery Act. This created hope because it suggested that working people could not be ignored by this administration. Once such hope was there, that sense of power was there and a movement of workers succeeded in forcing the New Deal administration to throw government support behind the right of workers to organize. The Democrats weren’t willing to really do it the beginning, but they were willing to pretend. And that pretending had an impact on working people. It made them think that maybe this administration could not completely ignore them.

Who do you see playing a sort of similar role to Roosevelt or the Democrats of the 1930s today?

Obama could be made to play that role. You know, everyone complains about Obama, me too. But as a politician he has been confronted with problems created by his competitors on the right, but he hasn’t had to deal with any problems on his left flank. We’ve got to make problems for him on his left flank.

What does it feel like to get death threats?

If you read them, they’re really lurid and ugly. And it’s not just threats, it’s curses wishing terrible things to befall me and calling me vulgar names – hundreds of them. If that was all that was going on in my life I would be really chilled, but I also get lots of support and lots of encouragement from my friends, my students and people I’ve never met, and that’s very warming and very empowering.

If you had one wish for Glenn Beck, what would it be?

That he would get off the air and get a useful job.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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