Frances Fox Piven: Still Tougher Than Glenn Beck

You have to hand it to Fox News faux-populist Glenn Beck. If it weren't for him, Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, might not be doing today's National Teach-in on Austerity, Debt, Corporate Greed (and what YOU can do about it) alongside Princeton University Center for African American studies professor Cornel West live from New York City's Judson Church. Nor would they have 200-plus campuses participating in the livestream and teach-ins.

Piven is a legendary scholar and activist, but until this past year, that was true primarily in that small segment of the world familiar with her work on enfranchising the poor through welfare reform and voter registration. Enter Beck. In more than 50 broadcasts, he painted Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, as "masterminds of an overarching left-wing plot," held them "fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system," and referred to Piven as "the enemy of the Constitution" -- all this for a 1966 article on how to force reforms in the welfare system.

A wave of death threats against Piven followed. But also a tide of media that threw the spotlight on Piven's courage, brilliance, and sheer moral and intellectual toughness -- and that introduced her and her work to a whole new generation of activists. On a recent rainy morning, Piven took time out from a slew of last-minute preparations for the teach-in to answer some of my questions about its purpose, the state of the nation, and the difficulty of making either of two corporate-fed political parties responsible to the rest of us -- we the people.

The first thing that struck me about this teach-in you're doing was your use of the term "austerity," since I think of that as a Republican talking point. Why did you decide to adopt the term "austerity"?

Well, we should have done it in quotes. It's false austerity. I think a lot of people have been persuaded the austerity is real, but what we want to show in the teach-in is that this has been manufactured by a combination of tax cuts for corporations and for the affluent and a continuing increase in expenditures that go to corporations and to banks and pharmaceutical companies, for-profit health-insurance companies. So the idea is to try to crack open the myth of austerity and show the revenue shortfalls are the result of an untenable amount of government money going out in the form of corporate subsidies and also the result of wholesale reconstruction of the American tax system, which in mid-20th-century America was a pretty progressive tax system. The marginal rate of taxes on the richest people was 91 percent. That has been entirely reconstructed. Now it's 30-something percent, and in any case, most corporations don't pay their taxes and most of the rich don't pay their taxes.

The old canard is that the Republicans are the party of the wealthy, while Democrats speak for the poor, working class, and middle class. So why does this situation appear to be as bad under Obama as under the Bush administration?

Well, there's the Obama of the electoral campaign, and that Obama pays attention to his base, speaks the words that resonate with his base -- the words of change and the words of equality -- and promises to remedy the sharp inequalities and injustices of American public policy of the last 30 years. But then there's the Obama of governance, and that Obama pays much more attention to his Wall Street supporters and his corporate supporters. Now, I don't even blame Obama for that: That's his situation, and that's what he does.

But I think we have to change his situation, and that's what we're trying to do. Change his situation by adding momentum to what we hope is the sentiment emerging from his base -- and that his base includes poor people, minorities, students (very importantly, students) -- and a lot of working people, the "middle class," we say these days. And that base doesn't have any leverage excepting for that moment when the election is coming. And now the way it can gain leverage is through the protest movement. That's the way it's always been in American history, and it still is. So we're trying to add fire to the democratic forces of American politics by joining a new protest movement that we think may be emerging. For though they have not won in Wisconsin in the sense that the court is still reviewing the legislation that Scott Walker pushed through, they have won in another sense. They have stirred a lot of hope in the American public that have been hurt.

Everyone from journalist Thomas Frank to essayist Ellen Willis has taken a crack at this question. Why are people "voting against their interests"? How is it that "working class" people have been galvanized to argue vociferously for the right to be underpaid and overtaxed and have the social safety net shredded?

Well, we live in a complicated society, and what government does and doesn't do is very hard to understand. It's even hard for people who do this for a living -- the academics who study public policy -- and there are many disagreements among them. Democracy depends on a degree of transparency. You're voting for people who occupy seats of power in government and will have a lot of influence over what government does. But in order for that to be effective, in order for the voters to be an effective element in a democracy, what government does has to be clear. The whole object of right-wing propaganda for 35 years now has been to make it unclear, to confuse, and that propaganda has grown steadily stronger and taken many forms.

One form has been the attack on the mainstream media so the mainstream media doesn't do what it's supposed to do. It doesn't illuminate the choices that are being made by governing officials because it's afraid of being called "liberal" and also because the mainstream media are themselves now owned by the largest corporations in the world. At the same time, another tack has grown in the propaganda war, and that's the tack of what some people call the fake populist movement. The Tea Party is the prime example of that now. In a way it is fake: It is a construction of well-funded political organizations and of people like the Koch brothers. But it also draws on things that are going on in people's minds, hearts, and bellies.

The Democrats' attitude toward their voters appears to be, "We're the best you've got. What are you going to do, vote Republican?" How do progressives manage to actually push the Democrats left?

I think we can't if we stay within the boundaries of normal politics, if what we do is we pay a little attention to what's going on in the political realm and then just go to the polls. But sometimes insurgent movements arise -- they have periodically in American history -- which actually threaten to make the country ungovernable. The movement of striking workers, workers who sat down and who occupied plants in the 1930s, gave General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford no choice but to sign union contracts, and they gave FDR no choice but to throw his support behind the National Labor Relations Act.

That did not happen just because people went to the polls. That they went to the polls was of some importance because they were threatening with their militant, visible, dramatic actions. They were threatening to fracture the Democratic constituency. In a certain sense, we need Democrats in power because the Democratic Party is the party that is vulnerable to the force of movements, and the force of movements is the force that raises issues that threaten to divide Democratic constituencies so there's an interaction between electoral politics and protest politics. Without protest politics, that interaction doesn't happen, and democratic potentialities are not realized.

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