Frances Fox Piven is one of the nine most dangerous people in the world — according to Glenn Beck, who in recent years has foisted a new wave of notoriety on the eighty-one year-old academic. Now a professor of political science at sociology at the City University of New York, Piven’s five decades of scholarship include the 1977 book "Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail" (with her late husband Richard Cloward). In a Friday interview, she considered how Occupy and the Tea Party approach electoral politics, compared Obama to Hoover, and shared her theory about what made neoconservatives resent her. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What have the shutdown and debt ceiling fight revealed about who has power in Washington and how they wield it?
As crazy as it seems, you’ve got a kind of intersection of movement politics and electoral politics. Movement activists seek out conflictual issues and to try to polarize those situations because that’s how movements grow. Elected politicians are always pursuing alliances. So you had the really strange phenomenon of the right wing of the Republican Party defying the business interests that fund it.
There really is a right-wing movement – or several — at work in the United States, and they’re making difficult, if not impossible, the sorts of compromises and coalitions at which politicians are usually adept. I compared that to the 1850s: after several decades in which intersecting political parties crafted one compromise after another, their efforts were completely fractured by the rise on the one hand of the abolitionists who demanded emancipation immediately, and on the other hand, the ferocious reactions of the slaveholding south. It’s a different kind of politics, and it produces some wild and unexpected consequences. I don’t know if the business leadership of the Republican Party is going to be able to hold it together.
The Tea Partiers in the Congress — movements do this — they’re reviving ancient themes. In 18th century Britain, when the working class was beginning to organize you got a lot of sloganeering about preserving the rights of freeborn Englishmen. What rights? An imagined set of rights. In the same sort of screwball way, this movement is reviving the language of past movements: Nullification. States’ rights. The reactive movement trying to defend the right of the South to not only hold slaves, but go after fugitive slaves in the North.
Business is acting like an interest group, a series of interest groups. I read a comparison between the attempt of American business leaders to use the Tea Party and the way the big German cartel owners thought they could use the Nazi movement. There are a lot of strains between interest groups, electoral politics, and movement politics.
[The Tea Party] polarizes by raising issues that will inevitably create an opposition, and that’s the way they build support. The basic dynamics are exposing the rifts that are exposed when you bring up issues that are suppressed by elected politicians trying to build majority coalitions.
There’s been debate on the Left about whether the Tea Party represents an astro-turf rebranding effort by the same Republicans activists, or a significant shift in US politics. What do you think?
I think it’s both. They have attracted the some of the same people that were attracted by movements from the John Birchers to the Christian Right. But the Tea Party is also I think a little bit different. They’re not a religious movement. They are better educated than the public at large. They are not the people who are hurting as a result of this economic crisis — although they may be alarmed by some of the instability caused by the financial crisis. And they are terrified by their loss of status and political centrality as the country changes demographically.
For a long time, pollsters on the Democratic side have been looking forward to the demographic changes that would make minorities so important. Well, they have occurred, and not only minorities, but poor people turned out in large numbers for both Obama elections. [Tea Partiers], they’ve always had standing and authority in their little communities. And that’s being challenged. Not just by Obama — Obama is the symbol. That’s being challenged by these broad shifts that are occurring in the population and in electoral politics.
How do they react? They scream at their rallies. They say, “Take it back!” That’s a scream that reflects, I think, the loss or threat to the sense of ownership. Leaders in the business community, most of them are rational, sane, self-interested, greedy. But some of them have some other kind of Tea Party emotionalism. I’d put the Koch brothers in that category: rich, powerful people who are scared because they’ve stolen so much from the country, and electoral changes signal the possibility that they may lose what they’ve stolen.
The New York Times this week quoted the CEO of Deloitte saying, “The extreme Right has ninety seats in the House. Occupy Wall Street has no seats.” Lots of people have made that kind of comparison over the past couple years — what do you make of it?
Well, it’s obviously accurate. But Occupy — although it didn’t have either the inclination or the capacity to set out to win the state legislatures and gerrymander all the congressional districts — had a large impact on American political discourse. It had a big impact on Obama’s campaign rhetoric — he started talking about extreme inequality and fat cats — and even the Republican rhetoric changed, so they talked about jobs. On many, many issues, Occupy has a kind of majority — the anger toward the rich, towards Wall Street, toward the 1%. The Tea Party expresses that, but then they act to save the tax cuts for the rich, or to increase them. Occupy has been consistent.
Even though [the Right] seems always to be winning, it could change. And it’s that sense that somehow elected Democrats could score a win — that I think explains the hysteria of people like the Koch brothers.
“Score a win” of what kind?
There are actually quite a few left-leaning Democratic House members now, but they can’t move anything. In the aftermath of a run-up in inequality, such as we’ve had over the last thirty years, there have been times when electoral politics put enough people in positions of authority, backed by movement politics on the outside, to introduce which reduced inequality. The 1930s produced a very substantial reduction in inequality, a result of the election of FDR and a lot of liberal Democrats who were fueled by the movements that were emerging of the unemployed and the aged and ultimately workers. The same thing happened after the 1960s.
I don’t underestimate the extent to which the craziness on the Right, and the money that pays for that craziness, is driven by fears — it may sound quaint — fears of the people. They’re trying to take away the right to vote for a lot of people. I think the brashness reflects this latent fear that they could lose at the ballot box.
You often hear liberals cite this perhaps apocryphal story about FDR saying to a group of activists —
“Now make me do it.”
Yeah. Sometimes cited as evidence the Left needs to be harder on Obama, other times as evidence the Left shouldn’t be so hard on Obama. What’s your view of the Left’s effectiveness in the Obama era at moving Democrats?
I don’t think that the early stage movements that now exist in the United States — and I count Occupy among them, I don’t think Occupy is finished; it’s finished in the form it first took but we do see quite a bit of activism among groups that we never saw it among, like Wal-Mart workers. I don’t think that they are most effective if they just lobby elected politicians. I think they’re most effective when they do their thing. When they use their skills.
Their talent for flamboyance, for using the bullhorn, for using street antics, on the one hand. And their capacity to cause disruptions in business, in the institutions of civil society. They use those two strategies to communicate issues that are being ignored, and to cause trouble. I think that’s when they’re effective. Going to Washington is largely a waste of time. But causing trouble is not.
What do you think we’ll look back on as the victories of the Left over these past several years?
What I think, and I certainly hope, is that we’ll see the Occupy period as the beginning of a movement era. It won’t be all one big movement — it’ll be different movements. Because people in different circumstances organize differently, they have somewhat different messages.
And I think we will also see that Obama, because of his extra timidity and cautiousness, and also because he depended on Wall Street money, stood in the way of these movements having an impact. Obama is a little bit like Hoover was in 1930, '31, '32: not an evil monster by any means; cautiously and timidly trying to do something, but not too much, about unemployment. Maybe Obama can have a change of personality and become a bolder leader. I don’t know. But we certainly need a bolder leader, and we need movements to ensure that we get and then keep him.
You and your husband wrote a bestseller about how poor people build power in the United States. What’s been the trend in the decades since?
Poor people lost power after the early 1970s. There was a kind of regrouping on the Right, partly made possible by the activation of opposition to the victories of the black freedom movement and its sort-of-sister poor people’s movement. It’s also the case that movements, they become in a way overtaken and exhausted by their very victories. And I think that also happened in the case of the 1960s movement: lots of the leaders [went] into normal politics, electoral politics, and the movements in a certain way lost legitimacy because many of their foremost demands had been won. The Republican leadership tried to use race hatred and all of the antipathies towards poor people, and to build a majority, wean the Reagan Democrats away from the Democratic Party. And they did that successfully for many years, and it still infects our politics today.
Since the 2008 crash and Obama’s election, you hear the word socialism more. Obama gets accused of it; polls suggest that — at least as a word — young people are more open to it. What do you make of the state of socialism or socialist ambitions now in the US?
I think they’re pretty vague. One thing that has struck me in general about especially the electoral politics of the last few years is how important youth are. They don’t get nearly as riled up by the use of the term “socialism.” They’re not fretting about the fact that we have a black president. When Obama steals a movement slogan like “we are the change we’ve been waiting for,” that’s an appeal to that youth vote. I think that in a sense biology — the dying-off of the old and the coming of age of the young, who have a different political culture, maybe as a result of the counterculture and music — I think that may be our salvation.
In the coming years, what do you want to see the Left — however you choose to define it — do in the United States?
I’d like to see the rise of an activist Left that took advantage of the grievances, the broken promises, the desperation [of] many Americans, and especially young Americans - the ones who’ve been so disappointed by the changes that were so dramatic during the financial crisis, the increase in indebtedness, the high unemployment rate, the broken dreams. I’d like to see a Left that identifies with these groups, works with them, that explored sort of the margins of the possible in terms of reform.
I don’t know the boundary between reform and revolution. I work for reform, and if the reforms that I work for have transformative consequences, that’s as much revolution as I need.
Glenn Beck called you one of the nine most dangerous people in the world. What do you make of that, and of him?
I think it was partly just expedient and fortuitous. There were a number of people who in the 1960’s and 70’s made the great crossing from the Left to the Right and became neocons. And a couple were especially incensed by the role that Richard Cloward and I had played in the movements of welfare recipients and the black freedom movement. They thought these movements had taken the Democratic Party off course, so that the Democrats were beginning to champion black issues and redistribution, and that in turn made trouble for the Democratic Party as a majority party. We were demons in that analysis, and they carried that w them. And people like David Horowitz were there to feed to people like Glenn Beck and his staff the idea that we were such troublemakers, that we were the authors of a strategy to crash American capitalism.
Maybe they thought I was dead, so that they would have a mythical villain. I also came to think that there’s a sort of paranoia out there. They call me a witch a lot, and I think some of them really believe in witchcraft. They are strange.
I’m telling you, there’s a lot of fear on the Right. We lefties, liberals, whatever - we’re afraid that the globe will warm, we’re afraid of endless war, we’re afraid of a lot of things. They are also afraid, but - I don’t want to be corny, but they’re afraid of the people. They’re afraid of democracy. They’re afraid that their extravagant extortions from the American economy, from our wealth, will be suddenly brought to light, and that we’ll come after them. That’s true on the populist level, when the crowds scream, “Take it back!” But I think it’s also true among the very rich funders of these populist movements.