Frances Fox Piven has been singled out for taunting by Glenn Beck and others. This vitriol has predictably elicited all manner of violent talk, whose bullying depravity is only magnified by their being directed against a 78-year-old woman. It goes without saying that such things exceed the bounds of Democratic politics. And the sheer disproportion of the right-wing response would be funny if it weren’t so creepy. Piven’s articles in The Nation have as much chance of inciting national unrest as another distinguished professor, Louis DeBranges, did in this incident a quarter-century ago.
Yet what about Piven herself, and her Nation essay, “mobilizing the jobless” that prompted such fuss? For five decades, she has sought to address one of the central puzzles and problems of American democratic politics: Why aren’t the jobless and the poor more organized, more angry, and more effective in pressing their claims during fairly catastrophic economic times. And how could one change that?
In answering these challenges, did the veteran activist and scholar herself exceed the bounds of democratic politics ? On this, my friends and colleagues seem to disagree. In part, their disagreements reflect ambiguities in Piven’s own writings. These disagreements also reflect real differences among friends in political sensibility and strategy.
Piven plants her flag near the boundary that separates liberal reformism and parts further left. Her writings suggest that incremental reformers are too ready to accept the fact that our nation’s nominally democratic political process repeatedly, predictably yield painful defeats for our most marginalized citizens. I’m a committed incrementalist myself. Yet there are moral and political costs to this stance that should be acknowledged.
Read her latest article for yourself, and draw your own conclusions. The key offending passage seems to be this one:
Local protests have to accumulate and spread—and become more disruptive—to create serious pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.
I don’t read this essay or this passage as advocating violence, or anything close to it. Instead, Piven offers a fairly traditional left analysis of obstacles to collective political action, She notes that apathy, disorganization, ethnic division, and of course poverty itself, pose serious obstacles. It is very hard to mobilize disorganized, diverse, dispirited or disaffected jobless people on behalf of a coherent political agenda.
Piven does carelessly include the words “and riots.” She should have supplied some missing sentences to make plain the obvious truth that violence and mayhem are morally and strategically crazy in American democratic politics. That was a mistake. I believe it was an innocent one.
Piven claims that we would get better public policy if fifteen million jobless people could wage more effective, perhaps even disruptive protest to ensure that their needs are being met. If one makes explicit the political and moral requirement of nonviolence within this story, this is a respectable position that deserves a seious hearing.
Consider, for example, Larry Bartels’ impressive evidence that the voting behavior of American politicians is strikingly unresponsive to poor people’s political preferences. I have no doubt that Representatives and Senators are saddened by the job crisis and by foreclosures. They still demonstrate a striking lack of urgency that mirrors the striking powerless and disorganization of those near the bottom of the income scale.
Imagine if individual legislators felt the same immediate and specific pressure to fix (say) foreclosures occurring within the troubled HAMP program or to provide inner-city youth summer jobs that many politicians feel to fix the 1099 problem in health reform or Medicare’s “Doctor fix.” Imagine if Senators voted on whether to extend unemployment insurance knowing that a negative vote might produce angry mass protest, maybe even a sit-down demonstration that delays travelers at Reagan National Airport.
This last example of direct action makes many liberals uncomfortable. It should. Its conduct and purposes touch some ambiguities in Piven’s account. If the goal of such action is to create sufficient havoc that politicians surrender to the angry minority, I would oppose it. That kind of vanguard politics is neither safe nor workable in American society. In any event, poor people’s movements lack the power these days to coerce anybody, unless their claims attract broader and more conventional political support.
Welfare rights activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s sometimes forgot this reality. Misconceived efforts to mobilize poor people were occasionally de facto Nixon campaign commercials. Piven herself has a checkered record when it comes to anticipating and defusing the powerful backlash politics her recommended strategies surely provoke. This strategic reality provides powerful incentive for restraint. There is no shortcut to winning elections, which means ultimately persuading people near the middle of the American electorate.
That’s a good thing, too. I take it as a given that democratic political movements succeed through persuasion, not coercion. I believe that Piven takes this as given, too. As the Nation’s editors observe, she has spent her career organizing voter registration drives, grassroots organizing, and “when necessary,” street protest.
In 2011 America, mass protest is no alternative to reformist politics. It is a mechanism to improve this reformist politics: to stiffen the backbones of wavering sympathetic office-holders, to press Democratic politicians hard from their base to do more, to embolden and empower those who feel left out to join organized conventional politics. One might argue that the absence of such a movement has undermined several recent Democratic efforts, and worsened the outcome in last year’s midterms.
Such tactics are familiar to Republicans, as the success of the Tea Party movement attests. I oppose the Tea Party’s substantive agenda and some its members’ specific actions and rhetoric. Yet the broad enterprise bears ironic similarity to what Piven seeks.
In its way, Piven’s reach to Greece and Italy is telling. No one is quite sure what a successful American movement to mobilize the poor would really look like. I suspect that such a movement would look quite different from what Piven has in mind: probably a little quieter and a little less threatening in its public face. Not by accident, plainspoken Midwesterner Elizabeth Warren is the most successful economic populists these days.
Mass protest and civil disobedience inevitably raise tough issues. Democratic citizens cannot regard every unpalatable, misguided, or even unjust policy outcome as illegitimate. Given the reality of disagreement in a pluralist society, everyone is obliged to accept tough political losses that were produced through a flawed but basically legitimate process. We ask the same of others, for example when liberals demand that social conservatives honor legal rulings furthering abortion rights, or when meat eaters and cancer patients demand that animal rights activists not disrupt key activities that harm animals for human benefit.
Across the spectrum, there are nasty anti-democratic strains in activist politics that should be resisted. Mobilization through anger at specific policies is often warranted. One must be wary when that anger leads people to demonize specific people. Anti-abortion folks are entitled to show gross fetal pictures or to shout in a bullhorn across the street from an abortion clinic. Activists are not entitled to print the home addresses of abortion clinic staff, or, for that matter, the address of some tobacco company executive or the CEO of a crooked military contractor.
Which brings us back to Piven’s tormentors, and to the journalists who would channel such rage Piven’s way. Whatever the alleged sins in her writings, there is no excuse for the way she has been taunted and singled out. There is equally no excuse for a national network that continues to give people airtime to spread this stuff.