Frances Fox Piven

Someththe

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

19 thoughts on “Frances Fox Piven”

  1. If Piven added the words "and riots" carelessly, rather than advisedly, it would be nice to hear her say so. When someone who writes for a living writes in praise of rioting, the natural assumption is that she intends to praise rioting. If she did so intend, neither her age nor her sex ought to immunize her from criticism. Of course Beck's rants are over the top. Aren't they always? And of course threats of violence directed at Piven are cowardly and inexcusable. But those of us who would like to see poor people get a better break, and who nevertheless think that rioting is a bad way to go about it, shouldn't act as if opposing Beckism requires supporting Piven when the plain meaning of her words is an endorsement of political violence.

  2. 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.

    For many decades in America, slavery and segregation was the law of the land as the specific result of legislation passed by a governmental system that the majority of the US population considered legitimate.

    Were slaves and black American citizens obliged to accept the 'tough political losses' in the 3/5ths compromise or the ex-confederate states' segregation laws because these instruments were enacted according to a largely legitimate political process?

    If you answer 'yes,' then you are endorsing some form of legal authoritarianism completely divorced from any moral basis. If you answer 'no,' then you are accepting that the substantive content–and not just the process of enactment–of political decisions has a role in determining whether they are legitimate.

    There are definite limits to the moral validity of arguments based on legal positivism in the context of procedurally valid political decisions that abridge–by acts of commission or omission–the ability of all citizens to participate in a pluralist society.

    The obligation upon a class to abide by the decisions of the polity at large is conditional on having a voice in making those decisions. It is a social contract that imposes requirements both upon individual classes (and individuals) and the remainder of the polity. Any class that has been systemically denied its political voice has been defrauded by the polity at large and is under no obligation to fulfill its half of the social contract.

    It is very hard to justify an argument that classes–such as slaves and the working poor–which are systemically exploited and systemically denied all redress are under any obligation to abide by the political rules of their oppressors.

  3. "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."

    I can see why we might like to have a kind of mutually observed truce, where everyone considers this kind of behavior out of bounds, but we do not, actually, have such a truce in American politics. In the absence of such a truce, activists are "entitled" to print home addresses of abortion clinic staff and crooked contractors. It's not an "ironic symmetry" — it is an unfortunate fact of political life, circa 2011.

    "Of course Beck’s rants are over the top. Aren’t they always? And of course threats of violence directed at Piven are cowardly and inexcusable."

    Of course. Of course.

    I thought Harold Pollack's essay quite thoughful, but he doesn't seem to want to think the thoughts he's clearing thinking. Me, too.

  4. "I don’t read this essay or this passage as advocating violence, or anything close to it."

    Given the nature of the Greek riots she writes approvingly of, I'm at a loss for why you don't.

    "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."

    Her writings don't mean what she actually wrote, because she should have written something different? Seriously, that's your defense?

    "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."

    Except, you know, for the overturning and setting fire to cars part, and that junk.

    I'm with Mark, doesn't happen often, but there you are. She wrote what she wrote, she's not being misinterpreted, she's just unhappy the wrong people read it, and shared it with the wrong people.

  5. If Piven is being prescriptive, I have to agree with Mark and Brett: riots are wrong, and should not be advocated.

    If Piven is being descriptive–eh. I'm old enough to remember the riots of the mid-late 1960's. They actually did make the politicians pay attention to the problem of of the poor.

    I'm a bit surprised that Brett is anti-riot. He is strongly pro-gun, and I think supports a right to revolution (or some form of armed self-defense against a repressive state). The '60's riots were soft-core revolution.

  6. The working poor (I've been one of them) do have redress; we just don't use it as effectively as the rich use theirs. Let's face it, those whom we elected for the past dozen years did not see, and did not protect us from, the dangers of an overheated housing market and financial wrongdoing on Wall Street. Those on the bottom are bearing the brunt of the fallout.

    That said, Frances Fox Piven (whose efforts to encourage organizing and involvement of the poor and working poor I totally admire and support) is something of a romantic. Riots do get the attention of elected officials (and everyone else) in the US. But the results have not been substantial, and partly because the rioters are not usually an organized group that persists in its efforts. They have not had significant redistributive effects, and in fact the mass demonstrations that have had an impact on US policy have almost all been about civil rights or war, not about economic issues.

  7. Speaking of attacking old ladies, remember the kind words that we are treated to via the Huffington Post upon Nancy Reagan's hospitalization for a fall? We heard such peaceful phrases such as "Like her evil husband she has lived far too long..Here's hoping the Hag suffers for several weeks then croaks in the tub."

  8. So, Bux, do you have a link to the Huffington Post for that comment?

    In any case, Bux, are you seriously comparing a single crank comment (probably by a wingnut provocateur, if it's even a real quote at all) on the Huffington Post website to Glenn Back's nightly hour-long news network show?

  9. Piven's theories are largely discredited among contemporary (non-78-year-old) sociologists, which puts them in a strange position when having to defend her against Beck's lynch mobs. She wrote what she wrote not because she was careless but because she was wrong, which she's entitled to be without receiving death threats.

  10. I'm not really interested in hearing whining about Piven's (foolish) use of "and riots" from anyone who didn't loudly denounce the actual physical intimidation of vote counters in the "Brooks Brothers riot." Intimidation, it's worth noting, not by the otherwise disenfranchised but by a good number of people destined for Federal appointments in the administration they put into office.

  11. Of course, if you've lost your job, your pension and your house to the the pro-genitors of the global financial crisis, none of that was "violent" or politically illegitimate. Only your potential protest is an issue.

    And, of course, it has all been exclusively, a Republican plot; the Obama whose response to the foreclosure crisis was HAMP, a program to aid banks in stringing the victims along — well, he's a Democrat, so his viciousness doesn't count.

  12. Well, Bruce, unless you lost your job at the hands of somebody wielding a lead pipe, or something of that nature, it wasn’t violent. “Violence” actually has a meaning, you know; Not everything you find objectionable is “violent”, and doubtless many things you approve of ARE violent.

  13. @Brett

    Was there something ambiguous in my statement, “none of that was violent”?

    If you think something I approve of on this blog is violent, please bring it to my attention.

  14. “Was there something ambiguous in my statement, “none of that was violent”?”

    Just my mistaking that for sarcasm.

    “If you think something I approve of on this blog is violent, please bring it to my attention.”

    Ah, you’re an anarchist? Not really in favor of laws which will be enforced by dudes carrying truncheons and firearms, and not afraid to use them on folks who don’t go along with the policies you advocate? Well, then, you have my apology, you’re not approving of violence.

  15. @Brett

    I am not an anarchist, nor am I a pacifist. Anarchists are not, generally, pacifists, either, to my certain knowledge.

    “Not really in favor of laws which will be enforced by dudes carrying truncheons and firearms . . .”

    The contingent potential of state violence was an implicit condition in my earlier statements regarding the contrast between losing one’s job, pension and house, and protesting the same. The potential of state violence hangs over the loss of job, pension and house, just as much as it does over political protest.

    I believe the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence rests on keeping state policy within both procedural and substantive boundaries. I took Professor Pollack’s post to be a meditation on what those boundaries are, and how those boundaries should be policed in a democratic society.

  16. >>“Like her evil husband she has lived far too long..Here’s hoping the Hag suffers for several weeks then croaks in the tub.”<<

    When Bill O'Reilly singled this quote out on his show, I think he failed to point out that this came from a commenter, not a Huffington author. There are plenty of equally vicious comments on Fox News' site pages.

    As for supporting riots or not, I keep flashing back to Donald Rumsfeld saying "Democracy is messy".

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