BOOK TALK: Back to the Future of Occupy Wall Street

April 12, 2012 | CUNY Matters

Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven
By Frances Fox Piven
The New Press

By Gary Schmidgall

Views differ about Frances Fox Piven, the legendary rabble-rouser and Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center. Glenn Beck, for example, despises her (“enemy of the Constitution”), attacked her dozens of times on the Fox network’s Glenn Beck Show, and seems to welcome visitors to his website, The Blaze, who are given to ominous violent threats that flirt with Gabrielle Giffords territory.

On the other hand is The Nation, for which Piven has been a long-time contributor, which has called her “the embodiment of the best of American democracy.”

Piven, a legendary rabble-rouser, is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center.

She wears her Fox-y persona non grata status like a badge of honor, as you can tell from the latest of her numerous books, just out from The New Press. It’s called Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven, and the subtitle is The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate. It is an invigorating stroll down memory lane for the longtime go-to academic for various progressive social and political causes — notably welfare, voting, poverty, and labor rights. She self-identifies as a “radical democrat.”

This memory lane is very long! Raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, Piven was just 15 when the University of Chicago admitted her (she earned three degrees there). She is now 79, and there’s nothing about “emeritus” in the book’s bio. The 10 essays collected here range over 47 years, from the classic 1963 essay on “Low-Income People and the Political Process” to a Nation editorial in January 2011 on “Mobilizing the Jobless.”

Each one begins with a helpful contextual preface. The first seven essays were the joint work of Piven and her longtime fellow sociologist, collaborator and husband Richard Cloward, who died in 2001. (A particular bête noir for Beck was a nefarious left-wing plot he referred to as “the Cloward-Piven strategy.”) An interview given last spring to the social philosopher Cornel West serves as an afterword. “The future of this country,” he ventures to tell her, “depends on how it responds to the legacy of Francis Fox Piven.”

What especially got Beck’s goat was that 2011 editorial in The Nation, which amounted to a clear invitation for “Occupy Wall Street” to spring to life and spread nationwide. In fact, one can easily view the contents of Who’s Afraid as decades-long preparation for the Occupy movement that commenced on Sept. 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park (the last essay predates this by just eight months). Already in 1963, Piven was advocating disruption through “the periodic collective refusal to cooperate in the regular institutional relationships that constitute society.” The slogan “We are the 99 percent” is thoroughly in keeping with the Cloward-Piven strategy, and in a Nation essay of December 2011 she gave Occupy a big cheer: “This is a big and welcome step… . A proud and angry poor could help to remake America.”

Occupy was a gleam in Piven’s eye in the essay on “Low-income People and the Political Process” of 1963. It ends: “If our analysis is correct, disruptive and irregular tactics are the only resource, short of violence, available to low-income groups seeking to influence public policy.”  The next essay, “The Weight of the Poor” (1966), urges massive recruitment of the poor onto welfare rolls; then as now, many of them are eligible for welfare but do not access it. Again Piven urges something like Occupy — “a publicly visible disruption in some institutional sphere.”

“Economic Collapse, Mass Unemployment, and the Rise of Disorder” (1971) occasions a deft synopsis of the fatal initial mistakes made after the 1929 stock market crash. The main one: Hoover’s failure to mount major government stimulus programs. These days Nobel laureate Paul Krugman fumes regularly about this same folly on The New York Times op-ed page, and Piven herself referred in 2010 to the Congress’s “Alice in Wonderland policy of deficit reduction by tax and spending cuts.”

Other essays occasion insights that also remind us eerily of 2012. In “The Structuring of Protest” (1977), Piven notes that “there are in fact two systems of power, one based on wealth and one based on votes.” One thinks immediately of how calamitously the discreteness of the two systems has been destroyed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has created a huge sinkhole of money under the 2012 presidential campaign

Two essays focus on a topic that the City University has long led the fight for: increased and more citizen-friendly voter registration. In “Toward a Class-Based Realignment of American Politics” (1983), Piven zeros in on the stubborn “predominance of lower-income people in the non-voting pool” and on “why people don’t vote.” The last Piven-Cloward performance, “Does Voting Matter” (2000), puzzles over why the U.S. “ranks at the bottom in turnout compared with other major democracies” and comes to the gloomy conclusion that “the electorate [does] not represent the public.” A case in point: the 1994 election that gave us Speaker Gingrich. Democrats lost with just 47 percent of the vote, but a study is cited that revealed 58 percent of non-voters favored the Democratic Party — enough to have swung the election. These two essays should be required reading, given the recent epidemic of state legislation to “improve” the rolls with onerous voting restrictions.

Inching up to the eruption in Zuccotti Park is “The Nature of Disruptive Power” (2006), in which Piven boldly asserts, “The great moments of equalizing reform in American political history have been responses to the threatened or actual exercise of this disruptive power.” Disruption she carefully defines as a “power strategy that rests on withdrawing cooperation in social relations.” That it can become “noisy, disorderly, or violent” she grants, but this is “entirely contingent.” She notes that Boston “was never more still and calm” than on the night of that first Tea Party. No danger of that with the current Tea Party.

In “Obama Needs a Protest Movement” (2008), Piven exulted in his election as “hugely inspirational to the American left” and approved of the comparison between FDR’s first election and 2008 (and the vigorous oratory of both winners). But she warns that the socially progressive victories of the ’30s were won in substantial part by the “radical agitators” and “unruly protests” she has argued for in the last half-century. For true activists the job is never done. In spite of Obama’s victory, she says, “America is, in fact, still divided by race, by party, by class.” She has no “blueprint for the future,” but she still believes it “will depend on whether we tap our usually hidden source of power, our ability to refuse to cooperate on the terms imposed from above.”

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CUNY Matters welcomes information about new books that have been written or edited by faculty and members of the University community. Contact: Sheila.McKenna@mail.cuny.edu