Vilifying Frances

Full disclosure: Frances Fox Piven has been a close friend of mine for more than thirty years. She has served as President of the American Sociological Association, Vice-President of the American Political Association, and as a leading figure in more than a dozen other associations. A Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York: Graduate Center, she is among the most prominent progressive activists in the United States. With her late husband Richard Cloward, she also co-authored two classics of social science, Regulating the Poor and Poor People's Movements, and she has written various other works of inestimable value like Challenging Authority.  For all that, however, there is something curious about the palpable obsession of right-wing pundits with Frances Fox Piven. The attack was begun about five years ago by David Horowitz best known for his association with the spurious "Academic Bill of Rights" and his involvement in organizations like Campus Watch that attempt to monitor supposedly subversive professors. Any number of other right-wing luminaries and media pundits soon jumped on board. Most notoriously: Glenn Beck. He has depicted her on his immensely popular television show as the source for both the collapse of the American economy and the ultra-radical (re: "communist," "socialist," anarchist," "Marxist," or whatever) policies of the Obama administration. Beck's attack has been ongoing and vicious. Other notable progressives have been targeted by his conspiratorial mindset as well:  Another very old friend, Joel Rogers, is Professor of Law, Political Science, and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin — also a long time activist, an engaged scholar, and an expert in public policy with impeccable academic credentials– who has often been castigated as a "wildly powerful man" and the evil "wizard" secretly plotting the urban energy policy of the Democratic Party from behind the scenes (4/30/2010). Nevertheless, there is something special about Beck's treatment of Frances Fox Piven

In "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," which appeared in The Nation (5/2/1966), Frances and Richard called upon poor people to sign up for welfare benefits. Their aim was to foster the conditions that might bring about legislation to provide a guaranteed income. This article is now seen by right-wing media pundits as having caused the state to expand and the budget to bloat. Not deregulation of the financial industry, not corporate mismanagement, not the irresponsible lending of the banks, not capitalist disinvestment or capital flight, not the real estate bubble, not the shift away from industrial production, not the trillions spent on misguided wars, not the looting of social wealth by a miniscule elite, or a host of other structural factors associated with the capitalist production process, but Piven and Cloward's incitement to poor people more than forty five years ago apparently created the conditions for the financial collapse of 2008.  What's more: the insane policy proscriptions by these celebrated academics, which were obviously inspired by their nihilism, apparently set the stage for healthcare, the bail-outs of the banks, and other legislation by President Obama to destroy the capitalist system that elected him to office in favor of a revolution that would introduce socialism or communism.

All of this might seem amusing were it not for the hundreds of death threats and vile messages that Frances Fox Piven has recently received. There is nothing funny about that –though, by mocking the article in The New York Times that made these threats public, Mr. Beck apparently disagrees.  Frances is 78 years old and the perfect target for a self-righteous schoolyard bully with an ideological axe to grind. "Shoot them in the head" was a phrase used by Glenn Beck in talking about the measures required for dealing with believers in communism (6/10/2010).  With Frances, however, other possibilities present themselves: an intentional push to the ground, a quick blow, can serve the purpose as well as a bullet. Hate speech is becoming acceptable in the United States. Disclaimers of violence by reactionary media pundits come along with a wink to the most rabid of their followers. Free speech is being used to justify what Herbert Marcuse once termed "repressive tolerance." Of course, the ideological ranting by the political right has practical aims. The attack on Piven is clearly an attempt to inhibit the left. It also deflects attention from discussing the real causes of the current predicament — and progressive proposals to deal with it. Then, too, Piven symbolizes much of what is best about the '60s and the institution that reactionaries still consider their most implacable enemy: the academy.

Again, there is something …well…curious about the supposed (conspiratorial) power being exerted by a brilliant radical woman who, whatever her fame among progressive activists and students, has little influence on the inner circles of the liberal establishment.  No one in the Obama administration — at least to my knowledge — has, moreover, supported Frances in calling for a mass movement of the unemployed. Her work is actually far less concerned with political parties than with building grass roots movements capable of pressuring them. Her recent article in The Nation (1/17/2011) that raised this idea, "Mobilizing the Jobless," set off a new set of attacks by Glenn Beck.  He surely saw it as part of the "Cloward-Piven strategy" now making its round on the internet that places these two activist scholars at the epicenter of all progressive movements and organizations and their hidden conspiratorial workings of the last half-century.  With this (ahem!) curious analysis, indeed, Mr. Beck and his friends present with all seriousness a conspiracy theory so byzantine, gothic and lurid that it fits nicely into the paranoid tradition best exemplified by the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." 

Hatching cracked conspiracy theories and labeling accomplished progressive intellectuals and activists as utopian fanatics has always been the tactic of the far right in America. What better way to discredit the attack on exploitation and disenfranchisement? Frances Fox Piven is not running from her record. She does not wish to present herself as some kind of centrist mistakenly portrayed as a liberal. Piven has frankly endorsed the need for civil disobedience in response to grievances that the establishment refuses to address; she is an advocate for reforming the imbalances of power in contemporary society; but, most of all, she is someone who seeks to draw the implications of democracy. Even back in 1965, Piven and Cloward were actually doing little more than helping the unemployed and the poor, the economic victims of our system, to exercise their right to welfare benefits. A similar aim informed their decade-long fight for the "motor-voter" bill that so helped poor and working people exercise their electoral rights. The scholarly work and the political practice of Piven and Cloward always sought to empower poor and working people — and, thus, translate formal into substantive democracy.  Ironically, this is precisely what the right-wing media establishment now considers a crime. Enough fanatics among its audience wish to make Frances Fox Piven pay not merely with her reputation but possibly — who knows? — even with her life.    

Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture as well as Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University. His books include Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (Columbia University Press) and A Rumor about the Jews: Anti-Semitism. Conspiracy, and the "Protocols of Zion" (Oxford University Press).

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