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Before Threatening Frances Fox Piven, Try Reading Her

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Frances Fox Piven appears at the New York City Premier of 'What's the Matter With Kansas.'

CREDIT: Flickr / Zach Roberts

Glenn Beck has mentioned Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York, dozens of times on his show in recent years. Though he was not the first on the Right to attack Piven, Beck’s repeated targeting of the 78-year-old professor has given fuel to a theory increasingly popular among some sectors of the Right that an article she and her late husband Richard Cloward penned in 1966 is responsible for our country’s recent economic collapse—so responsible, in fact, that the couple earned a spot right at the trunk of Beck’s famed “Tree of Revolution.”

His fixation on Piven and her work of almost a half-century ago has made her the target of death threats, on Beck’s website The Blaze and in her personal e-mail. (Piven, as Dissent’s Mark Engler observed, has largely played it cool in the face of the threats on her life.)

Beck includes Piven and her late husband in a list of nine people who are prime contributors to the “era of the big lie;” at other times on his show, he includes her as a member of a group of progressives who, he tells viewers, “are taking you to a place to be slaughtered.”

The American people living a big lie, being led to slaughter—pretty nefarious stuff. The only problem is, actually reading Piven is nowhere near as scary.

The fuel for Beck’s accusations comes almost exclusively from a single article she and her frequent co-author and husband, Richard Cloward, wrote as professors at Columbia University in The Nation titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” in 1966. In it, Piven and Cloward, who later became active members in the welfare rights movement, argue that in order to achieve a guaranteed annual income for all American citizens—according to them, the only viable solution to end poverty—welfare recipients and community activists had to create a crisis within the welfare system. Part of this engendering this crisis, as part of a larger strategy, would be an effort to sign up citizens who either did not receive government assistance but qualified for it or received assistance but not the full amount to which they were entitled under the law, eventually forcing the government’s hand:

[W]elfare practice everywhere has become more restrictive than welfare statute; much of the time it verges on lawlessness. Thus, public welfare systems try to keep their budgets down and their rolls low by failing to inform people of the rights available to them; by intimidating and shaming them to the degree that they are reluctant either to apply or to press claims, and by arbitrarily denying benefits to those who are eligible. A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel action on a new federal program to distribute income, eliminating the present public welfare system and alleviating the abject poverty which it perpetrates.

Cloward and Piven go on to argue that such a crisis could put the tenuous Democratic coalitions in large urban areas in flux, opening up the political space needed to institute a guaranteed annual income.

A few points here. The activist couple considered themselves both strategists for and participants in people’s movements, concerned with how average people can best organize themselves to better their lives. There is nothing within “The Weight of the Poor” that indicates that the strategy was intended to transform anything other than the welfare system, to say nothing of collapsing the entire American economy. The article can certainly be debated as a piece of strategy—it’s worth pointing out, for example, that in the wake of the welfare rights movement’s success in increasing public assistance rolls but failure to establish a guaranteed annual income, the federal government moved quickly to gut much of welfare, leaving many poor families in as bad of shape as ever. But to argue that it is a roadmap for the destruction of American capitalism is disingenuous at best

In addition, to repeatedly credit a professor with hatching a scheme to force America to collapse in on itself without exploring her other works is dishonest. (Beck did, however, attack Piven’s recent piece in The Nation on organizing the country’s unemployed–thus doubling his Piven bibliography.) But it makes sense when one examines even the titles of the books she has authored and co-authored: Why Americans Don’t Vote, Why Americans Still Don’t Vote, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Piven and Cloward only belong on the Tree of Revolution if the prereqs for inclusion are encouraging citizens to vote and to participate in change.

Take what was formerly Piven and Cloward’s most famous work, Poor People’s Movements, a book that analyzes the successes and failures of the 20th century’s most influential progressive movements. From the outset, the authors do not hide the fact that they are radicals—in case you weren’t sure, they quote The Communist Manifesto on the very first page of the introduction to the 1979 paperback edition. But they have little patience for leftists whose analyses are not tied to viable strategies to improve the day-to-day conditions of poor people’s lives. They aren’t concerned with toppling capitalism and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather enfranchising African Americans and putting unemployed citizens back to work.

Again, see the introduction: “Protest movements sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Sometimes they force concessions from the state that help to relieve the condition of life of the lower classes, and sometimes they are ignored or repressed.” Piven and Cloward’s concern in writing the book was to figure out, through historical analysis, the best way protest movements could alleviate suffering by winning tangible gains from ever-reluctant politicians. Conspicuously absent as a goal or possibility: a deliberately imposed collapse of the American way of life.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Piven—an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of Americadescribed herself in a recent Democracy Now! interview as more a small-d “democrat” than “a commie, a socialist, a revolutionary or whatever.” The Nation, in a recent editorial defending her, wrote “Piven, throughout her career as an activist and academic, has embodied the best of American democracy.” Reading through her other works, it’s hard to disagree.Whatever scary leftist traditions Piven might identify with, her actual writings and arguments—that American citizens should vote, that unemployed people should have jobs—are pretty tame.

Attacking Piven is a smart move for Glenn Beck. Ratings are surely going up as viewers are shocked to be let in on the secret that radical professors like Piven have been quietly working behind the scenes to destroy the American way of life as we know it for the past 45 years.

The only potential problem, however, would be if those angry viewers sat down to actually examine Piven’s large body of work for themselves. They may not agree with what they would read, but they’d probably be hard-pressed to find a justification for death threats.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.

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