Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political
Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. A member
of the executive board of Logos, her most recent book is
The War at Home (New Press, 2004).
Q: Prof. Piven, you were one of the most
prominent supporters of Ralph Nader’s last campaign. What
do you think of him now and how do you explain his stubborn
perseverance during this election?
Piven: Well, I’m
disappointed. I don’t understand it. It's completely
puzzling, especially since I also think he's a great man.
I thought at the beginning of this campaign that he would
pull out if the race was close, as he himself implied.
But he hasn’t. Similarly, early in the 2000 campaign
he said that he would withdraw in the contested states, and
he didn’t. So I suspect that the explanation is in
some aspects of his personality that are not transparent to
me. I was a member of a large group of his more prominent
supporters who joined together in a public statement asking
him to withdraw.
Q: What would it mean for American
social movements if, either Kerry or Bush were to win in
Piven: Well, some people think
that if Bush wins it will energize social movements because
his policies are so provocative and they’re so transgressive.
They violate so many American values and they violate so
many groups of the American public. I think that
that’s wrong—that it’s too simplistic. It's a version
of the theory
that says the worse things are, the more likely people are
to rise up in anger and defiance. I think that people
rise up when they have hope and a sense that they can have
influence. If things are very bad people become
despairing and fatalistic and they withdraw.
I think that American history provides
ample evidence of that. So, one of the reasons, not the
only reason, but one of the reasons that I really do
hope Kerry wins—although I don’t think it looks good—is that
he will create a political environment which will encourage
social movements. And not so much because he shares the
goals of the movements, because he doesn’t, although he’s
not as distant from their goals as is Bush. But people are
likely to understand—women, poor people, blacks, gays,
workers—will all understand that the Kerry coalition is
vulnerable to their appeals. Groups in the Kerry coalition
will respond to the issues that they raise.
Q: Even though the Democratic Party
is seemingly drifting to the right?
Piven: Yeah, but it’s drifting
to the right, I think, partly because there are no social
movements pulling it back to the left and Democratic
politicians try to suppress social movements just because
they will pull the party to the left. Bill Clinton was very
skillful at this, making people feel like he was going to be
nice to them and charming them but not really championing
their issues. But the fact of the matter is that if Bill
Clinton had confronted a vigorous, defiant, noisy,
troublesome, ungovernable social movement he would have had
to change his policy. And I think the same will be true of
Kerry, and people are more likely to figure that out with
Kerry than with Bill Clinton.
Q: So what social movements do you
think right now would be best positioned to put pressure on
a Kerry administration if Kerry were to win?
Piven: Well, we haven’t heard
very much, for a long time, from low-wage workers. They may
organize under different identities. They may organize as
people of color, for instance. A lot of the labor activism
of the last ten or fifteen years, has been, under these dual
identities. They’ve been workers, but they were clearly
minorities and immigrant minorities. I think that’s one
promising possibility and one that is desperately needed
because these people have fallen so far behind in the last
thirty years or so. I also think that the peace movement
has huge possibilities. Kerry is not going to get out of
Iraq, if he can help it, because that would just make too
many waves. He won’t even exert himself to try to create
the international authority that would permit the United
States to withdraw from Iraq. But he will if there’s
a vigorous peace movement. And the Kerry administration
would be vulnerable to a vigorous movement or low wage
workers, or a peace movement because it’s voter coalition
would likely respond to the issues raised by these
movements. They could activate women voters, for example,
around the old feminist issues as well as the economic
issues that affect women so much because women are a big
chunk of that low-wage, working class strata. Kerry would
also be vulnerable to a feminist movement to restore
reproductive rights, for example.
Q: So, you’d see almost a
shadowing of the concerns and movements of the 60’s, the
minority low-wage workers, women, and the peace movement.
Piven: Yes, the peace movement,
and also the global justice movement. Although, I think it’s
hard now to disentangle the peace movement from the global
justice movement because there’s so much overlap between
them. But global justice issues themselves could also become
an arena for activism, targeting trade policy for example,
and also American agricultural subsidy policies that are so
outrageous—policies that are starving the cotton-producing
countries of the Southern hemisphere, for example.
Q: And how do you see the difference
between Kerry and Bush with respect to the welfare state?
Piven: There’s a big difference.
It’s not as big a difference as I’d like, but it’s a big
difference. The Bush administration has been almost
incomprehensibly mean-spirited in a lot of its regulatory
initiatives. For example, in the area of social policy: the
Bush administration has slashed programs, small programs,
for the most vulnerable groups.. It’s a little nutty almost,
a little “Texas,” as when they cut after school programs
for the kids of incarcerated people. Kerry would never do
this kind of thing Or take the Medicare Prescription Drug
Act of 2003. At the time it was passed it wasn’t easy to
figure out just how bad a policy it was. Now, only been a
year or so since it was passed, and the official federal
agencies, the General Accounting Office, has begun to reveal
what is happening as a result of the privatization that the
Act encourages, as well as the true costs of the
Or another example.
administration actually took funds from a program called C.H.I.P., which is the
Child Health Insurance Program. It
has a kind of pathetic, ironic history because it was
initiated under Clinton and it was Clinton’s way of trying
to make up for what he had done in welfare reform. So, he
expanded Medicaid for poor children and Bush has actually
taken those funds and re-directed them. His welfare reform
proposals would put women on welfare who worked for a full
40 hours a week, without increasing any funds for child
care, to say nothing of the marriage madness that is part
of that proposal.
Another thing the Bush administration
is doing that is ominous is channeling funds to faith-based
organizations for the delivery of social services. They
basically trying to create a big patronage operation at the heart of
the American left. Many of these
service-giving organizations—in other words, the churches
that are going to get the money—are going to be in the Black
and Spanish communities. But this initiative speaks to
a kind of larger politics that they’re trying to construct,
and, with some success. They’re moving in the direction of authoritarian
populism. The evidence is in the large role of the church in
their political appeals, in the
religious theatrics that they’re so good at. And then
also, there is the
tricksterism they practice, at the very center of American
knows that the charges in the CBS memoranda were true, but
they were embedded in fake documents. Well, who did that,
Karl Rove perhaps? And they will work hard to steal the
election I think.
Q: So Bush is more draconian, but
is one simply more draconian than the other or is this a
Piven: Well, in the first place,
more draconian is a difference. Being harsher, meaner,
more cruel, creating more inequality, those are real
differences. I’m always in favor of the lesser evil instead
of the greater evil. I think there are other substantive
differences that really matter. One is that Kerry will
restore multi-lateral relations internationally and what
Bush has done to destroy them is very, very dangerous.
Q: Alright, well let’s start with
the lesser evil.
Piven: Well, all right, look,
multi-lateral relations. That’s clearly important. It’s
not that the United States wasn’t an imperial power when we
had decent relations with other countries. But, this kind
of militaristic intervention is a more destructive and more
dangerous form of imperialism. There was American military
intervention before Bush too, but not on as big a scale, not
blowing up thousands and thousands of people, at least not
Also, if Bush wins, they will have
succeeded in eradicating the so-called Vietnam syndrome.
Q: Which is…
Piven: Which is what the right
has been very distressed about. The unwillingness of either
the American army or the American people to go to war
because the war in Vietnam turned out so badly. The
American army was willing to go into Grenada but that wasn’t
exactly a big test of military power. And even now there’s
a lot of disagreement in the military about this war. So
they want to stamp out the reluctance to go to war with a
great military victory over a middling sized country. The
Vietnam syndrome is simply the unwillingness of Americans to
use military power against peoples elsewhere. I would like
to see the Vietnam syndrome revived. That is in a way what
is at stake here. Because if the syndrome is revived, it’s
going to be very hard for future American governments to use
this scale of military power abroad.
Then also the civil liberties issues
are real. It’s going to get much, much worse if Bush wins.
The Bush administration and the Congressional Republicans
have responded to the 9/11 report’s recommendations with
another Patriot Act, and making this one much more
draconian. This kind of stuff is very serious
Q: So would it be too much to
characterize all of this—as some others on the left have of
late—as a kind of neo-fascism emerging on the horizon?
Piven: Well, I prefer the term
“authoritarian populism,” because I think fascist regimes
are really total institutions where everything is
monitored. I would predict that you and I would be able to
jabber on through a second Bush administration. You’ll be
able to publish Logos, I’ll be able to teach my
classes, we’ll be indignant, dadadadada, because it’s the
kind of regime that can tolerate a fair amount of
I think the neo-cons are in trouble if
Kerry wins. The neo-cons are actually in trouble already
because their fervent arguments for aggression were stupid,
so I think that people like Richard Perle have lost
standing. But on the other hand, the neo-cons have been
serving an important function for the American military.
They justify military aggression, and that is the basis of
their political importance.
Q: Let’s talk about social
movements again for a minute. Do you see any kind of new
strategies for social movements? Are the movements of the
1960s still the model of today? If not what are the new
Piven: Well, there is a huge
difference, and I think it’s clearest in the infrastructure
of the movement. The internal organization of the movement
is completely different. To be sure, some of what we see now
was beginning in the 1960s but people didn’t recognize it,
and they often argued against it, even scorned it. The
difference is that the movements are much more horizontal,
laterally organized, and only roughly coordinated. Some of
that was beginning to happen in some of the movements in the
1960s, but people still thought in terms of an earlier model
of hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations.. But now,
none of the movements, excepting the ones that are really
just organizations, none of the movements employ that model.
I think that this is a huge advantage, this flexibility and
the methods of horizontal coordination that have thrived
alongside, of course, with the new mode of communication,
which is the internet. But the idea that movements should be
organized this way preceded the Internet. A lot of what was
going on in SDS where people would sit around talking for
hours, nights, days, reflected this search for a new model.
They didn’t want a hierarchical decision making process.
People trying to figure out new organizational models for
the movement. But the arrival of the Internet gave it a
really big boost.
Q: So what do you see as the most
important salient issues that the left has to put on the
table after this election, irrespective of the way this
works out. What are the most important things that the left
in general, not just social movements, but intellectuals and
activists, what are the most important things confronting
Piven: American militarism; or
you can put it another way, saying there needs to be a
restoration of some kind of legal world order. And
inequality in the United States, and in the world. I think
those are the two big, overarching issues.
Q: What do you see as being the
most important issue when it comes to the domestic impact of
the war on terror and its seemingly unending status?
Piven: Well, people are afraid
and their fears are being played upon, so they’re voting for
this cowboy who says grunt-like things and it’s a very
Q: Well this brings us to another
question, which is that Karl Rove has said that, he’s
changing strategies with the Bush campaign: he has said that
they will not reach out for the middle five percent but
rather mobilize the conservative base. If that’s what the
Right is doing, what are the democrats doing to mobilize
Piven: Well, the Democrats are
saying that too—or some Democrats are anyway—that we’re
going to mobilize the base. And maybe they are, it’s very
hard to tell. They’ve said it before, and the Republicans
have said it before. The Republicans are talking about
mobilizing their base. But for twenty-five years they have
been claiming that they have mobilized their base, That they
have done voter registration in every fundamentalist church,
and every little church has their voter guides. They’ve been
saying that they’ve done this already and now they’re saying
that they’re going do it, which suggests that they didn’t do
it so well before.
The Democrats also have have also
worked to mobilize their base before. This was not so much
the Democratic Party, But the broader left. In 1984 there
was a big voter registration effort and it did have a
definite impact on turnout. But although turnout was up in
1984, it was not up by nearly as much as you would have
thought if you listened to the claims of all of the
different groups that were working in the effort. The New
York Times reported recently that voter registration is
really surging, especially in battleground states. Their
report is based on statewide voter databases. So, probably,
something is happening. That’s very encouraging. If Kerry
wins by the way, that’s how he’s going to win. He is not
going to win with the swing voters. The Bush people, I
think will succeed with the swing voters—they’re much more
skilled at propaganda, at dirty propaganda, than the
Democrats are and the Bush people I think will succeed with
the swing voters. But in the contest for the base it’s
possible that Kerry could win.
Q: But is the Democratic
base mobilized at all?
Piven: Well if they’ve been
registered to vote, that’s one level of mobilization. It’s
not very intense, which is what your question implies. I
think they’ll probably go out to vote though, especially
because the voter registration efforts are always partnered
with “get out the vote” efforts. But you know in Florida, in
2000, the surge in black turnout was enormous because
African Americans were so angry at Jeb Bush because of the
affirmative action positions that he took. And the
Republican machine really did keep them away from the polls,
in every which way, the felon list, but also the roadblocks.
Q: Will Ohio become another Florida,
will they do that there this time around too?
Piven: They can do it anywhere.
There are a number of other states in which Republican
Secretaries of State have assumed positions in the Bush
campaign as Katherine Harris did in Florida. We have a
tendency to push all this to one side. Political scientists
do this, but I think a lot of other people do this as well.
We know that there are a lot of problems in the electoral
process, but nobody likes the uncertainty and disorientating
confusion that acknowledging all of those flaws in the
electoral process creates. So we tend to treat these flaws
as always marginal. But of course they are not necessarily
marginal. In a closely divided electorate such as we have
today, these multiple forms of fraud against voters can
decide an election. We shouldn’t be call it “voter fraud”
by the way, because almost no voters want to commit fraud.
They don’t even want to vote once, much less twice. But
fraud against voters by election officials can really
matter; they can really turn an election. And the fact that
we now have computer voting without any verifiable audit
makes it worse.
Q: I want to ask you a question
about something that came up before when you spoke about
Republicans mobilizing their base. And I’m thinking of
people like Richard
Viguerie here—were there right wing
social movements of this grassroots type that were reacting
to liberalism or the left legacy of the 60s and what was
Piven: Yes, I
think there were a series of right wing movements.
There were a series of left movements in the 1960s.
It’s more illuminating to refer to the anti-war movement and
the black movement, and the poverty movement, and the
women’s movement. In a similar way, I think you can
distinguish between the different movements that energized
the right, including the sex movements that are always so
important in American politics. And so, the Pro-Life
movement, and the anti-gay movement, and the movements to
bring God into American life in a very close way, directing
what we do. The anti-black movement which has
subsided, but remember proposition 187, and then there’s
going to be—I suppose there really already is—a lot of
prowar popular agitation, to defend
our troops, defend our boys, defend our flag, and their
crusade to stamp out evil.
So, although the
insignia of the right is its pro-business orientation, it really does have a popular base,
and that’s why I call it “authoritarian populism.” German
fascism was like this too. The German cartels were very,
very, important and very, very influential; they always got
what they wanted from the Nazi regime. But the Nazis didn’t
mobilize popular enthusiasm around the cartels; they
mobilized popular enthusiasm around the flag, and against
all the different “deviants” in German society.
Q: So is there an emerging or ever
present culture war between these populist, nationalist,
conservative social movements and their ideas and beliefs
and those on the left? They’ve definitely won a lot in
American cultural and political life.
Oh, an enormous amount, and you know when you asked what’s the big
problem in the United States, I said inequality and militarism and the
international problem, but I shouldn’t have skipped over the
environmental threat that the Bush administration has accelerated.
Their environmental initiatives, most of them under the radar, most of
them not in the form of legislation, are enormously significant. They
are also puzzling, in a way. A ruling class usually wants to survive
and to see a life for it’s children and it’s grandchildren. But these
guys seem to have no consciousness of the future. It’s very strange.
I mean the ruling class usually wants to live and
have it’s children live and have it’s grandchildren live;
but these guys are very predatory but with no consciousness
of the future. It’s very strange.
As for the culture war, I think it will
calm down too. It’s been said that it’s wrong to think that
what the Nazis did was mobilize people by looking backward.
What they really did was mobilize people who actually were
living in the 19th century, the peasants and
artisans, for example. But Americans are simultaneously
susceptible to appeals based on cultural and racial purity,
yet also capable of remarkable tolerance. Just watch people
on the New York City subways. And elsewhere, too. White
Americans have gotten remarkably accustomed to having black
actors sell them detergent or rental cars, it’s really
okay. And they are watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Q: So from your
perspective, let me ask you the classic question: what is
to be done?
Piven: Well, you know, from now
until November 2nd we work on the election. I
think people are doing that. At least my friends are doing
that. They’re going into Pennsylvania and wherever. But
then I think that we don’t work with Kerry if he wins. We
work with the social movements to put pressure on Kerry.
Because there never has been political leadership in the
United States that could be relied on to work for its mass
constituency. Unless that constituency creates real
threats, unless groups in the constituency generate the
threat of ungovernability. So until the election we work
with Kerry, and after the election we work with the