A Conversation with Frances Fox Piven

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 November?

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 legislation.

Or another example.  The Bush 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 are 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 politics.  Everybody 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 broader agenda?

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 since Vietnam.

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 insignificant dissent.

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 strategies?

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 the left?

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 serious problem.

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 their base?

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 their significance?

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.

Piven: 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 movements.