Frances Fox Piven’s Violent Agenda

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By Stanley Kurtz

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The campaign to use the tragic shootings in Tucson to silence conservatives continues. The latest twist is an attempt to highlight anonymous threats against leftist scholar and strategist Frances Fox Piven as a way of forcing Glenn Beck, a critic of Piven, off the air, or at least prohibiting him from mentioning her on his Fox News television show. This affects me as well, since an excerpt from my recent appearance on Beck’s show to discuss Piven has been aired in the course of the controversy. My new book, Radical-in-Chief, extensively treats Piven’s influence on contemporary leftist strategy, and on Barack Obama’s political development. If Beck is forced to stop talking about Piven, efforts will surely be made to silence me and other conservative critics of Piven.

It is extraordinary that conservatives should be charged with stirring up violence at a moment when Piven, in an editorial in The Nation, has called for an American movement of “strikes and riots” on the model of the one recently seen in Greece. The anonymous threats against Piven are reprehensible. I condemn them in the strongest terms. Yet it is not conservatives but Piven and The Nation who advocate violence. Neither Piven nor The Nation should be forcibly silenced, but they certainly ought to be criticized. Instead, The Nation is leading the effort to silence those who have rightly condemned Piven’s call for rioting in America.

An article by Brian Stelter in Saturday’s New York Times is a thinly disguised gesture of support for The Nation‘s campaign. The piece downplays Piven’s radicalism, noting that her widely criticized call for intentionally creating a political and economic crisis in America’s welfare system was made 45 long years ago. Although Piven has freely described her own strategy as an effort to set off “fiscal and political crises in the cities,” Stelter delicately avoids the word “crises,” writing instead of “fiscal and political stress.”

Stelter implicitly treats the connection between Piven’s strategic stance and President Obama’s plans to transform America as wild talk. In fact, the connection is real, and I make the case soberly, in detail, and with extensive documentation in Radical-in-Chief. That is why Beck had me on his show. In my appearance, by the way, I explicitly stressed that President Obama is not trying to create an economic crisis on his own watch.

The notion that Piven’s strategy is irrelevant because she and her co-author (and husband), Richard Cloward, first developed it 45 years ago is silly. The Cloward-Piven strategy has deeply influenced community organizers ever since. It informs all of Piven’s work, even her apparent turn to a more conventional voter-registration strategy in later years. And of course Piven’s current call for strikes, riots, and disruptive protests by America’s unemployed is a direct descendant of the original Cloward-Piven strategy.

Stelter’s New York Times story provides the following excerpts from Piven’s Nation column: “an effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece,” and “protesters need targets, preferably local and accessible ones.” When, in reply to questioning from Stelter, Piven claims, “That is not a call for violence,” Stelter leaves her denial unchallenged. Yet a call for riots on the model of the ones seen recently in Greece manifestly is a call for violence. Beck is right to condemn it, and others ought to join him in doing so.

Calls for the escalation and manipulation of violent rioting have long been central to Piven’s strategy. Her 1977 book with Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, detailed the rationale behind the infamous crisis strategy of a decade before. The core argument is that the poor and unemployed are so isolated from the levers of power in America that their greatest potential impact is to withhold “quiescence in civil life: they can riot.”

At the heart of the book, Cloward and Piven luxuriously describe instances of “mob looting,” “rent riots,” and similar disruptions, egged on especially by Communist-party organizers in the 1930s. Many of those violent protests resulted in injuries. A few led to deaths. The central argument of Poor People’s Movements is that it was not formal democratic activity but violent disruptions inspired by leftist organizers that forced the first great expansion of the welfare state.

Toward the end of the book, when Cloward and Piven describe their own work with the National Welfare Rights Organization, they treat the violent urban rioting of the Sixties as a positive force behind that era’s expansion of the welfare state. Poor People’s Movements highlights the fear of rioting on the part of relief officials and local politicians in the Sixties. Cloward and Piven particularly approve of riots set off by welfare-related demonstrations. From their point of view, for example, one of the most welcome effects of the Sixties riots was the breakdown they induced in traditional procedures for investigating and verifying applicants’ eligibility for welfare. For Cloward and Piven, the core strategic lesson of their activism is that, rather than channeling poor people’s anger into conventional political activity, community organizers ought instead to “escalate the momentum and impact of disruptive protest at each stage in its emergence and evolution.” At one point in Poor People’s Movements (p. 306), in the course of providing an historical example of her preferred strategy, Piven presents the case of a community organizer who was arrested for inciting to riot. Readers are invited to judge this passage for themselves, but my own take is that Piven clearly approves.

In her December 2010 Nation column, Piven wrote: “Local protests have to accumulate and spread — and become more disruptive — to create pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece. . . .” Given Piven’s strategic stance, it’s clear that she and The Nation are in fact calling for violence. Her denial of this lacks all credibility. Similarly, when The Nation’s editors defend Piven by referring to her support for “civil disobedience” and “street protest,” they are attempting to create the impression that Piven is a virtual disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., when in fact her longstanding strategy has little if anything to do with nonviolence.

Progressive radio host Amy Goodman recently invited Piven to appear on her show to speak about Beck and her other conservative critics. Goodman played an excerpt from my appearance on Beck’s show. There I noted Piven’s prominent role at the Socialist Scholars Conferences that Barack Obama attended in the 1980s. Commenting on my statement, Piven said that it was “crazy” to call her a socialist.

This stunning denial flies in the face of clear evidence that Piven is, and has long been, one of America’s most prominent socialists. She is currently listed as an “Honorary Chair” of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a prestigious appointment bestowed on only the most esteemed, influential, and long-serving DSA leaders. Piven was elevated to the status of honorary chair in 2003, after years of service as a DSA vice chair. If Piven can’t be honest about her own socialism, how can we trust her claims about anything else? In Radical-in-Chief, I document the presence of intentionally stealthy socialists throughout the world of community organizing, many of them close colleagues and mentors of Barack Obama. But for Piven to deny her own socialism in the face of the wealth of public evidence to the contrary beats all I’ve ever seen.

There is a serious threat to freedom of speech in all this. On Goodman’s show, Piven listed a number of her critics by name. We are all on notice. If Beck is banned from criticizing Piven, we will be too. The irony is that it is Piven herself who has called for violence, and with the editorial authority of The Nation behind her. That is the upside-down world in which we now live.

NRO contributing editor Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.