Frances Fox Piven Talks Tea Party Politics

In more turbulent times, during the occupation of Columbia University in 1968, Frances Fox Piven crawls into a Columbia academic building, where she was a professor. From

Today, activists and academics Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West will host a national teach-in on debt, austerity, and fighting back. I interviewed Dr. Piven for Campus Progress, where a shorter version of this interview first appeared last week .

As members of Congress debate the budget, everything from Planned Parenthood to immigrant integration services to Americorps is facing the axe. Massive slashing of social spending—that average citizens will bear the brunt of—seems inevitable. Not so, argue Princeton Professor Cornel West and City University of New York Professor Frances Fox Piven in a recent op-ed in The Nation calling for a national movement to fight back against budget cuts that target the poorest, a concept generally known as austerity. West and Piven plan to hold a national teach-in on more than 160 college campuses around the country and will be webcast from New York City on Tuesday, April 5 as means of demonstrating against harmful budget cuts.
Despite a decades-long history of activism, Piven has only recently captured national headlines after she was targeted by Glenn Beck for an activist strategy piece entitled “The Weight of the Poor” she and her late husband Richard Cloward published in 1966. Piven quickly became the target of death threats. Rather than retreat from activism, however, she has only increased her public profile, continuing to speak out and fight alongside people’s movements as she has for decades. Campus Progress recently spoke with Piven to discuss the Tea Party, young people’s potential as activists, and a how to get citizens mad about all of this.

You and Cornel West begin your article in The Nation by stating that there is a “one-sided war on the American people,” seen in the budget cuts and austerity agenda. Many say that though such cuts are painful, they’re merely an attempt to balance the budget, not a war on the populace. How would you respond?

That’s simply a fabrication. Austerity has become the rallying cry of Republicans and even Democrats because the business-backed political class is trying to complete the push-back and even elimination of the reforms that were won in the New Deal Period changes in American public life that began in the 1930s and in the 1960s and 1970s. They have private sector unionism down to 6.9 percent, and now they’re taking off after public sector unions. They’ve been taking steady bites out of the American safety net—the Republican Governor of Michigan, for example, just signed a bill to reduce unemployment insurance from 26 to 20 weeks. That was not the vision of the New Deal—it was supposed to be a measure of security for all Americans in the face of adversity, whether caused by market collapse or biological exigency or personal calamity. They want to get rid of that.

The argument is that we don’t have the money, we can’t do anything about it, everybody has to pay their debts. Yet we spend so much on war, on huge subsidies to pharmaceutical companies, to private for-profit health insurance companies. And we cut taxes. We used to have a marginal tax rate in the 1940s and 1950s of 91 percent of the top income bracket. That gave the U.S. a revenue source through which government could do what it should do, which is to build infrastructure, to protect people in the face of adversity, to educate its citizens, to do all the things we can’t do as individuals. But if you starve the tax system with a recurrent war by corporate and financial lobbyists for tax cuts, then government can’t do that.

But that’s not what politicians pushing for austerity say. They say, “There’s no money.” If you propose corporate tax increases just to restore what corporations paid in taxes ten years ago, they call you a “job killer.” Anything we propose to improve the conditions of working people, they call a “job killer.”

The congressional representatives and governors who are pushing austerity measures were swept into office on a supposed grassroots tide movement, that of the Tea Party. As a social movement scholar, what do you make of this?

There is a sense that the Tea Party is a fake movement, in that it gets so much support from the hard right and big business. But there’s also a sense in which it is a classical reactive movement. It’s a movement of people who are older, overwhelmingly white; they don’t report economic adversity. These people are upset about the fact that this country is changing—that we have an African American president, that there are changes in sexual and family norms, that there are more Latino citizens; that makes people uncomfortable. I do have a certain amount of sympathy for that anxiety.

But those anxieties are being harvested to support an agenda that can only benefit the very richest people in the U.S. and will hurt the rest of America. They are lending their support to an extremely destructive and greedy corporate campaign that will worsen the lives of most Americans.

You write in the article that “we are on the cusp of a great movement to resist and roll back corporate domination.” What will it take to get that movement to take off?

It will take young people. The great protest movements in American and world history have been movements of young people—young workers, young peasants, young community members, young students. Young people are susceptible to a kind of dream that they can change the world; they have a capacity for hope that gets worn down in people as they get older. Young people have a freedom to join together in movements. 1968 was a movement of young people all over the world; I think we can see the beginnings of a worldwide movement of young people today, but it could be bigger and stronger this time, because a lot of working people and small business owners and poor people are going to join hands with those young people. I put my main hopes in the capacity of young people to hope, and their capacity for courage.

In your classic book Poor People’s Movements, you argue that movements’ success depends on their willingness to disrupt business as usual. What would that look like in this fight against budget cuts and austerity?

When I say the power of ordinary people is in their capacity to disrupt business as usual, I mean that we all perform very important roles in the big institutions of American society by cooperating with them. We go to work or school every day, and the normal functioning of these institutions is conditional on our cooperation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us that one of the usually untapped powers of ordinary people is to withdraw their cooperation. When farmers refuse to take their products to market because their compensation doesn’t pay for the cost of production, they are withdrawing cooperation. When we boycott companies that use sweatshops, we are withdrawing cooperation as consumers. We have to see the manifold ways that we cooperate every day, and by cooperating, give our support to a society that is withdrawing its support from its young people, working people, and poor people.

We can’t do anything about the election of 2010, which gave us these Tea Party Republicans. When the 2010 campaign heats up, President Obama and the Democrats in congress will be turning again, as they did in 2008, to their base, and their base includes poor people, young people, minorities. That will be good in a way, because in turning to their base, their rhetoric will change. Obama will be less of a conciliator when he needs his base; when he is less of a conciliator, he will help to create the climate nationally of Wisconsin.

If that happens, then people have to discover the capacity to disrupt: they have to occupy school buildings again, go on strike and occupy factory buildings again; block commercial traffic in the streets of their communities. We have to redisocver the age-old power resources of ordinary people in the demonstration, the sit-in, the takeover—the great refusal of cooperation.

Republicans are not the only ones pushing budgets that gut services for poor and working people. What should the anti-austerity movement’s relationship be with the Democrats?

For now, we ought to be demonstrating and doing direct action. Come 2010, I’ll vote for the Democrats. But immediately after, I’ll return to work with the protest movements. I vote for the Democrats because they’re vulnerable to the protest movements—much more so than the Republicans—and it’s in their vulnerability to the protests that the key to leverage on public policy lies.

That’s always the way it was—the working people of the 1930s did massive strikes and sit-ins, shutting down everything from General Motors factories to five-and-dime stores. At the same time, these people were exerting protest leverage on the Democrats, and that leverage was greater because the Democrats were their party.

Stephen Lerner of the Service Employees International Union has been attacked recently in an almost exact replica of the attacks on you. Both of you responded similarly—despite literal threats on your life, you and Lerner continued arguing publicly for what you believe in. What do you think of the attacks on Lerner, and why have both of you seized the spotlight?

Stephen Lerner and I were both attacked for the same reasons: we were talking about a kind a small-d democratic politics, protest politics, that has been such an important force in democratizing American political spheres. Protest politics has been the main force for increasing equality and expanding political rights in the U.S., historically. The polar opposite of our politics—organized business and the organized right with their Tea Party minions—are trying to scare and quiet people who speak about that kind of politics or try to organize it. It was an attack not on me, but on the kind of politics I represented. That’s why I’ve been organizing this national teach-in against corporate greed and austerity next Tuesday. I intend to continue to speak back. I don’t agree to be quiet, and I don’t think Stephen will, either.

What do you think is ultimately at stake in this fight over budget cuts and austerity?

What’s at stake is the future of the United States for the great majority of people who live here. I am very worried about the course that the country could take if this coalition between the Right, including the crazy Right like Glenn Beck, and organized business, has a smooth path. There is no limit to corporate greed and the extravagance of their propaganda.

Corporations have dominated American politics for 40 years, and as they successfully push through their policy agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and service cuts, they get greedier. That’s the dynamic of a market society—the more you get the more you want. That has to be stopped, because our economic well-being and democracy are at risk.


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