Author Frances Fox Piven on War, Politics, Poverty, and Four More Years
Frances Fox Piven is professor of political science and sociology at the graduate school of the City University of New York. She is co-author with Richard Cloward of a number of award-winning books, including regulating the Poor, The Poor People’s Movement, The Breaking of the American Social Compact, and Why Americans Still Don’t Vote. Her latest book is The War at Home.
Timothy Harris of Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper, interviewed her earlier this year.
Real Change: So your new book makes the point that the war and the events of 9/11 have provided political cover for a huge transfer of wealth and other sorts of shifts in national priorities. What are some examples of that?
Piven: I guess one of the more apparent examples are the tax cuts which are geared to reducing taxes on the wealthiest people in the United States and corporations; much more than ordinary working people. Those taxes were justified in Congress as being necessary in time of war. It’s a pretty obvious use of war to redistribute domestic wealth.
You usually think of war as a strategy in which one nation plunders another nation’s resources. In this case, our leaders were trying to do that for sure-they invaded a nation with a lot of oil resources-but they also were using the fog of war to impose their own agenda, an agenda of plunder in the United States.
I think another dimension is the environmental changes that are occuring. They don’t have the same acute inch as cutting your wages; it takes much longer to feel the affects of increased pollution. But this administration is committed to the use of public lands for private business; more logging, more drilling. That’s a heritage, a public heritage, and its being given away.
RC: During the election, the term “voter suppression” cropped up a lot in the media. This isn’t anything new is it?
Piven: Americans like to think that the political parties work to turn out the vote. It’s a very easy, pretty sort of democratic faith. But if you look at history with a more callous eye, I could make the case that the political parties work harder to prevent voting, especially by people who are either likely to cause trouble for their party-poor people, immigrants. So in a way we have party competition through vote suppression. It’s been a very prominent pattern in American political history.
RC: What should we be most concerned about in terms of the Bush administration agenda on poverty over his second term?
Piven: We should be concerned about everything, but we should be particularly concerned about the further erosion of income supports, which includes unemployment insurance. They did not extend federal unemployment insurance since 2003. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program becomes more restrictive, more punitive and derogatory of its clients. The attack, for example, on overtime pay standards is very important. We should work to increase the minimum wage, at $5.15 an hour, the lowest in history, in real terms.
RC: Why are they fixated on Social Security?
Piven: Because there’s money to be made there. Money to be made by bankers, investment firms, brokers, and financial advisors, and maybe also because the Social Security Reserve Fund, which is built up through the Social Security tax, is paid entirely by working people. Social Security tax is rigged so that there’s no tax on incomes over a certain amount. But that fund has built up, and as it builds up, it creates at least the legal possibility that the public sector can become a player in the economy.
RC: Kerry talked a lot about jobs, he talked a lot about tax priorities, but he didn’t say that much about poverty.
Piven: The entire tendency of the Democratic Party in the last thirty years has been to move away from the issues of the 1960’s; the issues through which the Democratic Party became the party of the down-and-outs, the marginals, the immigrants, the people of color, and women. So the argument has been that they have to get with mainstream America.
I actually think that the America people are not so selfish that they would not respond to appeals to improve the conditions of the poor. All information available shows that they would. If you call it welfare, they shrink from it because welfare has been assaulted since the early 1970’s. The program has been said to be the cause of every social problem in the world, without any evidence, to be sure, but the propaganda works. But if you ask people whether they think the poor should get a hand up, everybody agrees.
RC: It strikes me that the cultural wars are a way to unite people-often poor people-against a perceived liberal elite, and that it operates as a smoke screen around class. Democrats need to counter that strategy by being more out front on class and poverty.
Piven: And if the Democrats won’t do it, the social movements should. It’s true that a lot of people are cultural traditionalist in the United States. A lot of people everywhere are cultural traditionalist. People have ideas that they learn, when little, about sex and gender and sin and stuff like that. If you keep talking about those ideas, those issues, and you don’t talk about the problem of maintaining a standard of living, the problem of overwork, of not enough pay, of no healthcare, then you can lead people to fix their minds on the personal sin issues.
I actually think poverty- keeping people poor- is a sin. But, you know, a lot of Americans think sin is sexual transgression. And if you succeed in encouraging people to obsess about that, you can distract them while you steal their wages. That’s what’s happening.
RC: There’s been a lot of talk lately among progressives about recapturing the language of values. How do you rate that as a strategy for overcoming single-issue isolation?
Piven: What do they mean by it? If they mean that we should talk about sex too, I think it’s crazy. If they mean we should advance our own ideals with moral conviction, our ideals about equality, democracy, the elimination of poverty, more inclusive society, yes. Those are moral ideals. Those are values and we should be clear that they are values. It’s not an economic agenda, it’s a values agenda, but it’s a different values agenda. It’s a values agenda that a lot of the people who are talking values talk would respond to.
RC: Do progressives simply need to out-organize fundamentalist or is there room for dialogue?
Piven: Grover Norquist, who runs a populist-right coalition in Washington, but now has links with similar coalitions in the states, boasts that his group has moved evangelical Christians from being quasi-socialist to being free marketers. He’s talking about the sense in which many evangelical Christians were big supporters of the New Deal.
Why were they big supporters of the New Deal? Because they recognized that the New Deal gave them food subsidies. It gave them WPA. These were things that make a lot of sense to them even though they were also evangelical Christians. And if Christ was an evangelical Christian, Christ also would have been in favor of relief, WPA, food subsidies and so on.
RC: You’ve described the movement around George Bush as Authoritarian Populist, but there are aspects such as the transfer of assets to industry, the rejection of reason, and the appeal to bigotry, that appear fascist. Why not just call it that?
Piven: Well, do you know what I was trying to get at when I used that term? When we think about fascism, we think about political systems that exercise total surveillance and total control. I don’t think that’s likely to happen in the United States. And I don’t think it has to happen for the plunder of the ruling class to continue. I think all they need to do is exercise rough control and they’ll allow you to publish your newspaper, me to make my talks and to teach my classes and to write my books, but they will succeed in marginalizing us by whipping up a kind of popular passion around the personal values issues. That’s where they’re moving.
RC: So, what else would you say to those who are wondering “What now?”
Piven: Well, it’s going to be a tough few years, but I think only a few years. We cannot continue following these policies without creating a domestic political crisis in the United States. And we should be ready for that crisis. We should be politically prepared, politically mobilized, straighten out our heads about what we believe in and what we want to correct in our own society.
We should understand that this is not only important for us, it’s important for the entire world because the United States has become a very dangerous power. People all over the world now agree that the greatest danger to world peace is the United States government.