The Corner

Frances Fox Piven Speaks

The Chronicle of Higher Education has jumped into the Frances Fox Piven controversy. Piven herself has addressed the issue in an op-ed, CHE has reported on it, and Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (a much-needed force against academic political correctness) has a must-read post on the topic.

I’m struck by Piven’s audacity, both in suppressing her past calls for polarization and violence, and in positioning herself as a defender of the democratic process.

Compare the account of the strategy to end poverty in Piven’s new op-ed with these excerpts from Jack Beatty’s 1977 review in the Nation of her book (with Richard Cloward) Poor People’s Movements:

“Piven and Cloward are saying that the poor will be ignored so long as they abide by the rules of our political life….The only weapon they have is the threat to withhold legal and moral participation in society. Rent strikes, crime, civic disruptions are the politics of the poor….their thesis is that the pursuit of electoral influence is illusory for the poor….They recommend getting these people on the welfare rolls, and generally increasing the demands on the welfare system in order to create a political and fiscal crisis which will spiral from the cities to the states, forcing mayors and governors to lobby for federal assistance to meet the crisis….Yet one must indeed wonder about the wisdom of a plan which had as its professed aim, as the authors write…the creation ‘of an electoral dissensus–the extreme polarization of major electoral constituencies.’”

As for her recent call for violent American rioting on the model of the disruptions in Greece, Piven simply acts as though the controversy had never come up.

In her CHE piece, Piven treats the themes of orchestrated crisis, class-polarization, and violence as wild conservative distortions of her work. Actually, she herself is disguising the blunt extremism of her writings. Even the Nation (her mouthpiece today) found her anti-democratic stance and polarizing tactics over-the-top in 1977.

Have a look sometime at the opening of Poor People’s Movements (pp. 2-3). There Piven embraces Marx’s critique of liberal democracy as ruse of capitalism, using this to justify protest tactics that defy “political norms.” Yet Piven now positions herself as a defender of “democratic choice and deliberation.” I guess when you believe that American democracy a bogus capitalist plot, there’s no need be honest. Maybe that explains how Piven could so flatly and publicly deny her own copiously documented socialism.

Peter Wood nicely deflates the attempts by Piven and her academic supporters to spin this controversy in a way that distracts from her call for rioting in America. Politicized professors have seized on the Piven dust-up out of worry that they, too, might be criticized by a public they delight in skewering from behind ivy walls. The professors hope that outrageous threats by a few commenters on a blog site can somehow be used to silence public criticism of the academy. Don’t bet on it.

Piven’s problem is that she wants to directly influence political outcomes, and so must write with reasonable clarity. That makes it relatively easy to expose her dissimulation. Other academics sacrifice public impact and resort to impenetrable jargon as a means of self-protection. From my days in the academy, I remember luxurious academic centers in the humanities, funded by corporations looking to bask in ivy-league prestige. The jargon-laden diatribes launched from those humanities centers were full of contempt for the world of business actually paying for the party. On the other hand, no-one but the academics could understand a word of it (and sometimes not even them). Everyone was happy with this arrangement–except the students, of course. They’ve been fleeing politicized and jargon-drenched humanities departments for years.

As the academy pulled away from America, its language grew ever-more impenetrable. Safety demanded encryption. Crack the code and you’ll get something that sounds a lot like Piven, which is why she and her professor friends would love to find a way to stop you from paying attention.


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