Five Minutes With
Frances Fox Piven Talks Tea Party Politics
As members of Congress are debating 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” [PDF] 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.
In your recent co-authored piece in The Nation you say there is a “one-sided war on the American people,” in the budget cuts. 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. … [T]he 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 [union membership] 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 [Rick Snyder], for example, just signed a bill to reduce unemployment insurance from 26 to 20 weeks.
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, [and] 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.
Such cuts are proposed by those who were swept into office by 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 today?
We can't do anything about the election of 2010, which gave us these Tea Party Republicans. When the  campaign heats up, President 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.
What do you think is ultimately at stake in this fight over budget cuts?
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.
Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.