The conservative media stalwart Glenn Beck may be partially responsible for reinstating Frances Fox Piven into mainstream sociopolitical discourse. Nary a mention of Piven goes by without referring to Beck’s tirades against her and social activist Richard Cloward, Piven’s late husband and collaborator, as well as the death threats made against her by users of Beck’s website The Blaze. He has repeatedly targeted Piven as a catalyst for, among other things, the “unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system” and “an overarching left-wing plot” against America. Due to one essay in particular, which she wrote over forty years ago, Beck has stated that Piven is “the enemy of the Constitution.”
Unfortunately for Piven, the controversy surrounding her scholarship largely exists because her most zealous critics never fail to distort her findings. Peter Dreier of Dissent astutely points out that her studies on protests encourage not the use of violence as a measure of civil disobedience but rather “the combined power of voting and grassroots protest to bring about change.” In her attempts to empower the disenfranchised and understand the impetus behind social unrest, she has been blamed for seeking to completely uproot America’s democratic ideals while, in fact, she strives to make the best of America accessible to more people. Among other works, Piven’s notorious 1966 Nation article “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” and her 1972 book Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (co-written with Cloward) have been cited by conspiratorial demagogues as leading to Obama’s election to the presidency and the successful passage of his healthcare plan. More reasonably, her works reflect an activist attitude that forgoes passive resistance as a mode to bring about greater societal change.
For a sense of Piven’s legacy in less sensationalist and alarmist terms than Beck’s, The New Press has assembled a series of Piven’s writings into the new volume Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate. Spanning a vast scope of issues, ranging from welfare and voter rights to progressive reform, the book is a welcome introduction to her ideas. As a bonus, it features an illuminating interview by Cornel West, featured below, that reveals integral details of her upbringing and illustrious career. It covers topics ranging from biographical tidbits (she was accepted to the University of Chicago at fifteen, on a tuition scholarship, no less) to her views on the role of the United States in today’s geopolitical landscape, culminating in her self-identification as a “radical Democrat.” The crux of Piven’s message, however, is that “social action” entails “solving social problems,” including poverty and welfare rights.
Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “[S]he always said exactly what was on her mind even if that meant publicly upbraiding [colleagues] for statements she found condescending to the poor.” A group that Piven co-founded with Cloward, Human SERVE, had its aims incorporated into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. “Within months [of meeting her],” writes Ehrenreich, “she had convinced me that the highest feminist priority was the defense of the poorest of the poor, that is, women on welfare.”
Clearly, for all the verbal threats and vitriol she receives from her critics, Piven still believes that actions speak louder than words.
Cornel West: Let me begin by saying that it is an honor for me to be in conversation with the one and only Frances Fox Piven. She is, to me, a living legend, part and parcel of a very rich intellectual and political tradition. If I could tease out three themes in your work, one would be the very subtle historical and social analysis of the past and present; two, a profound commitment to the dignity of ordinary people, of everyday people, poor and working people; and three, concern about changing the world, both inside electoral politics and social movements outside of electoral politics. All three of these themes are interwoven throughout your corpus. I want to know, from early on in your life, where do you think those themes actually come from?
Frances Fox Piven: I think that the commitment to poor and working people comes from my family. My mother and father were immigrants from Belarus, a fact posted repeatedly on right-wing blogs as if that makes me suspect. My father came here about 1917, when he was a teenager, my mother in the early twenties. They brought with them a political perspective that was broadly socialist. They had almost no formal education, although they spoke and wrote at least four languages.
I remember my father explaining, “A capitalist system is a dog-eat-dog system.”
Cornel West: You rent the store?
Frances Fox Piven: Yes. And you open by 7 a.m. to sell some rolls. In those days, all these little delicatessens had huge paper bags of hard crusty rolls left outside the front door at dawn. My father would go at seven, open the store, and he would stay there until three in the morning to sell another quart of milk.
Cornel West: This was in New York City?
Frances Fox Piven: In New York City. We lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. That was an immigrant neighborhood then as it is now. At the time though, it was mainly Irish, Italian, some Eastern European Jews. My father worked all the time. But his lifelong interest was in politics. That’s what he thought about. He worked all the time but what he thought about was politics. I didn’t see him too often because he came home so late and he was gone when I woke up in the morning. But every once in a while I would see him and he would sit me down and what would he talk to a three- or four-year-old about? Politics. Really, he talked to me about politics. I remember my father explaining, “A capitalist system is a dog-eat-dog system.” And another time he explained, “You can’t believe anything you read in the capitalist press.” This especially puzzled me because my father always read the newspaper. “Well, why are you reading the newspaper, Daddy?” He said, “I read between the lines.” I couldn’t read yet, but for weeks I tried hard to read between the lines.
Cornel West: [Laughs.] Now how did this feed into your education as an undergraduate and your training as a graduate student?
Frances Fox Piven: Well I went to public school at P.S. 148. And then I went to Newtown High School. And at some point when I was in the sophomore year my brother came home and he persuaded my mother and father that they should let me apply to the University of Chicago, which was accepting applications from sophomores.
Cornel West: Fifteen years old? Sixteen years old?
Frances Fox Piven: Fifteen I was then. And so I did. My brother had struck an agreement with my father that if I got in and if I got a scholarship, I could go. And my father went along with my brother.
Cornel West: So you were accepted into the University of Chicago at fifteen?
Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.
Cornel West: That reminds me of Susan Sontag, Richard Rorty. The same program, very precocious, very, very sharp. And what was it like when you arrived, given your rich background?
Frances Fox Piven: It was very confusing to me.
Cornel West: In what sense?
Frances Fox Piven: Nobody in my family or in my neighborhood used the language that they used at the University of Chicago. I remember the first time I heard the word “value” repeated again and again by my professor. Value to me was the price of a frying pan.
Cornel West: [Laughs.]
Frances Fox Piven: I mean a frying pan was a good value or not a good value. When I went to the university, for a very long time I didn’t know the difference between beef and lamb and pork because we ate this kind of food so rarely in my household. I knew a category called “meat.” It’s like how Eskimos have so many different kinds of snow. We have one category called “snow.” Well, I had one category called meat. Mostly we ate soup and potatoes.
Cornel West: Now were there any professors there in Chicago who just really helped you? Who allowed your imagination to flourish?
Frances Fox Piven: After the first quarter, when I saw that I could pass exams with good grades, I stopped going to school.
I was a neurotic kid. I decided that just sitting there was a waste and that I should at least be getting some experience.
Cornel West: Is that right?
Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.
Cornel West: So you are reading on your own?
Frances Fox Piven: Or not reading on my own. I thought that experience was very important, Cornel.
Cornel West: But how are you passing these exams? This is Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel.
Frances Fox Piven: Do you know about multiple choice?
Cornel West: You still had to know something from those books to pass those exams.
Frances Fox Piven: Let me tell you Cornel…
Cornel West: [Laughs.]
Frances Fox Piven: I didn’t really start reading seriously until I was much older. I was having trouble concentrating. I was a neurotic kid. I decided that just sitting there was a waste and that I should at least be getting some experience. So I took all sorts of jobs. I needed the money because my father wasn’t giving me any money. I had a tuition scholarship and that was all. So, I worked in all-night places like the Hobby House. You know, fast-food places. I worked as a waitress. I had to learn how to be a waitress, so I worked at Stouffer’s first. Stouffer’s would hire young women right off the ship. Mainly Irish young women. And they would teach you how to be a waitress. They were so patronizing. But I did that so I could learn to waitress elsewhere.
Cornel West: This is while you were at the University of Chicago?
Frances Fox Piven: Yes. You had to learn how to carry a lot of plates on your arms in those days. Nowadays I never see wait people who can do that trick. You know, three dinner plates and three cups of coffee. But we had to do that. Stouffer’s taught me how to do that. Then I quit and went to work mainly for truck-stop-type restaurants because they tipped much better. And then I got a job for a while working as a camera girl in these jazz clubs in the Black Belt. In Evanston and on West 63rd street. And I wore dark pancake [foundation].
Cornel West: Is that right? As an undergrad at the University of Chicago? You had to be one of the few students at University of Chicago working in those kinds of jobs. Who were you talking to at the time? So what happened was, you immersed yourself in the culture of working people early on while you are at this highly elitist institution of higher learning.
Frances Fox Piven: But I also talked to my fellow students because I was working nights and had time during the day to hang out in the coffee shop and talk to other students. And you know it was very high-falutin’ talk. I enjoyed it. And then I would go to work. So my time at the University was mainly spent in the coffee shop, sparring.
Cornel West: And passing the exams.
Frances Fox Piven: And I passed the exams. I never lost my scholarship.
Cornel West: On to graduate school. Now what was that like?
Frances Fox Piven: Well that was different. When I went to graduate school, I went into a program called Social and Economic Planning. It was an interdisciplinary program that had originally been started by Rexford Tugwell, who had worked in the New Deal, and who had then served as governor of Puerto Rico for a while when they were promoting the Operation Bootstrap program in Puerto Rico—a program with mixed consequences, I think. Nevertheless, the idea of the program was to spur the economic growth of underdeveloped areas. It was economic and social development. I chose that program because I thought that was useful work and also something I could do. I was still having such trouble reading. I couldn’t concentrate. I thought I could get by as a planner. In graduate school, they wanted me to produce papers. Since I really was blocked, I couldn’t produce the papers. In my first quarter, I got three incompletes in my three courses. I registered again for another three courses in the second quarter, but then I decided to quit. I went to work for The Free Press. Not The New Press, but The Free Press.
Cornel West: [Laughs.]
Frances Fox Piven: I had been enrolled in a course in urban politics. And the professor was Edward Banfield. Do you know that name?
Cornel West: Oh yes. The Un-Heavenly City.
Frances Fox Piven: Yes. This was before he wrote that book. I had been in the course and came a few times, but there is no point in coming to class if you don’t do any of the reading. So I started cutting classes and he sent another student to ask me why I wasn’t coming back to class. He said he had enjoyed my comments and questions. When I decided to drop out, I went to see him because he had sent this nice message to me. I said to him, “I’ve got three incompletes. I’m not going to class. I’m going to have six incompletes. There’s no point to this. I think I should go to work at a different kind of job.” And he put me in touch with Jerry Kaplan, who was a self-made guy who had started The Free Press. Jerry Kaplan made me an assistant editor, which was a phony title because the only other people working there were the stock boy and the secretary. I worked there for a year—or maybe eight months. And they proposed that I go to New York to open a publishing office where I could be the person who dealt with the authors. And the authors were people like Talcott Parsons and Erving Goffman. The Free Press was publishing Weber and Durkheim. Nobody else was.
Cornel West: Parsons was translating Weber.
Frances Fox Piven: So, that offer was very tempting, but my boyfriend of the time persuaded me to go back to school instead. And I did. I went back to school.
Cornel West: This is the richest stuff. You haven’t written a memoir, have you?
Frances Fox Piven: No, because it’s not interesting to me to write about it.
I had no intention of becoming an academic. How could a person who was having trouble reading become an academic?
Cornel West: It is very interesting. It’s your formation. Let’s go back now to this connection between the subtle historical and social analysis and the dignity of poor and working people. When does that first surface with real potency in your mind and in your work?
Frances Fox Piven: In the 1960s, I think. I think I carried with me the influences of my family, the view that capitalism was bad because it created a wolf-eat-wolf or dog-eat-dog society, especially for little people. I think I understood that perfectly well. I remember when I was a really small child, I tried to figure out exactly what a capitalist was and I decided it was like my Uncle Phil. He owned a neighborhood restaurant and not only a restaurant, but a little delicatessen and bakery attached to the restaurant, so together that seemed pretty big. So … that’s what a capitalist was.
Cornel West: That’s a good example. [Laughs.]
Frances Fox Piven: I talk a little about this in my introduction to “Low Income People and the Political Process.” I finished my degree in 1962, I believe. I had no intention of becoming an academic. How could a person who was having trouble reading become an academic? I certainly wanted to be honest about what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, besides, I was interested in social action. I didn’t necessarily mean movement action at that time. I meant social action. I meant solving social problems. Before I actually got my degree I was invited to cooperate with a new program on the Lower East Side called Mobilization for Youth. It was actually started as a juvenile delinquency program, but it became the model for the community action part of the poverty program that followed somewhat later. At first they asked me to write a chapter for their proposal on what Mobilization could do about dilapidated housing in the area. And then when it actually seemed they would get funding, they asked me if I wanted to write the history of the project. I didn’t have another job so I agreed, but on the stipulation that I would be guaranteed independence in writing the history. I didn’t want the directors—Richard Cloward was one, George Brager another, Jim McCarthy was the third one—I didn’t want them to be able to influence or control the history. They agreed. So, in 1962, I went to work on the Lower East Side.
Cornel West: [Laughs.] When I think of Frances Fox Piven, beyond intellectual integrity and political courage, and moral sensitivity to poor and working people, I think of three works: Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare and Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. And I’ll tell you, a favorite of mine is The New Class War. I think that text also needs to be reproduced in our present situation. The New Class War. Because it’s to be read alongside Robert Lekachman’s Greed Is Not Enough Reaganomics. The two best books on the Reagan era and what we’re up against. When you wrote about Fannie Lou Hamer, I felt you had to have some connection with her.
Frances Fox Piven: I worshipped her but I never met her.
Cornel West: Tell me more.
Frances Fox Piven: Well, I heard the accounts of how she had been brutalized, how she had suffered. I knew she was a poor woman from the rural South. And I thought her courage was awesome. I also liked the way she sang. And you know what else? One of my best friends was June Jordan.
Cornel West: The June Jordan?
Frances Fox Piven: And June loved Fanny. During those years, June and I were really very close. There were times when we were not so close, although we remained lifelong friends. We had big arguments, too. June wrote about those arguments in one of her autobiographical books.
Cornel West: With the cover when she’s a little girl?
Frances Fox Piven: No. I’ve forgotten which book it was, but in this essay June was angry at me. She names me, probably. She says that I kept changing the correct political line we were supposed to have. First I’m a nationalist, well, I was sort of a nationalist. I was very sympathetic to black nationalism in the ’60s and ’70s. And June was an integrationist when I first met her. I met her because she wrote me an angry letter after an article that Richard and I had published criticizing, even mocking, efforts at housing integration, in particular. We said in effect you’d have to live a million years to achieve that goal, so in the meantime, why not at least build some decent housing in the ghetto? She wrote me an angry letter and I said, “Oh, come on over, we’ll talk about it.” And we became friends.
Cornel West: [Laughs.]
Frances Fox Piven: So I was the nationalist, she was the integrationist.
Cornel West: So, you’ve got the black woman who’s the integrationist, and this progressive white Jewish sister who supports black nationalism. That’s fascinating.
I’m a radical Democrat. And I’m a radical Democrat about economic matters and political matters. Everything I’ve ever tried to do is well-encompassed by that term.
Frances Fox Piven: But then in the ’70s—is this too early for you Cornel? Do you remember the Jewish-black fights in Crown Heights in the ’70s? They were really brutal. Of course, our call for redeveloping the ghettos instead of preaching integration was not heeded. But, I didn’t mean by that call let’s have a race war between Jews and blacks. June got caught up in that. We had bad fights about it. That was when she said, “She’s always changing her mind.” I didn’t think I was changing my mind.
Cornel West: There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind if you think something’s right at a certain moment. It’s just if you are consistent in terms of the same themes that we talked about. Let me ask you, how do you, account for the fact that you’ve been able to sustain your calling as intellectual activist? From the 1980s to 2000, you’ve got a major shift. Leftist intellectuals moving to the right, or to the center. I’m sure you must’ve had many friends who began with you in the 1960s and ’70s on the left, who ended up liberal, then neo-liberal and neo-conservative. How do you account for your holding onto the radical democratic vision?
Frances Fox Piven: Well those are my beliefs. How do you account for why other people changed their beliefs? I haven’t changed much. I never said I was a communist, for example. I never said I was a socialist, Cornel. Because I thought that was a pretty ambiguous term and I didn’t know exactly what it meant.
Cornel West: For example, in our work with DSA, you have a number of persons identifying as radical Democrats. How would you describe yourself politically and ideologically?
Frances Fox Piven: Well, recently, I finally decided I needed to give my politics a name. I had never thought it was important for me to give myself a name. But I think Glenn Beck and the right-wing blogs carrying on with all of the name-calling—anarchist, communist, socialist—persuaded me. I decided I ought to decide what the right name was. And I’m a radical Democrat.
Cornel West: That’s the term I’d use.
Frances Fox Piven: I’m a radical democrat. And I’m a radical Democrat about economic matters and political matters. Everything I’ve ever tried to do is well-encompassed by that term.
What did excite me was the spirit of the project. The idea that you could transform a big neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York.
Cornel West: I guess that’s that. A radical Democrat and a deep Democrat; we share that identity. I like the suspicion of the “isms.” Let me ask an off-the-wall question, what is your relationship to the arts when it comes to music?
Frances Fox Piven: You know, Cornel, I have almost no relationship to music. That will horrify you.
Cornel West: But you’re musical in your lectures. You’re musical in your life.
Frances Fox Piven: Cornel, I think that I’m actually physically handicapped. I have an auditory handicap. I can’t remember or imitate a tune. I’m very bad at languages for that reason. I like it when people sing. I like the beat.
Cornel West: You like Fannie Lou Hamer singing!
Frances Fox Piven: I love Fannie Lou Hamer. I think The Producers is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But I’m very unmusical. When people ask me to go to a concert, I don’t go. I think the fundamental cause is genetic. My sister, my daughter, most of my nephews are also pretty unmusical. One nephew actually trained himself to sing, despite the enormous obstacle—it was like climbing a mountain. It’s very hard if you don’t have the auditory capacity. I’m sorry, Cornel, I don’t want to disappoint you.
Cornel West: I’m telling you, from your lectures, there’s a power that flows that has a musicality, a rhythm, and a tempo.
Frances Fox Piven: Thank you, brother.
Cornel West: Now, let’s say a word about brother Richard. I think, for example, of that powerful moment, at the Graduate Center. How were you able to come together? You constituted, for me, a kind of exemplary twosome and married couple of the radical Democratic left. There’s nobody else that comes close. How did you meet? How did you sustain it?
Frances Fox Piven: Richard originally hired me at Mobilization for Youth. I had met him once or twice before that through other people. But he hired me and I found Mobilization very exciting. Really exciting. It gripped me. It’s not that I was particularly convinced by their social science-y approach. They were going to do a demonstration project in this neighborhood to test out the theories of delinquency and opportunity put forward in a book that Richard wrote with Lloyd Ohlin. That wasn’t really what they were doing. If they were testing something, it was what all of the different professionals who claimed to have a capacity to undo poverty were doing. There was a kind of coalition of professionals: manpower trainers, social workers, settlement house professionals, educators, group workers. That didn’t so impress me, but what did excite me was the spirit of the project. The idea that you could transform a big neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York. That you could make available job opportunities to the kids in the neighborhood; that you could hammer at the local school district and get the teachers to visit the parents. Those were the sorts of things that they were trying to do. That you could have what were called “group work programs” for teens in storefronts. But you know, that meant you made a storefront available to teenagers, including a mimeograph machine. They could do stuff. The people who were attracted to Mobilization were largely lefties who wanted to do something.
Cornel West: Now were you and brother Richard already moving in a radical democratic direction or were you mutually influencing each other and moving to the left together? How did that take place?
Frances Fox Piven: Richard and I had different backgrounds. Richard came from a northern Baptist background. His father was a northern Baptist minister. Richard may have been critical of social work, but he was in the best sense a social worker. Something I admire by the way. Do you know Gus Newport? Gus Newport also came to that memorial for Richard.
Cornel West: The mayor?
Frances Fox Piven: Of Berkeley. Gus Newport brought me a photograph of Richard when Richard was about nineteen years old. Gus was in the picture. Gus was about seven. It was a picture taken at an interracial camp that Richard and a buddy of his had started in Rochester. They had found out that the YMCA only used their summer camp in July, and they arranged to rent it in August. They organized what they called an “interracial camp,” and, of course, hardly any white kids came. I think in that picture there was one little white kid. Gus Newport was one of the kids at the camp, and his mother was a counselor. That’s what a good social worker would do, right? He would arrange a summer camp for the kids who aren’t going to get to summer camp any other way. At Mobilization for Youth, there was also a community organization program. I ended up working almost all the time at the community organization program. That’s how I got involved in rent strikes. Richard, George Brager, and Jim McCarthy used to say something to me that I’m probably not remembering exactly right. “You can’t use Caesar’s gold to fight Caesar.” It’s a classical expression that I’m not saying right, but that’s the meaning.
Cornel West: Like Audre Lorde’s expression: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Frances Fox Piven: Right. They’d say that to each other, and they’d say that to me. I thought rent strikes were a good way to approach the housing problems of the Lower East Side. There were people ready to go on rent strikes. I remember in ’63, a year later, Mobilization for Youth rented a train to take people from the Lower East Side to the march for jobs and freedom in Washington, August 1963. I thought, something is happening. Something was happening. On a late summer night, on the Lower East Side of New York, and in other neighborhoods too, you could just sense the people were…
Cornel West: Beginning to wake up?
Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.
The only way to change American society, and indeed I think this is true of other societies as well, is for people to discover the power latent in the cooperative roles that they play in a range of institutions.
Cornel West: Here we are, on April 5, 2011, and you come up with this idea and are kind enough to call me to co-host a teach-in at Judson Memorial Church with 269 colleges and universities throughout the nation. Which is to say social movements are still part and parcel of your conception of who you are as a public intellectual, a democratic intellectual, and as an activist. You are an exemplary teacher with students all around the country and the world. It’s hard to go to an American Political Science Association meeting and not see a Frances Fox Piven student somewhere teaching, somewhere having impact, somewhere building on your legacy. How do you perceive your legacy after some forty or fifty years of unbelievable vision, courage, and service to poor and working people?
Frances Fox Piven: Well I don’t think about legacies. I don’t think about my legacy. But, what is distinctive about both my intellectual work and my life’s political work? I believe that the only way to change American society, and indeed I think this is true of other societies as well, is for people to discover the power latent in the cooperative roles that they play in a range of institutions. It’s like the old IWW song, “It is we who tilled the prairies, laid the railroads, built the cities… ” And we could add suckled the babies. The IWW was trying to discover and show its people that they play an important role in the society. And show them that the way they are insulted, abused, and oppressed is unjust, but not just that it’s unjust; it’s because they play an important role that they can change the society. That role is potential power. What they do when they go to work, when they obey the laws, or when they don’t obey the laws—is a source of power. I think it’s the question of the power of the oppressed that has been the central question in my life, both as an analyst and as an activist.
Cornel West: And the degree to which those oppressed continue to resist and remain resilient. I recall coming across a line by the late Charles Tilly when he said, “The conditions for the possibility of social movements have been called into question in the twenty-first century.” And I said to myself, my god, a society in history without social movements, for me, is very difficult to live in. Now of course, northern Africa has already proved him wrong.
Frances Fox Piven: Well, I thought he was wrong, and I think he was also wrong to say that we didn’t have social movements until the development of the nation-state in Western Europe. I don’t think that’s true, either. He defined a social movement by its relationship to the nation-state, which seemed to make such an assertion true. I don’t define it that way. I generally talk about protest movements, not social movements. A protest movement occurs when large numbers of people are seized by the hope that they can act to improve their own condition, and dare to defy the rules that ordinarily govern their life to push for those improvements. That’s a protest movement. Of course, there are other kinds of social movements too.
Cornel West: I would say that, even though my dear sister Fran does not like to talk in terms of legacy, I think that the future of this country depends in part on how it responds to the legacy of Frances Fox Piven. What I mean is, if we don’t keep track of the dignity of poor and working peoples, if we don’t highlight their resiliency, and take seriously their voices, and their viewpoints, then American democracy has no healthy future. And Frances Fox Piven’s work, which is not an isolated voice, it’s a voice within a collective tradition of voices. But it is her legacy. In her generation, she was able to accent those voices and that dignity in a way that was very, very, very distinctive. And to that degree, so much is at stake in terms of what American democracy will look like. Which builds on the themes that she just noted, in terms of what is distinctive about her work.
Frances Fox Piven: I think that we’re at an alarming moment in American political development and maybe in world political development, because the United States is so influential. If the trends of the last thirty or forty years are not halted and reversed—and those trends include increasingly inequality, a crumbling public life, a disintegrating public infrastructure, an exhausted ecology, and a huge war arsenal, and more and more war making—then I’m rather gloomy about the prospects for the American future and the harm that the United States could do to the world. But I think it might be reversed. There are no guarantees. It might be reversed. But if it’s reversed, I think it will be because of the rise of oppositional movements from the masses of people in the middle and at the bottom, who have been made to pay the cost in their economic well-being and in their community life, and really in their culture and mental life, too. Think for example of the degradation of democratic discourse in the United States as a result of floods of propaganda. If this can be reversed, I think it will be because of the rise of new protest movements.
Interview conducted April 5, 2011. This interview originally appeared in Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate by Frances Fox Piven. Copyright © 2011 by Frances Fox Piven. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.