On the day Paul Ryan released his budget proposal, I went to Judson Memorial Church in New York City to gauge the left’s reaction. Judson Memorial was hosting “Fight Back USA,” where one could get tips on “fighting austerity, debt, and corporate greed” and listen to progressive superstars Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West, and Jeffrey Sachs. “ ’60s-style Teach-In Meets the Digital Age in Live Stream Webcast,” said the press release. A friendly aide told me that students at more than 200 schools were watching online.
The day was overcast and rainy. The beautiful Gilded Age church, designed by acclaimed American architect Stanford White, was built in the 1890s with Rockefeller money. The interior is blue with yellow molding and contains 15 stained glass windows by John LaFarge, who decorated the homes of robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt. The irony of denouncing capitalism inside a building that owes its existence to obscenely rich industrialists seemed to be lost on the crowd. Then again it was hard to judge the emotions of the audience from the balcony, where the organizers had exiled the press.
The helpful aide said there were 300 people in attendance. My bird’s-eye view of the seating area suggested she was being generous. Another reporter approached me with a friendly expression and introduced herself as a writer for the liberal American Prospect. A grimace of horror flashed across her face when I told her I worked for The Weekly Standard, as if I’d said I’d just killed her dog. She scurried back to her seat at the far end of the row and pretended to check emails on her cell phone. A few moments later she asked, “So how is Bill Kristol doing?” in the same tone you’d use to refer to Carlos the Jackal. I said he was doing fine.
A lady who seemed to be stage-managing the event delivered some nonprogressive instructions. “Keep your voices down,” she told the students and senior citizens who made up the audience. “If you don’t agree with something, keep it to yourself.” Clearly this was not going to be Grant Park, 1968. The panelists walked on stage and took their seats. A thin woman with brown-gray hair and dangling gold earrings approached the lectern. “My name is Frances Fox Piven,” she said. “I want to welcome you to the first national teach-in on corporate greed and false austerity, debt, and how we’re going to fight back.”
From time immemorial Fox Piven has toiled in the dank and crowded back alley where academia and radical politics meet. She and her late husband Richard Cloward became famous in the ’60s and ’70s for urging poor people to mau-mau the government. But it wasn’t until 2009, when a researcher for right-wing media personality Glenn Beck found an article the couple had written for the Nation 40 years earlier, that Piven became a fixation of the right and martyr for the left. (Cloward died in 2001.) The piece in question was titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.”
The way to end poverty, Piven and Cloward argued, was to increase local and state welfare rolls to the point where the federal government had no option but to step in and institute a guaranteed annual income. Obviously the idea was a dud that went nowhere. But one can see how it appealed to Beck, who dubbed it the “Cloward-Piven strategy” and used it to suggest that Americans were unwitting actors in a sinister socialist drama scripted long ago.
Beck was wrong in thinking Piven and Cloward ought to be feared. To the contrary: Decades of academic research, countless books and articles and lectures, more than 25 years teaching at the City University of New York, and what has Frances Fox Piven come up with?
“Do we have the Tree of Corporate Destruction?” she asked the audiovisual crew. On the wall behind Piven there appeared a frightening black and white image of a tree whose branches bore the logos of major corporations. On the ground beneath the tree were two fallen limbs, with branches labeled “schools,” “civil servants,” “higher education,” “retirement,” “the safety net,” and so on. The trunk bore the name Glenn Beck, in large block letters. Below that an image of Ronald Reagan. And below that were the words “Corporate Personhood”: a legal principle that, according to the Tree of Corporate Destruction, has given rise to huge conglomerates that sever the American social contract in pursuit of profit.