Making Trouble: An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven is a long-distance runner of the American Left and personification of the ‘public intellectual’. Professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Piven is best known for her activism in the welfare rights movement and scholarship on social movements. She is the author of numerous books, including the classics Poor Peoples Movements and Regulating the Poor, and most recently Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. In an interview exclusive to, Prof. Piven discusses the political conjuncture in the United States, its historical resonances, and the need for popular mobilization.

SB: Frances Fox Piven, hopes were high when Barack Obama was elected president in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Progressives in the U.S. were hoping Obama would act as a new Franklin Roosevelt, enacting the kind of social and economic reforms that would shift the balance of power between big business and the working class as FDR did in the 1930s. Yet many on the Left have been disappointed by the administration’s response to the crisis. How would you assess the Obama presidency thus far?

FFP: Well, FDR did not become the leader of the New Deal, the program innovator we now remember him as, except in the context of a lot of disorder and mass unrest, rent riots, food riots, riots in the countryside where farms were being auctioned off. When journalists were talking about revolution, this was 3 or 4 years into a massive depression. That’s not the situation in the U.S. today; maybe because people are not nearly as desperate as they were in the early 1930s when miners in the coal region were digging coal for 30 cents a ton or very large numbers of people were unemployed, we don’t know exactly because they weren’t official statistics but from estimates maybe a quarter to a third of the workforce was unemployed by 1932. Those who were still working had suffered enormous pay cuts and there was no safety net, no social programs, the only thing that existed were soup kitchens and even those were not that numerous and certainly not very generous. Today there is a safety net in the United States, even though it is inadequate and people like me criticize it all the time, but it still is there and it does make a difference. Moreover, Obama has improved the safety net because one of the things his stimulus bill did was put money into food stamps and money into our welfare program for example. People did pay attention to the fact he was doing that – or there would have been a lot of criticism from the right – because it was buried in the stimulus bill. Aside from that a lot of the people who took such heart from the Obama election really had fantastic expectations. Obama won the election because he’s a very skilful politician; he put together a very clever campaign organization and he had a lot of money to campaign with. Now put those things together, political skill and a lot of money – a lot of money comes from people with money – and political skill means taking account of the forces that exist. It’s a very unique kind of political skill to stake itself on forces that are yet to emerge. That’s a movement leader and Obama is not a movement leader. He’s a skilful politician. So where I come down on it, Obama is a much better president than George W. Bush. He isn’t doing what we need and want and only doing a little and the question is whether the forces will emerge in American society that force him to take stronger action, to antagonize the banks that he’s been stroking, that force him to break with the private health insurers that make health care reform so difficult in the US. This is not going to happen because Obama makes it happen. Obama is a better person to negotiate the different claims on the head of state than a John McCain or George W. Bush because Obama is also vulnerable to the people at the bottom, to minorities, to the poor, but also vulnerable, he’s not just vulnerable to those constituencies but has to take into account the insurance companies and the big banks. How much we’ll get in the way of reform from the class of interests between the big banks and the people, or between the insurance companies and those who need health care, depends at this juncture in large part on how hard people will push, how much trouble they will make, how much disorder they will threaten in American society. And better to have Obama when we are in that kind of moment because he won’t call out the National Guard nearly as quickly.

SB: Let’s talk about some of the movements which have mobilized since the election of Obama. The right has been very active in opposing health care reform and around other issues, such as immigration. The left on the other hand has not matched the mobilization of the right. The Nation magazine estimated about 5,000 people at the protest of the American Bankers Association last week, a significant decline in numbers from the anti-globalization protests of a decade or so ago. Has the election of Obama had a demobilizing affect on the Left, in that people may have seen his election as a movement victory as opposed to one stage in an ongoing struggle?

FFP: I don’t think it has demobilized the Left. I don’t think a shift in the political context which gives people hope demobilizes them at all; I think it tends to spurn them if other conditions are right. But the mobilizations of the right that we have seen tap into that 25% or 30% of the American population that is profoundly fundamentalist, in a sense archaic, that sees most contemporary developments as a real threat to their way of life. They see themselves as being left behind by all the major trends in the country. Then the majority, the country, elects an African American president! Now, these people are not only fundamentalist and aching for a return to familiar, traditional patterns of life, but they are also profoundly racist. We have this population in the U.S. that is not going to go away and it will act up and react to liberating and forward looking changes. This also happened in the 1930s: we may remember FDR as the leader of the Great Majority but there was a tremendous amount of right-wing protest at the same time.

SB: Going forward it seems the biggest issue on the Obama administrations agenda is health care reform. Could you give us an idea of how active the Left has been around health care reform and also the issue of a single-payer or public health care system?

FFP: The Left has been pretty active but it’s kind of a lobbying activism as opposed to social movement activism. But they have been active as lobbyists and it’s one of the reasons senate majority leader Harry Reid has come out in favour of a strong public option in the reforms; whether it will be strong remains to be seen. I think there will be a health care bill and there will be modest improvements in the health care system. If the insurance companies were to succeed in blocking it, I just don’t know what would happen. It would be a tremendous failure for the Obama administration and also evidence of unbridled interest group politics. We’ll have to see how people react if that is the case.

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