Conflict, Fantasy and Frances Fox Piven in American Life

Glenn Beck and many other right-wing commentators have identified two academics, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, as the masterminds of the impending socialist takeover of the United States. According to Beck, Barack Obama himself is one of their agents, in deep cover of course, and he is finally bringing their vision of a socialist America to fruition (with the help of George Soros, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and so on). In recent days the attack on Piven has intensified and it is now claimed that she has issued a call for rioting and violence. Some have gone so far as to tie the recent shooting in Arizona to her, as was done by the popular, conservative blogger angrywhitedude:

Will the leftwing media mention Piven’s calls for violence? Naaaah! The blame for yesterday’s violence should be placed at the feet of Frances Fox Piven and not Sarah Palin. It seems Piven got her wish … a leftist took actions into his own hands through violence.

As absurd and farcical as all of this is, it is not to be taken lightly. For one, Piven has received dozens of death threats and hundreds of hateful messages. Piven the person, however, is not really who Beck and his allies are after. Not only is it obvious that they know nothing about her actual politics or her scholarship, they are clearly not interested in discovering what these may be. Piven is not some marginal thinker whose work is only known by a small cabal of insiders. She is one of the most famous and respected political sociologists in the world, a former president of the very un-radical American Sociological Association and former vice-president of the even more un-radical American Political Science Association. Piven and Cloward’s best-known work, “Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare,” is an academic blockbuster that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies (Beck’s viewers would be shocked to know that Piven and Cloward are most famous for showing how government welfare programs are used to regulate the labor market and control the poor). That Beck and the others have not, in the two years they have been discussing Piven and Cloward, taken the time to read their books, or at least brought in one of the thousands of academics who have, is not an oversight.

In the current political and cultural war that is taking place, “Frances Fox Piven” is a fictional character, an archetype of the urbane, espresso sipping, foie-gras eating, religion hating, common-sense lacking, cosmopolitan intellectual. There are plenty of other characters in the narrative tales being spun by Beck and Palin, from God-fearing, hard-working, bill-paying true Americans to criminal, freeloading immigrants; violent, seditious Muslims; greedy, usury-seeking Jews; self-interested, overpaid unionized workers; power-hungry, spendthrift politicians; racist, black nationalists; and so on. Through these narratives, two overlapping goals are being pursued. On one level, media personalities like Beck and Bill O’Reilly have made tens of millions of dollars each by being able to provoke strong reactions by those on either side of the political divide. In cartoonish storylines and discourse, perhaps best resembling those of professional wrestling, Beck and O’Reilly have created a world of stark differences and high stakes. On the one side, there is good, the selfless and hardworking true lovers and defenders of the United States. And on the other side, we have evil, freedom-hating, violence-bringing destroyers of the United States. Millions of viewers tune in each day to either be infuriated and curse at the television or to revel in the confirmation of their beliefs that all that is wrong with the world is the product of the perversion and corruption brought by these factional and alien presences within American society. On a higher level, the narratives being spun by the right are the key discursive moment in a war being waged on unions, immigrants, civil servants, and a whole host of other disadvantaged groups by continually painting them as self-interested and greedy, while those on the other side are always self-less defenders of the national interest. A rally by Tea Partiers is an act of patriotism, one by unions is an act of economic blackmail. A worker trying to maximize wages and job security is a destroyer of American competitiveness, while an investor trying to maximize profits is a prudent practitioner of free enterprise.

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It may be relatively easy to explain this right-wing propaganda from the standpoint of the self-interests of the politicians, media personalities and corporate agents that espouse it, but what about the tens of millions of Americans who consume it? Why should they accept the notion that Piven is determining the actions of the White House? Or any number of other conspiratorial theories regarding why the dollar was taken off the gold standard, or death panels, green technology, Obama’s birthplace etc.? Already, a partial answer to the question has been provided by noting the partisan pleasures derived from watching and being infuriated or elated by the stories being told. A more important factor has to do with the political function of these tall tales. We should not make the mistake of thinking that these devotees of Beck have some deep belief in these outlandish stories anymore than we should assume that devotees of “Star Trek” believe that there is an actual Spock and Kirk. Sure, a small fraction of the population may mistake this fiction for reality, but for the vast majority, it retains the status of make-believe and this fantasy/make-believe has a very important social function. Recall one of the key psychoanalytic understandings of fantasy, a story we tell ourselves so that we can keep on living in reality, so that we can shield ourselves from the full brutality of our world and continue our lives unabated. Are you bitter and resentful in your current job, slaving away with little or no hope for meaning in your working life or even for economic advancement and security? What can you do? Quit? Go to law school? Become a Buddhist monk? All of these are possible, but the easiest solution is to go on living your life as it is and create a make-believe world where this dissatisfaction is a mark of selfless and principled dedication to family and nation. Those cushy union jobs are, obviously, held by un-American, lazy people out to enrich themselves at the expense of the larger community. Troubled by your realization that America is not a harmonious community dedicated to freedom and peace? Don’t panic, no need to doubt your love of country and civic pride. We can pretend that this a product of a conspiracy, the result of covert plans by the media, government, universities and banks to undue the core values and institutions of American society, and, as such, is an anomalous situation that will be resolved once we restore traditional values and order. Feeling guilty about your hatred of blacks and immigrants? No need to change your beliefs, after all, they are the ones who are the real racists, clinging to their language, believing their culture and values superior to yours, plotting in their churches and mosques for ethnic warfare and the subjection of whites.

Of course, it is not only people like Palin and Beck who are creating fantasies for the masses. Every mainstream politician and media outlet in the United States seems determined to perpetuate the fairy tale that, deep down, behind all the nasty factionalism and heated words, we are all really on the same team, a people united by interests and destiny. Any one who would dare say the opposite is immediately accused of advocating class warfare and social strife. We pretend that the United States is not replete with violence by asserting that it is only the insane and very far right or left who engage in it, as we have heard countless times in the last week. Obama tells us that the purpose of politics is to reach agreement, that any antagonisms and conflicts that may exist are only superficial, that with the necessary civility and respect for procedure and the policy-making process, all of us can find common ground and social harmony.

American society today is characterized by two complementary tendencies, ever increasing inequality, alienation and political repression and the lack of courage to view the world as it actually is. All the way up to the president, we overwhelmingly choose to live in the fantasy world rather than accept the full brutality of and our own position within the social and political world. It is in this context that Piven, the person rather than the fictional character, is most valuable. A key dimension in all of her work has been a ruthless desire to understand the world in its full, messy, contradictory, truth even when that may be inconvenient from the standpoint of our own political and pragmatic endeavors. As she participated in the welfare rights movement, for example, Piven was also writing books that detailed the limitations and false promises of both social movements as well as the welfare state. Most Americans today are too cowardly to do the same. Instead, they play with their newly purchased Glock pistols with high-capacity magazines, repelling imaginary assassins at the gun range, so as to not risk any transformation of either themselves or the society in which they live.