05 April 2010

The "Cloward-Piven Strategy" Strategy

Conspiracy theorists dream of a smoking gun, an irrefutable piece of evidence that would convince all who saw it of the truth of their theory. Obamaphobic reactionaries in the Republican party and the Tea Party movement believe that they have a key to the President and his party's malign intentions in a 1966 article written by two activist social scientists, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, for The Nation magazine. As The Nation itself explains in its current issue, reactionaries interpret "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty" as a blueprint for future leftist schemes to sabotage the economy and exploit resulting crises to augment government's power to redistribute income. Now known in Obamaphobe circles as "the Cloward-Piven Strategy," the authors' proposal was to swamp the welfare system by getting as many eligible people as possible to actually apply for benefits. Exposing the inadequacy of funding for welfare, they thought, would provoke grass-roots agitation which they hoped would result in the enactment of a guaranteed national income for the poor. Cloward and Piven (the latter is still living) were unapologetic about seeking a redistribution of income, believing the poor to live in a state of oppression that only redistribution could relieve. I'll quote their rationale at some length here; readers may determine for themselves whether their diagnoses are still relevant 44 years later.

The ultimate objective of this strategy--to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income--will be questioned by some. Because the ideal of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots, even activists seem reluctant to call for national programs to eliminate poverty by the outright redistribution of income. Instead, programs are demanded to enable people to become economically competitive. But such programs are of no use to millions of today's poor. For example, one-third of the 35 million poor Americans are in families headed by females; these heads of family cannot be aided appreciably by job retraining, higher minimum wages, accelerated rates of economic growth, or employment in public works projects. Nor can the 5 million aged who are poor, nor those whose poverty results from the ill health of the wage earner. Programs to enhance individual mobility will chiefly benefit the very young, if not the as yet unborn. Individual mobility is no answer to the question of how to abolish the massive problem of poverty now. It has never been the full answer. If many people in the past have found their way up from poverty by the path of individual mobility, many others have taken a different route.

Organized labor stands out as a major example. Although many American workers never yielded their dreams of individual achievement, they accepted and practiced the principle that each can benefit only as the status of workers as a whole is elevated. They bargained for collective mobility, not for individual mobility; to promote their fortunes in the aggregate, not to promote the prospects of one worker over another. And if each finally found himself in the same relative economic nevertheless clear relationship to his fellows, as when he began, it was nevertheless clear that all were infinitely better off. That fact has sustained the labor movement in the face of a counter pull from the ideal of individual achievement.

But many of the contemporary poor will not rise from poverty by organizing to bargain collectively. They either are not in the labor force or are in such marginal and dispersed occupations (e.g., domestic servants) that it is extremely difficult to organize them. Compared with other groups, then, many of today's poor cannot secure a redistribution of income by organizing within the institution of private enterprise. A federal program of income redistribution has become necessary to elevate the poor en masse from poverty.

In retrospect, Cloward and Piven's proposal seems incredibly naive in failing to anticipate the sort of reactionary backlash that we'd take for granted now. But their wisdom or foresight is irrelevant to the historical question of whether their article actually influenced anyone from the time of its writing to the present day. The "strategy" was first exposed by Rudolph Giuliani while he was still mayor of New York, according to David Horowitz, a reactionary publicist credited with doing the most to popularize the idea. While Horowitz claims that Giuliani denounced Cloward and Piven by name, the mayor doesn't do so in a transcript of the speech Horowitz quotes from, though he may have done so elsewhere. (Another scholar explains that Giuliani name-checked them in a written draft of the speech, but left them out of his spoken remarks, apparently not yet realizing the power of their dread names) I have no reason to doubt that Republicans were aware of Cloward and Piven (who remained active authors until Cloward's death) at that time, but I don't know if anyone claimed, or if they even really claim today, that the activists' article was the single decisive inspiration for any government action, partisan strategy or activist movement. Horowitz claims that Cloward and Piven were instrumental in forming the National Welfare Rights Organization, a group he accuses of intimidating welfare workers, but he has no smoking gun linking the authors to that great satan, ACORN. Like most conspiracy theorists, he and his fellow researchers depend on circumstantial evidence based on presumed affinities among common enemies. That the founders of ACORN and related groups in the Tea Party demonology shared beliefs and goals in indisputable. Whether that proves that anyone after 1966 consciously followed a Cloward-Piven blueprint is less certain. Rightist researchers might want to trace a history of citations in progressive or radical publications if they want to prove the long life and influence of "The Weight of the Poor," but I suppose they assume that conspirators wouldn't be so blatant about where they got their marching orders.

The "Cloward-Piven" conspiracy theory has understandable appeal for reactionaries because "The Weight of the Poor" is written in a way guaranteed to scare them. The authors knew what they wanted and felt no shame about wanting it. I suspect, however, that it'd spook most modern-day Democrats. I can imagine an experiment along the lines of those conducted by tricksters who submit unattributed texts of the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights to politicians who end up rejecting them as extremist proposals. In this case, I'd bet that if you sent your Democratic Representative or Senator an anonymous copy of "The Weight of the Poor," he or she would trash it at once as an outburst from the loony left. What that says about Cloward, Piven or today's Democrats I leave for you to determine.


d.eris said...

I've had at least one commenter at Poli-Tea bring up the "Cloward-Piven Strategy" as reason to support Republicans to defeat the evil Democrats. That person attributed what were, to my mind, obvious effects and side-effects of globalization (movement of jobs abroad, loss of manufacturing base etc) to the success of the CPS.

You note that perhaps C&P were naive in their radicalism, but in another sense, one could argue that their radicalism was actually quite limited in scope. They called for "guaranteed income for the poor," but I've been coming across more and more references to calls for "universal welfare" for the last year or two. The idea is espoused my many theorists, I most recently came across it in an article on Samuel Bowles and the Santa Fe School of Economics, an interesting read if you haven't seen it already.

Anonymous said...

You might first want to answer the question:
Exactly how did the superwealthy get their wealth? Most of them certainly didn't earn it working a job. Yeah, I know a lot of right-wingers always use the example of a person investing all their money into a business venture deserves all the profit, regardless of who ultimately does the work. But if we were to change the perspective a bit...that same man has no capital to start his business so he gets a loan from a bank. The bank has invested in that man's business. By the right-wing argument, the bank deserves to continually profit from that man's business, even after the loan is paid off. The logic fails in the long run. The bottom line is that everyone involved in the process of creating a marketable product contributes to the profitability of the company making the product. They INVEST the hours of their lives. Therefore, they deserve a share of the profit. Once that basic premise is understood bo be universally true, there will be much less demand for a "redistribution" of wealth.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., I'm aware that Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame, not exactly a man of the left, has advocated something like a guaranteed national income, so the idea clearly has life beyond the left. But conspiracists of the right are drawn to Cloward-Piven because the authors actually do write like conspirators, to an extent.

Crhymethinc, one of the first and ultimate questions facing any society is when, if ever, it's proper for some people to be subordinated to others. That's at the heart of the question of sharing the fruits of collective labor. Some people believe that buying the subordination of others with wages for a certain period of the week is fair, on the assumption that employees would have no other means to provide for themselves without being offered work by entrepreneurs. Other people believe that the moment you need anyone else to realize a project, you have to make everyone involved an equal partner in it. Are these the only options? That aside, you do well to bring borrowing into the picture, since the entrepreneur and the capitalist aren't always the same person, and their conflicts of interest make capitalism an inherently volatile system.