Cloward-Piven, Saul Alinsky, and Right Wing Fever Dreams

On Election Day I met a gentleman named Tom White, a local Hanover County Virginia IT consultant and insurance salesman who runs a conservative blog called Virginia Right!  He seemed a nice enough man whose knowledge of local politics suggested connections to the Hanover County conservative political machines that I thought might be interesting.  We chatted for a few minutes about local and national politics.

Intrigued, I took a look at his website hoping for new insights into conservative thought and perhaps some discussion of local Tea Party strategy.  Sadly, Mr. White’s blog reproduces the misreading of reality found at NoVATownHall but with none of the intellectual/insider take offered at Bearing Drift.

The first thing I read was an article called “Alinsky’s 12 Rules for Radicals 101.”  This is a mostly incoherent post subtitled “What conservatives need to know about Obama’s plan to fundamentally change America.” The argument is difficult to parse, but boils down to a claim that liberals have an 8-point strategy to create a socialist state that they plan to implement using Alinky’s “Rules for Radicals” tactics.  White claims that Alinsky inspired two academics, Richard Cloward and Francis Scott Piven, to develop a plan to “hasten the fall of capitalism by overloading the government bureaucracy with a flood of impossible demands.”

Before getting into my criticism of White’s reading of Cloward-Piven (which I doubt White has in fact read), I should point out the context of President (then candidate) Obama’s statement about transforming America.  Speaking at a campaign rally in Columbia, Missouri in 2008, Mr. Obama said:

“Now, Mizzou, I just have two words for you tonight: five days. Five days. After decades of broken politics in Washington, and eight years of failed policies from George W. Bush, and 21 months of a campaign that’s taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.


“In five days, you can turn the page on policies that put greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street. In five days, you can choose policies that invest in our middle class, and create new jobs, and grow this economy, so that everyone has a chance to succeed, not just the CEO, but the secretary and janitor, not just the factory owner, but the men and women on the factory floor.”

This is certainly a strong populist message but it’s a long way from advocating socialism and sounds a lot like the anti-crony-capitalism message Mr. White seems to like when it comes from Dave Brat.  Obama offered transformation from government that backs banks and big business to one that supports working people and the middle class against Wall Street “greed and irresponsibility.” Compare this with Brat’s claims that bankers should have gone to jail after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Anyway, the Cloward-Piven article that forms the basis of White’s right-wing hand-wringing over socialism in fact had nothing to do with the “fall of capitalism,” as if anyone in the US thinks the destruction of Capitalism is desirable or even possible.  In fact, Cloward and Piven simply suggested that activists should force government to actually provide benefits to the poor according the the law, which would bring pressure on States to fund anti-poverty programs at a level that would actually have impact on the problem.  This, they said, would create incentives for policymakers to implement a system of guaranteed minimum annual income.  This system (which many Libertarians apparently support by the way) was their ultimate goal, not “socialism” or the “fall of capitalism.”

White has clearly not read the original Cloward-Piven article, “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” (originally published in the May 2, 1966 issue of The Nation magazine; this version published in on March 24, 2010).  If he had, he might have developed a solid critique of their claim, including the simple one that it would probably not have worked.  Instead, he claims falsely that Cloward and Piven outlined a strategy to create a “social state” (whatever that means) that included eight “levels of control.”  Piven and Cloward wrote about how US capitalism used welfare to “regulate” the poor – that is, by providing poor people with just enough subsidy to stop rebellion.  But they advocated policies that would free citizens from poverty, not control them by taking over health care, education, gun ownership and religion.

Arguably, White’s eight “levels of control” work just as well for capitalists who want to establish their own control over the average citizen.  Placing health care at the mercy of markets limits social mobility and ensures that only the wealthy have access to life-saving medical care.  As Cloward and Piven pointed out, sustaining the poor with welfare programs keeps them from fighting back against capitalists, not Government – suggesting that it’s actually capitalists, not bureaucrats, who use social programs to protect their power.  Historically it’s conservatives that increase deficits and debt through tax cuts so they can argue for cuts in spending when liberals have power; deficits always decrease under Democratic administrations.  No one wants to limit general firearm ownership and no one wants to confiscate weapons.

Only conservatives and churches want to control education by blocking factual discussion of American history and science-based discussion of evolution, climate change, and reproduction.   And it’s conservatives who fight class war by suggesting that poor people who work two jobs to provide for their families somehow have only themselves to blame for their low standard of living and dependency on social programs.

The idea that liberals want to create a “social state” that uses policy to control citizens and keep them dependent on and subservient to the Government is nothing more than a Right-Wing fever dream.  White is not the only conservative writer to misread Cloward and Piven in this way, suggesting a closed loop of conspiracy theory based on nothing but fear of an imminent tyranny no one can actually document and which in any event no one with power wants to impose.  Do these people actually believe that Democrats want to destroy American society on purpose when it’s actually conservatives who have blocked any policy that might have improved American quality of life just to keep Democrats from getting the credit?

That White lists Saul Alinky’s Rules for Radicals as both inspiration for and a set of tactics to bring about this “social state” gives away the game.  Ignore the obvious point that Alinsky developed these rules during his career as an activist working for populist goals that mesh nicely with Dave Brat’s insistence that corporate crooks should go to jail.  Instead, just remember that Alinky’s rules work as well for conservative as for liberal activists – these are rules for radicals of all stripes.

“Have-not” Brat supporters managed to defeat Eric Cantor despite a huge campaign funding disadvantage, which looks a lot like building “power from flesh and blood.”  Brat forced Cantor to “live up to [his] own book of rules” by pointing out that he had reneged on his promise to stay in close contact with constituents.  Brat supporters ridiculed Cantor and personalized the primary race.  More generally, conservative activists have not been shy about using Alinsky tactics to attack Obama and Democrats at the national level.

All of this shows a closed system of knowledge wherein conservatives say the same things to each other about liberals and then cite each other in support without permitting facts and outside sources to intervene in the fever dreams this allows them to develop.  White and the other conservative sources linked to above simply assert, with no evidence or analysis to support the claim, that liberals have taken a relatively innocuous – and ultimately unworkable – plan for bringing about a guaranteed annual income and developed a general strategy for destroying American society in order to bring about a socialist tyranny.  This is silly on its face and at a number of levels, and begs the question: do they actually believe this?  Or are they simply following Alinsky’s Ninth Rule to create conditions where citizens’ imaginations and egos dream up fear of government and a more egalitarian society?

So after meeting Tom White and talking with him for a few moments I’d hoped for more nuanced discussion of policy and politics but the first article I read at Virginia Right! disappointed.  I’ll keep reading his blog as a window into local Hanover County politics and political thought,  but now I know he shares some of the standard Right Wing Fever Dreams as well.  Too bad.

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