Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West on Michael Harrington and The Other America

(The following remarks are excerpted from a dialogue at the Left Forum, New York City, March 2012. They were first published in Democratic Left - Summer 2012)

FRANCES FOX PIVEN – I want to begin by saying a word about Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, which we are celebrating this year, its 50th anniversary. I may be the only one in the room who was there in 1962 when Michael published that book. Not only was I there, but I was actually working in a poverty program on the Lower East Side of New York, and at that time the publication of the book as well as Dwight Macdonald’s article on the book [in the New Yorker –ed.] was treated entirely differently; the book was interpreted entirely differently than the way it came to be interpreted in subsequent years. What was significant about The Other America and about Michael Harrington as the spokesperson presenting the arguments of The Other America in 1962 was the spotlight it placed on a problem that persisted in the United States, the problem of a large segment of our people living in poverty, with little hope of climbing out of poverty, despite our dominant mobility story. What Michael was doing was simply directing attention to America’s poor.

Now, at the time, I had some problems with this. He directed attention to America’s poor by talking not only about their material hardship, their material circumstances, but also about the culture of marginalization and hopelessness within which they lived. And that was the culture of poverty which Michael understood very much in the terms in which Oscar Lewis, the anthropologist, had understood the culture of poverty only a short while before. What happens to people when they are forever, permanently, consigned to live in ways that are not the ways of the majority, that are not the ways of the dominant culture, when they are consigned to a kind of degradation and hopelessness and so on. Now, Oscar Lewis before him, and Michael as well, really understood culture, the culture that people construct to cope with circumstances that they find themselves in. He understood culture as a reflective and coping constellation of ideas and practices, not as something apart from material circumstances, but in a sense something that was produced by people struggling with material circumstances.

At that moment in 1962 when the book was published and when Dwight Macdonald’s article was published no one had problems with that understanding of the relationship between culture and structure, culture and material circumstances. It made sense. And you know why it made sense? Because it does make sense. It really does make sense. But then something happened. And it didn’t happen on the Left, although the Left was in a way weakened by it, because we were seduced by it. But what happened was that “the poor” was also taken to mean “the minorities,” and also meant “those promiscuous women having babies,” also meant “those guys who mug nice people on the street” or skip over the subway turnstile, or all those other terrible things “they” do. So “the poor” came to play a central role in the politics of the Right, or I should say the political propagandizing of the Right.

Now, what the Right wanted to do with the poor is hammer the Democrats, because for a brief time in the 1960s the Democrats had – largely against the will or the intentions of their leaders – become champions of America’s poor. They became champions of America’s poor because of the influence of the Black freedom movement. So we had Lyndon Baines Johnson, a professional politician if ever there was one, calling for an unlimited war on poverty and echoing the refrain of the Civil Rights Movement’s “We Shall Overcome” in a big national speech. Democrats suddenly were foot soldiers in the “War on Poverty,” and so to gain traction in party competition and interest group competition, the Republicans fashioned a strategy, first known as the Southern Strategy, but then it became a national strategy, in which they singled out and demonized poor people, Black people, and they became welded together. You know, Black people were poor people, poor people were – you could use the one, and it meant the other, and lots of us understood how this language was being contrived, manipulated and used.

Well, in that political context, the understanding by social scientists of the relation between structure and culture, economics and ideas and practices changed. Suddenly structure and culture were torn apart because there was a market created by politics for a different way of understanding the relationship between the two. Culture was something that people constructed, or that they inherited, and then reproduced. And culture was the cause of material poverty. It was not that material poverty interacted with culture, that material conditions were the conditions under which people created culture, but that culture, and especially the culture of short-termism, the culture of being unable to plan for the future, the culture of being unable to defer gratification, the culture of being virtually addicted to sexual promiscuity, the culture of needing drugs, that culture became the force that was creating poverty. And a whole social science grew up around that idea and how culture was reproduced. Thus if Maria [Svart, DSA National Director, seated next to Piven - ed.] and I lived surrounded by people with this culture, it would be hard if not impossible for us to overcome it. That was actually William Julius Wilson’s contribution to this debate.

But when I say that there was a market for that kind of theorizing, I mean that people could get research grants, that they could get appointments at research institutes. The federal government was funding that kind of research. The foundations were funding that kind of research. And it contradicts what we intuitively understand about human nature and human capabilities.

We are all of us mired in structure, mired in material circumstance, and we all of us have the capacity to try to cope with and even overcome those material circumstances. And I am hopeful that we are at a moment in American political history when the millions and millions of people who are still poor, still mired in a structural reality which forces them to think only one or two steps ahead – you can’t even buy groceries for the week, because you don’t have the money – well, I’m hopeful that we are at a moment in America’s political development when those people who are poor will again demonstrate their incredible human capacity for coping and reconstructing their reality by becoming militant and joining the movement.

CORNEL WEST – I do want to say just a few words about the past. I take the Sankofa bird seriously. We really got to look first at the best of the past before we move forward. Which is to say just a brief word about who Michael Harrington was. We were blessed to know him. He was my dear brother. I traveled the country with him, year after year. And yes, 1962 was the text that he wrote that had tremendous impact on the mainstream, but for young people, it is very important to have a sense of what it is to be a Leftist.

He was born in 1928 in Saint Louis. He’s an Irish brother, and he was deeply shaped by the Catholic Church, the Left wing of the Catholic Church. He was a Catholic up until his 20s. He became a religiously musical atheist in his 20s and 30s. But he was shaped by that Catholic tradition that talked about labor, reactionary on women, but has something to say about working people, something to say about the dignity of labor. He went on to work with a legendary figure named Dorothy Day. And he was the editor of their newspaper from 1951 to 1953, went on to join the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, the Shachtmanites – we won’t get into sectarian history of the Left, but very important – working within the Democratic Party, was still a socialist, and then he decides, after going to the College of Holy Cross, University of Chicago MA, Yale Law School, he wants to be a democratic intellectual, a radical democratic intellectual.

Now in 1962, and Fran has got it so right, it was rare to talk intellectually, analytically about the relation of poor people to capitalism. We had C. Wright Mills and a few others out there, but they were renegades; they were iconoclastic thinkers at that time. And he does get tied into the culture of poverty thesis. There’s no doubt about it. And we need to radically call that into question, but at the same time, he was also somebody who had people like Dwight Macdonald sitting around and writing a review in The New Yorker called “America’s Invisible Poor” in ’62, and we had presidents who read the New Yorker [audience laughter]. No, I’m sure Brother Barack reads it too, but that’s rare. But it was in the White House, when he [Johnson] read Dwight Macdonald’s review of Michael Harrington’s text, that Michael Harrington then had that kind of impact on the mainstream. And in ‘82 he then founded Democratic Socialists of America. We have been members ever since. That’s when we first met, I think, probably, about 1982, 30 years ago.

Brother Harrington wrote a book in 1984 called The New American Poverty that we’d have tremendous discussions about, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, a major text on poverty. Tavis Smiley and I – we did this book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, to be out in about three weeks. And doing what? Building on precisely both the legacy of Harrington and others but also in a very different framework. Look at the title: The Other America. I never liked that title. ‘Cause that’s my America. And I used to talk to brother Michael about that when we traveled, especially when he’d drink beer and I’d have cognac, because we had some magnificent moments of ecstasy...but I would tell him: Why would you even mention a title like The Other America? Don’t otherize poor people. They are us and we are them. The difference has to be maybe materially. But once you otherize poor people, and then it is tied into the otherizing of people of color, it’s going to be very difficult to generate the kind of connection, generosity, the kind of bonds, to recognize they are us and we are them.

No, that’s when Brother Tavis and I said, no, it’s The Rich and the Rest of US. The oligarchs and plutocrats – and us. The oligarchs and plutocrats are human, but they got wealth, power, status, and too many are driven by greed, tied to a system that’s rigged in such a way that the one percent owns that 42 percent, and the top 400 individuals have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. There’s something morally sick and obscene about that. Profoundly so.

And it’s not just a political issue. It’s a moral issue, it’s a spiritual issue – I say that as a Christian. And I have great respect for my atheistic and agnostic brothers and sisters who want to talk morality. Morality is real. But poverty is not just a political issue. It is not just a matter of economic calculus. It is not just a matter of the survival of a democratic experiment, even though it is. It’s a state of emergency; it’s a matter of national security. We need a sense of urgency, yes. But it’s also a deeply moral and spiritual issue. Who wants to live in a community, a society, a world, where you don’t have significant persons fundamentally filled with righteous indignation about the level of social misery of fellow human beings?

Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West are both Honorary Chairs of the Democratic Socialists of America. Piven is a professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of many books on poverty. West is a professor of African American studies at Princeton and Christian studies at Union Theological Seminary. His latest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir, with David Ritz, is reviewed on page 15.

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